Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Paul among the Evangelicals, §4: Barth on Rom. 5 (4.1.1)

4.1.1. The faithfulness of God

Barth shifts the center of gravity in justification from individual, subjective faith to the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. This is a shift from a direct vision or apprehension of revelation to an indirect vision: “in Jesus revelation is a paradox, however objective and universal it may be.”[39] Regardless of its universal dimension, revelation (as reconciliation) is always a dialectical event that occurs in the “critical ‘Moment’”[40]; it never becomes a “thing” that one may possess (“I have the promise of salvation”) or a predicate that can be attached to a name (“John is justified”), without involving its dialectical opposite. Barth shifts faith from a direct relation to God to an indirect relation, from a direct and unqualified notion of salvation to an indirect and paradoxical salvation. He is motivated in this by the concern of undermining any grounds for spiritual pride. That we are “saved” is a notion that opens the door to religious self-justification; it becomes the basis for the most insidious form of sin: the sin of believing one to be in the right with God while others are in the wrong. Barth does not deny that reconciliation has occurred in Jesus Christ; he merely argues that this “is not, and never will be, a self-evident truth . . . because it is a matter neither of historical nor of psychological experience, and because it is neither a cosmic happening within the natural order, nor even the most supreme event of our imaginings.”[41]

The effect of Barth’s radical move is that evangelicals are wrong insofar as they insist on turning faith into a subjective reality, something that humans do in order to procure divine justification. Barth argues that this is simply a pious form of self-justification. Faith is indeed “the radically new disposition” of the human person “naked before God,” but Barth is keen to add: “Faith is the faithfulness of God.”[42] Consequently, “faith is not a foundation upon which men can emplace themselves”; it is not a solid basis upon which humans can move beyond the crisis of their condemnation and into the safety of religion.[43] By defining faith as a divine reality, Barth has denied faith as a possibility latent within humanity as such. Faith is, instead, “the absolute Miracle,” because “it is defined by God” alone.[44] On this point, as a Reformed theologian, Barth stands resolutely against certain strands of contemporary evangelicalism which share more with Schleiermacher in terms of the efficacy and centrality of human faith in Christ.

For the outline of the complete series, click here.

39. Barth, Romans, 97-98.
40. Ibid., 165.
41. Ibid., 98.
42. Ibid.
43. Ibid., 110.
44. Ibid., 145.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Witnessing to peace in the midst of tragedy

Today’s New York Times contains a story about a peace-advocating Methodist church in Connecticut trying to deal with the murder of a mother and two daughters who were active in the church. The church’s consistent stand against the death penalty places them in a very difficult position. On the one hand, this situation presents the perfect opportunity to put Christ’s command to “love your enemies as yourselves” into practice. On the other hand, no one wants to turn the tragedy of a person close to the community into a political rally cry.

Complicating this matter further is the possibility that some in the church are changing their minds about capital punishment because of this experience. But that only exposes the fact that their conception of peace is born within a bourgeois framework of personal comfort. To speak out against the violent systems of evil in our world is no more challenging for some people than dropping dimes in a Red Cross bucket. That is why this situation is so interesting. Can a church that has denounced capital punishment and the use of retributive violence witness to this gospel of peace in the midst of tragedy?

For those of us who are not part of this church, how do you think your own local congregations would respond to a situation like this? Would the church cry out for punishment? Would people stay silent in order to respect those left behind? When is it appropriate to speak out publicly? How do you witness to peace in the midst of tragedy?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Ben Witherington III on Scripture

Michael Bird of Euangelion recently posted an interview he did with Ben Witherington III. The interview focuses on Witherington’s forthcoming commentary on 1-2 Peter, but along the way they discuss the doctrine of inerrancy–a doctrine in which I have shown some interest in the past. Here is the part of the interview that interests me:
3. What do you make of terms such as “inerrant” and “infallible”?

The terms inerrant and infallible are modern ways of attempting to make clear that the Bible tells the truth about whatever it intends to teach us about. I much prefer the positive terms truthful and trustworthy. When you start defining something negatively (saying what it is not) then you often die the death of a thousand qualifications, not to mention you have to define what constitutes an error. I am happy to say that the Bible has three main subjects–history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three.
I certainly appreciate his attempt to substitute a positive definition of Scripture (true and trustworthy) for a negative one (inerrant and infallible). But I am uncomfortable with his final definition of the Bible’s truthfulness: “the Bible has three main subjects–history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three.” I offer the following five theses in rejection of Witherington’s statement:
    1. Witherington’s definition identifies the subject of the Bible to be an object of study (history, theology, ethics) rather than a personal God whom we worship. This is an inherently and restrictively modern notion.

    2. Witherington’s definition undermines the unity and coherency of Scripture by identifying three subjects rather than one. When we focus on the God attested to in Holy Scripture rather than the various human subject matters, the biblical text is unified as a coherent dramatic narrative arising out of and witnessing to the triune economy of grace.

    3. Witherington’s definition buys into the modern academic division between history, theology, and ethics, which is simply untenable in relation to the biblical text. In Holy Scripture, history = theology = ethics. We might make certain distinctions here and there, but a rigid division like this is a modern imposition upon the text unknown to the early church and to most of the Christian tradition.

    4. The Bible does not tell the truth “about” something. This again buys into the modern view of the Bible as a kind of ancient textbook which tells us about some thing. But Scripture does not speak about; it simply speaks. Holy Scripture is a text of proclamation. It is the written Word of God—not a word about something, but a word of someone and to someone.

    5. Finally, the truthfulness of the Bible is not a property residing in or belonging to the text itself; rather, the Bible is true by virtue of the Spirit who shaped its composition in the past and shapes our reading of the text today. The truthfulness of the Bible is only guaranteed because the Spirit of truth actualizes the truthfulness of the text. To put it simply, I suggest that John 16:13 should be a central verse in our bibliology: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Thursday, October 25, 2007

2008 Trinity Blogging Summit

Nick Norelli is hosting the 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit in an attempt to take a close look at the doctrine of the Trinity from different perspectives. He is looking for people who might be interested in submitting posts that look at the doctrine from a variety of angles—whether historical, dogmatic, or exegetical. Right now, the summit is still in an exploratory stage to see what kind of interest there might be. If you want to get involved, check out the post here.

Paul among the Evangelicals: Update

I have, for some reason, forgotten to finish my series on Romans, evangelicals, Barth, and universalism. I will try to post the rest of the series over the next couple weeks. For those who are not familiar with these posts, the series is adapted from a paper I wrote on how evangelicals and Barth read Rom. 5:12-21. These verses are viewed as one of the central passages in favor of a Christian universalism. In this paper, I examine the arguments of evangelical universalists and non-universalists regarding Rom. 5, and then I look at Barth to see how his interpretation of Romans squares with the evangelical arguments. Here is the outline of the series with links to the posts published thus far.

Paul Among the Evangelicals: Outline of Posts

§1. The Problem: Rom. 5:12-21

§2. The Context of Rom. 5:12-21

§3. The Argument over Universalism in Rom. 5:12-21

§3.1. A Typology of Universalisms

§3.2. The Arguments for and against Universalism

§3.2.1. Does Paul Really Mean “All”?

