Thursday, December 29, 2011

Loneliness and David Foster Wallace.

I stumbled across this fascinating interview with David Foster Wallace:

Interviewer:
A phrase in one of your recent letters really struck me: “The magic of fiction is that it addresses and antagonizes the loneliness that dominates people.” It’s that suggestion of antagonizing the reader that seems to link your goals up with the avant-garde program—whose goals were never completely hermetic. And Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way seems to be your own meta-fictional attempt to deal with these large areas in ways that are not merely metafiction.

DFW:
”Aggravate” might be better than “antagonize,” in the sense of aggravation as intensification. But the truth is it’s hard for me to know what I really think about any of the stuff I’ve written. It’s always tempting to sit back and make finger-steeples and invent impressive sounding theoretical justifications for what one does, but in my case most of it’d be horseshit. As time passes I get less and less nuts about anything I’ve published, and it gets harder to know for sure when its antagonistic elements are in there because they serve a useful purpose and when their just covert manifestations of this “look-at-me-please-love-me-I-hate-you” syndrome I still sometimes catch myself falling into. Anyway, but what I think I meant by “antagonize” or “aggravate” has to do with the stuff in the TV essay about the younger writer trying to struggle against the cultural hegemony of TV. One thing TV does is help us deny that we’re lonely. With televised images, we can have the facsimile of a relationship without the work of a real relationship. It’s an anesthesia of “form.” The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness. You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like subdreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self(a psychic self, not just a physical self ), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

The entire interview can be found here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Forgiveness of Sins and Divine Solidarity with the Oppressed.

It has taken me longer than I'd like to admit to realize that the choice between progressive politics and traditional faith is a false dichotomy. Thankfully, there are many faithful examples to show that the task of theology necessarily includes prophetic witness to the cause of oppression (Stringfellow, Romero, Gutiérrez, Barth, etc.). As one who was raised in evangelicalism, the cause of the suffering and oppressed was not emphasized much. This general trend is no surprise and the neglect of global oppression is well-noted by liberation theologies. Yet, after taking a liberation theology course this past fall, I struggled with the binaries between the oppressor and the oppressed. I noticed the binaries even more at the liberation theology session this year at AAR. My continual experience of this forced dichotomy left me wondering if the only way forward is to abandon a commitment to the understanding that Jesus Christ died for sinners. In my own understanding, Jesus Christ is first priest, and from that mediation He becomes our liberation. However, this becomes all the more complicated when one realizes that most who are committed to Jesus Christ's primary office as our priestly Mediator (including much of the great tradition) don't see that liberation is a necessary consequence (either in speech or act). To me, liberation of the oppressed is neither optional nor a fashionable add-on to conjure up some sort of relevant Christianity. Thus, I feel very torn.

All of that background information serves to show the significance of the following excerpt. Hunsinger's words are a verbalization of all that I wanted to say, but could not for so long (and far better than I ever could). The only amendment I would make is that there are not only "good reasons" for connecting atonement for sin and divine solidarity with the oppressed, but rather necessary reasons. If this sort of objective theological orientation does not offer genuine freedom for the oppressed and suffering, what hope is there for humanity? It must always be said that the cause of liberation is a necessary and direct consequence of the forgiveness of sins. Parsing out this connection for the Church is the task of the theologian in the next century:
"During the last twenty-five years or so, the church has increasingly witnessed the emergence of victim-oriented soteriologies. The plight of victims, variously specified and defined, has been urged by prominent theologians as the central soteriological problem. It can scarcely be denied that the history of the twentieth century has pushed the plight of the victims to the fore. Nor can it be denied that the church has too often seemed ill-equipped to bring the plight of victims, especially victims of oppression and social injustice, clearly into focus for itself so that reasonable and faithful remedies might be sought. Victim-oriented soteriologies have undoubtedly made an important contribution to a better understanding of the church's social responsibility.

Polarizations and animosities have developed, however, to the extent that the plight of victims has displaced the soteriological plight of sinners, or even eclipsed it. Victim-oriented soteriologies have unfortunately tended to define the meaning of sin entirely in terms of victimization. Sin ceases to be a universal category. It attaches to perpetrators and to them alone. Since by definition victims qua victims are innocent of being perpetrators, they are to that extent innocent of sin. If sin attaches only to perpetrators, however, victims can be sinners only by somehow becoming perpetrators themselves (a move not unknown in victim-oriented soteriologies). Victim-oriented soteriologies, with their bipolar opposition between victims and perpetrators, display a logic with sectarian tendencies.

How the cross of Christ is understood by these soteriologies is also worth noting. The cross becomes meaningful because it shows the divine solidarity with victims, generally ceasing to find any other relevance, at least positively. (In extreme cases, the theology of the cross is trashed as a cause of victimization. But such denunciations, when meant de jure, exceed the bounds even of heterodoxy and so cease to be of constructive interest to the church.) The cross, in any case, is no longer the supreme intervention for the forgiveness of sins. It is not surprising that more traditional, sin-oriented soteriologies should react with unfortunate polarization. When that happens, however, sin as a universal category obscures the plight of oppression's victims, rendering that plight just as invisible or irrelevant as it was before. Atonement without solidarity seems to exhaust the significance of the cross, and forgiveness supposedly occurs without judgment on oppression.

The task of generous orthodoxy in this situation is to dispel the polarization by letting central truths be central, and lesser truths be lesser, but in each case letting truth be truth. No reason exists why the cross as atonement for sin should be viewed as logically incompatible with the cross as divine solidarity with the oppressed. Good reasons can be found for connecting them. The great, historical, ecumenical consensus remains, however, that the central significance of the cross, as attested by holy scripture, is the forgiveness of sins. This established consensus pervades every aspect of the church's life, not least including baptism and the Lord's Supper."

- George Hunsinger, "Social Witness in Generous Orthodoxy: The New Presbyterian 'Study Catechism'", 56.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Karl Barth and the Pastorate.

As the semester came to a close this afternoon, I tried to figure out what to do with myself and all this new-found free time. I decided to take a break from reading and instead, started listening to an audio CD I rented from the library of Karl Barth in conversation with students when he gave his Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary on May 2nd, 1962. I thought this particular exchange was rather wonderful:

Student: "What one thing, sir, would you tell a young pastor today if you were asked, is necessary in this day and age to pastor a Church?"

Barth: "Ah, so big a question! That is the whole question of theology, you see! I should say, I hope that during your studies you have visited yourself earnestly with the message of the Old Testament and of the New Testament. And not only of this message but also of the Object and the Subject of this message. And I would ask you, are you trained to visit not only yourself now, but a congregation with what you have learned out of the Bible and of church history and dogmatics and so on? Having to say something, having to say that thing. And then the other question: are you willing now to deal with humanity as it is? Humanity in this twentieth century with all its passions, sufferings, errors, and so on? Do you like them, these people? Not only the good Christians, but do you like people as they are? People in their weakness? Do you like them, do you love them? And are you willing to tell them the message that God is not against them, but for them? That's the one real thing in pastoral service and that is the question for you. If you go into ministry to do that work, pray earnestly. You'll do difficult work but beautiful work.

But if I had to begin anew for myself as a young pastor, I would tell myself every morning, well, here I am; a very poor creature, but by God's grace I have heard something. I will need forgiveness of my sins everyday. And I will pray, God, that you will give me the light, this light shining in the Bible and this light shining into the world in which humanity is living today. And then do my duty."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Body's Grace

This semester, I've had the joy of reading Rowan Williams' exquisite essay "The Body's Grace" more than once. For my ethics class, I signed up to lead discussion group for the week that the class discussed human sexuality and Williams' essay was assigned. Today, a dear friend of mine brought up Williams' essay during a conversation about human relationships. And it reminded me why I love Williams' words so much. During the group discussion a few weeks ago, other students were concerned that Williams does not offer clear standards for relationships. His seeming inclusivity became a worry that any type of relationship between two consenting individuals would be deemed acceptable. However, I actually thought that Williams offers an extremely exclusive picture of relationships since, ironically, his words are those of judgment over most human relationships that are embedded in a desire to control, manipulate, and dominate the other. But Williams compels others to see the radically fragile, life-giving, and beautiful nature of human relationships that are rooted in vulnerability. His essay goes beyond sexuality to describe what happens when two human agents seek to be in true relationship with one another. To know the other and let oneself be known is simultaneously the most terrifying yet grace-filled act human persons can choose. I'll let the good Archbishop tell you himself:

All this means, crucially, that in sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am. Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in something like this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them. But here we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. ...

