Monday, January 23, 2012

The Promise of Heaven.

For my M.Div degree requirements, I've had the opportunity to serve as a chaplain for this current academic year. I hardly ever talk about my experiences as a chaplain, both online or in face-to-face conversations. There is rarely so much and so little to say at the same time. I often find myself quite undone by the experiences I am afforded in chaplaincy. I don't think I've ever been more keenly aware of my own limitations, shortcomings, finiteness, and inabilities. And I don't think anything else in my life has quite drastically shaped and challenged my theological confessions as these past few months. Through the numerous conversations and confessions, the moments of consoling someone's deafening cries, or being asked the most basic questions about God's love in the face of true darkness, I am reminded of the need for hope.

But where does hope come from? For me, heaven invokes images of hope. Since I was a little girl, the understanding of heaven was always in the future where the Lord returns again and makes all things new. I genuinely can't recall how many times tears have fallen over the pages of Revelation 21 when God seems utterly absent in moments of suffering. Yet, these past few months have reminded me that this future-oriented eschatology is not enough. In fact, it is all too cheap. This understanding of heaven is not sufficient for those I am supposed to listen to, comfort, and counsel today. And so I've been left to continually ponder the meaning of heaven and the promises therein for the here and now. I've repeatedly turned to the eschatological vision of Moltmann to answer these questions. In fact, I think all chaplains simply need tremendous amounts of Moltmann to get them through the day. This specific passage explaining Moltmann's understanding of heaven is nothing short of the kind of salvific hope that keeps faith alive:
"Understood as adventus, it is the promised future that ultimately determines what becomes of the past and present, and not the other way around, as the idea of futurum implies, with all prospects for what will become of things considered to be determined by their past. The prophesied Day of the Lord is characteristically proclaimed as coming from ahead, not from behind. The trajectory of its coming is not from the past into the present but from the future into the present ...

To hear this word of heaven's coming as God's promise changes not only the way the future is perceived, Moltmann emphasizes, but even more importantly and as a consequence, the way that the present is engaged. By not finding its corresponding reality in present experience, the language of promise, as Moltmann points it, creates the experience of history. The reason this is so is that a promise creates a new reality in the present by instituting a relationship to the future that would not otherwise be the case. In the terminology of the linguistic philosophers, a promise has performative and not simply informative force in that it constitutes a commitment. Its truth can only be proven in coming events as the word of commitment is not only given but also kept and revealed to be trustworthy in what comes to pass. In the terminology of scripture, to cite words from Paul, the experience of history Moltmann describes is the sharing in 'the sufferings of this present time' of a promised 'glory about to be revealed' (Rom. 8:18).

It is the glory of what is promised that creates the engagement, and not the evasion, of the sufferings of the present. The heavenly future proves true only with reference to what is currently happening on earth. This is strikingly emphasized in the Gospel of Matthew, where the coming of the Son of Man with the glory of all the angels is promised in Jesus' teaching to be revealed precisely int he treatment of those who are currently being considered "the least" (Mt. 25:40, 45). Equally, in the the Letter to the Hebrews, where much is written of a faithful hearing of the promise of heaven, it is notable that the "desire [for] a heavenly country" (Heb. 11:16) is not assocated with any disregard of earth and its sufferings, but rather is depicted as a persevering on this very way of the Cross, by currently showing hospitality to strangers, and remembering those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those being tortured, as though being tortured as well (Heb. 13:1-3).

Living by the promise of what is coming in this Gospel frame of reference, Moltmann concludes, represents no utopian evasion of present reality in favor of some never-never land of bliss beyond the sunset because it is only in relation to events happening here and now, in the social and political, as well as existential experience of history, that the promised advent proves to be a countervailing reality to its crucifying opposition. In doing so it reveals the constancy of the future's commitment to the present, an historical faithfulness not realized in factually demonstrable or existentialist phenomena, but in the existence of perseverance in hope en route to the Promised Land."

- Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes, 46-47.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Theology as Divine Possibility.

