Sunday, August 31, 2008

Augustine Blog Conference completed

Cynthia Nielsen of Per Caritatem just completed the first annual Augustine Blog Conference, entitled “Conversations with Augustine.” The conference sought to bring Augustine’s thought “into conversation with philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages, Reformation, Modernity, and Postmodernity.” She is currently taking suggestions for next year’s conference. Here is the final index of posts:

“Conversations with Augustine

1. Augustine and the Middle Ages

2. Augustine and the Reformation
3. Augustine and Modernity

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Primer on Missional Theology

Thanks to an invitation by Michael Pailthorpe, I recently wrote and presented (via audio recording) a paper on missional theology for the “Why I Think” series, hosted by Michael at the Rare Treats Cafe in Sydney, Australia. The series gave me an opportunity to argue “why I think missional theology is the future of theology.” The original essay was published online at Theology & Praxis and is also available in PDF format. Because of its length, and because there a few changes I would like to make, I am republishing the essay here as a series of posts. This should facilitate more discussion, since the paper is a survey of theological issues addressed by missional theology.


Why I think missional theology is the future of theology, or,
why I think theology must become missional or perish:
a primer on missional theology

Theology must become missional or perish. That is my thesis. By “missional,” I refer to the recent development in theology which defines God as a “missionary God” who commissions a “missionary church.” Mission is first and foremost proper to the being of God, and secondarily a concept in ecclesiology. Both dimensions—the theological and ecclesiological—are grounded in the missional life history of Jesus Christ. The interest in missional theology arises in the wake of two realities: the rejection of colonialism, and the shift of Christianity’s global “center” from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere. With these two modern developments, missional theology arises as a way of thinking theologically which is both post-colonial and sensitive to cultural particularity, without simply collapsing theology into a post-colonial anthropology. Instead, missional theology is steadfastly rooted in the Christian gospel of the triune God, and in the proclamation of humanity’s reconciliation with God in Jesus of Nazareth. Missional theology is missiological and ecclesiological by being first and foremost theological, speaking about the God of mission while also attending to the apostolic community of the church as those commissioned by God. My argument is (1) exegetical, (2) historical, and (3) dogmatic in nature, and I will proceed in that order as I make my case.


The outline of the series is as follows:
    §1. Exegesis and Missional Theology

    §2. Church History and Missional Theology

    §3
    . Dogmatics and Missional Theology

      §3.1. The doctrine of the divine attributes: God is a missionary God

      §3.2. The immanent and economic Trinity: God elects to be a missionary God from all eternity

      §3.3. Christology: hypostatic union as mission

      §3.4. Ecclesiology: worship as mission

      §3.5. Ecclesiology: mission as translation

      §3.6
      . Eschatology: the eternality of mission

    §4. Conclusion: why missional theology?

    Afterword: overview and outline of the series

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Imagination as the basis for moral decisions

In a particularly straightforward chapter in Philosophy as Cultural Politics, “Kant vs. Dewey: The Current Situation in Moral Philosophy,” [Richard] Rorty raises serious doubts as to whether students of moral philosophy have anything much to tell us about making the right moral decisions in life. Professors of moral philosophy do not, he writes, “have more rigor or clarity or insight than the laity, but they do have a much greater willingness to take seriously the views of Immanuel Kant.” But can Kant really help us find answers to our moral problems? Maybe, as Martha Nussbaum has suggested, we would do better to read novels. “The advantage that well-read, reflective, leisured people have when it comes deciding about the right thing to do is that they are more imaginative, not that they are more rational,” Rorty writes. They “are able to put themselves in the shoes of many different sorts of people.”

—Arthur C. Danto on Richard Rorty, “Margins for Error”

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lesslie Newbigin on the cry of dereliction

At the very beginning of this book I referred to the cry of God in the garden of Eden: “Adam, where are you?” The agonized father seeking for the son who has been lost. Now the beloved son of the father has shared the fate of the lost children, and with them, for them, on their behalf, as one of them, he cries out to the father: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He goes down into the very depths of dereliction so that there could be no depths of despair into which we could ever fall in which the son of God would not be there beside us.
—Lesslie Newbigin, A Walk Through the Bible (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 1999), 64-65.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Laughter unites, but jokes divide

Laughter is one of the most treacherous of all fields of history. Like sex and eating, it is an absolutely universal human phenomenon, and at the same time something that is highly culturally and chronologically specific. Every human society in the world laughs, and whatever their race or language, people make almost exactly the same sound in doing so. Not only that, but they represent the sound of laughter in almost exactly the same alphabetic or phonetic form. Whereas Albanian dogs apparently go "ham ham" rather than "woof woof," and Hungarian pigs go "rof rof rof," not "oink oink," there are few language communities in the world that do not represent the sound of laughter with some variant on "ha ha" or "hee hee."

It even extends to primates. Charles Darwin was one of the first to recognize that Aristotle had been wrong to claim that human beings were the only animals to laugh. And since then many scholarly hours have been profitably spent tickling the underarms of chimps, and watching them at play, to confirm that they do indeed laugh exactly like Homo sapiens. Or very nearly so. The sound of human laughter is made only as we exhale. Chimp laughter occurs also as they inhale. The difference may (or, of course, may not) be crucially significant.