§3.2.2. Possibility and Actuality

§4. Karl Barth on Rom. 5:12-21

§4.1. Barth’s Rejection of the Evangelical Arguments

§4.1.1. The Faithfulness of God

§4.1.2. Universal Rejection as Universal Salvation

§4.2. Barth’s Partial Affirmation of the Evangelical Position

§4.3. Barth’s Contribution to the Evangelical Debate

§5. Conclusion: Paul Among the Evangelicals?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Orthodox Presbyterian Church on justification

If you are really interested in federal or covenant theology or need to read everything on the doctrine of justification or are simply a glutton for punishment, then you are in luck! The Orthodox Presbyterian Church—a product of the fundamentalism/modernism split in the Presbyterian Church in the 1920s—has made its lengthy report on the doctrine of justification available online in .pdf format.

Here is the outline of the OPC document:
      A. The Nature of Justification
      B. Perfect Obedience to the Law
      C. The Inability of Sinners to be Justified by Works
      D. The Perfect Obedience of Christ
      E. The Imputation of Christ’s Obedience to Believers
      F. By Faith Alone
      G. Justification and Sanctification
      A. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ)
      B. The Gift of Salvation (GS)
      A. Introduction
      B. Development of the NPP
      C. Major Elements of Consideration
      D. Critique of the NPP on Matters of Definition
      E. Critique of the NPP and Its Doctrine of Justification
      F. Conclusion
      G. Suggested Reading
      A. Introduction
      B. The Rise of the FV
      C. The Background to the FV
      D. General Positive and Negative Contributions of the FV
      E. Prolegomena and Doctrine of Scripture
      F. Theology Proper
      G. Anthropology
      H. Christology and the Accomplishment of Redemption
      I. The Holy Spirit and the Application of Redemption
      J. Ecclesiology
      K. Eschatology
      L. Concluding Remarks
      M. Suggested Reading
      A. General Summary
      B. NPP Summary
      C. FV Summary

The cardinal sin of the academic

I like to think of myself as a world-class literary faker. In second grade, in order to win some kind of certificate, I let everyone believe I had reached the end of an epic novel called The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, when in fact its heroes had barely even met their first sentient fungi. I solidified this reputation one day in high-school English class, when, in answer to our teacher’s impossible question about an Ibsen play we hadn’t been assigned to read, I shouted, in a voice of casual authority, “Ghosts!” When this turned out to be correct (I had picked a random title from the list on the back cover of A Doll’s House), my classmates looked at me as if I’d spoken the secret of the universe, and they assumed I was fluent in Norwegian, and started whispering when I passed in the hall. A decade of college and grad school—boot camps of strategic fakery—immeasurably deepened my arsenal: Today I’m proficient in such feints as the stretched truth (“It’s funny, I’ve never actually finished that,” I’ll volunteer about War and Peace, of which I’ve read only the first paragraph), the misdirection (“Have you read Gravity’s Rainbow?” “You know what’s always bothered me about Pynchon?”), and, on very rare occasions, the enthusiastic flat-out lie (“Did you finish Brideshead Revisited?” “Yes! Yes, I really did!”). My signature move is a mildly orgasmic “Mmmmm,” which manages to suggest several things simultaneously: agreement, disagreement, ambivalence, and above all that my familiarity with the book in question is so deep it’s become muscular and sub-verbal, less a literary opinion than the visceral appreciation of a jaguar for the dawn.
—Sam Anderson, Review of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

Bergman and Antonioni meet in purgatory

SCENE: A lonely strip of shoreline, empty but for a solitary figure. The water is motionless, the sky is cloudy, daylight slight and wintry, a continuous dusk pervades. Purgatory, it turns out, looks very much like Faro Island, a fact whose irony is not lost on its former resident, the recently deceased INGMAR BERGMAN, the solitary figure alone on the beach. Wearing his standard fisherman's wool hat and tight, bemused pout, the late writer-director surveys his eternal reward.

Bergman: More bad comedy from a bad comedian. God punishes me with a hell indistinguishable from mortality! Maybe I should've lived in Miami...

Another figure emerges on the horizon, startling B into hushed whispers.

Bergman: But who? A new punishment? An ex-wife? (shudders) E-E-Elliott Gould?

His slow gait and aristocratic bearing reveal the approaching figure to be MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI. Even relieved in the afterlife of some of his stroke-induced disability, he's taking a long time to reach B.

Bergman: Fan ta mig, that bastard always did love long takes...

Read the comical fictional dialogue between Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni—two great filmmakers who died within a day of each other—here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Calvin's theological aesthetics

Cynthia Nielsen has a fascinating new series at Per Caritatem on John Calvin’s theological aesthetics. The series is from a paper by Mike Vendsel, an adjunct professor at La Salle University and aspiring doctoral student. Be sure to check it out.

Index of David Bentley Hart articles at First Things

David Bentley Hart has been a regular contributor to First Things over the past several years. I may not always agree with everything he writes, but he is without question one of the most brilliant and stimulating American theologians alive today.

Here is an index of his articles published in First Things thus far (in chronological order):

Monday, October 22, 2007

Against “having faith”

Faith is nothing. Really, it is. In fact, one way to ensure missing the gospel is to think faith is something. But it’s not. It’s really nothing at all. Faith is a negative concept that opens up space to speak about something else. It has what John Webster calls a ‘rhetoric of indication’, one which is ‘self-effacing’. In other words, faith couldn’t care less about itself. Faith wants you to stop thinking about it, too, because in thinking about it, you are thinking about how you have (or don’t have) it. And so, you’re really just thinking about yourself. ...

Trouble is, we ever so subtly undermine the logic of faith when we too glibly exhort a person to ‘have faith’. It’s not so much that these exhortations must run counter to faith’s rhetoric of indication as it is our own recalcitrant tendency to smuggle in works. We relapse, again and again – and if you’ve been around addiction, you know relapse seldom happens once – into creative, but vain attempts to justify ourselves. We pay lip service to grace and then call people to drum up faith, to work with all their might to squeeze out enough of it to make their lives worth saving. We convert faith, in other words, into a work.
—Matt Jenson, “Faith is Nothing” (H/T Chris)

Dumbledore is gay

From Newsweek:

In front of a full house of hardcore Potter fans at Carnegie Hall in New York, Rowling, sitting on the stage on a red velvet and carved wood throne, read from her seventh and final book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," then took questions. One fan asked whether Albus Dumbledore, the head of the famed Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, had ever loved anyone. Rowling smiled. "Dumbledore is gay, actually," replied Rowling as the audience erupted in surprise. She added that, in her mind, Dumbledore had an unrequited love affair with Gellert Grindelwald, Voldemort's predecessor who appears in the seventh book. After several minutes of prolonged shouting and clapping from astonished fans, Rowling added. "I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

PET VII: Can We Get Political?

Problems in Ecclesiology Today VII: Can We Get Political?

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Politics

Last night, as part of our church’s monthly film discussion group, we watched the superb HBO documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, in coordination with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Our church was one of a thousand churches watching this movie in an attempt to bring political discussion into the church community. For too long, the Christian churches in America have sat idly by while policies of major historical significance have been carried out. Last night’s film group was an attempt to change this by bringing politics into the life of the church.

