Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Thunder Rolls

" the decisive points they cannot fail to hear something of the rolling thunder of the 1921 Romans..."

So says Barth in the preface to CD IV/2. The "they" he is referring to are the Pietists concerned with the doctrine of sanctification (and the apparent lack of one in Barth's theology). IV/2 is Barth's answer to this group, though it is an answer which may not satisfy them. Why not? Because the "thunder" of Romans II which so disturbed many of its readers can also be heard here in the "mature" Barth.

I mention this only because there's a great quote from Deadwood (delivered without suitable gravitas by the inimitable Keith Carradine) which captures what I'm trying to do with my thesis on Barth's concept of love: "listen to the thunder."

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Turn to the Trinity

There's is an excellent series of tweets on Ben Myers's twitter page concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. I thoroughly recommend it. A while back I started writing my own set of theses on the doctrine of Trinity, more as a rant than anything else. I quickly gave up, in part because that's how anything I begin to write usually ends, and in part because it was becoming clear that I'd be aligning myself with some form of heresy.

So, for example, thesis 1 was: "The doctrine of the Trinity is simply a way elaborating on the claim that Jesus is Lord," and, following on from this, thesis 2 was "The doctrine of the Trinity serves Christology, and not the other way around."

In a parallel universe, when historians of theology write the intellectual biography of the second best theologian to come out of Mervue, Galway in the early twenty-first century, they will call this my hyper-Barthian phase.

Anyway, the point is, the doctrine of the Trinity vexes me. It always has. And if Barth is responsible for the modern "turn to the Trinity," then I think it's one of his more regrettable gifts to the church. For it has given rise to all sorts of meaningless talk of perichoretic relationality, participation in the divine dance (or just participation full stop), divine mystery, and so on. Here my instincts are firmly with the early Melanchthon, who thought that such talk was for the worst form of scholasticism. Protestants, he argued, were interested in more concrete matters like law, sin, and grace - in short, the benefits of Christ given to an undeserving world. Melanchthon, it should be noted, later corrected himself, beginning subsequent editions of his theology handbook with a doctrine of God.

One of the fault lines in theology today is, essentially, whether to follow the early or the later Melanchthon. Barth, in typical fashion, disagreed with both the early and the later Melanchthon, though I'm sure he was entirely successful. Barth began (it seems to me) by trying to have the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology as equally basic. These, he claimed, where the distinctives of Christian theology. For my own part, I'm yet to be convinced that a doctrine of the Trinity per se is a Christian distinctive. What I mean is, I can imagine a Triune God who is quite other than the God revealed in Jesus. This is what the first two of my ill-advised theses were getting at. That is not to say that God is not Triune. But it is to say that God's Triunity, in abstraction from the concrete person of Christ, is an idol, perhaps even the worst of all idols.

Now you can see why I abandoned those theses.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Football, Bloody Hell

I've decided, with no small amount of fear and trembling, to stop watching football. I'll see this season out, but once the Champions League final ends, once Eamon Dunphy has prophesied the impending demise of the beautiful game on account of there being no more street football, once the football websites are filled with talk of £150m war chests, and talk of the good-player-but-not-a-great-player Dele Alli moving to Manchester United for a world record fee of three billion pounds, I will make my quiet exit from the stadium. Footage may emerge of me in my car, head buried in my hands, wondering what's just happened. But the die has been cast. There will be no going back.

Except there will be going back. I'm sure I'll watch games with friends (Alva counts as a friend, right?). Furthermore, I intend this as a sabbatical of sorts. A break away from the game to clear my head, perhaps learn a foreign language or two to expand my options for the years ahead. I will continue to play football. But the hours I spend watching it, reading about it, hearing about it, thinking about it (both in its "real" and "fantasy" form, though it's getting harder to tell the difference) will be reduced to virtually zero. And we really are talking hours and hours here. More than I'd care to tot up and admit.

Why the drastic measure?

You could understand it pietistically, as my attempt to wean my soul from those things that distract me from God and neighbour.

