Monday, September 2, 2013

On Reading Barth: Another Form of Feminist Resistance (A Response to Janice Rees)

Perhaps this post is really not a response to Janice Rees’ most recent post at WIT, but rather a post that is a long-time coming. I can’t decide [1]. But nonetheless, it was her powerful post that inspired me to break my silence as a woman in theology studying Barth. 
I, too, read Brandy Daniels’ post at WIT regarding the good old Boys Club with much relief, admiration, and thankfulness. Brandy, per usual, has the courageous ability to consistently offer a prophetic voice on many topics that few of us are willing to openly discuss. And if there is anyone who can relate to Brandy’s experience of said club, it is me. I often find myself one of the only women in various theological circles. As much as I’ve gotten used to this scene, it still can be rather taxing in various ways, to say the least. Similarly, I read Janice’s post with a lot of agreement and kept nodding my head with great relief, admiration, and thankfulness as well that someone, hell anyone, had finally written these things publicly. I support and understand her resistance to the academic guild of Barth studies. But I also felt, however unintentionally on the part of Janice, like I have so many countless times in the past, alienated from my women colleagues. Ironically, I often feel the most judgment and objection to studying Barth from other women. And this has repeatedly left me feeling like I don’t truly measure up as a feminist because I’m not refusing to engage or study Barth who lingers as the theological coach for so many white male academics. This can leave me wondering if there’s any place for me in the women’s club, either. 

There is no denying much of what Rees writes. I’ll engage her points accordingly. First, yes, Barth does seem to serve as a boundary line for what counts as “serious scholarship.” This frustrating ideological defense mechanism usually allows many the excuse to not engage with other critical voices and witnesses that might vulnerably and necessarily deconstruct one’s basic theological presuppositions through a hermeneutic of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. Second, depending on where you stand within that “confessional identity” that Janice mentions, Barth is often touted as the line (or transgression of said line) of orthodoxy. For those who think Barth was not, in fact, the living embodiment of heresy (they really do exist!), the old Swiss gets brought up time and again about how not to do “liberal theology” (cue scary music). In a few sentences peppered with phrases like “turn to the subject,” “subjectivism,” and “reason,” these confessionals will tell you why they genuinely believe Barth is the savior of all theological discourse both then and now and until the second Parousia. It almost becomes a paint by number dialogue in which you know in advance, without even engaging folks like this, exactly what they will say and how they will say it in order to reject those they think warrant the Barth trump card against dangerous liberalism. And then finally, and most interesting to me, Rees explains her resistance to reading Barth by bravely asserting that Barth scholarship is an academic power in itself that must be resisted. American Barth scholarship is the personification of the white male heterosexual who feels sorry for himself that he gets persecuted for not engaging with more critical theologies. 

So you might be asking what could I possibly have to say that would push back on any of this given my agreement with much of it. Well, I often wonder if our legitimate critiques of Barth and Barth scholarship leaves any room for women like myself who are genuinely interested in studying Karl Barth. [2] I can still remember a female friend asking me a couple of years ago how in the world I could be interested in Barth since I was a woman and a feminist. Didn’t I know that the field was dominated by men? And wasn’t I turned off by Barth’s theology that was so masculine partially through the unfailing use of masculine pronouns referencing God? As a proper feminist, this should bother me to the point where I stop reading Barth and start publicly voicing my reasons for such rejection. From that moment on, I realized that studying Barth was going to be a bit of a lonely road. [3] Not only was it a boys club, but now some women were suspicious and somewhat disappointed when they found out that I’m interested in Barth (or apocalyptic theology for that matter!). Now I don’t measure up to what it takes to be in the girls club. And you can’t even begin to imagine the insecurity and isolation that occurs when you feel excluded from the “new feminist orthodoxy” as a woman and Barthian theologian. I often wonder if others, especially these female critics, think I am trying to fit into the boys club instead of assuming that I am seriously and authentically interested in this particular theology precisely because I am, in fact, a feminist theologian.

I wish there was space within the theological academy for women to critically engage and appropriate Barth in ways that brought him into desperately needed conversation with other critical theologies. And I’m not talking about the token engagement that can pass in certain projects. I’m interested in profound and rigorous bilateral dialogue between Barth and other critical theologians in order to create something new. [4] The most ironic part of all of this is when I realize just how “radical” Barth is on certain issues and the lines of continuity that can be drawn between him and other theologians who most within confessional boundaries might typically render “not serious” or “unorthodox.” [5] To my surprise, when I read Barth, I see him as an incredible support and ally for many basic theological concerns within theologies of race, gender, and sexuality. [6] And to my even greater surprise, there are very few individuals actually doing this work to highlight such critical and profound lines of continuity. [7] These voices rarely exist partly because of the points Janice mentions and also due to the fact that few people, especially women or people of color, are encouraged to enter into these spaces to say NO to such powers by creatively appropriating Barth in new and exciting ways. It is almost as if the push to not engage Barth is, ironically, a further solidification of his power within the academy. I am tempted to think that true and effective resistance to the problems of Barth scholarship can come about through using other theologians to deconstruct him and utilize his theology to support critical concerns and efforts. And I’d like to have other women and people of color in these spaces with me witnessing to the Gospel more faithfully through such critical engagement.

With everything said, I want to make one thing abundantly clear. At the end of the day, the issue isn’t truly about getting more people to read and study Karl Barth nor should it be. Women should be encouraged and free to engage anyone they want within theology and other academic disciplines including the male-dominated field of Barth studies. And women should feel free to follow Janice in not reading Barth if they don’t want to as a one form of powerful resistance. Afterall, isn’t that freedom for women to be exactly who they are and study whatever they want the true ethos of feminism? Unless women feel genuinely free of shame for doing so (or not doing so!), I fear that we are doing a disservice to the cause of gender equality. I hope to see more women free to go wherever they want and perhaps some of them will continue to infiltrate those spaces dominated by men including Barth studies.

[1] This is an important disclaimer since some of this post extends beyond Janice’s own reasons for not studying Barth because it offers a response to those who object to women studying in male-dominated fields. 
[2] I am extremely indebted to Barth for many of my theological presuppositions and my general methodological orientation. However, my interests and theological concerns extend far beyond Karl Barth to include namely apocalyptic theology, feminist and womanist theologies among liberation theologies, gender theory, and various other figures including Bonhoeffer, Käsemann, Kiekegaard, Delores Williams, Judith Butler, Moltmann, and many more that would be too long to list here. If I continue to use and appropriate Barth, I will not necessarily be interested in doing so in order to “get Barth right” for the sake of Barth scholarship, but rather to offer a greater faithful witness to the Gospel.
[3] I find the same is true for other topics in which I am interested, namely apocalyptic theology. I’ve received criticism for being interested in this discourse not only for the phallic and violent rhetoric, but also because the field is quite dominated by white heterosexual men.
[4] The (almost tragic) irony in all of this is that what I’m advocating here is exactly what Barth would have wanted: “Theological work is distinguished from other kinds of work by the fact that anyone who desires to do this work cannot proceed by building with complete confidence on the foundation of questions that are already settled, results that are already achieved, or conclusions that are already arrived at. [One] cannot continue to build today in any way on foundations that were laid yesterday for [one]self, and [one] cannot live today in any way on the interest from a capital amassed yesterday. [One’s] only possible procedure every day, in fact every hour, is to begin anew at the beginning” (Barth, Evangelical Theology, 165).
[5] I use the word radical here, but I should admit that given the overuse of this word, I’m not entirely sure what it means any longer. 
[6] Just the other day, I stumbled across a fascinating essay by Jaime Ronaldo Balboa entitled “Church Dogmatics, Natural Theology, and the Slippery Slope of Geschlecht: A Constructivist-Gay Liberationist Reading of Barth” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 66/4, 771-789). Balboa’s essay serves as an exceptional example concerning how Barth’s own theology can be read against other parts of Barth’s theology namely his problematic conceptions of heteronormativity.  
[7] I would like to note that some of my colleagues are doing profound and interesting work in Barth studies that have direct implications for discourses regarding liberation from various forms of oppression including race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. even if their projects are not an overt engagement with these concerns.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Recent Findings.