Yet things look very different when we go beyond such physical stimuli to reflect on jokes, cartoons, pictures, and performances that provoke laughter. Never mind what we may share with the primates; it is often hard for the English to share a joke with their neighbors across the Channel, or to respond to cartoons penned a century ago. It is all very well for comedians to claim that "the old ones are the best," but anyone who has picked up a nineteenth-century copy of a comic magazine such as Punch is almost bound to have been disappointed. Even when they are not referring to the minutiae of some now forgotten political crisis, the vast majority of the cartoons simply don't make you laugh. It is sometimes easy enough, on a few moments' reflection, to get the joke and to see why it might once have seemed funny; but that is a very long way from feeling the remotest temptation to laugh oneself. In that sense laughter does not travel across space, time, or even necessarily—as any encounter with a group of under-fifteens will tell us—between different age groups in a single community.

—Mary Beard in the New York Review of Books, reviewing Jim Holt, Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, and John R. Clarke, Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 BC–AD 250.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Oliver O’Donovan: good news for gay Christians

“How does the homosexually inclined person show Christ to the world?” [Rowan] Williams asks. Again, it is an obvious first step to ask why there would be a different answer for a homosexually-inclined person than for any other person. At the deepest level there can be no difference. It is one and the same Gospel witnessed to by gay and non-gay, a gospel of redemption from the enslavement of sin and of the purification of desire. Yet gifts are given differentially to members of the body of Christ; vocations are distributed variously to serve the common mission. Some are given in the form of special skills and abilities, some in the form of special opportunities, especially opportunities of special experience and suffering. From the place of special sensibility in which the homosexual Christian may find him- or herself we may hear a testimony to the way the world confronts our mission in our time, to its fragmented identities, its disjunctions of feeling, its cruelties, its dislocations and the peculiar possibilities of redemption that God has put at its heart. The rest of us cannot do without this torchlight shone through the fog of the late modern world in which we, too, must grope our way.

What if the challenge the gays present the church with is not emancipatory but hermeneutic? Suppose that at the heart of the problem there is the magna quaestio, the question about the gay experience, its sources and its character, that gays must answer for themselves: how this form of sensibility and feeling is shaped by its social context, how it can be clothed in an appropriate pattern of life for the service of God and discipleship of Christ? But suppose, too, that there is another question corresponding to it, which non-gay Christians need to answer: how and to what extent this form of sensibility and feeling has emerged in specific historical conditions, and how the conditions may require, as an aspect of the pastoral accommodation that changing historical conditions require, a form of public presence and acknowledgment not hitherto known? These two questions come together as a single question: how are we to understand together the particularity of the age in which we are given to attest God’s works? And then the Gospel has good news for us all: there is a friendship in which the most difficult questions about the self and the world in the era of time that is given to us can be explored and enquired into, a community in mission that can engage in the most difficult hermeneutic tasks. The good news preached by the church to the gay Christian coincides here with the good news preached by the gay Christian to the church. The content of that good news, perhaps, can be summed up simply by saying that the word “church” can achieve its proper content. The church is our neighbourhood in the confession of Christ and obedience to his law, a neighbourhood suffused with his love, a communion of mutual service and recognition.

—Oliver O’Donovan, Fulcrum

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Spirit of the Lord, §11.1: The Eucharist and the Holy Spirit

The eucharist is a pentecostal event—that is to say, the eucharist is made possible by the agency of the Holy Spirit. This is neither a new insight nor is it unique to the eucharist. It is not new because, as Eastern Orthodoxy has most consistently affirmed, the eucharistic liturgy takes place in the power of the Spirit on the basis of the church’s invocation of the Spirit (epiclesis). It is not unique because the church confesses that the very being and life of the church is itself a reality enabled and empowered by the Spirit. The church is effectively born on Pentecost and its mission takes place under the guidance of the Spirit.

So what then remains to be said about the relation between Spirit and eucharist? In this subsection, I wish to explore the relation between the Spirit’s agency in the life of Jesus and the Spirit’s agency in the sacramental life of the ecclesial community. That is to say, just as the Holy Spirit is the empowering agent in the mission of Jesus Christ, so too the Holy Spirit is the empowering agent in the eucharistic dimension of the church’s mission of Word and Spirit. While the church has never (to my knowledge) denied the role of the Spirit in the life of Christ, Christians have not spent enough time exploring the relationship between christology and sacramentology in the light of pneumatology.