The discovery of sexual joy and of a pattern of living in which that joy is accessible must involve the insecurities of "exposed spontaneity": the experience of misunderstanding or of the discovery (rapid or slow) that this relationship is not about joy - these are bearable, if at all, because at least they have changed the possibilities of our lives in a way which may still point to what joy might be. But it should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body's grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures. There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another.

- Rowan Williams, "The Body's Grace"

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Merciful Love of God.

Read this. And then read it again.
The most merciful God has taken action on our behalf both in freedom and in power. In freedom: for our sin and guilt were not His and did not have to become so. Because this is so, faith believes in God's grace and election in virtue of which we receive what we have not deserved. But also in power: for He has really taken to Himself and removed from us our sin and guilt. Therefore faith is joy and gratitude, an assurance which can no longer look back, only forwards. In freedom and power, awakening a humble but assured and unshakable faith, He took our place because He was God's eternal Son, because it was manifest in Him that God's eternal being is mercy, because there is nothing more real and true behind and beyond this substitution, because this substitution is the very essence of God's own being, of His divinity, for which we must glorify Him in joy and gratitude if we are not to sin wantonly against Him, if we are to let God be God.

This, then, is how God loves. His love is merciful love. In the nature of the case, we do not need to emphasize the point that God is as merciful in Himself as He is merciful in His action. For the idea of mercy itself refers back from God's attitude and act to the depths of God's being, to His heart, His mind, Himself. All misunderstanding in regard to the idea of grace, as if it were not eternal in God Himself, becomes quite impossible when we have understood it as merciful grace. For it is then understood, not simply as God's turning towards us, but as His free, effectual compassion. Looking backwards, therefore, it is seen, not simply as an appearance, but as the disposition of the heart and being of God. Viewed as merciful grace the love of God descends to earth more deeply, and climbs higher to heaven, than the idea of grace in itself would permit us to suppose."
- Karl Barth, CD II.1, 374-375.

Photo Credit: Monica Rey

Friday, December 2, 2011

Grace.

"Grace, strictly speaking, does not mean continuity but radical discontinuity, not reform but revolution, not violence but nonviolence, not the perfecting of virtues but the forgiveness of sins, not improvement but resurrection from the dead. It means repentance, judgment, and death as the portal to life. It means negation and the negation of the negation. The grace of God really comes to lost sinners, but in coming it disrupts them to the core. It slays to make alive and sets the captive free. Grace may of course work silently and secretly like a germinating seed as well as like a bolt from the blue. It is always wholly as incalculable as it is reliable, unmerited, and full of blessing. Yet it is necessarily as unsettling as it is comforting. It does not finally teach of its own sufficiency without appoint a thorn in the flesh. Grace is disruptive because God does not compromise with sin, nor ignore it, nor call it good. On the contrary, God removes it by submitting to the cross to show that love is stronger than death. Those whom God loves may be drawn to God through their suffering and be privileged to share in his sufferings in the world, because grace in its radical disruption surpasses all that we can imagine or think."

- George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 16-17.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Nonviolent Resistance and Triumph Over Oppression.

I can count on one hand how many times I've been so spiritually moved and humbled by someone's words. This simply leaves you speechless:

"I realize that [the nonviolent] approach will mean suffering and sacrifice. It may mean going to jail. If such is the case the resister must be willing to fill the jail houses of the South. It may even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price that a man must pay to free his children and his white brethen from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive. This is the type of soul force that I am convinced will triumph over the physical force of the oppressor."

- Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness" in I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World, 69.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Barth's Romans.

As I was attempting to switch places in my room to read this evening, I accidentally knocked over a book. When I picked it up, I realized the book I knocked over was Barth's infamous The Epistle to the Romans. I had to read this entire book in one week about two years ago for class. I flipped through to see all the markings as this was the second book I had ever read by Mr. Barth. But I stumbled across this particular excerpt at the end of chapter two, which includes lots of underlining and two words next to it: "so beautiful." And it still is:
Consequently, His action must be exercised invisibly and in a manner wholly contrary to our expectation. God does not live by the idea of justice with which we provide Him. He is His own justice. He is not one cause among many; He is not the final solution which we propound to the problem of life. Therefore His appearance is incomprehensible and without known occasion, and His judgment is according to His own justice. And yet, there is a claim to salvation from the wrath of God: the claim IS where every claim is surrendered and broken down by God Himself: where His negation is final and His wrath unavoidable; when God is recognized as God. The claim IS where the history of the relation between God and man begins; where there is no history to record, because it only occurs, and occurs eternally. The claim IS when men dare - but even this is no recipe for blessedness but only the eternal ground of its perception - to go forth into the fresh air and to love the undiscoverable God. And this occurrence IS - in Jesus Christ.

- Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 76.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Women as Theologians?

Given my limited time recently, it seems I only have the chance to post interesting excerpts I find from assigned readings. This post will be the same. But this text was particularly meaningful to me. I am currently pursuing my second masters degree and this is my fourth year of graduate studies. These past four years have been filled with a lot of interesting experiences as a female seeking a theological education. Without attempting to essentialize any specific qualities or traits, I continually find that I think very differently from my male peers. I process information differently, I learn differently, and I relate to others in theological conversations differently (and sometimes this difference is seen as negative). Since I have had very few female peers studying systematic theology at my previous school, I don't have any way to validate whether or not this is simply because I am not, in fact, a male or if this seeming alienation is a much more personal otherness that I alone inhabit. Regardless, I have felt like "the Other" as a woman studying theology both in more conservative and progressive circles.

One main way in which I feel different is the neutrality that men seemingly possess (and Shaw highlights this) when engaging the theological. Even if some men are particularly charismatic or impassioned, I find that there is still a level of neutrality and detachment that is considered proper, and good. But to me, my theological interests are a direct outworking of an existential commitment to Jesus Christ. Therefore, ideas and concepts are not merely interesting or intellectually stimulating, but radically shape and influence various parts of my life. And I welcome this integration. However, at times I have felt shamed for how emotionally and spiritually "attached" I am to the process of becoming a theologian.

In the following (lengthy) excerpt, Jane Shaw talks about the difficulties that women face when seeking to be theologians and how strict and oppressive binaries exist between men and women in relation to their respective identities as engendered thinkers. It was quite comforting to read a woman who articulates my questions, concerns, and struggles as one who constantly struggles to understand what it means to be a Christian, a woman, and an (aspiring) theologian:
We need to ask: how can women forge our identities as people of faith who are gendered as female and think about God? How is that possible when religious experiences and ideas have been read as mystical, as signs of possession or prophecy, as healing gifts, but not as theology? How do we retain all those vital elements of religious experience, profound components of our relationship with God, and at the same time write and speak theologically? In many ways I am asking an old question - how do we relate the life of the mind to the life of the spirit? - but I am adding the twist of gender. Is it possible for women, constructed as 'feminine', to incorporate and embrace all these elements: the spiritual, the intellectual, and embodied religious experience More fundamental than the question of the possible compatibility of feminism and Christianity is this complex set of questions about the (in)compatibility of being a woman, a thinker and a person of Christian faith ...

How then is it possible for women to have a subject position such that we can think, speak and write theologically, and simultaneously have a spiritual life which is healthily connected to the psyche, body and emotions, when the characteristics of woman have been constructed as incompatible with the qualities which constitute an apparently legitimate theologian; that is, male, rational, often clerical, disembodied and supposedly neutral? The poststructuralist critique of an Enlightenment, rational, self is helpful for women (and others constructed as being on the side of irrationality) because it lays bare the ways in which human beings have been constructed as 'female' and 'male', as embodied and disembodied, as feelers and thinkers, as those who experience God in an emotional way and as those who can think and write about God in a systematic way. Such a critique shows that qualities apparently required for the writing of theology are only arbitrarily assigned to women rather than to men, though that arbitrariness is deeply associated with the wielding and retention of power. Who gets to speak and write publicly about God is a political matter; it is about power. Conversely, the association of woman with the body and emotions, whereby our experiences of God are assigned to the realm of mysticism, possession and the like, rather than formal theology, is also at one level arbitrary and at another level thoroughly related to the exercise of power. ...