I don't have much time to engage in leisure reading these days. Most of my time is devoted to my new job and doctoral applications. However, I manage to squeeze in some time to read theology usually while walking across town to a coffee shop (oddly enough, I do some of my best reading while walking) and I've been finding some great stuff. I am fully aware that this blog has been reduced to a quote machine, but you'll have to indulge that tendency for a bit longer (if I still have any readers out there!). Here are four random excerpts from what seems like a stack of books I've been trying slowly to make my way through this summer:

"A major -- if not the major -- significance of The Theological Declaration of Barmen is its documentation of the church on the way from confessional faithfulness to confessional responsibility. On record, it seems that the confessional story -- from Nicea, Chalcedon and the Symbolum Romanum to Trent; and from Trent, via Augsburg and the Formula or Concord, on the one hand, and the Geneva, Scots and Westminster Confessions, on the other, to the Catechisms: Roman, Lutheran and Reformed, and the unexcelled irenic tonalities of Heidelberg -- seems more preoccupied with the responsibility of faithfulness of the church to its calling to be the church than with the faithfulness of the church to the responsibility intrinsic to being the church in the world for the sake of the world. The watchwords of responsibility for faithfulness have been the formative and authoritative bearing of Holy Scripture upon the content and witness of the Confessions, the proclamation of the World and the celebration of the Sacraments, the grace, faith and obedience by which individual believers receive and express their salvation in this world and the next. The world -- for the sake of which the church is called to be the church -- was largely left to its own devices, under the custodial watchfulness of a power settlement which neatly, if not always smoothly, divided responsibility between things spiritual and things temporal. This arrangement, dubiously ascribed to divine appointment, managed, with less than unexceptional operational effectiveness, to keep the world in tow and on course until the unfailingly anticipated Second Advent, which seemed to have fallen into the awkward habit of continual postponement."
- Paul Lehmann, "On Faithfulness, Responsibility and the Confessional State of the Church," 22-23.

"Like any systematic interpretation, systematic theology attempts to give an intelligible account of the maximum amount of data with the minimum amount of explanatory principles. The primary data to which the theology of the Christian church is committed comprise a tradition of witness in history, through varying cultural contexts, to the God made known in events concerning Jesus of Nazareth. The purpose of such an account is not, as the name 'systematic' might seem to suggest, to reduce the life of the Spirit to categories of rational abstraction. Nor is it to camouflage, and thereby domesticate, the subversive character of the church's mission amidst the sufferings of this world by painting that mission in colors merely conforming to some prevalent intellection (or anti-intellectual!) terrain. What is at stake in this disciple for the church - and I think for the academy as well - is at once a critical and constructive task: a 'testing of the spirits' (1 John 4:1) and an 'account for the hope' (1 Pet. 3:15)."
- Christopher Morse, The Logic of Promise in Moltmann's Theology, ix.

"The central point in Bonhoeffer's critique of religion is the absolute distinction between Christ-centered reconciliation and 'redemption myths'. He could say that 'redemption is at the heart of the Gospel' but, also, more typically, that the idea of 'redemption' has become more difficult and remote in a 'world come of age', which is no longer interested in 'religious questions'. The fundamental problem with 'religions of redemption' is that they draw people out of the world instead of placing them more fully in the world. They treat God as a stopgap for our incomplete knowledge of nature, death, suffering and guilt. They prey on psychological weakness and intellectual ignorance and encourage the idea that faith is an escape from personal, scientific and political challenges. ...

The way in which Christ encounters human beings is developed positively in Bonhoeffer's Christology by focusing on what it means to be truly human. It is not enough to criticize religiosity in the cause of self-affirmation. Nietzsche's disdain for self-sacrifice and the Christian idea of remission of sins must be met by its life-affirming alternative in the self-giving love of Christ for the world."
- Max Champion, "Bonhoeffer: Redemption after Nietzsche?" 99-100.

"Could we wish anything else that this saving hope should always be declared at the cross, should always set a boundary against everything in our world, and should always manifest itself at that boundary. Were we to know more of God than the groans of creation and our own groaning; were we to know a Jesus Christ otherwise than as crucified; were we to know the Holy Spirit otherwise than as the Spirit of Him that raised Jesus from the dead; ... There would be no salvation. *For hope that is seen is not hope* ... If Christianity be not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ. Spirit which does not at every moment point from death to the new life is not the Holy Spirit ... All that is not hope is wooden, hobbledehoy, blunt-edges, and sharp-pointed ... There is no freedom, but only imprisonment; no grace, but only condemnation and corruption; no divine guidance, but only fate; no God, but only a mirror of unredeemed humanity. And this is so, be there never so much progress of social reform and never so much trumpeting of the grandeur of Christian redemption. Redemption is invisible, inaccessible, and impossible, for it meets us only in hope. Do we desire something better than hope? Do we with to be something more than [men and women] who hope? But to wait is the most profound truth of our normal, everyday life and work, quite apart from being Christians. Every agricultural labourer, every mother, every truly active or truly suffering man [or woman] knows the necessity of waiting. And we - we must wait, as though there was something lying beyond good and evil, joy and sorrow, life and death; as though in happiness and disappointment, in growth and decay, in the 'Yes' and in the 'No' of our life in the world, we were expecting something. We must wait, as though there were a God whom, in victory and in defeat, in life and in death, we must serve with love and devotion. 'As though?' Yes, this is the strange element in the situation. In our journey through time, we are still men [and women] who wait, as though we saw what we do not see, as though we were gazing upon the unseen. Hope is the solution of the riddle of our 'As though." We do see. Existentially we see what is invisible, and therefore we wait. Could we see nothing but the visible world, we should not wait: we should accept our present situation with joy or with grumbling. Our refusal to accept it and to regard our present existence as incapable of harmony, our certainty that there abides in us a secret waiting for what is not, is, however, intelligible in the unseen hope which is ours in God, in Christ, in the Spirit, in the hope by which we are existentially confronted by things which are not. We can then, if we understand ourselves aright, be none other than they who wait. We are satisfied to know no more than the sorrow of the creation and our own sorrow. We ask nothing better or higher than the Cross, where God is manifested as God. We must, in fact, be servants who wait for the coming of their Lord."
-Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 314-315.

Also, for some reason, I became interested in the topic of boredom a couple of months ago. I think this was probably due to the fact that I found myself feeling boredom to whatever extent. Like the true nerd that I am, I solved my problem of boredom by reading about what other thinkers and theologians wrote about the topic. If I get time in the future, I'll post my thoughts on boredom and some interesting passages I discovered, most notably from Kierkegaard. I found a lot of relief and comfort in Kierkegaard's wisdom in his essay "Rotation of Crops."

Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Thy Kingdom Come!"

This was too incredible not to share:

"'Thy Kingdom come' - this is not the prayer of the pious soul of the individual who wants to flee the world, nor is it the prayer of the utopian and fanatic, the stubborn world reformer. Rather, this is the prayer only of the church-community of children of the Earth, who do not set themselves apart, who have no special proposals for reforming the world to offer, who are no better than the world, but who persevere together in the midst of the world, in its depths, in the daily life and subjugation of the world. They persevere because they are, in their own curious way, true to this existence, and they steadfastly fix their gaze on that most unique place in the world where they witness, in amazement, the overcoming of the curse, the most profound yes of God to the world. Here, in the midst of the dying, torn, and thirsting world, something becomes evident to those who can believe, believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here is the absolute miracle has occurred. Here the law of death is shattered; here the kingdom of God itself comes to us, in our world; here is God's declaration to the world, God's blessing, which annuls the curse. This is the event that alone kindles the prayer for the kingdom. It is in this very event that the old Earth is affirmed and God is hailed as lord of the Earth; and it is against this event that overcomes, breaks through, and destroys the cursed Earth and promises the new Earth. God's kingdom is the kingdom of resurrection on Earth."