The christological model with which I am working understands Jesus Christ as a single acting subject in divine-human unity. The unity is not one in which the Logos acts through the human nature as we find in classical christologies of the patristic era—most clearly in Cyril of Alexandria. Such a conception seeks to protect divine impassibility, and it does so by instrumentalizing the human nature. Moreover, both divinity and humanity are, according to this model, predefined substances prior to the Christ event. The classical theologians presupposed the natures of deity and humanity, leaving them with the problem of how to bring together two metaphysically opposed essences. Contrary to this, and following Karl Barth, I locate the union of divinity and humanity not in some moment of assumption prior to Christ’s life, but rather in Jesus’ life history. The unio hypostatica is not the union of two substances but an actualization of divinity and humanity in the history of Jesus. In his being-in-act, the being of God and the being of humanity are actualized. In other words, God is what Jesus does. The Logos is not some acting agent apart from the humanity of Jesus, but the Logos is instead the humanity of Jesus in act. To use the language of Eberhard Jüngel, God “identifies” with the man Jesus, and that act of identification is constitutive of what it means to be God. The point is that the human acts of Jesus are God’s acts. All of this is grounded in the eternal divine decision to be God for us and with us in Jesus, such that Jesus is in the beginning with God. The fact that Jesus Christ, in divine-human unity, is the subject and object of election means that the temporal history of Jesus is already a reality in the eternal being of God before the history of the world.

How then does the Holy Spirit relate to Jesus Christ? Against the Cyrilline model, which has no need of the Spirit’s activity in the life of Jesus, we must state up front that the Logos is not a complete agent in eternity apart from the assumed humanity who then acts in and through this humanity. Rather, the Logos is identified with the humanity of Jesus; the Logos is actualized in this concrete history. As a result, the acting subject is the human Jesus under the power of the Holy Spirit whom God bestows upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus is a truly human person whose actions are constitutive of God’s actions, but they are definitive of God only because they are sanctified and empowered by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus Christ who proceeds as a gift of the Father. As the Synoptic Gospels testify, all of Jesus’ actions are done in the Spirit. And as Paul then testifies, the Spirit is the one who confirms and seals the work of Jesus for the life of the church. The Spirit is what unites the life of Jesus with the life of God, and the Spirit is also what unites the life of Jesus with the life of the church. Christology and ecclesiology are both pneumatically driven.

In the eucharist, this unity of Christ and the church is actualized in the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing intrinsic to the elements of bread and wine, nor to the words of institution or the office of the priest, which would make the eucharist an event of the presence of Jesus Christ. Instead, these disparate earthly elements are annexed and sanctified by God in the power of the Spirit to serve as the concrete witness to Christ’s death and resurrection “for us and our salvation.” In the same way that the Spirit is the sanctifying agent in the life and ministry of Jesus, so too the Spirit is the sanctifying agent in the eucharistic celebration. The Holy Spirit descends to Jesus, not to effect any substantial change in his ontic identity, but rather to actualize his being-in-act as the bearer of God’s eschatological reign. Similarly, the Spirit descends to the bread and wine, not to effect any substantial change, but rather to actualize the eucharist’s witness to Christ’s eternal activity of reconciliation and intercession. The Spirit gathers together the disparate moments of Christ’s life to serve as the redemptive mediation between God and humanity; likewise, the Spirit gathers together the disparate parts of the church into a sanctified community under the reign of Christ, the totus Christus, which feasts in communion with God and each other for the sake of their mission as the apostolic people of God.

The analogy between the Spirit’s work in the life of Christ and the Spirit’s work in the eucharistic existence of the church is disrupted (or rather extended) by the fact that Jesus is not only the incarnate Lord; but now he is also the risen and ascended Lord, who reigns at the right hand of God the Father, the Almighty. Whereas the incarnation was a divine descent of the Logos, a divine self-humiliation of the Word, in the power of the Spirit, the eucharist involves both descent and ascent. The Spirit both descends to the earthly elements and lifts the elements into the heavenly sanctuary where Christ eternally intercedes on behalf of creation. The eucharist is thus shaped by the fact that Jesus is now at the right hand of the Father. The eucharist is an ecclesial event determined by Christ’s resurrection and ascension.

At the same time, the Spirit’s eucharistic activity establishes a second analogy with Jesus Christ: the Holy Spirit’s descent and ascent in the eucharist corresponds to the Word’s descent and ascent in the Christ event. The “two natures” of the eucharist, consisting of the Spirit’s descent to the earthly elements and the ascent of the elements into the glorious presence of God, corresponds to the “two natures” of Jesus Christ, consisting of his divine mission into the far country as the humble Lord and his creaturely exaltation into participation in the life of God as the royal human being. The eucharist thus conforms analogically to the pattern of Christ’s own twofold existence as narrated by Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics IV, with the important caveat that the action in the eucharist is by no means an “incarnation” of the Spirit. Nor is the Spirit’s action in the eucharist qualitatively unique, as the Word’s action is in the incarnation, since the Spirit descends and ascends in this way elsewhere within the divine economy of grace. The intention here is only to highlight the way the Spirit’s activity in the eucharist finds a parallel in the event of Jesus Christ, which, like the eucharist, takes place wholly within the empowering presence of the Spirit of God. Through this activity of descending and ascending, the Holy Spirit actualizes the eucharist’s nature as the pentecostal event of Christ’s presence pro nobis.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Academic anti-historicism: an American problem