Such a rethinking of and through our identities is necessary if we are not to fall into the kind of crisis which befell Bondi when, in order to write theologically, she tried to take on the male rational subject position and ignored the emotional, the spiritual and the embodied. In this process of rethinking, I do not imagine that we shall arrive at any easy compatibility between feminism and Christianity, and I do not think that that should be our goal. I shall never find myself agreeing with all the church's doctrines and political positions, and yet I can still find myself spiritually nourished and sustained by regular attendance at worship and participation in Christian communities. Furthermore, by suggesting alternative understandings of, and roles for, men and women, in presenting our experiences and thinking about God as theology, and in trying to integrate the rational, the spiritual and the embodied, we shall be challenging the 'status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true' (Foucault) in our Christian communities and in the church at large. This is not a comfortable position to be in: the incompatibilities and conflicts may seem impossible at times. But staying with such a stance is a matter of faith if we believe that the gospel calls us to build the kingdom of heaven on earth, to seek justice in all that we do, because God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. And so finally I ask not whether Christianity is viable for feminists, but whether Christianity is viable without feminists and the multiple voices, work and perspectives of other marginalized groups; whether the church can, in good conscience, fail to acknowledge that such work is indeed theology?
- Jane Shaw, "Women, Rationality and Theology" in Swallowing a Fishbone? Feminist Theologians Debate Christianity, 59, 63-65.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Poor and the Kingdom of God.

"Blessed are you poor for yours is the Kingdom of God" does not mean, it seems to us: "Accept your poverty because later this injustice will be compensated for in the Kingdom of God." If we believe that the Kingdom of God is a gift which is received in history, and if we believe, as the eschatological promises - so charged with human and historical content - indicate to us, that the Kingdom of God necessarily implies the reestablishment of justice in this world, then we must believe that Christ says that the poor are blessed because the Kingdom of God has begun: "The time has come; the Kingdom of God is upon you" (Mark 1:15). In other words, the elimination of the exploitation and poverty that prevent the poor from being fully human has begun; a Kingdom of justice which goes even beyond what they could have hoped for has begun. They are blessed because the coming of the Kingdom will put an end to their poverty by creating a world of fellowship. They are blessed because the Messiah will open the eyes of the blind and will give bread to the hungry. Situated in the prophetic perspective, the text in Luke [6:20] uses the term poor in the tradition of the first major line of thought we have studied: poverty is an evil and therefore incompatible with the Kingdom of God, which has come in its fullness into history and embraces the totality of human existence.
-- Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 170-171.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Barth's Actualistic Ontology.

This "true profundity", as Nimmo calls it in the following lucid excerpt, is why I appreciate Barth's theology as much as I do. There is no other God except the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the good news of the Gospel. God is truly with us and for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is times when you stumble across passages like these when study quickly becomes doxology:

"Barth's actualistic ontology goes far beyond the dynamism of God as a Being in act, however: the true profundity of his actualistic ontology lies in the statement that God in Godself is 'not another than He is in His works'. The true identity of God, in other words, is revealed in the works of God. In the act of revelation, posits Barth, God declares the reality of God: 'not only His reality for us - certainly that - but at the same time His own, inner, proper reality, behind which and above which there is no other'. The ways and works of God thus correspond perfectly to the being of God - the essence of God to the existence of God."

- Paul Nimmo, Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth's Ethical Vision, 7.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Question is the Answer.

I'm preaching for the first time in my life tomorrow morning as I am a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital. I'm planning to preach on God's solidarity with the poor, oppressed, helpless, and hopeless through His own experiences in the suffering of Jesus Christ's life and death. I have experienced a wide range of emotions this week, but I've gleaned a lot of comfort from Karl Barth's writings on the task of preaching the Word of God. Here's something that was particularly meaningful to me amidst my preparation:

"Our questions about human life, even in their highest forms, are mere questions to which the answers sought are additional and must be matched to them. But as the Bible takes these questions, translating them into the unescapable question about God, one simply cannot ask of hear the "question" without hearing the answer. The person who says that the Bible leads us to where finally we hear only a great No or see a great void, proves only that he has not yet been led thither. This No is really Yes. This judgment is grace. This condemnation is forgiveness. This death is life. This hell is heaven. This fearful God is a loving father who takes the prodigal into his arms. The crucified is the one raised from the dead. And the explanation of the cross as such is eternal life. No other additional thing needs to be joined to the question. The question is the answer."

- Karl Barth, "The Need of Christian Preaching" in The Word of God and the Word of Man, 120.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Native theology.

For the past two weeks, my ethics class has been reading Barth (among many other sources) in an attempt to ask the following questions: can the good be known and done? Are some human actions intrinsically evil? For Barth, that which guides human actions is the command of God. All ethics are rooted here. Barth maintains this position with astonishing consistency even when considering the issue of protecting human life. He will never concede to a type of absolutism concerning ethical questions since this would fail to recognize God as Lord over the creature and the person of faith in Jesus Christ must continually remain open to hearing the command of God throughout their life. It is rather liberating yet offers troubling instability. But this is the beauty, in a very real way, of Barth, right? He offers this vision of the Christian life that includes continual dependence and tension that very much accords with the reality of faith. However, if I may be so honest, while this perspective was welcomed, it also caused a great deal of anxiety. When I read that the ethical life is rooted in the command of God, the Canaanite genocide immediately came to mind. This was a direct result of the command of Yahweh to His people, Israel. If I am to remain forever open to the command of God, must I be open to this same sort of atrocity in order to genuinely maintain that I am indeed the creature and God is Lord? And to answer this angst, must I preserve an analogy of being so I can "rationally" maintain that God would never command anything of this sort since it doesn't accord with what I believe as a Christian? Some might say that we should now look to Jesus Christ, for here we see where God is truly revealed - the God for us, for all humanity, the perpetual YES to all creatures. But how can even this be an answer to my initial question if Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah and a fulfillment of the very covenant made between Yahweh and the people of Israel. Is Yahweh not the same God revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ? These are basic questions, but I can never get away from them.

And I was reminded today precisely why the Church can't get away from them. I was reading about Native feminist theology (though there really isn't such a thing for the most part) for my liberation theology class and was struck by this immensely challenging excerpt:

Even if we distinguish the 'liberation' church from mainstream churches, the challenge brought forth by Native scholars and activists to other liberation theologians would be, Can a 'liberation' church escape complicity in Christian imperialism? Deloria in particular raises the challenge that Christianity, because it is a temporally rather than a spatially based tradition (that is, it is not tied to a particular landbase but can seek converts from any landbase), is necessarily a religion tied to imperialism because it will never be content to remain within a particular place or community: 'Once again religion becomes specific to a group, its nature also appears to change, being directed to the internal mechanics of the group, not to grandiose schemes of world conquest.' Hence, all Christian theology, even liberation theology, remains complicit in the missionization and genocide of Native peoples in the Americas ...

Robert Warrior's germinal essay, 'Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,' furthers Deloria's analysis by again troubling liberatory potential in many of the theological assumptions of liberation theology. In this essay, Warrior argues that the Bible is not a liberatory text for Native peoples, especially considering the fact that the liberation motif commonly adopted by liberation theologians - the Exodus - is premised on the genocide of the indigenous people occupying the Promised Land - the Canaanites. Warrior does not argue for the historical veracity of the conquest of the Canaanites. Rather, the Exodus operates as a narrative of conquest, a narrative that was foundational to the European conquest of the Americas. Warrior's essay points not only to the problems with the Exodus motif but also to liberation theology's conceptualization of a God of deliverance. He contends that 'as long as people believe in the Yahweh of deliverance, the world will not be safe from Yahweh the conqueror.'
- Andrea Smith, "Native Feminist Theology" in Liberation Theologies in the United States, 149-150.

I immediately felt the weight of the sin of the Church when I read this excerpt. No matter what one believes about the Hebrew Bible and the Canaanite genocide, the genocide of the Native American peoples can never be justified. But I ask, how can I make that statement given the fact that this excerpt above offers some very real questions to my struggles with Barth's grounding of the ethical life in the command of God?

If I get time for it, I want to explore the supposed incompatibility between Native theology and Christianity given Smith's omission in this essay that there is no essentialism upheld in Native American understanding of their culture. Rather, the culture and their identity is seen through the lens of performativity. In light of this, I think a proper understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Church lends itself to being genuinely good news for the Native peoples.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Torture and the Imago Dei.