- Bonhoeffer, "Thy Kingdom Come!," 290-291.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Käsemann on Paul and early Catholicism

In researching for a final paper, I came across this incredible (and lengthy) excerpt, which nicely highlights Käsemann's insistence upon the primacy of christology above all else, which is never eclipsed by or contingent upon ecclesiology or anthropology:

"The theme 'Paul and early catholicism' catches sight of only a segment of that radical transformation which led to the ancient Church. However, this segment has paradigmatic significance. Here it becomes apparent that the nascent catholicism was the historically necessary outcome of an original Christianity whose apocalyptic expectation has not been fulfilled. It may likewise become clear that - expressed or not - the mark of nascent catholicism is the message about the world-pervading Church as the reality of the kingdom of Christ on earth. We have thus arrived at a perspective relative to the total problem and can now go on to test its accuracy once more in detail.

Against my exposition it will probably be objected that Paul himself already understood the Church as the world-pervading domain of Christ; this understanding did not begin with early catholicism. In itself, such an observation is completely accurate, as is shown by the Pauline motif of the Church as the body of Christ. But I do not agree with the reasoning behind it, which is my opinion isolates the phenomenon instead of locating it historically. I would like to reverse the process: That observation shows that the Pauline concept of the Church pave the way for the early catholic view. Just as the apostle prescribed for his successors the horizon of their mission, so he also presented them with the basic theme of their theology. He was not by any means assimilated into their salvation history solely as a prisoner of their illusions. They did not comprehend his distinctiveness, but they found something in his personal and theological legacy which illuminated their own reality. For the conception of the Church as the body of Christ is the adequate expression for a community which carries on a worldwide mission in the name of Christ. In this respect it far surpasses the other conceptions of the people of God and the family of God. It is not accidental that this conception has been carried over into the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ, and in the process was developed and modified, as is characteristic of catholicism generally. Its deepest theological significance, however, lay in the fact that it inseparably linked ecclesiology and christology together and thus made the Church an integral factor in the salvation event.

No where is this more apparent than in the letter to the Ephesians, which for that very reason has become the classical document for all doctrine concerning the Church. Here even the connection between ecclesiology and christology is given a sacramental basis, so that becoming a disciple of Jesus is no longer the basis but the consequence of being a Christian. The Church grows as it were out of baptism, and in the celebration of the Lord's Supper it is constantly reunited out of all the dispersion to which its members are subject in everyday life. The decisive factor here is that men do not act on their own but are passively joined to the salvation event. As the sole actor, Christ mediates himself to those for whom he died and over whom he chooses now to reign. The drama of salvation is not concluded with Easter. Rather, precisely for the sake of the Easter event, it has an earthly continuation, because the exalted one desires to manifest himself as Lord of the world. ...

Even this view can claim a precedent in Paul. He did in fact make the sacramental incorporation into the worldwide body of Christ the criterion of being a Christian, and thus rejected a mere historical or ethical connection with Jesus of Nazareth as this criterion. For him also the lordship of Christ on earth rests on the fact that the exalted Lord, present in the Church, binds his own to himself and to one another. By endowing them with the Spirit, he makes them capable of permeating the old world as the inbreaking of the new, following his own precedent, and thus of demonstrating his omnipotence in every place and time. ...

For [Paul], the sacrament grants no guarantee of salvation, but makes it possible the overcoming of the world effected by the Spirit through a faith under threat by the world. It therefore opens up the dialectic of Christian existence, which is both under temptation and determined by the Lord at the same time. The reality of the new life stands and falls with the promise that God remains faithful and does not abandon his handiwork. Therefore statements about the sacrament are paralleled, and in a certain way even paralysed, by others about the gospel or faith. The Church is the world under the promise and commandment of the heavenly Lord, the host of those placed under the word and thus summoned ever anew to the exodus of the people of God. This means that Christian existence is no manageable phenomenon within the bounds of a clearly defined cultic society, and the effect of the sacraments can not be described as formulas ex opere operato. For the Giver cannot be separated from his gift and, on the other hand, he is not identical with his means of salvation, but he remains Lord and Judge over and in his gifts.

There is for Paul no extension of the earthly Jesus in the Church as the earthly deputy of the exalted one. It is just where he speaks of the body of Christ that christology and ecclesiology are not interchangeable. The Lord's domain manifests the Lord, but it does not stand in his stead and take possession of him. The body is the field and instrument of the Spirit, not its substitute or its fetters. Paul is utterly misunderstood if one regards the primacy of Christ over his Church as meaning anything other than the exclusive lordship of Christ. If the Pauline motif is used in another sense, the apostle necessarily, though against his will, becomes the pioneer of early catholic Christianity."

- Ernst Käsemann, "Paul and Early Catholicism," in New Testament Questions of Today, 242-245, emphasis added.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Racism and Sexism.

I've been reading some essays by Delores S. Williams this week in response to James Cone's black liberation theology. Williams responds to Cone from a black womanist perspective, and I wish I could express how challenging her writings have been to read over the last couple of days. There is so much to say about Williams and her questions, concerns, critiques, and objections to black liberation theology despite her support of it. One can not read Williams and emerge unchanged in relation to her particular critiques of black liberation theology (or a general biblical hermeneutic of liberation). What I find particularly remarkable about Williams' critiques of Cone is that she makes him aware of how critical sexism is to the fight for liberation and the inherent interconnectedness of racism and sexism. The patriarchal subjugation of black women is not simply a secondary or minor issue that must be addressed within the black community, but rather an essential part of the black struggle against racism. These are some of the powerful questions she asks of Cone:
"It sounded good, indeed, to hear Cone say, 'If we black male theologians do not take seriously the need to incorporate into our theology a critique of our sexist practices in the black community, then we have no right to complain when white theologians snub black theology.' 
Yet when I paraphrased some of the quotations from Malcolm X and others that Cone used in the 1986 preface [of A Black Theology of Liberation], I was stunned by the kind of action intimated for black women struggling to be free of sexist oppression in the black community. I found myself asking: Could Cone affirm the action for black women that logically follows what he and Malcolm X say in the book? For instance, take this quote from Malcolm X that appeared in Cone's new preface: 'I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Any time I have to accept a religion that won't let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion.' As a black womanist-feminist theologian, I paraphrase that quotation to say, 'Any time I have to accept a religion that won't let me fight a battle for oppressed black women, I say to hell with that religion.' Inasmuch as black Christian religion - manifested in the practice and theology of the black church - is often antagonistic to women's struggle for liberation, black Christian women could say, 'To hell with the black church and the black expression of Christian religion in it.' This could mean that the black church in America might cease to exist, since black women are its blood, bone, and sinew. If black women said 'to hell with the sexist black churches' and left them, thereby allow them to crumble, could Cone validate this action? Part of me wants to say he could; another part of me is uneasy, given the absence of black women's words of wisdom and advice from Cone's preface. All the inspiration, wisdom, and advice contained in the material Cone quotes comes from men like Malcolm X, and on occasion, W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King. Not a single woman is named, quoted, or given credit for contributing to the transformations Cone says he had made in his thought and style in the last twenty years. 
My attention focused upon another quotation from Malcolm X cited by Cone in his new preface: 'Don't let anybody who is oppressing us ever lay the ground rules. Don't go by their games, don't play by their rules. Let them know now that this is a new game, and we've got some new rules...' Paraphrased within my womanist-feminist framework this quote reads: 'Don't let anybody who is oppressing black women ever lay the ground rules. Don't go by their games, don't play the game by their rules. Let them know now that this is a new game, and black women have got some new rules...' In the African American community the rules for 'the church game,' 'the political game,' 'the mating game,' and a host of other games have been determined by males. Should black women, 'by whatever means necessary,' destroy the male rules and inaugurate new games determined by black women's rules? Can the new consciousness about black sexism which Cone claims in the 1986 preface support such a power shift in the black church, in the seminaries where black men and women teach, and in the black community? And I wonder if Cone, who says 'I knew racism was a heresy,' would also agree that sexism is heresy? Part of me says he would." 
- Delores S. Williams, "James Cone's Liberation: Twenty Years Later," 190-191.
Cone responds to Williams' questions with an incredible amount of openness and sincerity. I was genuinely impressed with the type of receptivity that Cone displayed in his response in light of Williams' quite pointed and critical essay. While Cone admits that he has a long way to go and didn't quite "get it" before given his particular male perspective and experiences, he expresses a sincere desire to appropriate womanist concerns as an essential part of his theological trajectory instead of making or viewing sexism as some sort auxiliary concern. There is so much for all theologians to learn from this exchange between Williams and Cone. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to read it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Question of Violence