Yesterday, I quoted from a recent article on the absence of Freud, Marx, and Hegel from the disciplines in which they were so influential (psychology, economics, and philosophy). These figures are now discussed in other departments, all but forgotten in their original contexts—Hegel less so than Freud or Marx. The article does not seek to find a “single proposition” which explains this phenomenon, but it does present one problem as the likely culprit or at least the most probable basis for our present situation: “the ruthlessly anti- or nonhistorical orientation that informs contemporary academe.” In the article, Russell Jacoby offers the following analysis which I quote at length:
Psychology without Freud, economics without Marx, philosophy without Hegel: For disciplinary cheerleaders, this confirms intellectual progress. The cloudy old thinkers have made way for new scientific researchers. But at what cost? The past innovators shared a fealty to history. "We are what we are through history," stated Hegel; and Freud, for all his biological determinism, believed that one must master the past to master the present. Yet today we lack the patience to dig too far, or perhaps we lack the patience to unravel the implications of discoveries into the past. We want to find the exact pill or the exact gene that provides an instant solution. Psychology transmutes into biology. To the degree that a chemical imbalance results in depression, or a gene gives rise to obesity, the effort to restore health by drugs or surgery cannot be faulted. Yet an individual's own history may play a decisive role in those disharmonies. We triumphantly treat the effect as the cause. As a practical measure, that approach can be justified, but it avoids a deeper search.

The flight from history marks economics and philosophy as well. Economics looks more and more like mathematics, in which the past vanishes. Sometimes it even looks like biopsychology. . . . But can we really figure out today's economic problems without considering whence they came? Philosophy nods toward its past, but its devotion to language analysis and logic-chopping pushes aside as murky its great 19th-century thinkers. Polishing philosophical eyeglasses proves futile if they are rarely used to see.

No doubt there has been progress in those fields, but is it possible to advance without any idea of where one has been? Without a guide to the past, the scholar, like the traveler, might move in circles. Moreover, should the giants of the past be dispatched so coolly and mechanically? Culture is not like an automobile that should be junked when old and decrepit. I don't see how we can be educated — or consider ourselves educators — if we consign to the dustbin, say, Freud's exchange with Einstein on war, Marx's description of "the cheap price of commodities" that batters down national boundaries, or Hegel's notion of the master/slave relationship. Those ideas should be addressed, not parried; taught, not dismissed.

Jacoby, a professor of history at UCLA, is entirely right, even prophetic. The problem he identifies is not unique to these three disciplines but has thoroughly infected the academy. As a theologian, I can say quite confidently that theology has suffered greatly from our current ahistoricism. No discipline has a greater stake in history than theology, not only because it begins from a historical starting-point, viz. Jesus of Nazareth, but also because the discipline of theology itself stands in continuity with an historical community, viz. the church. Theology takes place in the company of those who have gone before us. Those Christians who see themselves as “confessional” are likewise demonstrating their dependency upon history, in that they submit themselves to the guidance of past believers who were fellow witnesses to the same gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

In our current ahistorical environment, theology is clearly suffering. Not only are students of theology ignorant of the ancient church fathers and mothers whose wisdom and witness are indispensable for the church, but they are ignorant of more recent historical events and figures. Protestants, in particular, are unfamiliar with the issues, events, and people of the Reformation. People have heard of Luther, Calvin, and the 95 Theses, but know little to nothing about their significance. Names like Zwingli, Melanchthon, Bucer, Beza, Ursinus, Bullinger and others are virtually unknown to most Christians, and some of them even to many theology students. The consequence is that most Protestants have no idea why they belong to one denomination rather than another. Modern ecumenism, I suspect, often has less to do with genuine agreement over doctrinal issues than with simple forgetfulness regarding the original disputes. Many Baptists don’t know why they aren’t Reformed, and many Reformed don’t know why they aren’t Lutheran, and many Lutherans don’t know why there aren’t Catholic. This is a real problem. We cannot have serious theological dialogue unless we understand the history of the church and the history of theology. The future of the church depends upon the church’s knowledge of the past.

While I do not wish to place all the blame on American education, I do think this is a uniquely American problem. That is not because the United States has a poor education system, though that is certainly true and may very well be a factor. The issue is actually more basic to American culture as a whole. Paul Tillich first articulated this insight in his 1952 address entitled, “The Conquest of Theological Provincialism: Europe and America.” In this essay, Tillich discusses the cultural differences between America and Europe. He talks at first of the benefits of being in the United States, because it breaks a European from his or her intellectual provincialism. America’s freedom from tradition prevents the formation of an American provincialism to rival what one finds throughout Europe. Unlike Continental theology, Tillich says (in a statement that echoes Bonhoeffer), “American theological thinking is centered around social ethical problems.” Whereas the church in Europe is “the institution for the salvation of souls,” the church in America is “a social agent.” That is, the American church is primarily concerned with the pragmatic issues of the present moment, whereas the European church is primarily an historical institution continuing a particular tradition. Americans are more interested in practical theology than systematic theology, he says. Likewise, American theology is concerned with congregational life, not with church dogma. The so-called “Emerging Church” is a perfect example of American Christianity gone wild: radically ahistorical, non-confessional, and pragmatic.