For my Christian ethics class, we are examining the question whether the ends can justify the means in human action. This question is being asked from the side of the practical by analyzing the issue of torture. We were assigned to read five sources about the issue of torture; two in support of the practice (obviously with qualifications) and three against the practice. I assumed it wouldn't be that difficult to do the reading for this week given the move away from theory toward concrete issues. But reading about torture is no easy task. Even if one is against torture from the outset, the hypothetical and emotionally-manipulative scenarios that the pro-torture side provide are difficult. Afterall, doesn't everyone want to secure the end of perserving thousands of innocent lives in the face of an imminent threat? That is why I was grateful to read the following passage from an ecumenical project against torture. George Hunsinger, in his essay entitled "Torture is a Ticking Time Bomb", provides a necessary theological account for why torture is never an acceptable option for Christians even in the face of imminent acts of terror. He distinguishes between three types of torture: interrogational, terroristic, and demonic. None are ultimately effective and only dehumanize both the torturer and the tortured. In his section describing "demonic torture", Hunsinger offers a moving account for why all forms of torture can never be justified:

"For something to become an absolute end in itself means that it has usurped a
status that does not belong to it. The place belonging to God and God alone can
be only seized by the human creature in the form of a monstrous caricature. The
power of love is replaced by loveless power, compassion for the weak by sadistic
cruelty, fair treatment by demonic subjugation, respect for life by the meanest
contempt. Demonic torture is essentially destructive in its brutal self-elevation and self-justification. It proceeds at the expense of all legitimate obligations and norms. Its needs, its pleasures, and its purposes are carried out by shattering the essential humanity of another.

When Christians appeal to the image of God in their arguments against torture, they
are not, properly speaking, merely adding a religious patina to the concept of
human dignity. They are pointing to the ultimate meaning of human life. From
Bonhoeffer through Barth to recent Catholic theology, the doctrine of the imago
Dei has been reconceived in terms of relationality instead of the traditional
rationality. It is human relationality as such that stands in analogy to the
Holy Trinity, and therefore to the ultimacy of community. For the Trinity is
itself a holy communion of love and freedom, joy and peace. Human creatures
receive the vocation and the gift of living with God and one another on these
terms.

When torture is conducted as an end in itself, and is therefore become demonic -when the purpose of power is power, and the purpose of cruelty is cruelty, when torture's purpose is tyrannical subjugation and sadistic degradation - then the divinely given meaning of life is unspeakably distorted and destroyed. The relation of the torturer to the tortured, and of the tortured to the torturer, makes a travesty of the most basic relations given by heaven to earth. In so degrading the human being and human community, torture blasphemes against God, neighbor, and self."

George Hunsinger, "Torture is the Ticking Time Bomb" in Torture is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People of Conscience Speak out, 68.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Subordinationism Revisited.

Earlier today, I received a comment on my post "Barth and Subordinationism" from Tyler Wittman who blogs at Eremos (forgive me, I can't figure out how to put the proper accent in his blog's name). I have never done this before, but I decided to post my reply to Tyler's comment in an entirely new post. I truly don't mean any disrespect to Tyler by posting this exchange. Rather, I'm doing this because I really believe that it is important to properly interpret not only Bruce McCormack's remarks in his recent Kantzer lectures given last week at Wheaton, but also for correctly understanding the Christian tradition in relation to trinitarian theology. Tyler's remarks offer a great opportunity to clarify some prevailing misunderstandings in evangelicalism which I believe Bruce McCormack helpfully highlighted and corrected in his Kantzer lectures. You will have to read my initial post on Barth and subordinationism to gain a full understanding of the context for Tyler's comment and my response. Without further ado ...

Tyler's Comment:

I understand where Giles is coming from, but this doesn't suffice as a sound argument.

First, the simplistic equation of authority structures within the Godhead with the heresy of subordinationism is uncharitable and unsustainable. Bruce McCormack recently made a similar accusation towards Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware that simply smacks of misunderstanding. There is more rhetoric than substance here. The heresy of subordinationism maintained that there was an ontological inequality amongst the three persons. Evangelicals like Grudem and Ware (and ostensibly Smail) advocate no such heresy. People like Giles simply don't want to grant that the persons of the Godhead can be functionally subordinate but ontologically equal. In effect, they want to equate function and ontology, but ...

This is perhaps the most damning mistake I see Giles making, and it's a 'Feuerbachian slip' (to use Vanhoozer's phrase). The implicit assumption is that submission to authority equals inequality. This is a cultural, and not a biblical, value. This is the canon, if you will, for scholars like Giles who hastily categorize opponents into the heresy of the first three centuries. What Giles leaves out is that those divine persons (like the Son and Spirit) who are subordinate are not subordinate simpliciter, and therefore ontologically. Rather, they are eternally, yet freely subordinate. He's making the relationships passive, when in fact, they are active. The Son has authority to lay his life down and to take it back up, but he freely obeys the Father's (eternal!) will and lays it down.

Thus the equation of function and ontology cannot accomplish what Giles desires if our ears are attuned to the biblical witness.

My Response:

Tyler, If I may be so bold without trying to sound rude, I think your interpretation of Bruce McCormack's Kantzer lectures concerning the views of Grudem and Ware "simply smacks of misunderstanding." I am not sure where to start by way of response so I will begin with your interpretation of McCormack's views. I will examine McCormack's views more closely than Giles as such an examination will help to address the heart of the issue more fully (ironically enough, I was pleased when McCormack mentioned and positively affirmed Giles' work on this subject).

1. McCormack's "accusation" is only lacking in charity and cannot be sustained if it is baseless and without good evidence. If McCormack is indeed correct in categorizing Grudem and Ware as subordinationists in the way he explain based upon the tradition as such, then claiming the opposite would in fact be uncharitable and unsustainable. I think McCormack went out of his way to take Grudem and Ware's positions seriously and provided a detailed and carefully researched critique.

2. When I listened to the Kantzer lecture, I heard quite a different line of argument from McCormack. He maintained that Ware and Grudem presuppose a Social Trinitarian understanding of the Trinity when they construct their notions of the relationship(s) between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Social trinitarianism is based upon the idea that each person of the Trinity (and the term person is key here) has their own mind, will, and mode of operation. What makes them unified is that they share the same essence. Thus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit harmoniously work together in order to secure the same end and purpose. McCormack argued that this presupposed model of the Trinity, which is a development of 19th century Catholic theology, is not the same model presupposed by the Nicaean fathers. Thus, the egalitarianism among the members of the Trinity is "functional" as McCormack noted. But McCormack argued quite well that such an understanding is a modern theological import to Nicaea and not compatible both with the Christian orthodox tradition or with the biblical witness that testifies to One God. The fathers understood that in order to avoid committing the error of maintaining tritheism in their Trinitarian theology and also a hierarchy of beings (as both McCormack and Giles properly note), they could not simply adhere to "functional egalitarianism." Thus, they maintained that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not merely one in essence but also in mind, will and operation ("principle of inseparable of operation"). It is fine if Ware and Grudem want to argue that the Son has a different will than the Father, which he willfully submits from all eternity, but this is not the understanding of Nicaea. Disagreement with the council of Nicaea has been termed "heresy" by the Christian tradition. McCormack maintains the position that the Son's submission to the Father is one of voluntary, self-submission since he applies "the principle of inseparable operation". Therefore, the submission is not passive at least from McCormack's standpoint (though Giles doesn't seem to support this passivity either given the overall theme of his essay). Moreover, egalitarians fear that such an "eternal" understanding of submission would necessarily equate to subordinationism but that is simply because they are working from within a social Trinitarian framework. Which takes me to my next point ...

3. Ironically enough, both egalitarians and complimentarians use the Social Trinitarian model to support their respective commitments to gender relations. But I think this reminds us that the Trinity is wholly unique and cannot be used as a model to support gender relations between men and women. It is a misplaced analogy also because social trinitarianism essentially equates to tritheism. To maintain that there are three distinct minds and wills yet one substance and then say there is not a hierarchy of beings is simply "fundamentally incoherent" as McCormack argued. McCormack does not seem to be concerned with defending the Nicaean tradition in the way he does because he has a stake in the gender debate. In fact, McCormack even said off the cuff in the Q&A that he does not adhere to any metaphysical notions of "manhood" or "womanhood." But this is rooted, it seems, in his post-metaphyical commitments rather than any prior commitment to the feminist agenda.