I've been seriously wrestling with the question of violence (read: abstractly) since last fall when I first came to seminary. When I was a college student, I read Gandhi and King and told myself that I was a pacifist. Truth be told, there was nothing at stake to prevent me from embracing this conviction and it seemed at the time like the only option for one seriously seeking to follow in the way of Jesus. Somewhere along the line, I didn't explicitly reject pacifism, but it became more complicated than simply affirming the principles of non-violence embraced in my youthful idealism. The question of pacifism came up afresh in an ethics class I took here at Princeton Seminary last fall and I found myself resistant to embracing pacifism like I had in the past. I was surprised by my resistance to pacifism given my history and also because I'm not exactly a proponent of just-war as I can't imagine many situations where war can ever be labeled "justified." And call me unreasonable, but I prefer to live in peace and don't exactly revel in the violence of American society that devours the most vulnerable among us. However, my rejection of pacifism last fall was more indebted to my ever progressing understanding of the nature of ethics from a Barthian view rather than any sort of excitement for "justified violence" (again, as if there is such a thing). In short, it seems like pacifism is simply another ethical principle that one can embrace and therefore the human agent can know in advance what to do in any given situation. This necessarily means that the human agent does not need to remain open to the command of God ever anew in the present to discern what action should be taken. Pacifism at its core means that I have my principle of peace and, therefore, I already know exactly what God is calling me to do in the present moment of decision; act non-violently. This creates a sort of creaturely autonomy in relation to human action that functionally negates the need for the command of God in the present when it comes to the question of force/violence. As such, my Barthian sympathies in this respect kept me from embracing pacifism full-stop and led me to say that while the burden of proof is always and forever upon the use of any type of force, I must remain open to the command of God in the present to act in a type of way that might defy certain principles of pacifism.

But more than any commitment to Barth or anyone else's specific conception of Christian ethics, I also questioned whether or not my specific situation of privilege would make pacifism all too easy to embrace. It seems a bit too convenient to declare pacifism as a white person of privilege. And there seems to be something a bit problematic about telling those who are being devoured by systematic structures of racial, ethnic, and class oppression that I directly and indirectly benefit from and support that they should be peaceful and not use force to fight against such structures. Where would I ever stand to justify such prescriptive norms? And just when you get comfortable, you find a wrench in it all when you encounter someone like Bonhoeffer who declares himself to be a pacifist in order to remain faithful to the radical call to discipleship within Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and then he proceeded to use force in an act of faith against the enslaving and crushing powers of his time. But he neither justified this action nor said he knew with absolute certainty that this was the right or the good. Instead, he simply says that he did this in faith in the hopes that this is what it meant for him to be a faithful disciple in the present. You can sense Bonhoeffer's deep insecurity in his decision even in the midst of his resoluteness to act forcefully.

These questions of violence, ethics, the command of God, white privilege, and discipleship came up again this semester as I read James Cone. While some may argue that Cone doesn't have true pacifists in mind, his condemnation of whites who refuse to use violence and their judgment of blacks who use it is incredibly powerful. I still haven't been able to come to any sort of conclusion regarding what to say by way of response to Cone's charges as I stand somewhere in between denying pacifism as a principle (for the reasons I list above), always hoping to seek the way of non-violence and wanting to remain open to God's command in the present at all times. In the midst of my confusion and wrestling, I read an article by Paul Lehmann sent to me by a friend a few weeks ago. Lehmann is attempting to respond to Cone's recent work back in 1975 on black theology in an article entitled "Black Theology and 'Christian' Theology" (note: the title makes it seem as though Lehmann is using the conjunction to make a stark dichotomy between the two but he is not) and at the end, he responds to Cone's questions concerning the use of violence. I'm particularly interested in the last line referencing the shift from ethical justifications to "the apocalyptic sphere" and what Cone might say by way of response to the claim that the gospel moves the question of violence to the apocalyptic arena. It might be interesting to ask whether or not Bonhoeffer makes this shift himself to "the apocalyptic sphere" when he remains committed to the way of non-violence while simultaneously rejecting any justification for his forceful actions against the Third Reich carried out in the ever uncertainty of faith.

"In pressing the questions: 'Whose violence?' and 'Whose reconciliation?', Professor Cone has brought that question to a point from which it is possible to make a theological move which regrettably he does not make. The theological move is that the questions: 'Whose violence?' and 'Whose reconciliation?' lead directly to the recognition of the fundamental human reality of violence as man's radical inhumanity to man which only God's reconciliation can prevent and heal. The gospel is that people can be reconciled with one another only as they are reconciled to God; and when people are thus reconciled to God they give themselves in thought and word and deed to the empowerment of the poor, to the liberation of the oppressed, to the struggle against every dehumanizing dimension of human existence. Cone rightly declares that 'reconciliation means that people cannot be human ... unless the creatures of God are liberated from that which enslaves and is dehumanizing. In this same sentence, Cone writes that 'God cannot be God' unless the creature is liberated. But putting it this way involves Cone in am imprecision as regards the gospel which is analogous to the imprecision which Professor Moltmann expresses as regards violence and nonviolence. The gospel is that God refuses to be God without being reconciled to man and in this empowerment man is to be reconciled to his fellowman. Similarly, Moltmann, whom Cone quotes, rightly declares that 'the problem of violence and non-violence is an illusionary problem.' But one cannot say, as Moltmann then does, that 'there is only the question of the justified and unjustified use of force and the question of whether the means are proportionate to the ends.' It is because the gospel transposes the question of violence from the ethical to the apocalyptic sphere that it also deprives force of every justification, not least the one which illusorily seeks a proportionate relation of means to ends."

- Paul Lehmann, "Black Theology and 'Christian' Theology," 36-37

Monday, March 11, 2013

Complete Insecurity.