You could understand it politically, as my attempt to embody Terry Eagleton's insistence that the first thing a socialist government would have to do would be to get rid of sport (whether he means the consumption of it or the playing of it I'm not sure.)

You could understand it iconoclastically, as my attempt to topple an idol not only in my own life, but an idol that has transfixed the world, turned human beings into gods worthy of worship - an idol which itself has sold out to the gods of money and glory and war (in a post-apocalyptic world, footballers and other pristine athletes will rule the world).

You could understand it pragmatically, as my attempt to sharpen my focus on the PhD as I approach its final year.

You could understand it psychologically, as my attempt to avoid seeing my beloved Andres Iniesta rage against the dying of the light.

But if you really want to understand it, simply watch this David Mitchell sketch. It gets me every time.

There was a time when, relatively speaking, I didn't watch much football (it is surely no coincidence that I supported Aston Villa during that time). I watched the Champions League, and got excited by these cultured Europeans with their novel ideas of passing and moving. I watched the major international tournaments, and got excited by whoever was deemed the "next Maradona" or the "next Pele" or the "next Kilbane". That was the age before digital streaming and digital media. There's no going back to that age. Football will plough on, seemingly impervious to the economic conditions of the time - or perhaps their most faithful and horrifying representative. I will no doubt resume my journey with it into the depths of hell. A sneaky El Clasico here, a covert catch-up on Second Captains or Football Weekly there. I may even fall in love with it all over again, as it dangles in front of me a New Ronaldo (the 'real' one, as Mourinho once called him - purely out of spite for the current one, of course), a New Valeron, a New Riquelme, a New Iniesta as its death-rattle. How could I resist? In about two months time, I will try to do just that, so help me God.

Until then, however, I will be soaking up every meaningless kick of a football, and doing my damndest to ensure that my 10 year old nephew doesn't beat me in Fantasy Premier League. Fantasy Football Scoutcast here I come. You were the canary in the coalmine, but let's just stay a little while longer and go out with a bang.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Knowledge of God Independent of Jesus Christ? Nein!

Consider the following passages from two theologians at almost opposite ends of the spectrum.

First, J. Gresham Machen, from his book Christianity and Liberalism:

"How, then, shall God be known; how shall we become so acquainted with Him that personal fellowship may become possible? Some liberal preachers would say that we become acquainted with God only through Jesus. That assertion has an appearance of loyalty to our Lord, but in reality it is highly derogatory to Him. For Jesus Himself plainly recognized the validity of other ways of knowing God, and to reject those other ways is to reject the things that lay at the very center of Jesus’ life. Jesus plainly found God’s hand in nature; the lilies of the field revealed to Him the weaving of God. He found God also in the moral law; the law written in the hearts of men was God’s law, which revealed His righteousness. Finally Jesus plainly found God revealed in the Scriptures. How profound was our Lord’s use of the words of prophets and psalmists! To say that such revelation of God was invalid, or is useless to us today, is to do despite to things that lay closest to Jesus’ mind and heart. 
But, as a matter of fact, when men say that we know God only as He is revealed in Jesus, they are denying all real knowledge of God whatever. For unless there be some idea of God independent of Jesus, the ascription of deity to Jesus has no meaning. To say, “Jesus is God,” is meaningless unless the word “God” has an antecedent meaning attached to it. And the attaching of a meaning to the word “God” is accomplished by the means which have just been mentioned. We are not forgetting the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” But these words do not mean that if a man had never known what the word “God” means, he could come to attach an idea to that word merely by his knowledge of Jesus’ character. On the contrary, the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had already a very definite conception of God; a knowledge of the one supreme Person was presupposed in all that Jesus said. But the disciples desired not only a knowledge of God but also intimate, personal contact. And that came through their discipleship with Jesus. Jesus revealed, in a wonderfully intimate way, the character of God, but such revelation obtained its true significance only on the basis both of the Old Testament heritage and of Jesus’ own teaching. Rational theism, the knowledge of one Supreme Person, Maker and active Ruler of the world, is at the very root of Christianity."