One of the major stains on the witness of the Christian church in America is the glaring silence of the church on the issue of torture. This is not a new problem. The German Lutheran Church was silent during the time of Hitler. The Catholic Church in Chile was silent during the tyrannical rule of Pinochet. Moreover, American churches have been consistently late in their participation in (or even absent altogether from) social change, including, for example, the Civil Rights Movement. Today we face a situation fraught with serious moral significance, and instead of a church ready to speak truth to power and confront evil no matter where it occurs, we have an impotent church incapable of and/or unwilling to be a voice of truth in an age of political pettifogging and chicanery. The case of Gregory Boyd is worth noting here. After witnessing an idolatrous July 4 church service, Boyd decided to preach against Christian involvement in right-wing politics. But his answer was not to rethink our politics; his answer was for the church to disassociate itself from politics altogether. Rather than proclaim the political implications of the gospel, whatever those might be, Boyd decided to abandon the political sphere. In seeking to avoid idolatry, he chose silence instead. But in choosing silence, Boyd inevitably renders the gospel impotent and irrelevant to a world that desperately needs to hear the Word of God proclaimed in and to the concrete political situation in which we find ourselves today.

My point here is not to debate the details of torture, the war in Iraq, or the so-called “war on terror.” I am, instead, interested in the problem of political discourse within the church. What enables or inhibits churches in the process of engaging in honest dialogue about the issues that define us—issues like terrorism, imperialism, torture, democracy, and fundamentalism? Should pastors talk frankly about the social and political issues of our time? Is it right to speak about the events in the newspaper, or should preaching only focus on Scripture and leave historical events to the “pundits”? Where do we draw the line between proclaiming the gospel and advertising a political ideology? On a more fundamental level, what is the church’s proper relationship to contemporary politics? What can and should the church say about (or to) Washington?

These are some of the basic questions of our time. These are the kinds of questions that pastors need to be able to answer or at least seek to answer. We must not become “good German Christians” who, in their silence, endorse a political machine that claims to be working in the best interest of the nation. We must not become idle spectators of the political drama occurring all around us. We must not allow ourselves to become detached from the world in which we live, the world which we as a community of believers are called to engage in the mission of reconciliation. We have to learn again how to translate the gospel into the concrete context in which we exist. We have to learn what it means to exist as the covenantal people of God who are called to be “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Pet. 2:9).

Toward that end, I wish to offer a few thoughts on the church’s relationship to the state and what it might mean to “be political” again in such a divisive and ideologically driven political environment.

1. The relation between church and state is dialectical. We often hear about the transition from a church at the “center” (Constantinianism) to a church at the “margins” (church-state separation). A lot of good has come from separating the church from the centers of political power. While the church certainly flourished in a Constantinian framework, such flourishing was often at the expense of the radical gospel of Jesus Christ. Today we face a unique situation: the separation between church and state in the United States has resulted in a strange paradox. On the one hand, the “two kingdoms” approach has left churches entirely unwilling to discuss political issues, because they belong to a different “sphere”; the church is concerned with “spiritual” matters, not political ones. As a result, many pastors refuse to discuss sociopolitical issues at all; their ecclesiastical position is one of silence. On the other hand, this same “two kingdoms” framework, which places the work of the church in a strictly “spiritual” sphere, has made it possible for the Religious Right to flourish. Such open politicizing of the gospel is possible because the gospel itself has been neutered of all radical political import. When the gospel of Jesus Christ loses its revolutionary character, then one can easily wed it to whatever reigning political ideology is presently available. The gospel becomes the friend of ideology, rather than the supreme defense against it. This is the purest form of “natural theology”: a theology in which the gospel is manipulated to conform to a particular ideology.

I argue instead that the church needs to adopt a dialectical approach to the nation-state. The relationship is dialectical in that the church is not either at the center or in the margins, but is rather both at the center and in the margins. The church, we might say, works from the margins but towards the center. That is, the church’s primary role is to care for those who are marginalized by power, but in its mission to the “invisible ones” in society, the church does not ignore the center. The church of Jesus Christ witnesses to the truth of the gospel in the centers of power. Such witness is subversive and radical, but it is also loving and gracious—it testifies to the state’s true calling to be the “beloved community.” It proclaims that the state is part of the “order of grace” (Barth) and thus belongs to Jesus Christ. Furthermore, to say that the church is dialectically related to the state is to say that the work of the church is both related and unrelated to the work of the state. The work of the church is thus both political and non-political. It is not partly political and partly non-political; it is wholly both. All this is to say that the work of the church in confessing Jesus Christ is already political in nature. We need not identify an additional work of the church which is specifically “political” in nature, as if the church’s mission does not already have deep sociopolitical significance. To miss or suppress the political implications of the gospel is to undermine the dialectical character of the church.

2. The relation between church and state is covenantal. The relationship between church and state is covenantal in a twofold sense: (1) the covenant of grace means that there are not “two kingdoms” but rather only “one kingdom” under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Barth); and (2) the covenant of grace means that the church itself is, as Peter says, “a royal priesthood” and “a holy nation.” Such terms quite intentionally unite both sacerdotal and political imagery. One might say that the church is both spiritual and political, but this is not dialectical enough: as I said above, we need to see the spiritual as itself political in nature, and the political does not exist autonomously without the spiritual. As Barth rightly states, “The state [like the church] . . . is an order of grace relating to sin.” The church is the covenantal community of Jesus Christ in fellowship with the reconciling triune God and with the world reconciled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19).

3. The relation between church and state is dialogical. God addresses humanity in the word of the cross. This word interrupts us in our present existence and redefines us in accordance with the gospel of justification in Jesus Christ. We are dialogically disrupted by the word of grace and so made to correspond to God, first, through an ontological change into God’s dialogical partners by way of Jesus Christ in the event of the cross, and second through a dialogical response to God in invocation and praise by way of the Spirit in the event of Pentecost.

The dialogical relation between God and the church overflows into a dialogical relation between the church and the world. The church’s being-in-act is a being-in-dialogue-with-God which is at the same time a being-in-dialogue-with-the-world. The church’s dialogue with the world, in particular with the local culture in which the community exists, is a dialogue centered around witness and proclamation. The dialogue is a true dialogue: it is not a one-way declaration of the church “from on high.” The church can only dialogue by entering concretely into the life of the broader community. In other words, dialogue only occurs among neighbors, whom we must get to know. And since Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, such dialogue presupposes a love of this world which mirrors the love that God has for the world as revealed in the incarnation of the Son for us and our salvation (cf. John 3:16; 1 John 4:9-10). To summarize, the missio dei is a divine mission of dialogue with the world and for the world, and thus the missio communionis is an ecclesial mission of dialogue with the world and for the world in light of what the missio dei accomplished in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

4. Conclusion: What are the implications of the foregoing theses for a church that is struggling to remain faithful in a politically divisive climate? (1) First, the church cannot be silent on social and political issues. The church’s being-in-act is a being-in-dialogue, and therefore silence on political questions is ruled out in the same way that silence about God is ruled out: we are a people called to bear witness, and that means we are called to speak. (2) Second, the church’s speech cannot help but be political, since there are not two spheres of engagement but, in fact, only one sphere, one kingdom, one reign of Jesus Christ. We are forbidden from the start from creating a dichotomy between physical/political and spiritual/religious. We must realize that the gospel has radical political implications, and we must learn to be faithful to this gospel (and its implications) even if that means radically readjusting our relation to contemporary politics. (3) Third, we must be steadfastly opposed to all ideological manipulation of the gospel. We can guard against such manipulation through a more consistent emphasis upon the dialectical character of the church and its knowledge of God. The church does not “possess” anything—including, even, its very being. The gospel is not in the hands of the church; the church is rather in the hands of God. The possibility of manipulation is ruled out by the fact that we are never the masters of the gospel. Instead, Jesus Christ is our sole master. The early church confessed, in an act of clear political subversion, that Jesus Christ alone is Lord, which means that Caesar is not.