"What is said about the content of discipleship? Follow me, walk behind me! That is all. Going after him is something without specific content. It is truly not a program for one's life which would be sensible to implement. It is neither a goal nor an ideal to be sought. It is not even a matter for which, according to human inclination, it would be worth investing anything at all, much less oneself. And what happens? Those called leave everything they have, not in order to do something valuable. Instead, they do it simply for the sake of the call itself, because otherwise they could not walk behind Jesus. Nothing of importance is attached to this action in itself. It remains something completely insignificant, unworthy of notice. The bridges are torn down, and the followers simply move ahead. They are called away and are supposed to "step out" of their previous existence, they are supposed to "exist" in the strict sense of the word. Former things are left behind; they are completely given up. The disciple is thrown out of the relative security of life into complete insecurity (which in truth is absolute security and protection in community with Jesus); our of the foreseeable and calculable realm (which in truth is unreliable) into the completely unforeseeable, coincidental realm (which in truth is the only necessary and reliable one); out of the realm of possibilities (which in truth is that of unlimited possibilities) into the realm of unlimited possibilities (which in truth is the only liberating reality). Yet that is not a general law; it is, rather, the exact opposite of all legalism. Again, it is nothing other than being bound to Jesus Christ alone. This means completely breaking through anything preprogrammed, idealistic, or legalistic. No further content is possible because Jesus is the only content. There is no other content besides Jesus. He himself is it."

- Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 59.

Truth be told, I was a bit nervous and afraid to read Discipleship. I knew that whatever agreements or disagreements I had with the text, it would disrupt my life in unwanted ways. Disruption, I think, is the best word to describe this book. And for whatever Bonhoeffer came to say later in his life about the dangers of this book (and there are many), what he says within its pages are still really important.

The truth of this one line has been really apparent for me as of late. Bonhoeffer writes that the life of discipleship is one of "complete insecurity." And most of us have our own conceptions of what that "complete insecurity" looks like. I have realized through my own life and personal theological struggles just how far down that "complete insecurity" goes. It can be quite unsettling to realize just how "complete" that insecurity is when you follow the call. Because where on earth is there to turn for security when Jesus Christ is the only content for the Gospel and the call to discipleship? Where can this Gospel and call be "plugged in" for the sake of verification or some other form of stability? It exists and is "suspended in mid-air" as Barth would say. You can't plug it into the Church, the tradition, the social program, the Bible, or some other apologetic to confirm its truth. You simply find yourself confessing and following.

To be quite honest, when I'm confronted with that "complete insecurity" that Bonhoeffer talks about, I don't find the same type of absolute security and protection that he mentions, which is found only in Jesus Christ himself. What I'm finding lately is yet another mode or means of security that I must dispossess in order to be faithful to the call of discipleship. I just continue to find my own desire for security in another form. For instance, it is no secret that I have become quite interested in apocalyptic theology over the past few years. But I've discerned that even disruption or the radical unstable nature of the Gospel becomes another mode of possession that ends up being an end in itself. While I believe that the Gospel of grace is disruptive to nature's very core, even disruption, instability, and radicalness for its own sake must be dispossessed. Do you know what that looks like? Because I haven't the faintest idea. Bonhoeffer says it looks like Jesus Christ himself alone. Does the fact that I don't have any idea what that means reveal that I'm radically missing his point?

As I've been asking these questions about the nature of discipleship lately, I'm finding the call (and great struggle) to abandon all forms of control that surface in the most subtle of ways. When I study theology, I'm studying how to be faithful in my words and thoughts and actions to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet, I'm learning that all of my words and thoughts and actions are so incredibly bound up with the Sin and Death that reigns in this world that I'm unsure of the truth of my own words and thoughts and actions even as I try to be faithful. And I'm learning that even my attempts to be faithful are usually faithless and that any faithfulness is nothing but a complete miracle. But somehow I'm "called" to forfeit this desire for security in my own words and thoughts and actions and only find security in not even the call itself, but only the person of Jesus Christ alone. And to be honest, once again, I'm finding that I have no idea what that really means or what that really looks like. I'm learning that the hardest thing about this whole call to discipleship that no one tells you about is that we always and continually lose sight of the reality that "there is no other content besides Jesus." Because the content isn't some program, system, principle, or some insecurity, instability or disruption or even the act of being a disciple itself. Somehow Bonhoeffer wants the reader to know that the content is only Jesus Christ. In myself, I have no idea what that means. But I pray for the grace and mercy to confess no other content besides Jesus himself.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Church and Divine Action

When I read George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine last term, one of my many concerns was that he did not (and could not?) account for divine action. It was not simply Lindbeck's lack of mentioning or discussing divine action that troubled me when he talked about "the church" and "ecclesial practices," but rather his insistence upon the immanent nature of the Christian "religion." I wondered if it was not merely, like Healy says about Hauerwas in the article referenced below, that divine action, the Word, and pneumatology are presupposed. Rather, it becomes a question of Lindbeck's work whether or not certain conceptions of ecclesiology functionally negates the need for divine action entirely. And ecclesial notions that eliminate divine action involve a host of concerns for me namely the failure to attend to the ever-present need for the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God into our present age that is enslaved to the powers. In his essay entitled, "Karl Barth's Ecclesiology Reconsidered," Nicholas M. Healy discusses the same sort of ecclesial trend I just mentioned that is taken up by Hauerwas as well to whatever extent. While I have not personally engaged with the works of Hauerwas as much as other "postliberal" theologians, I thought that this excerpt nicely highlights the concerns Barth would hold in relation to the current ecclesiologies that I have also found problematic specifically for its "lack of attention to God's action in our midst." 
"One gets the impression from With the Grain of the Universe as well as from his other writings that for Hauerwas, Christianity is fundamentally about living within a particular narrative, about being trained and formed so that one acquires Christian dispositions and thus a character that conforms to that narrative, all with a view to embodying the politics of Jesus, a politics that counters the liberal democratic politics of the USA. Hauerwas focuses his attention on the concrete church because it is there that the gospel is displayed in the lives of Christians. The church is discussed in terms of its practices and doctrines, in terms, that is, of human action and thought. And the church is at the center of Hauerwas’s theology. He spends far less time on the doctrines of the Word and the Spirit that make our witness and politics possible, though, to be sure, it is always clear that the person and work of Jesus Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit are presupposed.  
This (relative) lack of attention to God’s action in our midst might well have been something that Barth would have brought up in his response to Hauerwas. For as Barth understood the matter, a Christian theological description of anything requires at some point a well-rounded account of the difference the activity of God makes, in both Word and Spirit. Hauerwas’s appropriation of social philosophies like those of Wittgenstein and MacIntyre over against Kant and his theological followers has been extraordinarily fruitful, making his work a truly prophetic force within the contemporary church. I suspect, though, that while Barth might have approved, he would say that the difference God makes to the church needs to be made clearer. It remains unclear what difference the Word and the Spirit’s active presence might make to descriptions of the church’s being and life that are couched in social-philosophical categories like ‘virtue’ and ‘narrative’.  
To be sure, Barth himself notes an example or two of special ethics done very successfully without the initial general ethics (CD 3/4, p. 4), and the same point surely applies to ecclesiology. But accounts of the concrete church and the activities of its members developed in varying degrees of independence from well-rounded accounts of more central doctrines seem in recent years have come to be more the rule than the exception. Barth might ask of Hauerwas and of those who follow his lead whether in their laudable – and quite reasonable – effort to recover an ecclesial politics, they have not veered a bit too far towards presenting – and, in some cases, maybe even thinking of? – the church, the Christian life and its forms and institutions, as an ‘end in itself’? And is this question, however it be answered,not made possible by what amount to largely theologically neutral accounts of the church and of human action within it? And when one writes of the church and human action with little or no reference to divine action, is it not all too easy to end up supporting a view of the church that will be reductive and thereby in some aspects in effect anti-Christian, in spite of good intentions to the contrary? For to omit or de-emphasize the primary constitutive element of the church – God’s action in Word and Spirit – is, Barth would say, to construct an abstract ecclesiology. It is to talk about the Scheinkirche, the church in its non-theological appearance, rather than what is truly the church (KD 4/2, p. 698; CD 4/2, p. 617)." 
- Nicholas M. Healy, "Karl Barth's Ecclesiology Revisited," 295-296.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Who is Christ?