After reading about Radical Orthodoxy all evening, I found this respite:

"For Karl Barth, theology is, human speaking, an impossibility; where it nevertheless becomes possible, it does so only as a divine possibility. A theology which has truly understood this will be one which finds its basis - not once, but again and again - in the Realdialektik of the divine veiling and unveiling. It will be a theology which takes seriously the reality of divine action not only on the level of the theological epistemology it presupposes but also on the level of the theological method it employs. On the other hand, the employment of a method which could succeed in the tasks appointed for it by its human practitioners whether God exists or not - which, in fact, would not be altered in the least by a confession of the nonexistence of God - would reduce theology to something humanly achievable, manipulable, controllable. It would reduce theology to a regular, bourgeois science alongside all other sciences."

- Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, 112.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Disbelief and Resurrection Faith.

In an attempt to a take a break from modern European church history reading that I should not be taking, I decided to start reading another book I picked up at AAR last year. As I decided to grab Christopher Morse's Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief off the bookshelf before heading to the coffee shop, I had no idea what to expect. I purchased this book because it came highly recommended from multiple seminary friends. And I am so very thankful I did. Over Christmas break, I listened to some lectures by Dorothee Sölle and was left with quite an impression concerning her approach to theology given her unspeakable experiences of oppression. For this reason, I was pleasantly surprised to find Morse's particular understanding of theology as not only including positive beliefs about God but also faithful disbelief. Apparently, Morse taught a doctrine of God course with Sölle during their time at Union Seminary. When Morse offered his perspective concerning disbelief in relation to the doctrine of God during one of the course lectures, Sölle remarked "If what you say is indeed traditional Christian teaching, I could accept it, but that is not what traditional Christian teaching is" (xiii). Sölle's willingness to embrace Morse's understanding of the task of theology immediately made me think that Morse is offering something in this work that can neither be ignored nor taken lightly. Even though I have barely begun this book, I thought that this particular excerpt was too meaningful to pass by. Morse uses the character of Rachel mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew as a figure of disbelief worthy of imitation for the Christian life. As the biblical narrative witnesses, King Herod ordered the murder of all the first-born children under the age of two-years old in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus. In the face of such suffering, "a voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more" (Matthew 2:18). These same words came to the people of Israel half a millenium earlier through the prophet Jeremiah telling of the coming oppression from an evil ruler. However, Jeremiah's words included a promise from the Lord: "Thus says the Lord: 'Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;...there is hope for your future'" (Jer. 31:16-17). And this hope was the promised Messiah in the birth of Jesus. Morse offers a incredible picture of what Rachel means for those who live in the place of inconsolable grief:
"It should be observed that no explanation is given in these scriptures to the question of why, despite all her resistance, such suffering, injustice, and oppression afflict Rachel in places on this earth, no answer to why evil lays claim to innocent children. What Rachel does is refuse all false comfort and facile explanation. She refuses to be consoled. And by her inclusion this refusal is honored in the Gospel as a faithful testimony. That is the point I find so striking. In the darkness surrounding Rachel, just as much as in the light surrounding the natal star, the birthplace of the Christ is revealed. At the Nativity a manger somehow adjoins her tomb. Of this her disbelief of all consolation not of God becomes the faithful witness. Her voice, so Jeremiah tells us, is the one God hears.

In pondering these texts Martin Luther saw in Rachel the gospel's link between the Nativity and Good Friday. In the godforsakeness of God's own Son on the Cross (Matt. 27:46) the promised hope for Rachel is embodied. By not believing any consolation short of God's own descent in hell in Christ, the refusal of Rachel becomes a faithful witness pointing to the Resurrection. From the perspective of Resurrection faith, both the credulity that seeks comfort in false hope, and the cynicism that says there is no hope that can be trusted in the manger adjoining Rachel's tomb, are revealed as not to be believed.

Wherever we find today the credulity willing to believe anything comfortable that passes itself off as spirituality or God-talk, and wherever we find today the cynicism that says there is no hope or faith worth trusting, Rachel's refusal becomes a most timely witness to a Resurrection faith. ...

To the extent that Rachel's refusal is heard in this letter as faithful disbelief and not as faithful unbelief we are reminded of a Good Friday witness to the God whose name refuses to be spoken unless God speaks it through the silenced one."

- Christopher Morse, A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief, 11-12.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Importance of Radical Theological Witness.