Finally, the church’s being-in-dialogue is a being-in-love. Modern political dialogue is inherently violent because it is rooted in a capitalistic climate of competitiveness. In order for the church to engage the world politically, it must find a way to establish a dialogue rooted in love. We can learn something from Paul’s discourse on love in 1 Cor. 13. The church needs to learn to interpret this passage as a guide to political dialogue. Here are some brief thoughts toward that end.
    Love is patient. Political dialogue needs to be patient in seeking change. We often want change immediately, but love demands patience. Of course, patience is not complacency, nor does it ignore incompetency. Love demands action, but it is patient in its demands.

    Love is kind. Political dialogue must be generous, gentle, and considerate.

    Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. The political implications of this statement are obvious. Political dialogue must not assert oneself over against the Other; rather, dialogue must be humble.

    Love does not insist on its own way. This is especially difficult. Dialogue rooted in love should not demand that others conform to one’s own particular views. Dialogue thus engages with others and seeks to affirm the ways of others. It does not say, “my way or the highway.” This means empathizing with our interlocutors without compromising or manipulating the gospel of truth.

    Love is not irritable or resentful. Since not everyone gets his or her own way in a dialogue, political discourse must not be easily annoyed or angered, nor should it express bitterness or hold on to grudges.

    Love rejoices in the truth. Political dialogue must be grounded in the truth. Dialogue thus exposes lies and seeks truth in every dimension of life, including the secretive world of power politics. Political dialogue rooted in love demands openness and sincerity, honesty and truthfulness. Dialogue based on assumptions and half-truths only undermines the world community.

    Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Dialogue must have the “same mind . . . that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). In other words, true dialogue requires each person to endure hardship, bear each other’s burdens, to believe steadfastly in the truth, and to hope wholeheartedly in the God who binds us all together in perfect unity in Jesus Christ (cf. Col. 3:14).

    Love never ends. Dialogue never ends; it continues by the grace and mercy of God.
I have sought in this reflection to think theologically about the nature of ecclesial speech in the world. We face a massive problem today in the silence of the church regarding issues that are politically sensitive. We cannot continue this silence without sacrificing not only our witness in the world but our very identity as the people of God. We must speak. We must speak faithfully and truthfully and lovingly. And we must also listen, both to the God who speaks and to the world which we engage. There are still many unanswered questions and many tough decisions. The call to speak is a call which should frighten us. But love, we remember, “hopes all things.” Because of the love of God, we can believe and hope in a church that hears and speaks the Word of God. Because of the love of God, we can engage the world in dialogue with patience and endurance, humility and kindness. The call to speak is a dangerous and challenging call, but it is also a call which should remind us of our dependence upon God, for we “do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Guide through the Catholic Catechism

As part of my job guiding Princeton University students through the RCIA, I am creating my own summary and guide through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You can find this summary at the new blog that I started for this journey, Aquinas Institute RCIA. Each week I will post my notes for that particular section in the Catechism.

The following is an index of my guide through the Catholic Catechism, which I will keep updated:
    Week 1: Revelation, Jesus Christ, and the Word of God (¶1-100)
    Week 2: Scripture and Tradition (¶101-84)
    Week 3: The Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (¶185-267)
    Week 4: Creator, Creation, and Humanity (¶268-384)
    Week 5: Sin and Evil (¶385-421)
    Week 6: Jesus Christ: True God and True Man (¶422-570)
    Week 7: Jesus Christ: Savior of the World (¶571-667)
    Week 8: Holy Spirit: The Power of New Life (¶683-747, 1987-2029)
    Week 9: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church with an Excursus on Mary (¶748-975, 2030-51)
    Week 10: Forgiveness of Sins, Resurrection of the Body, and Life Everlasting (¶668-82, 976-1065)
    Week 11: Liturgy & Sacraments (¶1066-1209, 1667-90)
    Week 12: The Sacraments of Initiation (¶1210-1419)
    Week 13: The Sacraments of Healing and Service (¶1420-1666)
    Week 14: Christian Ethics (¶1691-1876)
    Week 15: The Christian in the World (¶1877-1986)
    Week 16: The Ten Commandments (¶2052-557)
    Week 17: Prayer (¶2558-758)
    Week 18: The Lord’s Prayer (¶2759-865)

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Call for Papers: Theological Exegesis

The Spring 2008 issue of the Princeton Theological Review will be on the topic of “theological exegesis,” and we are currently accepting submissions. The due date for submission is January 21. It has been my privilege to be one of the general editors of the PTR for the past year. The PTR is a journal of evangelical theology which seeks to be academically rigorous, ecumenically sensitive, and ecclesially faithful. The current PTR is a student-run manifestation of the old PTR that was originally founded by Charles Hodge in the 19th century. We have a national and international readership, and the journal is held at a number of theological institutions.

If you are interested in submitting to the PTR for our spring issue on theological exegesis, see our submission guidelines. Articles should be between 5000-7000 words, though we can be flexible with the length if necessary. Articles can be works of original theological exegesis, or discussions of the work of others. We especially welcome any articles focusing on the work and legacy of Brevard Childs. If you would like, submissions may be sent directly to me (via email link in my profile) or to the executive editor at ptr-at-ptsem.edu.

In addition to articles, we also accept reflections on the chosen theme and sermons that demonstrate theological exegesis at work in a pastoral context. Reflections (and sermons, if possible) should range between 1200-2000 words.

If you have any questions about the journal or the spring issue, please contact me or the executive editor.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bruce Benson on Nietzsche’s rejection of Wagner

For Nietzsche, Wagner's artistic decadence lay in the fact that, in Wagner's compositions, "the whole is no longer a whole" but an artificial composite with no inherent integrity. But worse still for Nietzsche—indeed, worthy only of utter contempt—was Wagner's acceptance of the notion that humanity stands in need of redemption. "There is nothing about which Wagner has thought more deeply than redemption: his opera is the opera of redemption."
—Bruce Benson, Books & Culture

Anti-Darwinism as “dead science”

“According to a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted this year, more than half of Americans believe God created the first human beings less than 10,000 years ago. Why should they pay for schools that teach the opposite? These people have a definite and distinct idea in mind. Most of the other half of the population would be hard-pressed to say anything clear or coherent about the idea of evolution that they support, but they do want children to learn what biologists have found out about life on earth. Both sides want children to learn the truth, as best as it is known today.