I'm reading Bonhoeffer's Christology lectures this week for a presentation while also attempting to finish some James Cone reading for today's class on his Christology. I have enjoyed reading the Christology of Bonhoeffer and Cone simultaneously since I'm finding a lot of continuity between them. Both theologians are attempting to answer "Who is Christ?" for us here and now within contemporary society. Any Christology remains insufficient if it fails to answer the question of Christ pro me especially for Cone who emphasizes the need for liberation from oppression in the present. It was fascinating to read that both theologians agree in giving priority to the in-breaking of divine revelation that establishes and makes possible the question of "Who is Jesus" instead of this question becoming the precondition for faith. But more than this, I appreciated that for both men, the confrontation with divine revelation in Jesus Christ is the difference between life and death. This confrontation is the difference between liberation and oppression. Nothing but the the God-human in Jesus Christ in-breaking into this present situation of our life here and now will be sufficient to offer hope for humanity. Sometimes I ask myself what is the point of reading this or that theological work. But Bonhoeffer and Cone remind me that something is truly at stake in theology. Part of what is at stake in all of this is the very flourishing and liberation of humanity from the Sin and Death that reigns in the world that brings nothing but oppression under the weight of the powers of racism, classism, sexism, etc. And that vision, that understanding that something is at stake, really encourages me to keep pursuing this theological task. But enough from me. These are some great excerpts from Bonhoeffer and Cone that highlights important points of christological continuity (warning: the Bonhoeffer quote is a bit lengthy, but I couldn't justify shortening it):
"But what does all this mean in concrete terms? Human beings today still cannot get around the figure of Jesus Christ. They have to deal with him. Take Socrates and Goethe, for example. It may be that our education depends on the confrontation with these two. But on our confrontation with Jesus depend life and death, salvation and damnation. From an outside point of view, this is not understandable. It is from the church that we learn that the sentence on which everything depends is this: "There is salvation in no one else." The encounter with Jesus has a different cause than does the encounter with Socrates and Goethe. One can get past the person of Goethe, because he is dead. [The encounter with Jesus Christ is different.] The attempts to face up to this encounter and at the same time avoid it are thousandfold.  
For example, in the world of the proletariat Christ may appear to be as finished off as the church and bourgeois society as a whole. There seems to be no occasion for giving Jesus a qualified place. The church is the stultifying institution that sanctions the capitalist system. But this is not the case. The proletariat actually disassociates Jesus from his church and its religion. When the proletariat says that Jesus is a good human being, it means more than the bourgeoisie means when it says that Jesus is God. Jesus is present in factory halls as a worker among workers, in politics as the perfect idealist, in the life of the proletariat as a good human being. He stands beside members of the proletariat as a fighter in their ranks against the capitalist enemy.  
Dostoyevsky portrays the idiot as a Christ figure. The idiot does not isolate himself, but he is awkward and gives offense. He associates not with the powerful but rather with children, who like him. He is mocked, and he is loved. He is the fool, and he is the wise one. He is the one who bears all things and forgives all things. He is the revolutionary, and also the one who goes along with everything. He is the one who, through no intent of his own, calls attention to himself by his very existence, so that the question pops up again and again, Who are you? Are you an idiot, or Jesus Christ himself? ... 
Here in the end we also have the question, Who are you really? So Jesus Christ passes through our time , through different stations and occupations in life, always being asked anew, Who are you? and yet always, when some person is aware of having confronted this question, being killed anew. These are all attempts to be finished with Christ. Even theologians do the same. Everywhere the Son of Man is betrayed with the kiss of Judas. Wanting to be finished with Christ means that now and then we kill him, crucify him, commit shameful acts against him, kneel before him with the scornful and say, "Greetings, Rabbi!" 
There are only two possibilities when a human being confronts Jesus: the human being must either die or kill Jesus. Thus the question, Who are you? remains ambiguous. It can also be the question of those who realize, as soon as they ask the question, that they themselves are meant by it, and instead of hearing the answer, hear the question in return: Who then are you? Only then is it the question of those judged by Jesus. The "who question" can only be asked of Jesus by those who know that it is being asked of them. But then it is not the human beings who are finished with Jesus, but rather Jesus who is finished with them. Strictly speaking, the "who question" can be asked only within the context of faith, and there is will receive its answer. As long as the christological question is one asked by our logos, it always remains within the ambiguity of the "how question." But as soon as it stands within the act of faith, it becomes a form of knowledge, which has the possibility of posing the 'who question'." 
- Bonhoeffer, "Lectures on Christology," 306-307, emphasis added. 
"We ask "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?" because we believe that the story of his life and death is the answer to the human story of oppression and suffering. If our existence were not at stake, if we did not experience the pain and contradictions of life, then the christological question would be no more than an intellectual exercise for professional theologians. But for Christians who have experienced the extreme absurdities of life, the christological question is not primarily theoretical but practical. It arises from the encounter with Christ in the struggle for freedom. 
The question, "Who is Christ?" is not prior to faith, as if the answer to the christological question is the precondition of faith. Rather, our question about Christ is derived from Christ himself as he breaks into our social existence, establishing the truth of freedom in our midst. This divine event of liberation places us in a new sociopolitical context wherein we are given the gift of faith for the creation of a new future for ourselves and for humanity. It is because we have encountered Christ in our historical situation and have been given the faith to struggle for truth that we are forced to inquire about the meaning of this truth for the totality of human existence." 
- James Cones, God of the Oppressed, 100, emphasis added.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bonhoeffer and the Ultimate Invisibility of the Church.

I started reading Bonhoeffer's Sanctorum Communio for a seminar I am taking this term. I was troubled by the direct, exclusive, and necessary connection Bonhoeffer makes between Christ and the church in order to have any human connection to God. For various reasons, I find that this assertion has incredibly problematic implications if "the church" in this account is thought of or formulated in terms of visibility instead of an eschatological reality that is never in hand. My friend, Ry Siggelkow, sent me a paper that he wrote concerning Hauerwas' particular appropriation of Bonhoeffer for his own ecclesial project that emphasizes reading Bonhoeffer's claims in terms of such ecclesial visibility. In the end, I think Ry's paper persuasively offers a possible alternative reading of Bonhoeffer that escapes certain problems in thinking Christology as collapsed into or through ecclesiology. I thought the following excerpt was incredibly well-written and quite succinctly addresses the very concerns that I have with reading Bonhoeffer in the way that he could be read in terms of the visibility of the church as the sole locus for humanity's connection to God:
I want to be clear, from the outset, that my primary concern is not to establish that Hauerwas gets Bonhoeffer “wrong,” for, in the end, I am uninterested in contributing to the exercise of whether we finally get Bonhoeffer “right.” What is at stake here is not this or that interpretation or even our reception of Bonhoeffer today, but rather our faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the extent to which we are faithful to our commission to proclaim and witness to the gospel in the world. I will focus here on Hauerwas’s interpretation of Bonhoeffer and his ecclesiology because he is one influential example of a trend in recent ecclesiology to retrieve the “visibility” of the church by way of an emphasis on the ways in which the church’s “concrete practices” and its lived culture are in themselves intrinsically and directly “public” and “political.” Such accounts usually begin by stressing the extent to which the modern liberal order has sequestered faith to the “private realm” and thus made “faith” and by extension the “church’s witness” an invisible a-political and a-social reality. Such accounts observe that prior to the rise and dominance of modern political formations, the visible church was understood as a “public in its own right,” a fully visible polis wherein its concrete “empirical” practices (its liturgical rites, works of mercy, i.e. the church’s peculiar “economics,” institutional configuration, etc) were inseparable from its political life. What is needed, according to Hauerwas and others (to mention just a few who work from this line of thought—Reinhard Hütter, D. Stephen Long, and James K.A. Smith), is a retrieval of a proper understanding of the church’s visibility vis-à-vis secular political liberalism. Such retrieval, we are told, is the only way by which we can, once again, begin to think the church as a truly visible socio-political reality. It seems to me that more work must be done to interrogate the ways in which the gospel itself has too often, in recent ecclesiology, been instrumentalized in the service of a cultural-political production. For what is at stake with regard to this understanding of the church’s visibility is finally a question of the dogmatic basis of the church itself, and the extent to which we allow the one true dogma—the doxa of God revealed in Christ—to determine our thinking about the church’s visibility. What is often overlooked are the ways in which the doctrinal, in these accounts, are too often cultural-linguistically determined at the expense of this dogmatic basis. Dogma, and dogmatics, as Bonhoeffer defines it in his Berlin Christology lectures, must always and only be the singular apocalypse of God in Jesus Christ, which while including our “hiddenness” with Christ in God, refuses to reduce Christ into a mere doctrine by which we are inducted into a culture.
Ry O. Siggelkow, "On the Invisibility of the Church: Bonhoeffer Against Hauerwas," 4-6.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

