Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lessons from Latin America

Public education becomes politicized indoctrination intended to form students into the "new socialist man." With other ecclesiastical offices, the bishops have warned that "the intention of government officials to politicize education and turn teachers into agents of indoctrination for a specific political model is unconstitutional and violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hence, it is unacceptable."

In an essay on Latin American politics and ecclesiology, this paragraph represents one of the "elements of the neototalitarian environment". There is a naivety to the bishops' warnings, however. Public education will always be politicized indoctrination. The real danger is when it is assumed by the public that their eduction is apolitical. That's when you know the matrix has you in its grip! Education is inherently formative. The warning that a school child in Latin America is being formed into the "new socialist man" can only be sounded on the grounds that you would rather that same child be formed into the "new capitalist man" or the "new neoliberal democratic man" or the "new fascist man". There is no educational space that lies outside of "a specific political model", and so there can be no warning from some neutral zone as the bishops suppose. Their warning comes from somewhere.

It is the task of the church to articulate that "somewhere", and to persuade citizens to convert and join them there. The problem, however, is that the people who think that education should be non-political are the same people who think that the church should be non-political. They forget that the task of the church is precisely "politicized indoctrination intended to form students (disciples) into the new socialist man." 

The warning from bishops, therefore, should not be that the government is violating human rights. The warning should be that the government is actually doing its job, whereas the church isn't.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Community Isn't Enough

Sociologist Peter Berger has a good post about humanist funerals (or lack thereof) over at his blog. It is worth reading in full, but here are the highlights.

The central question is this:

Why don’t people think of turning to [humanists] when seeking comfort in the midst of grief?

Greg Epstein, the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard, gives an answer:

It’s a failure of community….What religion has to offer to people—more than theology, more than divine presence—is community. And we [humanists] need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say they are not believers.

In today's Christian climate, this actually amounts to an orthodox answer. "Community" is the goal of Christianity, with the assumption being that we know what we're talking about when we talk about community - it's common sense. Chris Huebner think Christians should operate with a different assumption, however: "the church determines what we mean by community and not the other way around." Because this is so, we cannot divorce divine presence, or even theology, from community.

Berger goes on to give an excellent reply to Epstein:

Where is Epstein right? Yes, community helps people cope with grief—any community—even a few neighbors coming over with some hugs and a meal. Of course a group of humanists can serve the same purpose. But this will hardly make their message more plausible, though it may make a particular group of humanists more likable. Activity on behalf of a good cause can divert the mind from sorrow; there is nothing wrong with that. Also, it is possible for individuals without faith to face tragedy with stoic dignity. But one does not need a humanist church for that. 
Where is Epstein wrong? Yes, of course a religious community can offer comfort of the same kind as any other community. But religion offers something much more central than community in the abstract: It offers a community gathered around the message that death is not the final word about an individual life and nothingness not the final destiny of the universe. At any rate this is the message shared by the Abrahamic faiths that came to Newtown. Whether this message is true or not, humanism in the sense of “no faith” cannot offer a plausible alternative.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Pathetic Theology Part II

A few days ago I posted a piece that caused a veritable storm around the blogosphere. You literally could not count the amount of comments it got on one hand. (Granted, I was responsible for two of them, while one of them was simply a spelling correction.) It had to do with Pete Rollins' tragic theology. The feedback sparked a whole train of thought that I've been trying to get on track ever since.

One of the questions (and it is an extremely important one) was this: "Did Jesus really come to embrace brokenness in order to heal it?" (emphasis mine)

There were legitimate cries for this discussion to become more theological (by becoming more christological), and I think that it's precisely at this point that we can begin to make that happen. My short answer is Yes, Jesus really did come to heal brokenness. Luke places Jesus's manifesto at the beginning of his gospel:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.

The joyous affirmation of brokenness (a term I would really like to clarify, if not replace with other more concrete terms) can be seen in this light to be a kind of bourgeoisie theology/politics that leaves social situations as they are. If we want to put flesh and blood on the presence of God, however, then we must take Jesus seriously. And to take Jesus seriously means that those who hunger and thirst for justice are not told that life's crap but to enjoy its crapness; they are told that their hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

The problem I have with Rollins's version of tragic theology is that it has a deficient christology and therefore a deficient ecclesiology. "Humanness" in the abstract is not beautiful. What is beautiful is the Human One that is Jesus of Nazareth. "Brokenness" as an abstract concept is not to be affirmed. What is to be affirmed is the One whose body was broken for us. Where our brokenness imitates that brokenness (which is really the only kind of suffering rejoiced over in the New Testament) then at the point we may discern the presence of God at work in the world.