The debate about who decides what gets taught is fascinating, albeit excruciating for those who have to defend the schools against bunkum. Democracy, as Plato keenly observed, is a pain for those who know better. The public debate about evolution itself, as opposed to whether to teach it, is something else. It is boring, demeaning and insufferably dull.

The arguments that Darwin painstakingly presented in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) were revolutionary in their day. They continue to astonish and perplex; never take them for granted. Unfortunately, anti-Darwinism keeps playing minor variations on the same negative themes and adds nothing to our understanding of life. Many scientists who are upset by the ongoing lobbying insist that it is bad science or pseudo-science. Living With Darwin, Philip Kitcher's brief and cogent manifesto, very rightly disagrees. Anti-Darwinism is, he says, dead science, recapitulating old stuff long abandoned. I prefer to call it degenerating.”

—Ian Hacking, The Nation

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Barth: Christ has reconciled us in spite of ourselves

Our future is that we have been saved by [Jesus Christ] in his blood! And the prospect of the present is accordingly God in his love of his enemies, the blood of his Son shed for us sinners; that is our future, our hope. This God is coming, God in the form of this Man, the One who in his death has already suffered, borne and taken away all righteous wrath. In him everything that speaks against us has been refuted. In him all our evil enmity towards God has already been done away with! He has already gone through and got through all the misery, the darkness of death which is the result of that enmity! And moreover: he has done this entirely without us and in spite of us, so that we cannot and need not now ask how it is possible from our side to have peace with God, that we can be reconciled with God in spite of everything we are and do! In him it became true that in spite of ourselves we are reconciled!
—Karl Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1959), 60.

Select a Candidate Quiz: Dennis Kucinich

Based on this political quiz, I should vote for Dennis Kucinich. Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were tied at a score of 42, beneath Mike Gravell and Chris Dodd. Unfortunately, this quiz did not help me a bit in deciding whom I should vote for, since the only two Democratic candidates capable of winning in November were tied. But it was fun nonetheless.

(Unfortunately, I can’t make the graphic fit into the blog space. It was designed for MySpace.)

Dennis Kucinich
Score: 51
Stem-Cell Research
Health Care
Social Security
Line-Item Veto
Death Penalty

-- Take the Quiz! --

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Our Bonhoeffer Moment

Jeff Leys, Co-Coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and a national organizer with Seasons of Discontent: A Presidential Occupation Project as well as the Occupation Project, writes the following in Common Dreams:

The Bonhoeffer Moment of nonviolent civil resistance and disobedience to the world war being waged by the United States is clearly at hand. As Congress considers an additional $190 billion to fund the Iraq - Afghanistan war through September 2008 and as the threats of war against Iran become increasingly loud, it is time for us to learn lessons from the German resistance to Hitler, to the Nazi regime and to the war waged by the German nation-state. We must engage in the Long Resistance to this current world war, using every nonviolent means to bring about its end.I was set to be tried on October 2 for an act of nonviolent civil resistance at the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command. The judge dismissed the charge the day of the trial. Following is the closing statement I prepared for the jury trial in Waukegan, Illinois.

Our Bonhoeffer Moment:

In 1942, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian engaged in resistance work to bring about an end to the Nazi regime, penned the following lines in his letter “After Ten Years”. He was in prison and under investigation when he wrote:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?” ...

To read the rest of his statement, click here.

Bonhoeffer: Protestantism without Reformation

“God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God. Anything of the churches of the Reformation which has come to America either stands in conscious seclusion and detachments from the general life of the church or has fallen victim to Protestantism without Reformation…American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of ‘criticism’ by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics. But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness. The decisive task for today is the dialogue between Protestantism without Reformation and the churches of the Reformation.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords (H/T to theklines)

Friday, October 12, 2007

God is nonviolent

Aric Clark has a fascinating series on pacifism going on right now entitled, “God is Nonviolent.” After addressing certain methodological issues (e.g., terminology and hermeneutics), he is now delving into particular passages in Scripture. Here is the current index:

“God Is Nonviolent” Index (on Mined Splatterings):

Violence in Scripture

Al Gore receives Nobel Peace Prize

What could be better than an Oscar? Today we learn: a Nobel Peace Prize. Al Gore was already a superstar with his film; now he enters the pantheon of great world leaders who have affected important social and political change, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu, and Mother Teresa. The unique thing about this award is that while it rightly recognizes Gore’s environmental efforts, the award is even more of a message to world leaders (cough, Bush, cough) to get their act together and join the campaign. In other words, its focus is at least as much on future achievements as it is on past ones.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Slavoj Zizek skewers the West

Slavoj Zizek continues his exhilarating onslaught on Western thought, this time through an op-ed column in the New York Times. The occasion for this column is the attempt by China to regulate the reincarnation laws of the Buddhist faith, but Zizek uses this focus on the East to skewer the West. He accomplishes this by (1) showing how Western (Christian) states have regulated religion in a similar way, (2) demonstrating how the Chinese government has taken a uniquely Western approach in controlling Tibet, and (3) arguing that Western intellectual sophistication is just as backwards and absurd as the Chinese government. In the end, Zizek succeeds in critiquing modern American intellectualism, political correctness and the doctrine of toleration, and the general Western conception of “culture.” I highly recommend this column.

I want to point out one passage in particular, which deals with the second point listed above. In this column, Zizek brilliantly attacks capitalism, as he often does in his writings. He does so here by looking at the way China attempts to control Tibet:
In recent years, the Chinese have changed their strategy in Tibet: in addition to military coercion, they increasingly rely on ethnic and economic colonization. Lhasa is transforming into a Chinese version of the capitalist Wild West, with karaoke bars and Disney-like Buddhist theme parks.

In short, the media image of brutal Chinese soldiers terrorizing Buddhist monks conceals a much more effective American-style socioeconomic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of the Native Americans in the United States. Beijing finally learned the lesson: what is the oppressive power of secret police forces, camps and Red Guards destroying ancient monuments compared to the power of unbridled capitalism to undermine all traditional social relations?
This is the real evil of capitalism: its subversion of all traditional social relations. I am always surprised by the way traditionalist Christians so eagerly defend capitalism. I receive a continuous stream of pro-capitalistic propaganda from family members who are blind to the way capitalism destroys the very social relations they claim to uphold. Capitalism is certainly not an unqualified evil; but its benefits by no means outweigh its destructive global influence.

One last section from this column deserves mention. Zizek closes with a stinging criticism of Western “tolerance” and cultural appreciation, in which he points out that our sophistication is built on a “proper distance” from one’s cultural that allows us to treat culture like an object. Zizek writes:
The significant issue for the West here is not Buddhas and lamas, but what we mean when we refer to “culture.” All human sciences are turning into a branch of cultural studies. While there are of course many religious believers in the West, especially in the United States, vast numbers of our societal elite follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores of our tradition only out of respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong: Christmas trees in shopping centers every December; neighborhood Easter egg hunts; Passover dinners celebrated by nonbelieving Jews.