James Cone on Liberals

I couldn't help but sit back in my seat and pause for a moment when I read these powerful words. I haven't read anything this striking in months.
The liberal, then, is one who sees 'both sides' of the issue and shies away from 'extremism' in any form. He wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict. Therefore, when he sees blacks engaging in civil disobedience and demanding 'Freedom Now,' he is disturbed. Black people know who the enemy is, and they are forcing the liberal to take sides. But the liberal wants to be a friend, that is, enjoy the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the 'Negro.' He wants change without risk, victory without blood
The liberal white man is a strange creature; he verbalizes the right things. He intellectualizes on the racial problem beautifully. He roundly denounces racists, conservatives, and the moderately liberal. Sometimes, in rare moments and behind closed doors, he will even defend Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael. Or he may go so far as to make the statement: 'I will let my daughter marry one,' and this is supposed to be the absolute evidence that he is raceless. 
But he is still white to the very core of his being. What he fails to realize is that there is no place for him in this war of survival. Blacks do not want his patronizing, condescending words of sympathy. They do not need his concern, his 'love,' his money. It is that which dehumanizes; it is that which enslaves. Freedom is what happens to a man on the inside; it is what happens to a man's being. It has nothing to do with voting, marching, picketing, or rioting - though all may be manifestations of it. No man can give me freedom or 'help' me get it. A man is free when he can determine the style of his existence in an absurd world; a man is free when he sees himself for what he is and not as others define him. He is free when he determines the limites of his existence. And in this sense Sartre is right: 'Man is freedom'; or, better yet, man 'is condemned to be free.' A man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men. No one can 'give' or 'help get' freedom in that sense. 
In this picture the liberal can find no place. His favorite question when backed against the wall is "What can I do?" One is tempted to reply, like Malcolm X did to the white girl who asked the same question, "Nothing." What the liberal really means is, 'What can I do and still receive the same privileges as other whites and - this is the key - be liked by Negroes?' Indeed the only answer is "Nothing." However, there are place in the Black Power picture for "radicals," that is, for men, white or black, who are prepared to risk life for freedom. There are places for the John Browns, men who hate evil and refuse to tolerate it anywhere."
- James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 28.

Cone's words about what accounts for true radicals reminds me of a clip I saw a few days ago of Cornel West on Bill Maher where another panelist accused him of offering mere "beautiful soundbites" in his rejection of American corporate greed. West nearly jumped over the table when he replied, "It is not a soundbite when I give my life for it!"

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Revelation and Discipleship.

In an attempt to channel my procrastination into something useful, I finally located Philip Ziegler's article entitled "Dietrich Bonhoeffer - An Ethics of God's Apocalypse?" I thought this was really quite helpful and so well-written:
"As such, revelation is not chiefly a cognitive affair, a matter of teaching believers to “consider the world differently.” For the achievement of reconciliation is the inauguration of a wholly new human situation. Paul’s talk of the human situation set to rights as new creation” (Gal. 6:14; 2 Cor. 5:17) signals the radical discontinuity between human captivity to sin and the gift of a restored relationship with God, something manifest in the “apocalyptic antinomies” of spirit and flesh, light and dark, old and new that populate the New Testament. 
As an advocate for this new creation, the gospel is not mere reportage, but brings to bear “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:18; 1 Cor. 1:18). Yet, it is testimony; a telling of the “good news” that human captivity to sin is ended by God’s graciously powerful rescue; the declaration that God has vindicated his name since “all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in [Christ]” (2 Cor. 1:20). As such, the gospel involves knowledge of God’s self-disclosure in Christ, albeit knowledge made strange by its being implicated in salvation. As Paul says he no longer knows of Christ in terms of the old situation (“according to the flesh”) but only in light of the new (“according to the cross”). Yet he does know. Reconciliation thus is revelation. 
If the identification of revelation and reconciliation in this way is a first hallmark of Paul’s apocalyptic discourse, a second is its claim that evangelical talk is talk of reality. The gospel speaks of what has taken place, and of the state of affairs that God’s “incursion” for sinners’ sake has actually brought about. We have already noted that what matters supremely in this gospel is “God’s decision and deed in Jesus Christ,” the uncontigent gift of the new creation (Gal. 6:15). Now we are alerted to the fact that those who hear its message are always already implicated in that of which it speaks. The logic of the apocalyptic gospel is thus never one of possibilityneither of “if . . . then”, nor of an offer to be realized only upon its acceptance. Nor is it an idea in need of embodiment in the world. Even when put in the mode of promise, accent falls upon the reality of God’s saving activity deciding the day (cf. Phil. 1:6). So, for example, Martyn restates the primary message of Galatians simply as, “‘God has done it!’, to which there are two echoes: ‘You are to live it out!’ and ‘You are to live it out because God has done it and because God will do it!’.” Such a gospel, as Martinus de Boer says, “has little or nothing to do with a decision human beings must make, but everything to do with a decision God has already made on their behalf”, and identified with God’s enactment of salvation in Christ. Reconciliation is real, and so God’s gracious justification establishes our “true position in the world” without awaiting our permission. The Christian community together with the world as a whole is set in the time between God’s “having done” and “will do,” between apocalypse and parousia
In sum, Paul’s apocalyptic gospel announces the vindication of God in the wayward world by the decisive incursion of his gracious and powerful presence to judge and so to save. Jesus Christ is this act of God. The scope of this act encompasses all things: there is “no reserve of space or time or concept or aspect of creation outside of, beyond or undetermined by the critical, decisive and final action of God in Jesus Christ.” Christian life and thought take place firmly in the wake of “God’s crisis which has overtaken and overturned the world as it is" (581-582).
There is something really extraordinary about this cosmic vision that continues to fascinate me. Even more, I find the notion that this apocalypse of God in Jesus Christ is not primarily "a cognitive affair" to be incredibly provocative. Instead, this revelation is the reconciliation of the cosmos to Godself. This move away from the cognitive dimensions of the Christian faith that become the primary focus is quite unsettling and refreshing to hear. But what do we make of this? What are the implications for Ziegler's assertions here?

These questions become all the more important in light of this line: "As such, the gospel involves knowledge of God’s self-disclosure in Christ, albeit knowledge made strange by its being implicated in salvation." What knowledge is made strange in the revelation of God? Any knowledge we think that we have about God previous to the revelation of cross and resurrection? Or does this also implicate the very knowledge we think we might have of God in the cross and resurrection itself? 