Near the end of his essay, Tillich summarizes the problem with American Christianity:
Historical consciousness generally was something we brought from historically minded Europe to unhistorically minded America. It is not a matter of historical knowledge, but a matter of a feeling which every European instinctively has, namely, that ideas are in their very nature historical. The development of an idea is an essential element in the idea itself. This is the background of what was called Geistesgeschichte (inadequately translated “intellectual history” or “history of thought”). The true meaning of Geistesgeschichte is not a factual history of former thoughts, but is the attempt to make visible the implications and consequences of an idea in the light of its history. In this sense Geistesgeschichte is a part of systematic philosophy and theology. The assertion is rather unfamiliar to most American students, and it was one of our most important tasks to balance the American emphasis on new beginning with the European emphasis on tradition. And it was equally important to balance the American emphasis on facts with the European emphasis on interpretation. (175-76; emphasis added)
Tillich’s observation is acute. Americans emphasize “new beginnings,” whereas Europeans emphasize tradition; Americans emphasize facts, whereas Europeans emphasize interpretation. That is, Americans emphasize “historical knowledge,” whereas Europeans emphasize the “history of thought.” The American obsession with trivia game shows summarizes our situation: a love of pure factual information sans historical interpretation along with the possibility of starting a new beginning with one’s prize winnings. (How interesting that in Magnolia, two of the main characters are game show contestents and one of the central themes is our relationship with history, summarized in the thrice-repeated line: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”)

In any case, Tillich identifies what is most important and also most concerning: America is “unhistorically minded.” Why is this the case? There are probably any number of reasons, but I seem to recall hearing that Tillich once said that this lack of historical consciousness is a consequence of the fact that the United States came into being in the Enlightenment and never went through its own period of Romanticism, the way Europe did. This seems to be a plausible and interesting thesis. Regardless of how we got to this point, what we do know is this: Americans are all about the here and now, the present moment. American Christians are thus interested in the present tense rather than the past tense, in orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy, in ethics rather than theology. Few events in history are more American than the Great Awakenings of the 19th century, and few actions in the church are more American than the altar call, in which the individual, in the heat of the moment, throws off the sinful past and embraces a “new beginning” in Christ.

All of this is simply to say, theology in America is in a perilous predicament, and has been for some time. Not only is the American academe growing more anti-historical with each passing year it seems, but the American culture itself is an ahistorical one. This is particularly distressing for the discipline of theology. If Jacoby and Tillich are right, then it makes perfect sense why American students are quite able to regurgitate factual information about historical figures yet often entirely unable to explain the historical significance of these same figures. In evangelical churches, like the one in which I grew up, one learns how to memorize Scripture and ace Bible drills, but not how to interpret those verses. Theology students may know who Athanasius, Origen, Thomas, Melanchthon, and Zwingli are, but not why they are significant for the church today. Christians may know the Nicene Creed, but not why it matters. Is it any wonder, then, that so many Christians today have no idea why Jesus has any significance for us beyond providing some moral example, comparable to Ghandi or King? Is it any wonder that Christ’s death and resurrection are viewed, if not as antiquated ideas of the past, as irrelevant facts which have no bearing on our lives here and now (see Peter Kline’s sermon for some thoughts about this)? Lessing’s “great ugly ditch” yawns wider for Americans, it seems, than for anyone else.

Can we stop the bleeding? Can we reverse the American anti-historicism? I sure hope so. Rather than offer any of my own answers, let me open the floor for discussion:
  • Have you noticed the problem of non- or anti-historicism? If so, what are some examples from your own experience?
  • How has ahistoricism affected the church?
  • What do you think might be some of the reasons for this problem?
  • What should the response of the church be to the lack of historical consciousness?
  • What are some possible ways of combating our culture’s emphasis on the present tense over the past tense?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Freud, Marx, and Hegel: where have they gone?

How is it that Freud is not taught in psychology departments, Marx is not taught in economics, and Hegel is hardly taught in philosophy? Instead these masters of Western thought are taught in fields far from their own. Nowadays Freud is found in literature departments, Marx in film studies, and Hegel in German. But have they migrated, or have they been expelled? Perhaps the home fields of Freud, Marx, and Hegel have turned arid. Perhaps those disciplines have come to prize a scientistic ethos that drives away unruly thinkers. Or maybe they simply progress by sloughing off the past.

A completely unscientific survey of three randomly chosen universities confirms the exodus. A search through the philosophy-course descriptions at the University of Kansas yields a single 19th-century-survey lecture that mentions Hegel. Marx receives a passing citation in an economics class on income inequality. Freud scores zero in psychology. At the University of Arizona, Hegel again pops up in a survey course on 19th-century philosophy; Marx is shut out of economics; and, as usual, Freud has disappeared. And at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Hegel does not appear in philosophy courses, Marx does not turn up in economics, and Freud is bypassed in psychology.