"Look, ladies and gentlemen, I have been allowed to have a long life and ... have been allowed to grow. What I say now - the substance is still the same thing - but my form of thinking has changed and changed again. ... At this very moment, I am always changing forms of thinking concerning the same things, the same reality. And then look, that was 40 years ago. Think, 40 years ago! Nobody of you was born at that time when I wrote these pages. Well, and then I was under the influence from Plato, from Kant, from Dostoyevsky, from Kierkegaard, and so on. And then I was in a big fight against my liberal fathers and then in order to strike them I said such things as those mentioned ... in order to be strong. Well, later on I saw this phrase can no longer be used. I meant it, and I meant it well, but I had to go on and say no more such all too audacious things as I said then. All of you will make the same experience. I hope that you will also be allowed to begin with a strong impact and then day by day and year for year you will have to learn. ... Look, it would be dull if I have written a book 40 years ago and now there it is stated and no change. A man hopes to be a man who is a living being who goes on and who goes on his way. He remains always the same, but also the spiritual and intellectual scene in which he lives changes. ... And the old books with which you will find contradictions: don't be disturbed by it, but try to go onwards and forward with me."

- Karl Barth, Warfield Lectures, discussion with students session, May 2nd, 1962. This is a response to a student in the audience who asked Barth to recollect something Barth wrote in his earlier years. The student wanted to know if he had the correct interpretation of Barth's earlier thought because his teacher said it did not sound like Barth's work.

Disclaimer: This is the best transcript of the audio that I can manage. The eclipses in the quote note the parts that were nearly impossible to understand given the quality of the recording and Barth's rather strong accent. You can obtain a copy of the recording to listen for yourself by going here.
I listened to this recording right before Christmas and have given a great deal of thought to Barth's sentiment in hoping theologians will have the space and privilege to make a radical statement in the beginning of their work. The more and more I become involved in the theological world through conferences, conversations (journals, social media, blogs, etc.) and various schools I've attended, I question whether or not it is possible for theologians to exist in this present time inside that sort of space to speak radically.

Most of the theological conversations I witness personally through the areas mentioned above are typically male-dominated. Men have a way of tearing other men down quite violently with their rhetoric. This doesn't mean that I don't think debate and even passionate, intense debate is unwarranted. Indeed, I think such things are quite necessary. But I sometimes wonder if the way in which men engage other men in these conversations only serves as a debilitating discouragement to those young male theologians who might be trying to say something radical for the sake of prophetic witness against what they see as simply wrong. Men, generally speaking, are not the greatest at drawing other men out to learn from them. They typically don't seek to learn from other men (and other women) unless the person is a scholar in their field. It is almost as if the person with whom they are engaging has nothing to offer them by default and the person must prove to them that they are worthy of being heard and respected.

Maybe more importantly, this sort of interaction has a devastating influence upon women as well. Any women who are also trying to be theologians witness this sort of verbal man-eating and they think they want nothing to do with this world. What good can come of this sort of interaction? Women already struggle enough with trying to make their own space within the theological world. The conversations that happen among men only serve as greater discouragement to women that they will never measure up. And so women choose not to engage the conversation. They become silent, and retreat into their own corners of the world. And we miss their voices in the beginning of their work as well that might serve as a radical influence in the world of theology.

This interaction is not even limited to graduate students. I've witnessed creative, bold, and brilliant older theologians with radically new theological interpretations enter into theological spaces and discourses only to find their ideas met with violent opposition. I'm talking about the kind of opposition that isn't simply about engaging ideas, but truly seeking to tear human beings down, to shame them and silence them. If you listen to these sorts of interactions long enough, you will notice that those interacting with such theologians don't usually directly engage the argument on the table. There is most often the response, "well, what does your argument mean for this discipline?", "what does your argument mean for this area?", "what are the implications of your argument for this doctrine?", "how can that be correct if it leads to this?" I think such questions are obviously important, but not when they fail to engage the actual argument presented that could really influence the theological world for better or worse. I confess that I have pushed up against radical theologies myself many times in the past. I have done this because I think that radical theologies can fail to embrace respect for elders. But I also continue to remember how important revolutionary thinking is for the very task of theology.

In light of everything I just said, I wonder, as a mere M.Div student, how these radical young theologians and scholars survive such intense criticism. You can have all the confidence in your work in the world. But there is a need inside of all of us to be affirmed that we aren't completely out of our minds with our ideas. I'm learning pretty quickly that being a prophet can get you killed. If the ideas aren't important enough to kill your physical body, they'll try to kill your joy, self-confidence, passion, wonder, and concern.