4. I don't think Giles is so much concerned with the gender debate either. But sometimes it is necessary to show, as he does in his article, that using the Trinitarian model to support a specific view of gender relations is problematic. I realize that I can't use the Trinity to support my understanding that men are women are ontologically equal and submission in the way it is conceived my complimentarians compromises such equality. To maintain anything less is also fundamentally incoherent and simply saying that it isn't and then pointing to the biblical witness to say they maintain the same isn't helpful. This understanding of complimentarianism is also rooted in a metaphysical understanding of the genders which I find unbiblical.

5. McCormack and Giles' point seem to be that the biblical witness testifies to the revelatory understanding that the Church confesses one God who is revealed in the eternal relations as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, subordinationism as conceived by Ware and Grudem compromise monotheism.

6. This issue, in the end, doesn't seem to be McCormack's unconscious Feuerbachianism, but rather who interprets the Christian tradition - particularly Nicaea - correctly. Moreover, you might maintain that the tradition interprets Scripture incorrectly. That is an entirely new debate and one that might be worth having as good Protestants do.

P.S. McCormack's position is hardly new. In fact, during the Q&A session of one of John Webster's Kantzer lectures, he noted that the pactum salutis must be conceived and explained very carefully if there is not an unintentional support of competing wills between the Father and the Son (hinting that anything less would support tritheism). McCormack noted the difficulty of competing wills in the penal substitution model of the atonement at the Croall lectures this past year since this would mean that the innocent Son is suffering at the hands of the vindictive Father. But the problem only arises to a very real extent when the Father and Son have competing wills. Thus, it is rightly understood as a self-sacrifice since the Father and the Son share but one will.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Butler on Gender and Barth on Suicide.

Bizarre title, eh? They are connected. But be patient, dear reader, for it might take a while to explain said connection.

This afternoon I rented Judith Butler's preeminent Gender Trouble from the library. I read most of the first chapter by the time I walked from the library to my dorm room. It was truly engrossing. Butler's basic argument is that historically speaking, feminism has not questioned the content of the term "women" as the subject of emancipation in gender politics. Feminism has wrongfully assumed that there is universality to the term "women" that transcends the particularity of culture, class, race, etc. As such, feminism has unintentionally created "domains of exclusion" which produce "coercive and regulatory consequences" (6). Butler goes even further to say that not only does sex not determine one's gender, but even the category of sex itself is constructed by society. Thus, "it does not follow that the construction of 'men' will accrue exclusively to the bodies of males or that 'women' will interpret only female bodies. Further, even if the sexes appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution (which will become a question), there is no reason to assume that genders ought also to remain as two" (9). At this point, Butler can make the reader a bit uncomfortable as Butler begins to question axioms which are generally unquestioned by society as a whole namely the very existence of a binary sex system: "And what is 'sex' anyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such 'facts' for us? ... if the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called 'sex' is as culturally constructed as gender" (9). Some might be fearful that such a lack of universality in relation to a definition of "women" might prohibit political action. But Butler insists that "unity" traditionally conceived as solidarity might not be necessary for the political ends feminists hope to achieve.

I welcomed most of what Butler had to say in the first chapter. The conception of "womanhood" and "manhood" seems to depend entirely upon a metaphysical understanding of sex that I don't find helpful, compelling, nor even biblical. One doesn't have to think very hard to recognize that most of what constitutes "masculinity" and "femininity" both within society and the Church is almost entirely culturally constructed. And most individuals spend their lives either consciously or unconsciously trying to live up to these imposed standards. Sometimes they can become excessively oppressive and violent, for these standards expose one's own supposed shortcomings and particularities that are undesired by society at large.

Despite my relief at Butler's conclusions, I found implicit in Butler's words an understanding that the human subject is utterly sovereign and this allows one to determine their own sex and gender free from any external standard. Any external standard that does not take into consideration one's own particular culture and personal experience is violent and imperialistic. I wondered how I could possibly agree with these basic modern assumptions considering the fact that I confess to be a Christian and acknowledge the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord over my life. Butler makes conclusions about gender based upon Butler's own understanding of the autonomy of the human subject. As a Christian, I agree with a lot of Butler's conclusions because of what God has revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In light of the Incarnation, all humanity is defined by Jesus Christ as the second Adam. There is no distinction in Jesus Christ, but rather all are one.

A few hours later, I started reading Karl Barth for my ethics class. I was assigned to read a section entitled "The Protection of Life" where Barth eventually begins to speak about suicide. Barth, with very sensitive and careful prose, writes about the struggle involved when anyone considers taking their own life. Barth writes that one who is tempted to take one's own life does not need the law but rather the Gospel. And in the Gospel, one finds the truth that
"we must live. To will it is to will what we are permitted. It is to will in the freedom in which man is not sovereign or solitary, but always has God above him as the Creator, Giver and Lord of his life. Why do we want to be sovereign and solitary, so that in some way we come to see nothing but emptiness around us, and become desperate, and finally have to contemplate suicide? These things, i.e. sovereignty, solitariness, emptiness and despair, are necessary only if we must live, if life is not the freedom bestowed by God. They are necessary only if we are charged to help ourselves, if pressure is exerted from some quarter to take life into our own hands, to be our own masters, to make something significant of ourselves, to justify, sanctify, save and glorify ourselves, and therefore to have to recognise at some point and in some way that we cannot really succeed in doing this. But this supposition is false. For God is gracious to us. It thus follows that we may live, and that, since He is God, we are able to live by the fact that He is gracious. We can simply accept the fact that He is sovereign and not we" (CD, III.4, 80).
I will assume that to Butler, this entire passage is dripping with violence and imperialism. But must the Christian not grapple with the radical notion and claim that we offer to society when we witness to the truth that real freedom does not come from being autonomous and sovereign over one's own being, but rather recognizing the reality that God has a claim over all of humanity regardless of any distinction as Lord, Redeemer, Reconciler and Creator? In short, I wondered if Butler's entire project is possible from a radical christocentric methodology. Or must I admit to the fact that such a methodology is undesirable to most since Christianity will always be seen as inherently violent and oppressive by the non-Christian because it claims from first to last that the individual is not the captain of their own soul?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Barth and Subordinationism.

I went into the Princeton Theological Library today only intending to find one specific book. Before I knew it, I made my way to the printed journals and starting perusing one after another. Note to self: this is a horrible time killer. Per usual, I picked up the Scottish Journal of Theology and immediately flipped to Kevin Giles' article entitled "Barth and Subordinationism". At first glance, the charge of subordinationism against Barth seemed rather odd. Many of Barth's notable conservative North American evangelical critics have always critiqued Barth as being a modalist. Apparently, a trend has emerged among a few global conservative evangelical scholars who have used Barth to support their view of the eternal subordination of the Son. I was completely puzzled before I even began reading the article. How could this be? Modalism is a charge that in some ways is understandable to some (small?) degree, though ultimately incorrect in my opinion (modes of being, anyone?). But subordinationism not only would threaten Barth's entire christocentric project (this is truly and fully God present in the person of Jesus Christ), but it would make him a tritheist to whatever extent. What is even more troubling and interesting to me is that these same scholars are trying to further the cause of the eternal subordination of the Son to justify their complimentarian view of the female gender. Just as Jesus Christ is supposedly eternally subordinate to the Father, women are also eternally subordinate to men. However, such subordination does not mean ontological inequality (Sidenote: Giles notes that this heresy of eternal subordinationism is ironically being championed as orthodoxy within such circles, which is a fascinating piece of theological amnesia!). I can not recall how frequently I have heard some evangelical pastors preach growing up that even though Adam and Eve were fully made in the imago Dei and possess ontological equality, they have distinct roles. Women are to submit and be subordinate to men. And men are supposed to serve as Christ-like leaders (taken most often from Ephesians 5). In some circles, it is explicitly stated that Adam was made for God while Eve is made for Adam. Therefore, the woman is to always concern herself with supporting and furthering the purpose of her husband. I should note here that the article didn't grab my attention for its details concerning Barth's trinitarian theology, but rather what Giles says about the use of subordinationism in trinitarian theology to further the subordination of women. I really appreciated his words on this trend as it clearly articulates my personal concerns with the implications of such female subordination, namely that it logically equates to ontological inequality between the genders:
"These often undeveloped and passing claims that Barth teaches the eternal subordination and obedience of the Son in the Godhead in mainline scholarly works now find frequent expression in conservative evangelical literature promulgating 'male headship'. The argument that the eternal subordination of the Son explains and theologically grounds the permanent subordination of women is now endemic in socially conservative evangelicalism, and in recent years Barth has been frequently quoted in support. For example, in Australia Robert Doyle says Barth teaches 'the eternal relation subordination' of the Son, while Mark Baddeley says much the same. He argues that for Barth God the Father eternally commands and God the Son eternally obeys, adding that 'Barth rejects a purely economic submission as modalism'. In Great Britain this appeal to Barth in support of the eternal subordination of the Son is also found in writings by evangelicals committed to the permanent subordination of women. For Example, Thomas Smail in his book, Like Father, like Son, argues that the Son of God is eternally subordinated in function and authority to the Father, apart from ontological subordination, and he claims Barth as the basis for his views. For him the Father is 'sovereign' and what is proper to sonship, human and divine, is 'obedience'. He says 'God the Father is the prototype of leadership'. In Smail, and most other conservative evangelicals who argue for the permanent subordination of women, the governing premise is that it is possible to have permanently ascribed functional subordination and ontological equality. I think not. If one is permanently subordinated solely because of one's sex, race or divine identity then the subordinated party is not only subordinated in role or function: they are the subordinated sex, race or divine person. Simply denying this does not alter this fact. What must be recognised is that in this usage the terms 'role' and 'function' do not refer to characteristic behaviour that can change and is not person defining, as a dictionary would suggest, but to unchanging power relations, who rules and who obeys. The terms 'role' and 'function' are used to obfuscate what is actually being argued: the Son of God is eternally subordinated in authority to the Father and this hierarchical ordering prescribes the permanent subordination in authority for women."
- Kevin Giles, "Barth and Subordinationism", Scottish Journal of Theology 64 (3): 327-346 (2011).