What, then, of the mother and father who watch helplessly while their child suffers inscrutable pain? Where is the presence of God in this situation? Can beauty shine forth from such suffering? I think it can, but it will be a beauty whose movement is from mourning to hope, rather than a beauty that simply accepts the suffering as "mystery" (the book of Job would be instructive here). The church is called to weep with those who weep, to mourn with those who mourn, but to do so while hoping against hope in the God who doesn't affirm or accept death but who transforms it into life; the God who will shine his face on us even (perhaps precisely) at our weakest, most vulnerable moment. This is what it means for the church to be prophetic - we, together, are made capable of imagining a world that is radically different to the one we have been given. This isn't pie-in-the-sky theology. It is deeply political. Once again, yes, Jesus really did come to heal brokenness. "At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus..." and he promises us that he really is making all things new. The church, as body of Christ, is a foretaste and partner in that renewal.

Karl Barth wrote that "Every word in the New Testament presupposes the resurrection of Jesus" (or something like that). Every word and act of the church ought to do the same. We have tried demythologising the Jesus of the Gospels; we have tried depoliticising him; we have tried spiritualising him, we have tried not taking him too seriously; we have tried blatant unbelief. What if the church actually believed?

Is any of this linked to the impassibility of God? If I have taken Kevin's correction with due seriousness then hopefully it is, because, strange as it may sound, the impassibility of God is witnessed to by the obedience unto suffering of Christ and his church.

There is far more to write (and I think Yoder would be a good voice to bring into the discussion more explicitly), but that's all I've got for now. I guess I have come down on one side after all...at least for the moment, anyway.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pathetic Theology

"Two things we want out of life are..." I'm postmodern enough to know that I shouldn't trust any sentences that begin like that.

Rollins talks about needing to "joyously affirm the brokenness of our lives". Why? Because the good news of Christianity is that "you can't be satisfied, life is rubbish, we don't know the secret." It would be wrong to say that Rollins is "unbiblical" at this point, because Ecclesiastes is in the Bible. Still, Qoholeth calls these pieces of news "absurd" or "vanity" or "meaningless" as opposed to "good".

This is a contemporary case of tragic theology, or pathetic (from the Greek pathos) theology. David Hart unleashes a stinging critique of it in The Beauty of the Infinite and in an essay entitled No Shadow of Turning. I don't know which side I come down on. One proclaims that God cannot suffer if He is to be God; indeed, that God's impassibility is integral to the good news of Christianity. The other proclaims that God must suffer if He is to be God, and that in this divine suffering lies the heart of the gospel. "God suffers with you" are the words of comfort offered to the grieving. This, it should be clear, is no abstract theological matter.

I don't know what deep suffering -- the kind of suffering that can't be made sense of -- feels like. But I'm sceptical about whether joyously affirming the brokenness of our lives is a sufficiently Christian response to it. In fact, I'm sceptical about whether "response" is even the right word, because it seems to give suffering the first word, with the Christian faith (its speech and practices) then being some kind of coping mechanism for the "human condition" (which is precisely the understanding of Christianity that Rollins wants to do away with). 

The problem I see in Rollins's theology is, ironically, the problem with much conservative theology: it does not know what to do with the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus didn't go around joyously affirming brokenness. He went around making it whole. He did embrace brokenness, but not as one who saw the good in it. He embraced it so as to heal it.

I watched a film called The Sweet Hereafter a few days ago. It is an exceptional piece of work, centred around the tragedy of a school bus crash in rural Canada. A lawyer is on the scene, looking to make sense of the tragedy by finding someone to blame and sue. He tries to rally some of the townspeople, and eventually gets around to visiting a father whose two children died in the crash.

MITCHELL: I'm here about your children, Mr.Ansel. My name is...  
BILLY: Mister, I don't want to know your name.

MITCHELL: I understand. 
BILLY: No you don't.

MITCHELL: I can help you. 
BILLY: Not unless you can raise the dead.

One can imagine that if this scene was in one of the Gospels, with Jesus playing the role of Mitchell, he would ask Billy where his children were buried, go to that place, and call them out of their coffins.

What is the church supposed to say and do in light of a Jesus like that?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Antecedent Word

There is a brilliant passage by John Webster quoted over at Resident Theology. It has to do with that odd thing Christians call preaching, reminding us that the Word which is spoken and heard in church is the Word which created (and which now sustains) our world. It was there in the beginning and it is here now, longing to be heard by a community of faithful listeners with ears to hear.