Second, Katherine Sonderegger, from her Systematic Theology

"Once again we must quietly but firmly state the Christology cannot be the sole measure, ground, and matter of the doctrine of God; there is more, infinitely more to the One, Eternal God."

Now, contrast both of these claims with the claim of Karl Barth in volume IV of Church Dogmatics:

"That God as God is able and willing and ready to condescend, to humble Himself in this way is the mystery of the "deity of Christ" - although frequently it is not recognised in this concreteness. This deity is not the deity of a divine being furnished with all kinds of supreme attributes. The understanding of this decisive christological statement has been made unnecessarily difficult (or easy), and the statement itself ineffective, by overlooking its concrete definition, by omitting to fill out the New Testament concept "deity" in definite connexion with the Old Testament, i.e., in relation to Jesus Christ Himself. The meaning of His deity - the only true deity in the New Testament sense - cannot be gathered from any notion of supreme, absolute, non-worldly being. It can be learned only from what took place in Christ. Otherwise its mystery would be an arbitrary mystery of our own imagining, a false mystery. It would not be the mystery given by the Word and revelation of God in its biblical attestation, the mystery which is alone relevant in Church dogmatics. Who the one true God is, and what He is, i.e., what is His being as God, and therefore His deity, His "divine nature," which is also the divine nature of Jesus Christ if He is very God - all this we have to discover from the fact that as such He is very man and a partaker of human nature, from His becoming man, from His incarnation and from what He has done and suffered in the flesh. For - to put it more pointedly, the mirror in which it can be known (and is known) that He is God, and of the divine nature, is His becoming flesh and His existence in the flesh."

A dissertation's worth of stuff could be said on the relationship between these three passages. And a litany of proof-texts could be given in reply to Machen and Sonderegger. For example,

"No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."


"For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form..."

One could also make some interesting historical observations in relation to these passages. For instance, to the extent that liberal theology was an attempt to recover the significance of the concrete person of Jesus for Christian theology and life, then Barth can indeed be seen as a child, even an heir, of liberalism. Whatever else it may have been, Barth's break with liberalism in the first decade of the 20th century was not a return to orthodoxy. The standard American description of Barth as "neo-orthodox" is for this reason a complete misnomer. Barth had no interest in reviving orthodoxy as such. Barth's radical Christocentrim - and it is easy to forget how radical it is when you study at the University of Aberdeen (described by one theologian as the home of "radical-apocalyptic Barthianism") - blocked the way for any simple return to orthodoxy as expressed in the mode of classical theism. For Barth, there can be no grounding of Christianity in "rational theism," even one which is based on Scripture. And there is no getting behind Christ to a God who is more rich than the one revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. One can of course contest Barth on these points - though the contest will be most fruitful simply in the doing of one's work, and not in methodological squabbles. And even if one agrees with Barth on the way in which theology must proceed, one can and should contest the conclusions which he draws. If being a Barthian (my supervisor hates this word, as did Barth, who famously said "If there are Barthians, I am not one of them") means anything, it means doing theology the way Barth sought to do theology; it should never mean repristination. Barth claims that "back to" is never a good slogan in theology. This is equally true of any calls to go "back to Barth."

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Film Awards 2016: Part V

Best Attempt to Destroy a TV Show

David Brent: Life on the Road, is a terrible, terrible comedy. If that scientific fact hurts Gervais's feelings, then it's for him to get better feelings, not for me to get better facts. He has quite simply pissed on everything that made The Office great, managing to achieve nothing of its pathos, its humanity, not to mention its humour. I shouldn't be surprised. In an ironic twist, Gervais's career has gone the way of Andy from Extras once he made it big, and the comedies he's made barely rise above the level of When the Whistle Blows. The two seasons of The Office remain the most perfect seasons of any television comedy. I watch them religiously, and throw in quotes from them as part of my own comedy (see what I did there?). But if there is a God - and it's difficult to tell from Gervais's Twitter account whether he thinks there is - I will never watch Life on the Road again.