“Culture” has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians” with a “medieval mindset”: they dare to take their beliefs seriously. Today, we seem to see the ultimate threat to culture as coming from those who live immediately in their culture, who lack the proper distance.
Because we think ourselves capable of surveying the world from an Olympian height, we can treat culture like an object for us to appreciate, but not as an identity that really shapes who we are. Culture is a set of practices that we voluntarily enjoy, but which demand nothing from us. We are lords of our own cultural-religious identity. Is it any wonder, then, that Christianity in modern sophisticated America has become just another cultural object from which we are trained to maintain the “proper distance”?

A Great Week

This week saw the release of two media events: Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (And So Can You!) and Radiohead’s In Rainbows. With these two hotly anticipated releases, I think we can safely say that the stock market is secure for at least another month.

I can’t say anything yet about either release. My copy of Colbert’s book is in the mail, and I have only listened to the Radiohead album twice. But maybe there are others out there more willing to venture an opinion.

So I ask: What do you think of Colbert’s new book and Radiohead’s new album?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Jeremy Begbie on music and materiality

Alternative Title: “Jeremy Begbie takes on P.T. Forsyth (and the Christian West)”

In his recent essay in Books & Culture, Jeremy Begbie discusses the physicality of music, its “embeddedness in material reality.” Begbie begins with a theological point about creation—viz. that material reality is itself good. The physical creation comes from the ordo amoris, the creative love of God. “God,” he writes, “has pledged himself to the world in its physicality—a pledge confirmed in the coming of Jesus, the Word made material flesh.”

Following this theological point, Begbie goes on to discuss Christianity’s traditional discomfort with the physical and material. He notes two important tendencies: (1) “a proneness to doubt the full goodness, and with it sometimes the full reality, of the physical,” and (2) a corresponding desire to elevate music insofar as it is the least material of all the arts. Music became close to the Christian tradition for its lack of materiality. Throughout the centuries, music has been seen as the most “spiritual” of the arts—“spiritual” used in opposition to the “physical.” Begbie traces this view back to the ancient Greeks and the neo-Platonism that shaped a lot of early Christian literature.

When he arrives in the modern period, Begbie spends a good deal of time looking at the views of the famous modernist painter, Wassily Kandinsky, who was a major defender of a highly spiritualized conception of art. Begbie notes that what drives the modern resistance to physicality is not Platonism but rather the focus “on the inner life of the individual, especially the emotional life.” The rampant individualism and psychologism of modernity is what propels the modern aversion to materiality in art.

Along the way, Begbie discusses the work of P. T. Forsyth*, whom he locates within this trajectory of thinkers who view music as an intangible and non-physical art form. Begbie writes:
Interestingly, a not dissimilar view [from Kandinsky] emerges from one of the few Christian theologians of modern times to write about music (apart from those we have looked at already), the Congregationalist theologian P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921). Forsyth's basic belief is that music is concerned essentially with releasing us from the bonds and limits of the finite and material order. Music is the least material of the arts (with the sole exception of poetry). Forsyth is struck by its impermanence and insubstantiality (it does not end up as a concrete object), its inwardness (it primarily arises from and is directed toward our emotional life), and its indefiniteness (it cannot refer with any precision to things beyond itself).
Begbie’s point is made clear mid-way through the essay: “A biblically informed Christian response refuses to apologize for music's embeddedness in material reality and actually may want to recover a fuller sense of it.”

What do you think?

Is music substantially different from the other art forms? Or are they equally embedded in the material world?
What makes music so central to the Christian faith?
How might Christianity recover a more “biblically informed” view of music?
What might change if churches sought to adopt a more materially focused conception of music?
What is the proper place for the “spiritual” in art?
How ought we to understand the notion of the “spiritual”?
How do we define the “spiritual” and the “material”? How do we relate them to each other?
What is the proper role of art in churches?

*For more on P. T. Forsyth’s views on art and theology, see this article by Jason Goroncy in the Princeton Theological Review.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Science and God: considering Stephen Hawking

The following is from a recent Books & Culture article on the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking. The article as a whole seeks to introduce people to the man while commenting on his understanding of God and religion. I recommend the article, particularly if you want a brief overview of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time. At the end of the article, though, author Karl Giberson comments on Hawking’s “theology.”

The main critiques are that Hawking has no understanding of Christian theology, and that if he did, he wouldn’t confuse science and theology the way that he does. The Christian doctrine of creation is not in competition with the scientific explanation for the origin of the cosmos. The fact that Hawking gets this wrong only reinforces the mistaken views of the creationists. The difference is that Hawking is simply naive, while the creationists are intentional about equating science and theology. All of this just makes it harder for intelligent Christians to articulate the truth of the doctrine of creation. Here is what Giberson writes:

[Stephen] Hawking's theological naïveté is almost funny. He appears not to know that the heart of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation is that the world derives its being from God, not that God "started" the world, like some kid building a model airplane. Everyone from Augustine and Aquinas to Barth and Pannenberg has addressed this important distinction. The suggestion that a physical theory ruling out a well-defined "beginning" to the universe removes God from creation is the sort of simplistic misunderstanding that might be tolerated in philosophy students' first term papers, but certainly not their second.

And what of Hawking's claim that knowledge of the profoundly misnamed "Theory of Everything" would be like entering into the mind of God? Really? Is this what God thinks about? What God is this? Is there actually a church somewhere that puts equations on a big screen and invites worshippers to view them as a prelude to worship? Is this the same God whose existence Hawking disproved a few pages earlier?

All this would indeed be humorous if it were not in a book that has sold ten million copies. Hawking has done a great disservice to those purchasers of his book who have actually read it. He has misled them about the religious implications of science and the apparent motivations of scientists; he has made bogus claims about theology; he has juxtaposed science and theology as if they compete to explain the same things. Hawking's enthusiasm about doing away with God does not reflect the views of the scientific community, where there is widespread belief in God, and widespread disinterest in using science against religion.

Hawking is a major public intellectual, a leading scientist with a flair for popular exposition and a platform from which to explain science to an educated populace. He and his scientific allies—Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, Peter Atkins, the late Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Pinker and so on—shape public perceptions of science through their popular presentations, in books, articles, and public appearances. Their collective message—drilled home in many different ways—is that science is hostile to religion, scientists don't believe in God, and science competes with religion to explain natural phenomena.

None of these statements is true.

[Books & Culture]

Sunday, October 07, 2007

PET VI: Youth Ministry

Problems in Ecclesiology Today VI: Youth Ministry and the Problem of Relevancy

When does a church go too far to be relevant?

The New York Times headline said it all: “Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Game at Church.” The article was about the use of games like Halo 3 to bring youth to church. And thus the irony: “First the percussive sounds of sniper fire and the thrill of the kill. Then the gospel of peace.” The question, as the article points out, is just how far churches should go to reach young people, particular young boys.