The divorce between informed opinion and academic wisdom could not be more pointed. If educated individuals were asked to name leading historical thinkers in psychology, philosophy, and economics, surely Freud, Hegel, and Marx would figure high on the list. Yet they have vanished from their home disciplines. How can this be?

—Russell Jacoby, The Chronicle Review

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Freeganism: opting out of capitalism

For those who wish to “opt out” of capitalism, there is an option that is growing in popularity: freeganism, or becoming a “freegan” (combination of “free” and “vegan”). The name “freegan” seems to be relatively new, but the practice certainly isn’t: it’s just “dumpster diving” for the middle class. I was sent an article about this new movement from a family member of mine. I suspect this isn’t a lifestyle that he or most anyone else is going to rush out and adopt. But I certainly admire it.
For lunch in her modest apartment, Madeline Nelson tossed a salad made with shaved carrots and lettuce she dug out of a Whole Foods dumpster. She flavored the dressing with miso powder she found in a trash bag on a curb in Chinatown. She baked bread made with yeast plucked from the garbage of a Middle Eastern grocery store.

Nelson is a former corporate executive who can afford to dine at four-star restaurants. But she prefers turning garbage into gourmet meals without spending a cent.

On this afternoon, she thawed a slab of pate that she found three days before its expiration date in a dumpster outside a health food store. She made buttery chicken soup from another health food store's hot buffet leftovers, which she salvaged before they were tossed into the garbage.

Nelson, 51, once earned a six-figure income as director of communications at Barnes and Noble. Tired of representing a multimillion dollar company, she quit in 2005 and became a "freegan" -- the word combining "vegan" and "free" -- a growing subculture of people who have reduced their spending habits and live off consumer waste. Though many of its pioneers are vegans, people who neither eat nor use any animal-based products, the concept has caught on with Nelson and other meat-eaters who do not want to depend on businesses that they believe waste resources, harm the environment or allow unfair labor practices.

"We're doing something that is really socially unacceptable," Nelson said. "Not everyone is going to do it, but we hope it leads people to push their own limits and quit spending."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Political music: Derek Webb and the Flobots

Two (relatively) new albums deal with contemporary politics in some thoughtful and provocative ways. The first, by Derek Webb, is not all that surprising for those who are familiar with his past work, most notably his previous album, Mockingbird. His most recent album, The Ringing Bell (released in May 2007), is not as musically or lyrically strong as his earlier efforts, and he still has not found a way to avoid sounding preachy and heavy-handed. That said, one of the weaker songs on the album is also the most politically incendiary. It’s title is “A Savior on Capitol Hill”:
I’m so tired of these mortal men
With their hands on their wallets and their hearts full of sin
Scared of their enemies, scared of their friends
And always running for re-election
So come to DC if it be thy will
Because we’ve never had a savior on Capitol Hill

You can always trust the devil or a politician
To be the devil or a politician
But beyond that friends you’d best beware
‘Cause at the Pentagon bar they’re an inseparable pair
And as long as the lobbyists are paying their bills
We’ll never have a savior on Capitol Hill

[Bridge]
All of our problems gonna disappear
When we can whisper right in that President’s ear
He could walk right across the reflection pool
In his combat boots and ten thousand dollar suit

You can render unto Caesar everything that’s his
You can trust in his power to come to your defense
It’s the way of the world, the way of the gun
It’s the trading of an evil for a lesser one
So don’t hold your breath or your vote until
You think you’ve finally found a savior up on Capitol Hill

Much more recently, on April 15, 2008, the Flobots released their debut album, Fight with Tools. The Flobots are a hip-hop/rap group who exchange songs about drugs, money, and women for songs that engage the social and political issues of our time. Wikipedia describes them as “a socialist anti-establishment alternative rock/rap group.” The rap genre works well for them. Rap has always had the latent (and sometimes realized) potential for being socially subversive, arising as it does out of the African-American musical tradition. Their songs are reminiscent of Eminem’s early work, both in the sound of James Laurie’s voice and in their lyrical in-your-faceness, though with superior lyrics. But the music of The Flobots is what sets them apart, far outstripping the majority of what passes as hip-hop today. Their band includes a violinist, in addition to bass and guitar. While all of their songs are socially engaged, one of the more impressive examples is the song, “Stand Up”:
Stand up
We shall not be moved
Except By a child with no socks and shoes
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Stand up We shall not be moved
Except by a woman dying from a loss of food
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

We still don't understand thunder and lightning
Flash back to when we didn't fund the dam
Didn't fund the dam levee? No wonder man
Now our whole damn city's torn asunder man
Under water but we still don't understand
We see hurricane spills overrun the land
Through gaps you couldn't fill with a 100 tons of sand
No we still don't understand
We've seen planes in the windows of buildings crumbled in
We've seen flames send the chills through London
And we've sent planes to kill them and some of them were children
But still we crumbling the building
Underfunded but we still don't understand
Under God but we kill like the son of Sam
But if you feel like I feel like about the son of man
We will overcome