Monday, September 19, 2011

Edwards and Barth on God's Holiness.

I was assigned to read an essay by Nicholas Wolterstorff entitled "Liturgy, Justice, and Holiness". Wolterstorff discusses the unseeming but necessary connection between the recognition of God's holiness and the pursuit of justice that takes expression in the liturgy. In the first part of the essay, Wolterstorff explores the view of God's holiness from the perspective of two prominent theologians: Jonathan Edwards and Karl Barth.

Wolterstorff explains that Edwards maintained that God's holiness compels human creatures to love God and it is the very holiness of God which serves as grounds for our love of God. Holiness, above all else, draws the creature to the Creator. In short, it should come as no surprise that Edwards believed that holiness is "the totality of God's moral excellencies." Prior to reading this essay, I knew that I was not fond of Edwards conception of God. But this essay helped to clarify my disagreements more sharply. The entire time that I was reading this small excerpt regarding Edwards, I kept thinking God's love and not God's holiness reveals the essence of God's inner being. God's love and holiness are not opposed, but the latter is a manifestation of the former. Edwards maintained the opposite.

Thankfully, Wolterstorff immediately turned to Barth for a necessary "step beyond" Edwards in order to offer a better understanding of God's holiness (though I would say this is not merely an addition but a reorientation). Wolterstorff writes,
Karl Barth, in his discussion of God's holiness, enables us to take a necessary step beyond Edwards. Rather than seeing God's holiness as the totality of God's moral excellencies, Barth sees God's holiness as a facet of God's grace; and God's grace he sees, in turn, as one of the perfections of the divine love. One of Barth's concerns is to avoid the picture, with which Edwards operates, of holiness as one-among-other excellencies of God. On Barth's view grace is, as it were, an adverbial qualification of God's love - God loves in a gracious manner. And holiness is in turn an adjectival qualification of God's grace - the graciousness of God's love has a holy quality to it. 'When God loves,' says Barth, 'revealing His inmost being in the fact that He loves and therefore seeks and creates fellowship, this being and doing is divine and distinct from all other loving to the extent that the love of God's being in so far as it seeks and creates fellowship by its own free inclination and favour, unconditioned by any merit or claim in the beloved, but also unhindered by any unworthiness or opposition in the latter - able, on the contrary, to overcome all unworthiness and opposition. ... to say grace is to say the forgiveness of sins; to say holiness, judgment upon sins. But since both reflect the love of God, how can there by the one without the other, forgiveness without judgment or judgment without forgiveness? (CD, II/1, p. 353, 360)'"
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Liturgy, Justice, and Holiness" in Hearing the call: Liturgy, Justice, Church and World, 65-66.

This quote is a breath of fresh air and I was compelled to take a deep sigh of relief and thankfulness. If the totality of God's being is holiness, how is this good news for the creature? As Wolterstorff points out, Isaiah's response to the holiness of God was not one of pleasure and delight (though this is not altogether excluded) but rather terror and fear! Truly, the Gospel message does not exclude the holiness of God's judgment. But isn't the good news precisely that in God's gracious unmitigated love, God took the deserved judgment upon Himself in the cross of Jesus Christ in order to reconcile humanity onto the Father? In this act, God revealed His identity to humanity as the God who lavishly loves His creatures without hindrance. For this reason, we worship Him as the holy One.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Communion of the Church.

"When I reluctantly continue to share the church's communion with someone whose moral judgment I deeply disagree with, I do so in the knowledge that for both of us part of the cost is that we have to sacrifice a straightforward confidence in our 'purity'. Being in the Body means that we are touched by one another's failures. If another Christian comes to a different conclusion and decides in different ways from myself, and if I can still recognise their discipline and practice as sufficiently like mine to sustain a conversation, this leaves my own decisions to some extent under question. I cannot have absolute subjective certainty that this is the only imaginable reading of the tradition; I need to keep my reflections under critical review. This, I must emphasise again, is not a form of relativism; it is a recognition of the element of putting oneself at risk that is involved in any serious decision-making or any serious exercise of discernment (as any pastor or confessor will know). But this is only part of the implication of recognising the differences and risks of decision-making in the Body of Christ. If I conclude that my Christian brother or sister is deeply and damagingly mistaken in their decision, I accept for myself the brokenness in the Body that this entails. These are my wounds; just as the one who disagrees with me is wounded by what they consider my failure or even betrayal. So long as we still have a language in common and the 'grammar of obedience' in common, we have, I believe, to turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided. The church's need for health and mercy is inseparable from my own need for health and mercy. To remain in communion is to remain in solidarity with those who I believe are wounded as well as wounding the church, in the trust that in the Body of Christ the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing."
- Rowan Williams, "Making Moral Decisions" in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics, 11.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

James Cone and the Hope of Witness.

I stumbled across this interview between Bill Moyers and James Cone through a friend's posting on facebook. I was simply enthralled with the interview and at one point felt the same feeling I usually feel when attempting to engage in the issue of race: hopelessness. As a white woman, despite all my desires and good intentions to be some sort of agent for change in relation to racism and discrimination in society, I often wonder what I can do. More than that, I wonder what ability (and right) I have to even engage in any witness to racism and the black experience given my rather privileged life as a white, upper-middle class individual. And then the inevitable guilt sets in as I realize that I can't exempt myself from both past and present responsibility in terms of racism, oppression, and discrimination. While I don't think guilt is altogether useless (I'm thankful Mark Lewis Taylor recognizes the sometimes important role of guilt/reflection in these contexts here), it doesn't offer a constructive way forward. I was thankful for this interview with Cone because not only is he unrelenting in his call to honesty and communication, but he is also charitable and inclusive to those non-black individuals who seek to bring hope and change to the issue of racism. The following was particularly challenging and powerful to me as I hope it will be for you:

Moyers: What can people do to bring about this beloved community you talk about?

Cone: First, it is to believe that it can happen. Don't lose hope. If people lose hope, they give up in despair. Black people were slaves for 246 years, but they didn't lose hope.

Moyers: Why didn't they?

Cone: They didn't lose hope because there was a power and reality in their experience that let them know they were apart of this human race just like everybody else and they fought for that.

Moyers: So, I have hope. What's next?

Cone: The next step is to connect with people who also have hope. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asian, all different kinds of people. They have to connect, be around, and organize with people who have hope.

Moyers: What do you mean organize?

Cone: You organize to make the world the way it ought to be. And that is the beloved community. You have to have some witness to that even if it is just a small witness of just you and me.

Friday, September 2, 2011

You Know Who We Are.

Lord, our God, you know who we are: People with good and bad consciences; satisfied and dissatisfied, sure and unsure people; Christians out of conviction and Christians out of habit; believers, half-believers, and unbelievers.