This sort of tragic interaction doesn't just serve as an injustice against the young radical theologian (or the seasoned scholar). It robs the entire theological community of the prophetic witness that happens when young men and women have enough courage to push the boundaries and say what they think needs to be said. Even if disagreement remains at the end of the day, I wish we would all realize how much we need this radical witness. We need it because we might actually learn something.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Beauty of William Stringfellow.

Like most people, I first heard about William Stringfellow when I read Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology. Barth recalls his time in America by noting "I was with Billy Graham as well as with the conscientious and thoughtful New York attorney William Stringfellow, who caught my attention more than any other person" (ix). It was not until I attended AAR for the first time this past November in San Francisco that I finally purchased one of Stringfellow's books. I remember feeling a bit embarrassed as I realized that I had read almost a third of one of his books at the Wipf and Stock book table without paying first. Thus, my journey into the world of Stringfellow began. But it was not until I picked up Instead of Death that I realized why I appreciate this theologian as much as I do. One gets the sense when reading Stringfellow that he sincerely loves humanity. And he loves humanity as they are in all their simple fragility and complex brokenness. He is able to love so truly because Stringfellow understands that nothing separates him from the rest of his fellow humans beings. Indeed, Stringfellow knows his own weakness and offers a vulnerable theology that is nothing short of beautiful. These are some of my favorite excerpts from his work Instead of Death that I found the most memorable:
-- "Loneliness is the specific apprehension of a person of his or her own death in relation to the impending death of all persons and all things. Loneliness is the experience in which the fear of one's own personal death coincides with one's fright of death of everyone and everything else. Loneliness if not a unique or an isolated experience; on the contrary, it is the ordinary but still overwhelming anxiety that all relationships are lost. Loneliness does not deny or negate the existence of lives other than the life of the one who is lonely, but loneliness so vividly anticipates the death of such other lives that they are of no sustenance or comfort to the life and being of the one who suffers loneliness.

Loneliness is the most caustic, drastic, and fundamental repudiation of God. Loneliness is the most elementary expression of original sin. There is no one who does not know loneliness. Yet there is no one who is alone" (24-25).

-- "It is impossible to consider sex seriously in terms of the search for self without eventually confronting the promise of the gospel that the secret of personal identity for every person is found in Christ. It is just this - what it means to be human - that is the essential content of what the gospel affirms about sex. It is this and not the conventional denunciations, heard in so many churches, of sex as sin or of sex as something foul or dirty or animalistic. It is this and not surrender to the temptation to suppress sex and the subject of sex in the churches or, what is worse, the more common temptation to condone sex as long as it is discreetly practiced - condemning it only when it becomes a matter of scandal.

In other words, it is quite alright to mention sex in the sanctuary, just as it is also appropriate to speak with the Church of any other matter what occupies the attentions of the people in the world. The life and action within the sanctuary has integrity only insofar as it is concerned with and encompasses the life that takes place outside the sanctuary. Nothing that has ever been done in a bedroom, in the back seat of a car, or, for that matter, in a brothel is beyond the scope of the gospel and, therefore, beyond the Church's care for the world" (38-39).

-- "There really is no such thing as 'Christian marriage' as the term is commonly used. 'Christian marriage' is a vain, romantic, unbiblical conception. 'Christian marriage' is a fiction. There is not more an institution of 'Christian marriage' than there is a 'Christian nation' or a 'Christian lawyer' or a 'Christian athlete.' Even where such terms are invoked as a matter of careless formulation and imprecise speech, they are symptoms of a desire to separate Christians from the common life of the world, whereas Christians are called into radical involvement in the common life of the world. To be sure, there are Christians who are athletes and those who practice law, and there are Christians who are citizens of this and the other nations. But none of these or similar activities or institutions are in any respect essentially Christian, nor can they be changed or reconstituted in order to become Christian. They are, on the contrary, realities of the fallen life of the world. They are inherently secular and worldly; they are subject to the power of death; they are aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world" (41).

-- "The biblical witness is always a witness of resistance to the status quo in politics, economics, and all society. It is a witness of resurrection from death. Paradoxically, those who embark on the biblical witness constantly risk death - through execution, exile, imprisonment, persecution, defamation, or harassment - at the behest of the rulers of this age. Yet those who do not resist the rulers of the present darkness are consigned to a moral death, the death of their humanness. That, of all the ways of dying, is the most ignominious" (101).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Small Thoughts on the Church.

