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?