So Stand up
We shall not be moved
Except By a child with no socks and shoes
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Stand up We shall not be moved
Except by a woman dying from a loss of food
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

I said Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

We shall not be moved
Except By a child with no socks and shoes
Except by a woman dying from a loss of food
Except by a freedom fighter bleeding on a cross for you
We shall not be moved
Except by a system thats rotten through
Neglecting the victims and ordering the cops to shoot
High treason now we need to prosecute

So Stand up
We shall not be moved
And we won't fight a war for fossil fuel
Its times like this that you want to plot a coup
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
So Stand up
We shall not be moved
Unless were taking a route we have not pursued
So if you've got a dream and a lot to do
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

I said Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
if you've got a dream and a lot to do
Put your hands up

Now shake, shake
A Polaroid dream
nightmare negatives develop on the screen
We sit back and wait for the government team
Criticize they but who the fuck are we
The people want peace but the leaders want war
Our neighbors don't speak, peek through the front door
House representatives preach "stay the course"
Time for a leap of faith
Once More

Put your hands up high if you haven't abandoned
Hope that the pen strokes stronger than the cannon
Balls to the wall, Nose to the grindstone
My interrogation techniques leave your mind blown
So Place your bets lets speak to the enemy
Don't let em pretend that we seek blood
And who's we anyways Kemo Sabe?
Mighty warlord wanna-be street thug
a threat for a threat leaves the whole world terrified
blow for blow never settles the score
word for word is time need clarify
We the people did not want war

So Stand up
We shall not be moved
Except By a child with no socks and shoes
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Unless were taking a route we have not pursued
So if you've got a dream and a lot to do
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

I said Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
if you've got a dream and a lot to do
Put your hands up

Thursday, August 14, 2008

On the failure of contemporary Christian ethics

“From the Apostle Paul to Marguerite Porete to Martin Luther, the deepest attempts to grapple with the God made known in Jesus have drawn charges of antinomianism, libertinism, and moral nihilism. That so few works in the contemporary field of Christian ethics draw those charges should give us pause. It is as if Christian ethics has become all exhortation and no exposition, a set of remarks that have broken free from the body of a sermon to stand on their own.”

—Ted A. Smith, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice (New York: Cambridge UP, 2007), 259.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

This is where I was last night



(It’s a poor video, so in case it’s not clear, I was at the Radiohead/Grizzly Bear concert in Camden, NJ. Incredible.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Spirit of the Lord, §11: Banquet of the New Jerusalem

§11. The Banquet of the New Jerusalem: Eucharistic Shalom

Let me first recapitulate the central argument I am advancing in this series. Against the notion that the peace of the Lord is an “inner,” “spiritual” peace which only concerns the relationship between one’s soul and God, I am arguing that the gospel of salvation is a cosmic kerygma whose scope embraces the whole of creaturely existence, including the material, political, and economic dimensions of human society. More specifically, I have engaged in a close analysis of the biblical text in the construction of a christological-eschatological ecclesiology. The “Spirit of the Lord” is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and thus the Spirit of the cross and resurrection. As the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit is the agent of Christ’s mission and mediation, and by virtue of Pentecost, the agent also of the Christian community’s life of faithful obedience in correspondence to what Jesus accomplished in his mission into the far country. In contrast to a “Sanitized Savior of Suburbia,” the gospel proclaims a God who is with us (nobiscum) and for us (pro nobis) in Jesus Christ, who inaugurates the reign of peace, and who gives us the euangelion of shalom in our life of witness. The centerpiece of my reflections on Immanuel has been a close theological exegesis of Micah 4:1-4, which explored the themes of covenant, universality, political pacifism, logocentricism, forensicism, and eschatology. With that behind us now, I intend to complete this series by exploring the implications of a missional-eschatological theology of reconciliation for the eucharist and pneumatology. I will take up the former here and leave the latter for the next section.

Due to space limitations, I must confine my discussion of the eucharist to those areas germane to our theme. In the interest of full disclosure, I will advance the following thesis: the eucharist is a pentecostal event in which the covenantal community of the cross is propelled into the world in order to share the shalom of table-fellowship with the poor and oppressed as a sanctified foretaste of the messianic banquet. My exposition of this thesis will proceed under the following headings: (1) the eucharist and the Holy Spirit, (2) the eucharist and mission, (3) the eucharist and peace, and (4) the eucharist and the kingdom.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Growing disparity between rich and poor in the U.S.

The United States no longer boasts anywhere near the world’s longest life expectancy. It doesn’t even make the top 40. In this and many other ways, the richest nation on earth is not the healthiest. [Majid] Ezzati’s finding is unsettling on its face, but scholars find further cause for concern in the pattern of health disparities. Poor health is not distributed evenly across the population, but concentrated among the disadvantaged.

Disparities in health tend to fall along income lines everywhere: the poor generally get sicker and die sooner than the rich. But in the United States, the gap between the rich and the poor is far wider than in most other developed democracies, and it is getting wider. That is true both before and after taxes: the United States also does less than most other rich democracies to redistribute income from the rich to the poor.