Most of my free mental capacity lately that isn't used up by modern European church history is spent thinking about the Church. This is partly due to the fact that I've been personally preoccupied with the topic since college, but also because of this blogpost I wrote last week asking numerous questions about the nature and the purpose of the Church.

A friend of mine told me to pick up Barth's God Here and Now and said it would be a very helpful resource. I only started to delve into its pages, but the part concerning the Church's relationship with the world proved to be the most interesting. Barth writes,

"The essence of the Church is the event in which the community is a light shining also into the world (whether understood by the world or not) as a living community, living in the sense that it hears and responds to God's Word, stands and delivers as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, is on the move from baptism and goes toward the Lord's Supper. It is a question of the event in which this community, in the midst of the world, distinguishes itself from the world and thereby inevitably becomes offensive to the world in a particular way. It is a question of this community opening wide its doors and windows in order to truly share not in the fraud and especially not in the religious and moralistic illusions of its environment, but in its real concerns, needs, and tasks, that it may represent a calm center of lodging and reflection in contrast to the world's activity and idleness, and also in order to be, in this context, the source of prophetic unrest, admonition, and instigation, without which this transitory world can never endure. And before all else, this community must be open to the world in order to make visible, with its proclamation of the kingdom of God, the clear, but also severe limits of all human movement and effort, progress and regress, ascents and descents. The Church does not exist by pondering, studying, discussing, and preparing itself for this relationship to the world. The Church exists in actually accomplishing this relationship in each time with the appropriate sense of security, realism, and necessity. The consequence of this is that it may then make the appropriate human response also in this respect to the Word of God spoken to it. The word "Church" must point to this conduct of the Church in the world. Otherwise, the word is empty and points to some sort of darkness in which the real Church is not to be found."

- Karl Barth, God Here and Now, 81-82.

There is so much to embrace in Barth's understanding of the Church -- it is always an event and only exists in this "happening" of "gathering together" (77). Barth goes on to say that because the Church is the event of gathering, it is always a human reality in time. For this reason, the reality of the Church as a human reality means that its existence is only secured from one moment to the next "from above, only from God, not from below" (83). There is nothing the Church can do to secure its own existence apart from "the event of God's Word and Spirit" (83). The Church doesn't even exist when it pontificates about its relationship with the world like I'm probably doing right now.

I think all of this is incredibly beneficial to read, especially the understanding that the Church can do nothing to secure its own reality and only gathers as a response to what is first done in the event of revelation. Some might be very hesitant to embrace such a radical understanding of the nature of the Church because it really doesn't offer a place to stand. I mean, let's be honest, the Church really attempts to secure its own reality in a vast number of ways whether through its own subculture, the liturgy, or even seeking solidarity with the poor. There is a continual word of judgment in these pages that however we define Church, it must remain certain that there is nothing within the gathering that can initiate the coming of the One who exists entirely outside of us. Therefore, the Church can do nothing to be self-existent. Yet, the Church can still embrace "confidence in its continuance and stay" (83) since God promises to act through the revelatory event and also promises that He will create the very possibility for creatures to receive and understand this revelation (the nature of the revelatory event of God's command where creatures know how to act is parsed out more in CD II.2, paragraphs 36-39).

My main questions surface when Barth discusses the inevitable offensive nature of the Church. In the quote above, he writes that the Church "is a question of the event in which this community, in the midst of the world, distinguishes itself from the world and thereby inevitably becomes offensive to the world in a particular way." I have always wondered what it means to say that the Church is offensive to the world. When the world finds aspects of the Gospel (or the Gospel as defined by a particular group of persons) that are offensive to the world (and thereby rejected), the immediate response is one of comfort in knowing that the world finds this message offensive. If someone reacts negatively to Christians, it must be because the Gospel is promised to be offensive so the individual Christian or the Church is free from judgment. It almost seems to be a badge of honor when some Christians find that the world is offended by its message. But I often wonder if the world is offended by the Church's own idolatry. The Church is forever trying to distinguish itself from the world whether that be through what *it* does, or through what *it* does not do. And in this desire to distinguish itself from the world, it creates a religion of do's and don'ts that really has nothing to say to the world.