I think all of this comes to greater focus in another article recently published by Ziegler entitled "Christ Must Reign: Ernst Käsemann and Soteriology in an Apocalyptic Key" where he says that "because Christians most fundamentally belong to their Lord, their very existence is conscripted into the service of making his lordship manifest. It is line of exposition makes discipleship the primary category by which to understand the Christian life, as the only self-understanding available to disciples of the Crucified One “arises from the act of following,” and not from any idea" (212-213). Thus, the Christian life does not become "a cognitive affair" of such in which we have ideas about God that must be made known in the world. Rather, the Christian life is essentially revolutionized to be about discipleship of the Crucified Lord into the depths of this world. Ironically enough, I think even the task of theology (and writing blogposts) becomes a bit awkward and called into question as discipleship is simply following rather than considering and assessing the cross and resurrection from some critical distance.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

It's About God.

I found this excerpt from a sermon at Fleming Rutledge's blog this afternoon and I really appreciated it:

"The senior professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, Beverly Gaventa, was a student at Union Theological Seminary, where Jack studied, at the same time that I was. When I saw her again at Princeton a few years ago, I asked her what she was working on, and she said she was writing a commentary on the Book of Acts. Knowing that Acts has been called “the most disputed book in the New Testament,” I asked her somewhat warily, “What approach to Acts will you be taking?” I was thinking of stuff like, is it historically trustworthy? what about its depiction of Paul? what sort of community was it written for? is it Jewish or Hellenistic? what genre is it? and so forth. What’s your angle on Acts?

Professor Gaventa said something revolutionary. She said, “It’s about God.”
It’s about God. In other words, the Acts of the Apostles is misnamed. It’s not about the actions of the apostles. It is about the actions of God. Now this may seem obvious to you, but it isn’t. More often than not, the Bible isn’t taught today as if it were about God. It’s taught as a repository of human religious thinking. It’s presented as an interesting and important document about human spiritual development. It’s treated as a collection of human imaginings about God. But this is precisely what the Bible is not. The Bible demands to be understood as the revelation of the one true God who is really God. This doesn’t have to be believed, of course, but it requires that we hear it the way it means to be heard, whether we believe it or not. It means to be understood as the Word of God. Not the dictated-directly-from-heaven Word, to be sure, but the true and living Word of God nonetheless."

(Whatever could be amended or qualified regarding the nature of Scripture as "the" revelation of God is not what is important here. What's important is how the Bible is read. And for Rutledge, the Bible witnesses to divine action, not primarily to human action.)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lindbeck's "The Nature of Doctrine"

I have been reading The Nature of Doctrine by George Lindbeck very closely for a final paper this term. There seems to be no shortage of questions that I'm asking of this text. I think this is due in part to the problematic implications of what is being said here from my own perspective. This semester, I took courses in Barth's Romans commentary, feminist/womanist theology, missional theology, and this postliberal reading course. Many of these questions are the direct product of personal questions that have surfaced through taking all of these courses at the same time. So in an attempt to think out loud, I figured I would write out a quote from Lindbeck and put some questions up that have been important to me in hopes that others might help me find answers (or move towards answers):

"The novelty of rule theory, we must next observe, is that it does not locate the abiding and doctrinally significant aspect of religion in propositionally formulated truths, much less in inner experiences, but in the story it tells and in the grammar that informs the way the story is told and used. From a cultural-linguistic perspective, it will be recalled, a religion is first of all a comprehensive interpretive medium or categorical framework within which one has certain kinds of experiences and makes certain kinds of affirmations. In the case of Christianity, the framework is supplied by the biblical narratives interrelated in certain specified ways (e.g., by Christ as center). ...

Even more than the grammar in grammar books, church doctrine is an inevitably imperfect and often misleading guide to the fundamental interconnections within a religion. In part, this is because every formulated rule has more exceptions than the grammarians and the theologians are aware of. Some rules may reflect temporary features of surface grammar or may even be arbitrary impositions ... The deep grammar of the language may escape detection. It may be impossible to find rules that show why some crucial usages are beautifully right and other dangerously wrong. The experts must on occasion bow to the superior wisdom of the competent speaker who simply knows that such and such is right or wrong even though it violates the rules they have formulated. Yet, despite these inadequacies, the guidance offered by the grammar or the doctrine of the textbooks may be indispensable, especially to those who are learning a language, to those who have not mastered it well, or to those who, for whatever reason, are in danger of corrupting it into meaninglessness" (80-82).

I am going to outline my questions and concerns as follows:

1. I want to be as fair and charitable as possible in my questions so I will make this crucial note: Lindbeck says repeatedly that this is a theory of religion rather than a theological account of Christianity. But given how many Christians find theological resources from Lindbeck's work, I think these are crucial questions to be asking in my own education for the sake of theological discourse today.

2. Is the "abiding and significant aspect of religion" located in "the story it tells" and in "the grammar" used? What would it mean to say that the essential meaning of the Christian faith lies in human stories and language? How can we ever be confident that these words and stories are not projections of the human subject or the collection of individuals in a community? How can it ever be proclaimed that the God preached in these stories and through our language is not a god made in human images if these stories and words are the primary essence of the Christian religion? Even more, is the confession that Jesus is Lord in the cross and resurrection a "religion" (i.e. human practices, systems of knowledge, etc.) of sorts or rather the confession through discipleship of unmitigated divine action for the sake of the world? It remains uncertain what is meant when we say the word "religion" in relation to the confession that Jesus is Lord. Religion seems to be, at least primarily, about humanity and not about God.

3. I am concerned more by what is not said than by what is said in these pages. There seems to be a lack of theological speech about the Gospel in that through the cross and resurrection, God has been revealed in Jesus Christ. And that same God is made known to the individual and the community of believers through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit by faith, not primarily through the inculturation of Christian symbols, language, and religious grammar. And the primary mode of "being a Christian" after the God revealed in Jesus Christ is not so much understood through the lens of discipleship in abandonment to the forgotten of this world, but rather as maintaining and perfecting the religious practices of one's particular ecclesial community. Thus, the direction is always back to the church or the religious community, rather than following as disciples of Jesus Christ into the world for the sake of the world, not the church. How does this not then ultimately become about the Church securing power and visibility in the world by being over and against the world?

4. I remain concerned regarding the notion of grammar, rules, and who is deemed as the "experts" or those who are "competent" within the religious community. It seems that within the history of the Christian church, those who were such experts and competent learners in the religious language of the day were usually those with power who oppressed and marginalized those who were not male and white. For me, this is fundamentally an issue of power and who gets to speak and who doesn't. Even more, what does this mean for the cause of mission? Must those who come to confess the lordship of Christ be skilled and perfected in the language of grammar before they can be heard? And since Lindbeck wants to say that the categorical framework for the Christian faith is the biblical narratives, what do we do with those narratives that might actually lead to justifying the oppression and subjugation of those who don't have power?

5. Finally, as I read Barth's Romerbrief again this semester, I wondered what it means to take these words seriously and not as sheer reactionary hyperbole:
"To suppose that a direct road leads from art, or morals, or science, or even from religion, to God is sentimental, liberal self-deception. Such roads lead directly to the Church, to Churches, and to all kinds of religious communities. ... Only when the end of the blind alley of ecclesiastical humanity has been reached is it possible to raise radically and seriously the problem of God" (Romans, 337).
I take Barth's point to be that this sort of rule theory of religion fails to account for the utter crisis that humanity finds itself in that there is no point from humanity or no human possibility to reach God that can be created through the human side. And the climax of such human possibilities is manifested in the church and ecclesiastical communities. Can this theory of religion genuinely account for not only this crisis of humanity in relation to the Otherness of God, but also the radical in-breaking of revelation that occurs in the cross and resurrection? Does the rule theory account for the reality that we are continually in this state of helplessness since revelation does not occur once but must happen again and again? Is the emphasis upon the visible practices of the ecclesial community the practical manifestation of lacking such expectancy for God to continue to act in the world?