Best Dialogue

Hell or High Water is the film critics were contractually obliged to call this "elegiac." The story is a slight twist on the bank-robbing genre, with the banks themselves (and not the law enforcement) being the real enemy to the robbers. The strength of this film is not its story, however, but its script. Catherine Shoard wrote a good piece on the decline of dialogue in contemporary cinema. Hell or High Water does all it can to buck that trend. "Who the hell gets drunk on beer?" says Ben Foster in response to little brother Chris Pine's request that he not get drunk so early in the morning. This is just one example of the many innocuous but revealing interactions between the characters. Of course one cannot praise the dialogue without also praising the actors. The four leads are excellent. We know what Jeff Bridges can do (and he does it superbly here in tandem with Gil Birmingham), and Ben Foster may well be the most underrated actor of our generation, but it's Chris Pine who really stands out. I didn't think he had it in him, but this is a wonderful addition to his patchy CV. All told, Hell or High Water is a lament of sorts: a lament for a time when the South was different, and a lament for a time when films spoke.

Best War Film

There's nothing particularly special about Anthropoid. It's not bad, and it's not brilliant. It tells the story of a Czech resistance movement to Nazi occupation, and the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Final Solution. Watch it or don't. but I got some place to be.

Best Film

Arrival is as moving a moving picture as I've seen in quite a while. Comparisons with Malick, in particular The Tree of Life, are not out of place. If Tree of Life is an Augustinian prayer, then Arrival is an Augustinian treatise on language and time. The film is simple - almost cliched - in its construction (alien invasion, flash-backs, agitated military men), but it plays with these in mostly interesting ways, leading to a final twist which somehow you realise you knew all along. It is not perfect. For a film about language, it suffers from a lack of truly memorable lines. Even the verbally challenged Tree of Life managed to imprint some of its language as well as it images on me ("Father...Mother...always you wrestle inside me" and so on). But Arrival is the perfect antidote to the London Has Fallen's and Eye in the Skye's of this world. It is not the film we deserve, but it's the film we need.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Film Awards 2016: Part IV

Best Film Based on a Computer Game

The optimistically named Warcraft: The Beginning is a right ol' mess of a movie. Yet sometimes messes can be fun. This wasn't one of those times. For people who have never played the computer game there is too much that needs explaining, too many characters and magic powers to keep track of. I felt lost, and nobody should feel lost in a film as dumb as this. Warcraft: The Beginning did go on to make nearly half a billion dollars, so we may well be getting a Warcraft: The Middle in the near future. Needless to say, I won't be watching I will probably end up watching it.

Best Use of the Michael Scott Principle of Improv

If The Big Short is the sharp-witted version of the financial crash, then Money Monster is the farce. It seemed like everyone had a good time making this film, and it's hard not to have a good time watching it. As for tension, the movie follows the Michael Scott principle: if you want to make a scene interesting, give someone a gun. Or, in this case, a bomb. That said, the film doesn't really work as a thriller, but it certainly has enough going for it to make it eminently watchable, if not exactly memorable.

Most Unnecessary Sequel

There were three strong contenders for this gong. Independence Day: Resurgence and Now You See Me 2 did all they could to demonstrate their superfluity. The former has all of the nonsense of the original but none of its silly charm, whereas the latter continues to suffer from the fact that magic can only be effectively communicated in a live experience and not by way of a medium. But the king of this year's unnecessary sequels is Jason Bourne. The Bourne Ultimatum was practically perfect in almost every way. Indeed, the Bourne trilogy has a strong case for being the best trilogy in the history of cinema. A fourth installment was wholly unnecessary, but unfortunately we got what we wanted and not what we needed. The sequence during the riots in Greece is pretty spectacular, but the rest of the film feels tired and unimaginative, adding nothing to the character or the story. It is by no means a bad film, but it is destined to remain a disputed member of the canon - a strawy film if you will (#Reformation500).