So I wonder if Barth's understanding of that which is offensive to the world might be offering a different notion of offense. But I can't seem to quite understand what Barth sees as the offense. Barth understands that the event of the gathering of the believers who have been awakened to their election in Jesus Christ are in the midst of the world. But they are distinguished from the world and thereby become offensive. So what distinguishes the Church from the world? I think the answer to that question profoundly shapes how one sees and understands the nature of the Church. I just haven't quite figured out the nature of that distinction yet.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Karl Barth and Oppression.

I am often rather perplexed at the common impression within academia that Barth's theology has little relevance to suffering among the oppressed and marginalized. I have encountered many individuals who caricature Barth as a typical western, white, male theologian who has no concern for anything but theology as a pure intellectual exercise that is entirely detached from the needs and concerns of humanity. In God of the Oppressed, James Cone doesn't offer the same caricature by any means of Barth's theology but he asks this rather haunting question: "What could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structures of their lives in a society that had defined black as nonbeing?" (5) There are many other respected and revered theologians in addition to Cone who find little relevance within Barth's dogmatics to address their particular context of suffering and marginalization.

Sometimes when I read questions like those posed by Cone in relation to Barth's theology, I am tempted to think that Cone has the final word about Barth. The theology and ideas in the Church Dogmatics really have nothing of critical import for the suffering among the black community, oppressed women, and the struggling poor in Latin American countries. What does this mean for how Barth did theology and how should theologians living within the twenty-first century seek to correct Barth's woeful neglect of such critical concerns? Is the problem with Barth's theology per se or a lack of influential engagement within Barthian studies as a whole to parse out the connection between Barth's dogmatics and oppression within humanity?

These questions have really been on my mind all the more as I took a liberation theology course this past semester. I kept wondering what Barth could ever say to the countless voices I heard throughout the semester of individuals and communities who write theology from their context of poverty, oppression, discrimination, marginalization, and otherness. Then over Christmas break, I was really thankful to open up Eugene Rogers' Sexuality and the Christian Body to find a different understanding of Barth's theology than I usually found in my own experiences. Rogers laments the popular disconnection between dogmatics and various social issues: "...only too rarely do Christian ethicists connect doctrines like incarnation, election, and resurrection with race, gender, and orientation" (18). This quote is followed by a footnote that notes Karl Barth as an exception to the rule of such binaries. I stared at this footnote for quite some time wondering if I had read it correctly.

In short, I think Rogers is really onto something and he approaches the problems and questions surrounding the issue of sexuality from a dogmatic standpoint. I read the tremendous fruit that came from Rogers' methodology in this respect and wonder how much more could be done for the issues of oppression when they are informed by Barth's dogmatics and his revolutionary understandings of certain doctrines.

All of that is to say that I hope to write a series of blog posts over the next few weeks (if I can find enough time) to explore the connections I've made between Barth's dogmatics and various issues I've encountered and questioned this past semester. Most of these connections will be made through Barth's christology and how his particular understanding of the communication of attributes can critically and helpfully inform issues such as feminism and disability. It will be interesting to see what comes of it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Freedom of Theology

This about sums it up. And it always will:
"When a man becomes involved in theological science, its object does not allow him to set himself apart from it or to claim independence and autarchic self-sufficiency. He has become involved in theology, even if his reasons for such involvement may have been very superficial, or indeed, utterly childish. Certainly, he never knew beforehand what a risk he was taking, and he will certainly never fully grasp this risk. But at any rate he has taken this step. He is a theologian because he finds himself confronted by this object. His heart is much too stubborn and fearful, and his little head much too weak, but he cannot merely dally or skirmish with this object. The consequences can no longer be avoided. This object disturbs him - and not merely from afar, the way a lightning flash on the horizon might disturb one. This object seeks him out and finds him precisely where he stands, and it is just there that this object has already sought him and found him. It met, encountered, and challenged him. It invaded, surprised, and captured him. It assumed control over him. As to himself, the light "dawned" on him, and he was ushered up from the audience to the stage. What he is supposed to do with this object has become wholly subordinate to the other question about how he must act now that this object obviously intended to have, and already has had, something to do with him. Before he knows anything at all, he finds himself known and consequently aroused and summoned to knowledge. He is summoned to re-search because he finds himself searched, to thinking and reflection because he hears someone speak to him long before he can even stammer, much less utter a coherent sentence. In short, he finds himself freed to be concerned with this object long before he can even reflect on the fact that there is such a freedom, and before he has made even an initial, hesitant, and unskilled use of it. He did not take part in this liberation, but what happened was that he was made a direct participant in this freedom."

- Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, 75-76.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Trinity and Gender Inclusive Language

This is one of those posts that require me to conjure up enough courage after it is written to hit "publish." I have visions of losing friends and no one ever reading this blog again, haha. In all seriousness, this post involves a certain level of vulnerability and deep honesty. Those two things usually entail the risk of condemnation and rejection. But I hope that anyone who reads this post will give me the benefit of the doubt and enough charity to know that I struggle with this topic and need a place to openly process my thoughts and questions. I want to be checked and corrected by you, my dear faithful reader! But please keep in mind that my questions reveal a hesitancy about this topic instead of an outright rejection of sorts.

I've been in situations lately where groups of women have discussed the issue of using gender neutral pronouns in reference to the Trinity. Usually when these conversations happen, there is always the assumption that every woman automatically agrees that the only self-evident option is to use pronouns that empty any hint of supposed maleness from God's triune being (which assumes the biblical language ever intended for that in the first place). I even find myself very ashamed when I realize I'm still using masculine pronouns to refer to God in conversations with other academics, especially women.

As a woman and a feminist, the idea of voicing my hesitation to gender inclusive language in relation to the Trinity is enough to ensure I will be the outcast who will forever be chosen last for the team. There is no faster way to receive a response of bewilderment, confusion, suspicion, and even a hint of pity. If only you were really progressive and enlightened, you'd understand why women must encourage gender inclusive language when speaking about the Triune God, right?

Yet, I wonder. I share all the same concerns that these good feminists share. I am committed to the cause of women's liberation as much as the next woman. I've felt the oppression more than I'd like to admit and know the good fight is just beginning. In contrast to the author of this post, I don't think that women who are hesitant to gender inclusive trinitarian language are simply "theologically well-educated." There are much more theologically well-educated women who have fought the good fight before me who adamantly disagree with my hesitancy in abandoning the use of masculine pronouns in relation to the Trinity. The matter is far more complicated than reducing this issue to who has the better training or more education (and to be fair, Dr. Millinerd hints as much given his lengthy post on this topic!).

Here is the rub: for me, this is a methodological issue. God gives humanity permission to speak about God. Unless God revealed Godself to humanity, creatures could not know anything about God. All the Barthian blood that runs through my body becomes very nervous when any speech that Jesus uses in relation to himself or God the Father is assumed to be easily replaced with other human language. The language of Father, and Son, and the imagery therein reveal the essential relationship between the members of the Trinity. They neither automatically entail exclusion nor some understanding of the maleness of God's being.

So these are my questions: If this masculine biblical language is abandoned, are we compromising the fullness of God's revelation? Moreover, should Christians simply discard the language given in the biblical witness because it has been abused or is the very task of the Christian to redeem said language? What is really gained by discarding the language used in the biblical witness when we choose gender inclusive language (especially when using female pronouns)? Is the gain enough to warrant or justify such a replacement?

It should be noted that I am not assuming the answers to these questions. That is the entire purpose of this post. I'm wrestling with these important issues for methodological and gender reasons. And at the most basic level, what language should I use when I write and speak? But the careful reader might be genuinely offended at my subtle assumption: the burden of proof is upon the feminists and those choosing gender inclusive trinitarian language to justify abandoning traditional biblical names and pronouns when speaking about God. Again, as a Barthian, I am not opposed to theological revolutions. However, such revolutionary moves can only be done once both one has wrestled with the tradition and also remained faithful to an objective methodological orientation.

Well, I guess with that last sentence, all my cards are now on the table.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Theology and the Church.

Massive disclaimer: This entire post contains genuine and sincere questions. I'd like answers.

Ever since I started studying theology, I hear all the time that theology must be for the Church. This was presented as a possible answer to my post below about theology and the academy. If theology is not "for the Church", then it is meaningless, self-indulgent, irrelevant, etc. Most with whom I have spoken who express such opinions think that theology disattached from the life and concerns of the Church would prefer silence to such selfish speech about God. What could be worse than one who claims to speak about God and only gives a damn about their own career ambitions? What kind of God could that person possibly be witnessing to if that God clearly has no conditioning upon that person's concerns?

