Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Conclusion About Theology

One of the most sage theological lessons I've learned was from the fictional preacher Robert Boughton. In a discussion with some folk on the murky subject of predestination, he said amidst the frustration of ambiguity that,

To conclude is not in the nature of the enterprise.

There are those -- Christian and non-Christian -- who think that it is precisely the nature of theology to draw conclusions. In the land of relative truth, the man with one conclusion is king. And so we clamour for that conclusion, not in a journey towards liberating truth but in a quest for dominating power.

Theology, however, does not wield truth but rather serves it, stands under it, moves towards it, and rejoices in it. It seems strange that the author of a massive theological work entitled Church Dogmatics would side with Rev. Boughton, but the more I read by/about Karl Barth the more apparent it is that his theology was not about conclusions but about beginnings. He was always going back again to the beginning -- the beginning of theology, the beginning of life, the beginning of knowledge: God's revelation in Jesus. The task of theology is not only to say this, but to learn and re-learn how to say everything in light of this. This is why Clifford Green can state that,

Theology for Barth is a pilgrim venture always open to revision, a self-critical discipline, ever seeking to give a better account of its subject matter.

As a theologian who preceded both Boughton and Barth once wrote, "We know in part" (1 Cor. 13). Any theological reflection that is not aware of this conviction is dangerous, because the only thing worse than a person who claims there is no truth is the person who claims he is giving you the whole truth.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The War on (benign) Drugs

The Wire (there he goes again) is, amongst other things, an argument for the legalisation of drugs by way of a scathing critique on the so-called War on Drugs, which Noam Chomsky says "has little to do with drugs but a lot to do with distracting the population, increasing repression in the inner cities, and building support for the attack on civil liberties".

Legalising a drug like heroin has always seemed foolish to me. Even Bunny Colvin couldn't convince me otherwise. Heroin ruins lives, and that's all the reason I need to make its possession and distribution a criminal offense. But then I read this:

Heroin is not a poison. Contrary to popular belief, pure heroin, properly handled, is a benign drug. In the words of a 1965 New York study by Dr Richard Brotman: 'Medical knowledge has long since laid to rest the myth that opiates observably harm the body.' Contrary to popular belief, it is rather difficult to kill yourself with heroin: the gap between a therapeutic and a fatal dose is far wider than it is, for example, with paracetamol. It is addictive -- and that is a very good reason not to use it -- but its most notable side effect on the physical, mental and moral condition of its users is constipation. The truth is that all of the illness and misery and death which are associated with heroin are, in fact, the effect not of the drug itself but of the black market on which it is sold as a result of this war on drugs.

Maybe Bunny was right all along.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

An Order of Vision

I've been looking up words in the dictionary reading a portion of David Hart's masterpiece The Beauty of the Infinite as part of an assignment. Most of it I can't understand, but when I read a passage that I can, there are few more satisfying feelings in the world of theology. Not only because it makes me feel smart for about 15 minutes, but because the form and style of Hart's writing reflects, however vaguely, his subject matter. This is how theology ought to be practiced: with gusto and beauty.

Everything Nietzsche deplored about Christianity – its enervating compassion for life at its most debile and deformed, the Gospels’ infuriating and debased aesthetic, which finds beauty precisely where a discriminating and noble eye finds only squalor and decadence – is in fact the expression of an order of vision that cannot be confined within the canons of taste prescribed by myths of power and eminence, because it obeys the aesthetics of an infinite that surpasses every sinful ordering, every totality, as form, as indeed the form of peace: an order of vision that thematizes the infinite according to the gaze of recognition and delight, which finds in every other the glory of the transcendent other, and which cannot turn away from the other because it has learned to see in the other the beauty of the crucified. Because the God who goes to his death in the form of a slave breaks open hearts, every face becomes an icon: a beauty that is infinite. If the knowledge of the light of the glory of God is given in the face of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6), it is knowledge that allows every other face to be seen in the light of that glory. - D.B. Hart

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Not Only Your Loved Ones

In preparation for reading Karl Barth I've decided to read about Karl Barth. Here is a little story told by Eberhard Busch that seems to capture something of the joy that Barth took from being a theologian.

When Barth was old, he always treasured conversations with small or large groups of people who wanted to discuss with him topics that were on their hearts. On one such occasion a lady asked him, "Herr Professor, can I be sure that I will see my loved ones in heaven?" He spontaneously replied, "To be sure, you will see not only your loved ones'!"

Friday, November 4, 2011

Classic Yoder

What happens when Christianity is not the empire, and what happens when it is:

Before Constantine, one knew as a fact of everyday experience that there was a believing Christian community but one had to "take it on faith" that God was governing history. After Constantine, one had to believe without seeing that there was a community of believers, within the larger nominally Christian mass, but one knew for a fact that God was in control of history.

On living as a Christian:

What would happen if everyone did it? If everyone gave their wealth away what would we do for capital? If everyone loved their enemies who would ward off the Communists? This argument could be met on other levels, but here our only point is to observe that such reasoning would have been preposterous in the early church and remains ludicrous wherever committed Christians accept realistically their minority status. Far more fitting than "What if everybody did it" would be its inverse, "What if nobody else acted like a Christian, but we did?"

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Love, Suffering, and the Image of God

Can God suffer?

In a hardly surprising answer given the title of the book in which it is found (The Crucified God), Jurgen Moltmann argues that the God who really is God must suffer if he is to be the kind of being worthy of this loftiest of descriptions. Suffering is not merely an experience God can stoop to. Rather, suffering is an experience that gets to the heart of what it means to be divine. After all,

...a God who cannot suffer is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being. Aristotle's God cannot love; he can only be loved by all non-divine beings by virtue of his perfection and beauty, and in this way draw them to him. The 'unmoved Mover' is a 'loveless Beloved'.

Perhaps this is part of what it means to be made in the image of God - we are fellow sufferers. We feel loss, we feel rejection, we feel distance, we feel pain, we feel injustice, and we weep over such things as those being conformed to the image of God in Christ. Indeed, our weeping is integral to our being conformed.

One of my favourite passages in Scripture is in Acts 20, when Paul is giving a farewell speech to the elders of the church in Ephesus. This is the last time they will see each other face to face, and emotions run high:

And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.

More than any of the wondrous turns of phrase and theological profundities in Paul's New Testament letters, it  is this short narrative that reveals the apostle's heart. The gospel creates the kind of friendships that make absence worth weeping over.

And Paul wept.

This should not surprise us. Paul is the man who wrote that if he had all faith and all knowledge but did not have love, he would be nothing

Love is the sin qua non of Christianity, and because of this, so is suffering.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Constrained Freedom

...nothing frees a person so much as knowing surely what their task is. 
- Seerveld

Freedom today is often just another name for fear of commitment. We do not want the task of committing to a person, committing to a place, committing to a church, committing to a job, because to do so would jeopardise our notion of freedom, which is the last sin left.

But a commitment-free life is far from a life of freedom. We have been sold the line that the obstacles to freedom are constraints, boundaries, rules, dependence, particularity, accountability within a community. But the truth is that a life free of these things is bondage to emptiness and loneliness. We become our own tyrants, as Hauerwas and Willimon put it; slaves to the whims of our selfish selves.

Chesterton warned that if we free a tiger from his stripes, then we may well be freeing it from being a tiger altogether. It is these stripes that Seerveld is calling us to know and embrace. These stripes are our vocation, our task as a human being, and without them we can never be free.