You know where we come from: from our circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or from great loneliness; from lives of quiet leisure, or from all manner of embarrassment and distress; from ordered, tense, or destroyed family relationships; from the inner circle, or from the fringes of the Christian community.

But now we all stand before you: in all our inequality equal in this, that we are all in the wrong before you and among each other; that we all must die someday; that we all would be lost without your grace; but also that your grace is promised to and turned toward all of us through your beloved Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

We are here together in order to praise you by allowing you to speak to us. We ask that this might happen in this house in the name of your Son, our Lord. Amen.

- Karl Barth

Monday, August 29, 2011

Questions of Methodology.

"Any kind of Christian theology today, even in rich and dominant countries, which does not have as its starting point the historic situation of dependence and domination of two thirds of humankind, with its 30 million dead of hunger and malnutrition, will not be able to position and concretize historically its fundamental themes. Its questions will not be the real questions. It will not touch the real person. As observed by a participant in the Buenos Aires gathering, 'theology must be rescued from its cynicism.' Certainly, in the face of the problems of today's world, many theological writings are reduced to cynicism."

- Hugo Assmann, Teología desde la praxis de la liberación, 40.

The words of this small and popular excerpt are piercing, especially for a lover of classic dogmatics like myself. I'm trying to get a head start on my reading for the Liberation Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez class this semester and I am repeatedly reminded of the deficiencies within western academic theology. This cry is heard again and again to the point where it seems that either some ignore it or others assume that theology can only be considered as such if it begins with an attempt to bear witness to the cause of the oppressed in society.

Usually the starting point of God's transcendence is attacked and dismissed since this only perpetuates the complacency concerning injustice that has plagued Christianity. Without intending to sound callous to these worthy concerns, I remain convinced that abusus non tollit usum. And I wonder what is ultimately sacrificed precisely for the cause of the oppressed if methodological concerns including the starting point of God's ontology is abandoned and replaced with immanence. In short, I can not stop questioning if the method of immanence often employed by liberation theologians ultimately fails to achieve the end of liberation and hope that is rightfully and necessarily sought for the oppressed.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The New Political Wave in Evangelicalism.

If anyone has known me since I started college, they know I've made my rounds in the Church. My undergraduate days were marked with desperation to find some sort of ecclesial identity and to embrace a particular Christian confession. This desire took me to many parts of the church from the hippie house-Church movement all the way to the wonders of Eastern Orthodoxy. Along the way, I ended up getting involved with the International House of Prayer (IHOP). I use the word "involved" rather loosely since I only attended their "One Thing" conference every New Years for three years. Despite the fact that the movement and its corruption almost led me to abandon the Christian religion (that is for another time), I am thankful for my experiences. That is why when I heard this interview about Rick Perry and the new political movement in evangelicalism on NPR's Fresh Air, I understood the seriousness of what was being discussed more than I would like to admit. You can go here to listen to the fascinating interview: http://tiny.cc/chbxb

The IHOP movement is distinct from other charismatic movements in various ways. First, this movement is distinctly young-adult oriented. Sure, there are older folks who show up, but the stadiums are packed with thousands upon thousands of well-meaning and sincere youth. Second, there is an emphatic emphasis upon the supernatural. Everything goes - hearing the audible voice of God (Mike Bickle heard God's audible voice telling him to start the IHOP back in 1999), exorcisms, speaking in tongues, shaking uncontrollably on the floor, prophesying endlessly, words of knowledge, visions, dreams, etc. There is also a continual obsession with Satan, demons, and their influence upon the earth. Even more, these aspects of the "supernatural" realm should not be considered "supernatural" but rather "natural"; anything less would demean the presence of God at work in the life of Christians. Every Christian should expect this type of supernatural activity in their lives on a daily basis. One of the reasons I always felt like an outsider to this movement is that I never spoke in tongues (I tried once but it didn't work), I never attempted to cast out demons (nor did I want to), I never had radical dreams or visions, and I never fell down when a "prayer warrior" came and touched my forehead. I always wondered how one could have confidence that these things were actually "from God" and not simply a product of self-deception. Third, the movement is radically political. I think this is probably the most important thing to emphasize. Everything is about "reclaiming" and "taking back" in America what has been stolen by Satan and the demonic realm. While this assumes that America was ever in alignment with the Christian God from the beginning (and you don't even need to read Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn to admit that), the leaders of this movement are very persuasive and powerful in their rhetoric. You might laugh and think you could never be brainwashed into thinking this stuff. But when you attend these conferences with thousands upon thousands of young adults who passionately and desperately embrace the words of leaders who claim they have "heard the audible voice of God" and had "dreams and visions" of America's future, it all becomes more confusing than you'd ever like to imagine. One of the reasons this movement must be political is that the people inside and associated with IHOP believe that Christians are genuinely responsible for "ushering in" the Kingdom of God and the second return of Christ. Until so many people convert to Christianity or repent from their blatant sin, Jesus Christ will not return to reclaim "the Bride of Christ" (the Church). Therefore, Christians must repent of their complacency and unabashedly become involved in changing the political system. This type of change comes through voting for Republican candidates because only Republicans genuinely understand the two issues that are closest to the "heart of God" and those issues are homosexuality and abortion. This feeds on the greatest vulnerabilities of evangelical youth since almost everyone in evangelicalism from a young age has been taught that these two issues are very serious and show "just how far" America has strayed from the truth of God's word (Let's be honest: no matter how "liberal" ex-evangelical youth become, most will never abandon their pro-life stance). But contrary to the ways of the past, this movement claims to be marked by love and peace. These aren't the folks who terrorize abortion clinics. Rather, they peacefully stand outside the Supreme Court with red tape over their mouth with the word "LIFE" written on it as they pray and fast for the lives of the unborn sometimes for forty days at a time. The commitment and sacrifice is genuinely impressive no matter how far off you think these Christians are. Finally, the movement is marked by a sense of martyrdom. These are Christians who are willing to be killed, persecuted, beaten, and ostracized for their beliefs. In fact, this would mean that they are doing something right since any opposition to the political system ("the demonic forces") would naturally result in this type of backlash. In a way, this opposition means progress. They don't believe in the rapture of our parent's generation. Christians will remain on earth and must endure the persecution necessary to bring about Christ's return.

Some might be wondering how anyone could genuinely be wrapped up in this movement. An outside observer might assume that these individuals are crazy and are simply not intelligent. While there might be unstable and unintelligent individuals in this movement like any other, that isn't the root of the problem. If only! The issue is far more complicated and I won't pretend to pinpoint all of the many essential problems of this movement here (there are so many issues with their political assumptions that I wouldn't even know where to begin). But I do wish to offer one specific point,which I believe highlights the reason that this type of movement is so popular and persuasive, especially among young adults. It is no surprise that evangelicalism as a whole has lost an identity and is doctrinally anemic. Apart from a lack of catechesis, there is simply a lack of distinct Christian identity. There is no sense of what Christians might actually believe or have confessed since Pentecost because a lot of evangelical Churches are led by clergy who are also uneducated. This type of theological illiteracy goes so far that most evangelicals lack very basic understandings of the Trinity, Christology, and Scripture. As such, there is this desperate longing present among evangelical youth which asks what qualifies me as a Christian? In our parent's age, it was personal piety. But the evangelical youth of today have seen through such shallow false righteousness and desire a more genuine Christian orientation. Absent theological education and responsible Christian leadership, evangelical youth attend these conferences hoping to hear an answer to these questions from leaders like Mike Bickle, Lou Engle, Jason Upton, and all the rest. These youth witness leaders who are seemingly far more sincere in their faith than most anyone else they've ever known (fasting for 40 days?! They heard God's voice?!) and so they gain credibility. And the youth really listen to these men and women. What is more, these youth crave a type of Christian identity that is radical and all-encompassing. Young evangelicals are attracted to whatever Christian expression they can find which bleeds into every area of one's life. That is exactly what you will find at IHOP. These Christians are not fooling around! There is no dichotomy between the private and public. This Christian confession pervades every part of life.