I think I understand what people mean by this sentiment. And yet, I don't. What does it mean to say that theology is "for the Church" and "by the Church"? What do we mean when we say the word "Church"? Are we talking about our particular denomination, sect of Christianity, or the one holy, catholic, apostolic church? Does theology that is "for the Church" have concerns for those "outside" the Church, or would we prefer to offer less strict dichotomies between the Church (and "Christianity" for that matter) and the world (so that there is no "outside")? Is theology that is "for the Church" mean anyone can read it? Does it mean we teach Sunday school? Does it mean that we hand out free copies of our work?

Sometimes I think that those who say that theology should be "for the Church", especially those who actually do formal academic theology, only say so because they feel guilty saying anything else. But is the only positive reason for saying that theology is "for the Church" the fact that it is some kind of lip-service shield of sorts that protects you from looking like a complete fool? Nothing could be worse than admitting you don't do theology "for the Church." So if it is so important, why doesn't anyone really talk about what that phrase might actually mean? I want theology to be "for the Church". I really do.

Even more, if theology is "for the Church" then who is the Church for? Is it for itself? Is it for the poor? Is it for all sinners? And if the Church was actually defined (both in confession and action) in my own dearest hopes as those who find solidarity with the least of those in society then how should the questions we ask in theology be informed by this task?

Simply put, I have no idea what people mean when they say that theology should be "for the Church". I don't even really know what the word "Church" should mean.

That might be the entire problem.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Theology and the Academy.

This past weekend I had the chance to spend New Years with one of my closest friends and her husband. As three academics, we spent most of the time talking about the academy and our respective goals, current research interests, and all of that. It was a relief to be with those who are not only the closest of friends, but who also understand my life so well.

Both of my friends are studying literature (broadly speaking). They love what they do. It is refreshing to find any academic who studies what they do because they simply love the subject matter. The conversation takes a different tone, and you actually learn from these sorts of academics.

We eventually got to the part in the conversation where we starting lamenting the state of the academy. Everything is about playing the game -- getting to the next phase, getting the recommendation, trying to prove you aren't a fraud (and spiraling into paranoia every few weeks that you know absolutely nothing about nothing and the fact that you even made it this far is some crazy stroke of luck that will never be explained!), trying to figure out what you want to write about for the next five years, hopefully finding enough adjunct positions to avoid living in a box with a change cup, and then hoping that someday, after all this toil, you might actually have the chance of getting tenure. Maybe by the time you are 45? This becomes all the more complicated to whatever extent when you are a woman -- when is the best time to get married? Have children? Thinking about this entire game for too long is enough to send you straight to your couch and drown in netflix instant streaming for a few hours to avoid the torturous thought of it all.

There came a point in the conversation where my friend disappointingly admitted that you just have to jump through all the hoops to get to where you want to be. I immediately wondered what this means specifically for theology. If I understand anything about my discipline correctly, it is that the object of theology's inquiry is God. As Christian theology, our discipline is particularly informed by Jesus Christ. He is the God-man who came to be one of us, and was murdered for our redemption and liberation, and conquered death through His resurrection. As a Christian and one who is interested in studying theology, my goal is to faithfully order my speech, thoughts, and actions after this Gospel of Jesus Christ.

With all of that said, what does that mean for why anyone studies theology and hopes to someday become a theologian? Do the rules and procedures change when the object of inquiry is God? What are we doing here if they don't? What does it mean that the object of inquiry is one that summons us to obedience, faithfulness, and worship? When the object is actually our Lord? My questions are not rooted in some desire to be pious. Please don't misunderstand me here. However, if the individual doesn't have an existential commitment to the object of theology, what is the point? And if one does have such an existential commitment to the object of theology, can one really find benefit (or purpose?) in ordering their speech, thoughts, and words after the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the academy specifically? Is the academy the best way to become a theologian? Is there a better way? Is it sheer romantic naivete to think one can study theology in the academy because they simply want to be a faithful witness to the Gospel?

I guess I've come to the conclusion that these questions really aren't to be shunned. If this whole theological enterprise has any meaning, I must ask these questions. And I need help in answering them.