[E]ntrusted with and responsible for the message of reconciliation, what does the preacher do? It is tempting to think of the task of preaching as one in which the preacher struggles to 'make real' the divine message by arts of application and cultural interpretation, seeking rhetorical ways of establishing continuity between the Word and the present situation. Built into that correlational model of preaching (which is by no means the preserve of the liberal Christian tradition) are two assumptions: an assumption that the Word is essentially inert or absent from the present until introduced by the act of human proclamation, and an assumption that the present is part of another economy from that of which Scripture speaks. But in acting as the ambassador of the Word, the preacher enters a situation which already lies within the economy of reconciliation, in which the Word is antecedently present and active. The church of the apostles and the church now form a single reality, held together not by precarious acts of human realization, but by the continuity of God's purpose and active presence. The preacher, therefore, faces a situation in which the Word has already addressed and continues to address the church, and does not need somehow by homiletic exertions to generate and present the Word's meaningfulness. The preacher speaks on Christ's behalf; the question of whether Christ is himself present and effectual is one which—in the realm of the resurrection and exaltation of the Son—has already been settled and which the preacher can safely leave behind.

The Colour and the Shape

I posted this photo on Facebook as a "diplomatic solution" to end all this rioting in Belfast. It was of course a joke, but as a political-philosophical experiment it is fascinating, I think. I read in The Nature of Doctrine about a experiment where some playing cards received different colours to the original, so that some diamonds were black and some spades were red, for example. This caused deep distress in a few of the subjects who were used to assess the altered deck of cards. One subject said, "I can't make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn't even look like a card that time. I don't know what colour it is now or whether it's a spade or a heart. I'm not even sure now what a spade looks like. My God!" Melodramatic as this may be, something similar tends to happen when our horizon of expectation meets an anomaly. In short, this is what happens when we don't know how to identify what we're looking at, especially when it seems so familiar. (Think of Keri Russell's haircut in season 2 of Felicity!)

It would be interesting to see what a flag like this would do to people who felt strongly about the original - either the British or the Irish. Who would feel more upset and distressed by it? I would imagine British people would be more offended (if you could measure offence) , which might serve to undermine the notion of our "post-racist" West: we will get angry and violent when things aren't the right colour. Colour still seems to matter more than form. . That's not necessarily a bad thing, because colour is intimately bound up with form. "I don't see you as black" as a phrase of tolerance for one's African neighbour is of course racism at its purest. To see things superficially, on the other hand, is to see that skin colour matters. It is integral to a person's identity and character, for it is definitive proof that we are, in MacIntyre's words, born with a history. We don't just get to be any colour.

Anyway, I've somehow dived into waters that I'm not prepared to swim in, so I'll be jumping back out now.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"The Quintessential Protestant Error"

I contend Jesus was not a virtue ethicist. - Scot McKnight

In a follow-up comment, McKnight goes on to say:

Virtue ethics, by definition, is the formation of character through the practice of habits. It is a conscious moral theory — and I don’t see “habits” as the way character is formed, nor all that much about the explicit category of “character” in the NT. Instead, and I have spoken privately with Dallas Willard about this and I’m not sure he’d see his stuff as virtue ethics per se, but something beyond it — back now to “Instead”: the NT sees transformation through grace and the Spirit etc. Not habit, but God’s gracious work in us. That’s not the same as virtue ethics. 
Sitting at my publisher is a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, the Intro to which is a critique of ethical theories in the light of how Jesus “does” ethics. So, Chris, is the love command virtue ethics? I’d say No. It is following Jesus not practicing habits. It’s an eschatological ethic.

Far be it from me to assume the role of apologist for Virtue Ethics, but there is a fundamental and catastrophic theological/ethical error at work here when McKnight says "Not habit, but God's gracious work in us." James K.A. Smith calls McKnight out on this:

To think it is EITHER grace OR habit formation is the quintessential Protestant error.

This either/or between God's grace and our effort is based on a particular reading of Paul that doesn't stack up. The way I see it -- and here's my own either/or -- either Paul didn't practice what he preached, or what he preached wasn't exactly what we think he preached. I don't know anyone who contends for the former, but the "New perspective on Paul" is a relatively recent scholarly movement that contends for the latter, and quite convincingly. If I'm not mistaken, McKnight did his PhD under one of its chief exponents -- James Dunn -- which makes his comment doubly odd (not that you have to agree with your PhD supervisor, of course). It would take a while (and a better mind) to go into the details, but this passage from 1 Corinthians is as good a place as any to start when thinking about the relationship between grace, character, and habits. It is one of the most underrated and provocative passages in all of Scripture:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Resolution

Most of it goes over my head, but when I read a paragraph or two of David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite that I understand, the book becomes not only a book about the beauty of this Infinite God but a book which witnesses to that very beauty by its form and style and flourish. If I have learned one thing during 2012 it is this: don't take Monopoly Deal too seriously. But if I have learned something else, it's this: the superficial, the surface, is the real. Truth is not something you get to by stripping away the outer layers and finding that pristine, untainted kernel buried within. In other words, truth is not private; it is not invisible; it is not "nowhere". It is public, visible, revealed on the tips of tongues and in bodily gestures, in habits and practices. It is, one might say, skin deep, but in a different way to the usual meaning of that phrase. When Jesus says that "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks", I take it that this is precisely what he's getting at.*

My New Year's resolution, therefore, is to become more superficial. I want, in the words of Terrence Malick, to "notice the glory." To say that true beauty comes from within can easily mean sacrificing the physical for the spiritual. To paraphrase Fletcher Reede, that's just something gnostic people say. What Christianity offers is an order of vision that sees, most definitively in the form of a bloodied and humiliated Jew, the glory of the Creator reflected in his transfigured creation, "Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men's faces."