The problems with Halo abound. The game is rated M, so no one under 17 is allowed to purchase the game. Yet churches host Halo parties for children who are well under age. This, of course, is a huge draw for young kids, but the churches are circumventing the law in doing so. But what price to churches pay when they attempt to meld the proclamation and worship of a man who suffered and died at the hands of violent men with a game in which you are rewarded for being a violent man? Or, as the article puts it, how can you possibly blend a message of peace with a game that openly rejects peace—a game whose motto is, in fact, “thou shalt kill”? The Times article puts this dilemma brilliantly:
But the question arises: What price to appear relevant? Some parents, religious ethicists and pastors say that Halo may succeed at attracting youths, but that it could have a corroding influence. In providing Halo, churches are permitting access to adult-themed material that young people cannot buy on their own.

“If you want to connect with young teenage boys and drag them into church, free alcohol and pornographic movies would do it,” said James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a nonprofit group that assesses denominational policies. “My own take is you can do better than that.”
Tonkowich hits the proverbial nail right on the head. If a church wants to be relevant to teenage boys, there are plenty of other ways, including handing out pornography and offering beer-on-tap. You could throw in condoms and cigarettes and call it a night. But this raises an important questions: Why Halo 3? Why are exceedingly violent video games par for the course, but bare breasts on a piece of paper completely out of the question? One could easily argue that the video games are the more harmful of the two. All of this leads us back to the same basic problem with American Christianity: we are prudes about sex, but connoisseurs of violence. Americans love their violent blockbusters, but if we see some flesh on screen, parents freak out and churches boycott. (This is the issue raised by the fascinating documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated.)

There are really two issues at stake in this story: (1) how far is too far in the attempt to be “relevant,” and (2) why are churches comfortable with violence but not with sexuality? Both issues are not limited to youth groups, but run throughout American Christianity as a whole. The first question, though, is the one that concerns me the most. The attempt to be “relevant” is, in my opinion, the reason why American churches are dying from the inside-out. Churches struggling with attendance and membership seem to think that accommodating to current cultural norms will increase their popularity (as if this is something Christ called us to worry about). But the opposite is the case. The more churches compromise, the more they lose their witness as “salt and light.”

Of course, this does not mean churches need to be pietistic in their moral values. What it means is that we need to be conscientious about how we engage popular culture. We need to watch and discuss popular films, not simply endorse or condemn them based on what material they contain. We need to listen attentively to contemporary music, not reject it simply because of the language or subject matter or cultural unfamiliarity. We need to understand why Halo is the best-selling video game of all time and talk about it, without simply capitulating to these market trends and then using them for selfish gain.

Finally, we need to radically rethink the nature of evangelism in general. The following statement from the article reflects what I think is a general conviction:
Once they come for the games, Gregg Barbour, the youth minister of the church said, they will stay for his Christian message. “We want to make it hard for teenagers to go to hell,” Mr. Barbour wrote in a letter to parents at the church.
This is a grossly reductionistic mentality which views church simply as a safety net or hospital for people who are otherwise on the slippery slope to hell, rather than as a community of discipleship and mission shaping people into faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Evangelism is not about “fire insurance,” and youth group is not about keeping teens out of hell. The gospel is not about “getting into heaven.” We preach the gospel because we are on a journey of discipleship and sanctification, a process of being conformed into the image of Christ through the power of the Spirit. Evangelism is about mission, not simply conversion. Ministry is about discipleship, not “fire insurance.” Church is about faithfulness to Jesus Christ, not about numbers or gimmicks or relevancy. In order to stop the current bleeding in the church today, we need to learn this anew.

What about unintelligent design?

‘As the theory of intelligent design again hits the news with President Bush's encouragement this week that the theory be taught in schools alongside evolution, I have one question: What about unintelligent design? Take rabbit digestion, for example. As herbivores, rabbits need help from bacteria to break down the cell walls of the plants they eat, so, cleverly enough, they have a large section of intestine where such bacterial fermentation takes place. The catch is, it's at the far end of the small intestine, beyond where efficient absorption of nutrients can happen. A sensible system — as we see in ruminant animals like cattle and deer — ferments before the small intestine, maximizing nutrient absorption. Rabbits, having to make do with an unintelligent system, instead eat some of their own feces after one trip through, sending half-digested food back through the small intestine for re-digestion.

Horses are similarly badly put together: They ferment their food in a large, blind-ended cecum after the small intestine. Unlike rabbits, they don't recycle their feces — they're just inefficient. Moreover, those big sections of hind gut are a frequent location for gut blockages and twists that, absent prompt veterinary intervention, lead to slow and excruciating death for the poor horse. The psalmist writes: "God takes no delight in horses' power." Clearly, if God works in creation according to the simplistic schemes of the intelligent design folks, God not only doesn't delight in horses, but seems positively to have it in for them.’

—Lisa Fullam, "Debate over Intelligent Design" (H/T Aric)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Schmemann: Christ’s sacrifice is the life of the church

Only God can save—precisely save—us, for our life needs salvation, and not simply help. Only he can fulfil that concerning which all sacrifices remain an impotent plea, of which they were all expectation, prefiguration and anticipation. And he fulfils this in the ultimate, perfect and all-embracing sacrifice in which he gave his only-begotten Son for the salvation of the world, in which the Son of God, having become the Son of man, offered himself as a sacrifice for the life of the world.

In this sacrifice everything is fulfilled and accomplished. In it, above all, sacrifice itself is cleansed, restored and manifested in all its essence and fulness, in its preeternal meaning as perfect love and thus perfect life, consisting of perfect self-sacrifice: in Christ “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” and in Christ man so loved God that he gave himself totally, and in this twofold giving nothing remains not given, and love reigns in all—“the crucifying love of the Father, the crucified love of the Son, and the love of the Spirit triumphing through the power of the cross” (Filaret Drozdov). In this sacrifice, furthermore, because it was made only through love and only in love, was forgiveness of sins granted. And finally, in it man’s eternal thirst for God was fulfilled and slaked: the divine life became our food, our life. . . .

The ultimate and most joyful mystery of all is that Christ gave this sacrifice to us, to the new humanity regenerated in him and united with him: the Church. In this new life, his life in us and our life in him, his sacrifice became our sacrifice, his offering our offering. “Abide in me, and I in you” (Jn 15:4). What does this mean, if not that his life, fulfilled by him in his perfect sacrifice, was granted to us as our life, as the only true life, as the fulfilment of God’s eternal design for mankind? For if Christ’s life is offering and sacrifice, then also our life in him and the whole life of the Church are offering and sacrifice—the offering of ourselves and each other and the whole world, the sacrifice of love and unity, praise and thanksgiving, forgiveness and healing, communion and unity.
—Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, trans. Paul Kachur (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 103-04.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Is the Bible most responsible for atheism?

“The Old Testament,” [A.A. Milne] claimed, “is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written: It has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle, and golf course.”

—A.A. Milne, quoted by Carlin Romano in an essay on sacred texts and modern atheists

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Enlightenment & Capitalism

In a recent Books & Culture, there is an article on Benjamin Franklin’s interest in business, which was an aspect of his life that he kept from the public since business was considered unbecoming of a person of any importance. The article ends by highlighting how Franklin’s capitalistic sensibility is a mark of the Enlightenment.