In short, it is my assertion that the reason these misguided and dangerous movements occur is due to the fact that evangelicalism has lost its Christian identity. The aspects of the Christian religion that classify its particularity have been lost. Young American evangelicals want something to fill that void. And they've found it. Unfortunately, they've traded their whitewashed tombs for an unconstitutional, superstitious, and idolatrous political orientation that has little in common with orthodox Christian belief. Most people will hear about this movement and laugh or think it not serious. But when you have political candidates like Rick Perry and Sarah Palin directly or indirectly endorsing these movements, you can't deny their dangerous influence any longer. I simply hope that evangelicalism will realize that movements like these are a direct product of its own theological illiteracy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Which Jesus?

When one graduates from seminary and then enters into a long summer vacation with entirely too much free time, a lot of questioning begins to emerge. Since my concerns are always bent toward methodology, I have been giving a lot of thought to how Christians have, should, and do approach the task of theology.

Recently I've been asking myself what is the Gospel about primarily? Reconciliation? Forgiveness? Liberation? In dogmatic terms, I keep asking what office of Jesus Christ takes formal precedence - Jesus as prophet, priest, or king? It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence that the answer to this question has upon one's theology. But within western theological circles, especially reformed theology, Jesus' priestly office has been championed as the primary starting point. At the risk of offering arguments or questions that seem to lack in argumentation and offer nothing more than logical fallacies, I would like to say that I find this ordering suspicious. There is this enduring narrative that in order to hold an objective orientation within theology, the focus must primarily start with Jesus Christ's role as the agent of reconciliation of humanity to God the Father. I have heard it said repeatedly that minorities and other oppressed members of the world who are concerned with the understanding of the Gospel primarily as liberation are "subjective" in their orientation. It is almost as if these folks are treated like they use the Christian religion as a utilitarian means to further their own socio-political cause while the "real Christians" are those who are concerned about what happens in the more vertical dimension between Jesus Christ and God the Father.

But I keep asking myself if an objective orientation that is usually championed as orthodox can only be made possible or (more modestly) compelling if privilege is present. Is it any accident that those who led the way for orthodox theology were those who possessed power and control and held a privileged status in society? Is it an accident that the early Church, despite the substitutionary elements in Athanasius' theology, focused primarily (not exclusively) on Christ as Victor instead of Redeemer in their atonement theology?

Part of the reason I bring this up is because in evangelical theology, everything is about the reconciliation of the individual sinner to a holy God. To speak robustly about justice and liberation in relation to the Gospel usually creates instant suspicion and such an understanding is almost immediately dismissed (I have been woefully guilty of this same impulse in the past). Everything is about the vertical dimension since why fight for justice and liberation if the person's very soul is on the line? We'd rather the individual continue in oppression instead of risking their soul continuing in hell for all eternity. I don't say this in a disrespectful tone. Honestly, I have heard this reasoning constantly as someone who graduated from an evangelical private high school, an evangelical liberal arts college, and an evangelical seminary. I simply ask myself if this narrative is born only because evangelicals in North America primarily stand in a place of privilege. They have no real need for Jesus as Victor and Liberator. They only generally have a need for Jesus to be Priest and they then think that is what the rest of the world - oppressed or enslaved or not - needs this Jesus foremost. How can one say such things without serious self-critique when encountering the black community in North America, the oppressed women throughout the world, the patriarchy and poverty within Hispanic culture? I even ask this about Karl Barth's theology. Would his posture and orientation toward the task of theology be the same if he were not seeped in a life of privilege?

I think such an understanding is convenient and fails to identify with the least of those in society which the Son of God came to serve, liberate, and set free. Can we continue to champion this objective narrative without realizing that it is only made possible by our status as the masters of society? And should we not ask how our own privileged status has made our own objective theology that much more subjective in orientation?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gender and Oppression.

I came across a review of Carolyn Custis James' book Half the Church at the Gospel Coalition website this afternoon through a friend's post on facebook. I have met with Mrs. James about her book (she is the wife of the provost at Gordon-Conwell where I recently graduated) and I am grateful that she highlights the ways in which women are ignored and ultimately oppressed within the global Church (though I do wish she would go a lot further in her critiques and solutions). Even though it is no secret that I am not a fan of the Gospel Coalition and their understanding of the Gospel, I was very troubled and disturbed by what the reviewer, Courtney Reissig, had to say. The review can be read here: http://tiny.cc/jkknx

Ms. Reissig starts the review by critiquing James' (supposed) views of marriage, submission, and ultimately the message of the Gospel. It is obvious that Reissig would identify herself as a "complimentarian" which maintains that even though women are ontologically equal with men, they have different roles and responsibilities within this world. To me, that is like saying minorities are equal but segregation is still justified. To offer a complimentarian position without believing that it is truly offensive and ultimately violent to the cause of women is simply dishonest to me. But that is for another day. Reissig then goes on to imply that she disagrees with James' interpretation of the Hebrew word "helper" in Genesis 2 when applied to Eve. I simply do not understand how it can be argued that the Hebrew word used in Genesis in relation to Eve can mean anything other than sharing complete authority and leadership since the same adjective is used to describe Godself in various points throughout the Hebrew Bible. When the word "helper" is used to describe the quintessential domestic housewife who stays home and takes care of her kids (please read: there is nothing wrong with doing such), it is a completely shallow misrepresentation of the Hebrew word and imports a tremendous amount of conservative evangelical American cultural baggage.

Moreover, I truly do not understand how the word submission, especially when it is used in a one-way fashion within marriage can be understood as anything less than inequality. We can say all day long that female submission to male headship does not mean oppression and inequality, but one need look no further than the lack of expectations for women within the average North American evangelical Church to see how women truly do not have a voice and a role within the Kingdom of God outside of domestic duties. The way that women are treated and talked about within these complimentarian circles gives one the impression that they are children and men are their parental figures rather than truly equal creatures before God.

But beyond all of these troubling understandings of gender, the line that most bothered me was when Ms. Reissing somehow believes it is acceptable to say that "oppressed women do not need autonomy and freedom from authority so much as a Savior who provides for them, protects them, and leads them to himself." First, I do not know what sort of atonement theory or understanding of the Gospel would lead someone to make such a strict dichotomy between freedom from oppression (and ultimately violence) and redemption. How does the Christian believe they understand the words and deeds of Jesus Christ if they believe that the only thing that matters for oppressed women in the world is to have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" (which is what Reissing seems to be hinting at here with her language of a vertical imperative for women in relation to Jesus Christ). Besides the fact that language of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ rarely is fleshed out and usually does not make a lot of sense, I am troubled that anyone could think the plight of women who are oppressed by violence is not of essential importance for the Church. Has our conception of Jesus Christ and His ministry become so docetic that the only thing that matters any longer is personal piety and private devotional times? Does the message of Jesus Christ in the cross not demand us to fight and passionately pursue the way of justice and mercy for the oppressed and outcast in society?

For all of these reasons, I have become increasingly concerned at the direction that the evangelical Church in North America has taken in its own conception of the Gospel. The contents of this review are simply irresponsible and not acceptable for the Church that seeks to be faithful to the ministry of Jesus Christ in its words and deeds. If the Gospel ever means placing the cause against oppression and violence as second best, how can we say that we truly have any identification with the God who dwelled among His people in Jesus Christ in order to offer us new life and hope?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The humility of God.

Some very challenging words from Barth:

"Even in the form of a servant, which if the form of His presence and action in Jesus Christ, we have to do with God Himself in His true deity. The humility in which He dwells and acts in Jesus Christ is not alien to Him, but proper to Him. His humility is a novum mysterium for us in whose favour He executes it when He makes use of His freedom for it, when He shows His love even to His enemies and His life even in death, thus revealing them in a way which is quite contrary to all our false ideas about God. But for Him this humility is no novum mysterium. it is His sovereign grace that He wills to be and is amongst us in humility, our God, God for us. But He shows us this grace, He is amongst us in humility, our God, God for us, as that which He is in Himself, in the most inward depth of His Godhead. He does not become another God. In the condescension in which He gives Himself to us in Jesus Christ He exists and speaks and acts as the One He was from all eternity and will be to all eternity. The truth and actuality of our atonement depends on this being the case. The One who reconciles the world with God is necessarily the one God Himself in His true Godhead. Otherwise the world would not be reconciled with God. Otherwise it is still the world which is not reconciled with God."

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 193.

My question is this: is speech against the humility of Christ in the cross (and ultimately speech affirming impassibility) rooted in the biblical witness or simply a theologia gloriae? Does a true theologia crucis require an affirmation that the God revealed in the cross is who God is in Himself from all eternity? If not, how can we have any confidence of God's true identity?