I began writing this post not to declare any resolutions, however, but to jot down a quote from another book on theological aesthetics: Towards a Theology of Beauty by Fr. John Navone. In it he writes this:

We live in need of a completion that we can only receive, and it is through the endless forms of God's self-giving love that we receive it.

To repeat my quote from Brueggemann in an earlier post, the basic posture of the human before God is, "You give, we receive." That is the thrust of the Lord's prayer. The phrase "endless forms of God's self-giving love" is a reminder that God has not stopped (and will not stop) giving.

* "Man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart" appears to pose something of a problem here, but I'm going to conveniently skip over that verse for now.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lines In The Sand

In him we live and move and have our being. – The Apostle Paul  
Abide in me. - Jesus

The relationship between Christians and those who are not Christians is hard to describe, because it is hard to identify the nature of these “two” groups of people from a Christian perspective. Or rather, because the Bible offers varying – perhaps even contradicting – perspectives on the nature of those who are not Christians. When we try to draw a line in the sand there is usually a wave waiting to wash it away. The most obvious line is the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” Christians are those who make this confession, non-Christians are those who do not. Jesus, however, says that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter into the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, Paul says that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. There are numerous implications of this eschatological scene – one of them may be that non-Christians are really just future Christians. (If that sounds like arrogance, it is not meant that way. After all, from an atheist perspective (for example) Christians are really just future atheists, for there can be no believers in god(s) once we die and the whole supernatural realm is revealed to be a sham. Of course the problem for atheism is that it can have no living witnesses of its truth. The truth of the non-being of god(s) can only be known to non-beings, and therefore not really known at all.) The obverse of this implication is that Christians are those who know something that non-Christians do not know now, but will one day know. So, for example (and this is, I think, a Barthian line of reasoning), it is not that Christians are those who have been forgiven whereas non-Christians are those who haven’t. Rather, it is that Christians know they have been forgiven and live in the light of that knowledge, whereas non-Christians don’t know that they really have been forgiven. This is an epistemological or noetic difference before it is an ontological difference. And for Barth, because it has to do with knowledge it also has to do with obedience. 

Indeed, obedience seems to get close to the heart of the distinction between Christian and non-Christian. As Jesus went on to say after his undermining of verbal confession, it is those who do the will of the Father than enter into the kingdom of God. These deeds are the “fruit” by which people are known. Is it as simple, then, as saying that Christians are those who do good and non-Christians are those who do bad? Or that those who do good are Christians and those who do bad are non-Christians? What about the atheist who has dedicated her life to clothing the poor and feeding the hungry and searching for justice? We may not want to label her an “anonymous Christian” a la Karl Rahner, but does she belong in the kingdom of God? Does she abide in Jesus without her knowing it? What role does “belief” have? What is the relationship between what we believe and what we do? In John 6, Jesus says that what people need to do is to believe in Jesus. In John 13, he says that disciples of Jesus are known by deeds of love modelled after his own. In John 15, Jesus says that unless his disciples abide in him, they can do nothing. 

Which brings me to the two verses that head this post. Everyone lives and moves and has their being in God, but not everyone abides in Jesus. The first verse is descriptive. The second is prescriptive. What, then, is the particular content of abiding in Jesus? What does one have to do to abide? Jesus says “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love.” What is commanded? Love. Love is the fruit produced, but it is also the vine disciples of Jesus must be connected to, and they can only be connected to it by loving love. Like can only be known by like, and love can only be known by love. 

I began this post talking about lines in the sand. John 8 mentions Jesus doing quite literally this, in the context of a group of the “righteous” who were metaphorically drawing lines between themselves and an unrighteous adulteress. “Let he who hasn’t sinned cast the first stone” was Jesus’s response to the situation. The lines drawn by the Pharisees were quickly rubbed out. But then at the end of John’s gospel, on the sand by the sea of Galilee (the Gospel doesn’t mention any sand, but just go with me on this), Jesus does draw a line. He asks Peter, “Do you love me?” This is a yes or no question. There is no place for lukewarmness. 

I haven’t even mentioned the elephant in the room: the church. That is for another time, most likely my dissertation.