Commercial capitalism has been so routinely disparaged for so long by American intellectuals that we have some difficulty crediting how very happily the Enlightenment embraced commercial capitalism as Nature's own system of merit over against unearned aristocratic title. Gary Nash's recent attempt to re-cast the American Revolution as a proletarian uprising, more concerned with "elementary political rights and social justice, rather than the protection of property and constitutional liberties," misses utterly how genuinely revolutionary the protection of property and constitutional liberty was in a world of absolute autocrats and talentless courtiers. Precisely because the self-made man of commerce appeared to the philosophes as a manifestation of the operation of reason and nature, Voltaire sang an unashamed song of admiration for the calculating, dispassionate self-promotion of the bourgeoisie:

I don't know which is the more useful to the state, a well-powdered lord who knows precisely what time the king gets up in the morning and what time he goes to bed, and who gives himself airs of grandeur while playing the role of slave in a minister's antechamber, or a great merchant who enriches his country, sends orders from his office to Surat and to Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world.

No one in revolutionary America lived up to this reputation more than Franklin. It represents a fatal inversion of Franklin's own expectations that no reputation today has lesser standing among the Revolution's scholars than that of the "great merchant." And none plays a smaller role in the modern-day marketing of Benjamin Franklin.

—Allen C. Guelzo, “Capitalist Tool” in Books and Culture

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Teaching RCIA: ecumenism in practice

Tonight was my first night teaching the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (or RCIA) for Catholic inquirers at Princeton University. As a Protestant, I have the unique opportunity to teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church to a group of young students who seek to be either baptized or confirmed in the Catholic faith. For the past eleven years, Princeton Seminary students have taught this program as part of their ministry internship. I landed this position because my neighbor taught the program last year. This internship gives me the opportunity to teach through the entire catechism. This will include teaching through all the doctrines of the faith, presenting a brief history of the church, and instructing the inquirers about the particulars of Catholic teaching.

People raise their eyebrows at me when they hear that I am a Protestant instructing people in the Catholic faith, but I view this as a wonderful example of true ecumenism—that is, engaging another tradition carefully and sympathetically. I am also thrilled about the opportunity to teach through the catechism, a document that I think every Protestant should read. Karl Barth once said that a person doesn’t have the right to be Protestant unless she has been tempted by Catholicism. I would say the same. Protestants need to know what they are “protesting” against; it cannot simply be a knee-jerk reaction to papal authority (or whatever scares them away). In the end, I expect this to be a challenging experience for me, as I both learn about the Catholic faith in depth and seek to communicate it effectively to people who are relatively ignorant about the teachings of the church.

For those of you who are interested, here is the outline for what I will be covering in the RCIA program this year. This outline goes through the entire catechism. I expect I may have to adapt the schedule in order to spend more time on the sacraments and the Ten Commandments, but here is the current schedule:
Week 1: Revelation, Jesus Christ, and the Word of God (¶1-100)
Week 2: Scripture and Tradition (¶101-84)
Week 3: The Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (¶185-267)
Week 4: Creator and Creation (¶268-354)
Week 5: Humanity and the “Image of God” (¶355-84)
Week 6: Sin and Evil (¶385-421)
Week 7: Jesus Christ: True God and True Man (¶422-570)
Week 8: Jesus Christ: Savior of the World (¶571-667)
Week 9: Holy Spirit: The Power of New Life (¶683-747, 1987-2029)
Week 10: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church with an Excursus on Mary (¶748-975, 2030-51)
Week 11: Forgiveness of Sins, Resurrection of the Body, and Life Everlasting (¶668-82, 976-1065)
Week 12: Liturgy & Sacraments (¶1066-1209, 1667-90)
Week 13: The Seven Sacraments (¶1210-1666)
Week 14: Christian Ethics (¶1691-1876)
Week 15: The Christian in the World (¶1877-1986)
Week 16: The Ten Commandments (¶2052-557)
Week 17: Prayer (¶2558-758)
Week 18: The Lord’s Prayer (¶2759-865)

Monday, October 01, 2007

How does God see things?

“I can’t for the life of me imagine that God will say, ‘I will punish you because you are black, you should have been white; I will punish you because you are a woman, you should have been a man; I will punish you because you are homosexual, you ought to have been heterosexual.’ I can’t for the life of me believe that is how God sees things.”
—Desmond Tutu from a new film about gay Christians (H/T Aaron)

Social networking: the new Narcissism

Christine Rosen has a fascinating new essay about modern social networking and the idea of “friendship” that arises within this new technological context. Her basic point is that online social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, among others, have become ways to broadcast our own egos (Rosen has an old article titled “The Age of Egocasting”). People flaunt themselves online, always adapting and even transforming their online persona in order to gain the most attention. Rosen has written a fair amount about this growing phenomenon. Past articles include “The Image Culture,” “Playgrounds of the Self,” and “Our Cell Phones, Ourselves.” Her basic theme seems to be the “new Narcissism” that pervades contemporary society.

This issue raises interesting theological questions regarding human identity. Christian tradition has always begun reflection on the human person with the doctrine of the imago Dei. Moreover, Christian reflection on the gospel of Jesus Christ has profound implications for our understanding of the human self. Alexander Schmemann writes of faith as an “exodus” from the ego, a movement away from the “I.” Karl Barth speaks of the human person’s identity as extra nos (“outside ourselves”). Christian faith has always stressed the importance of dying to oneself and bearing one’s cross in humble obedience to the cross of Christ. Christian theology thus rejects both the Delphic oracle (“know thyself”) and the MySpace oracle (“show thyself”). Christianity is thus a profound and radical rejection of what drives contemporary culture.

In this light, here is the “thesis” of Rosen’s article, as she presents it early in her essay:

Today, our self-portraits are democratic and digital; they are crafted from pixels rather than paints. On social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook, our modern self-portraits feature background music, carefully manipulated photographs, stream-of-consciousness musings, and lists of our hobbies and friends. They are interactive, inviting viewers not merely to look at, but also to respond to, the life portrayed online. We create them to find friendship, love, and that ambiguous modern thing called connection. Like painters constantly retouching their work, we alter, update, and tweak our online self-portraits; but as digital objects they are far more ephemeral than oil on canvas. Vital statistics, glimpses of bare flesh, lists of favorite bands and favorite poems all clamor for our attention—and it is the timeless human desire for attention that emerges as the dominant theme of these vast virtual galleries.

Although social networking sites are in their infancy, we are seeing their impact culturally: in language (where to friend is now a verb), in politics (where it is de rigueur for presidential aspirants to catalogue their virtues on MySpace), and on college campuses (where not using Facebook can be a social handicap). But we are only beginning to come to grips with the consequences of our use of these sites: for friendship, and for our notions of privacy, authenticity, community, and identity. As with any new technological advance, we must consider what type of behavior online social networking encourages. Does this technology, with its constant demands to collect (friends and status), and perform (by marketing ourselves), in some ways undermine our ability to attain what it promises—a surer sense of who we are and where we belong? The Delphic oracle’s guidance was know thyself. Today, in the world of online social networks, the oracle’s advice might be show thyself.

—Christine Rosen, The New Atlantis