—Elizabeth Gudrais, in Harvard Magazine (pdf)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Night of the living homeless

My pastor, Todd Hiestand, recently posted on a story about the homeless in inner-city Philadelphia. Due to a love triangle, one homeless person killed another. It is a sad and tragic situation, though similar stories are found everywhere among even the very wealthy. Love makes people do strange and even criminal things. And yet, in the comments to the news story, people said some incredibly horrifying, insensitive, and hateful things:

Mark C Student says: “that is one homeless person down - now if only they would all take care of each other so that those of us who work and pay taxes can enjoy our city - honestly - they have time to have sex love triangles and make all kinds of friends and sex partners - they could find time to get jobs - at least now this one woman has another solution to the homeless problem”

daddyimscared says: “OK..lets recap–in the heart of Center City we have TWO homeless woment fighting for the affection of another homeless guy, and one kills the other! They have the energy to kill but not to work??”

why says: “get them off the street. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. The rubbish, the crime, the exposing of themsleves and the filth. This is an easy solution. ENFORCE THE NO CAMPING. These people dont want help…..They want to have teh right to live on our streets and our parks…have sex……fornicate and relieve themselves in public…..How long does this city need to be subjected to this”

Mark C Student [again!] says: “people have themselves to blame for homelessness - and for all the breeding done by people who cant support their offspring - none of the people out ruining the city by peeing on the streets, harassing taxpayes - and now killing themselves - are going to contribute to society in a meaningful way - they are violating our social contract - so, don't blame the rest of us, curtis. When my house had a rodent problem - we took measures to protect our belongings and called an exterminator - we didn't look for ways to help the rodents coexist”
Thankfully, there was at least one sane comment, by the “curtis” to whom that last comment by Mark C Student was addressed:
It is sad to see how many posters are seemingly "happy" with this murder. These people posting such harsh comments seem to think that the homeless are the problem. I see the situation a bit differently: these unsympathetic Philadelphians posting on this website are just as much a part of the problem, by creating a general culture of not caring enough to work together and improve the situation for ALL citizens of the city. A real shame ... go work, volunteer and meet some of the homeless and you will probably see that these are people like you and me, with problems and issues but a desire to have a better life. This lack of compassion is a real shock to me, and I hope the victim of this crime rests in peace, far from these crazy comments that seem to rejoice in a meaningless murder.
It’s simply incredible to see how ignorant people are of the systems of oppression which enslave the homeless and keep them there. People, generally conservatives, seem to think that any person can just will themselves out of homelessness. If you just try hard enough and want it badly enough, it will all just go away. They toss around overly simplified clichés like “give a person a fish, feed him for a day; teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime,” forgetting that sometimes you need to give him a fish so that he can live to learn how to fish. Of course, what’s really sad is that this cliché is usually used simply to excuse people from giving anything, when the other side of the statement—educating the homeless—is not done instead. We need both aspects, social welfare and comprehensive programs of rehabilitation, not shoddy excuses and self-righteous drivel.

When I read these kinds of comments about the homeless, I am reminded of the brilliant South Park episode from season 11, entitled, “Night of the Living Homeless.” The episode took the idea of the homeless as a kind of alien Other and ran with it. Here the homeless are not ordinary people who have had a difficult life; instead, they are a different race altogether. The film, as indicated by the title, combines the issues surrounding homelessness with the narrative of your typical zombie movie, especially 28 Days Later. In such stories, a human being slowly transforms into a zombie due to contact with other zombies; they become inhuman and monstrous, no longer worthy of basic human decency and respect. And just as zombies live by feeding on the flesh of living humans, so too the homeless live by feeding on the change given them by people on the street.

One of the brilliant moments in the episode occurs near the end, when the four boys are speaking with some men from the next town over. The leader of these “survivors” goes into the following monologue when asked how they got rid of the homeless:
The homeless first started arriving in Evergreen about three months ago. At first there were only a few of them—asking for change, sleeping in the parks. But then more showed up. And we realized there was something different about them. They fed off of our change to the point that they could start renting apartments. We knew it wouldn’t be long before the homeless actually started buying homes. And then we’d have no idea who was homeless and who wasn’t! People living in the house right next door to you could be homeless and you wouldn’t even know! Nobody could trust anybody. Fights broke out. War. That’s when I started suspecting that my own wife, who I’d been living with for 20 years, was actually homeless. So I had to burn her—in her bed, while she slept.
He goes on to reveal that their plan for dealing with the homeless problem involved luring the homeless to South Park. As Stan says, “But then you didn’t solve the problem. You just moved it.”

What makes this episode so smart is the way it taps into our rhetoric about the homeless as some homogeneous Other. They are all the same—lazy, parasitic, incompetent, selfish, etc. In short, not like us, essentially inhuman. The homeless represent that intolerable pest which we desperately want to be rid of altogether. They are a blight to society, who have chosen to be this way. They want to be homeless, in the same way that gays want to be gay, according to the conservative nutjobs out there. And like homosexuals or those who are racially Other, the homeless are then stigmatized. They become objects of fear and loathing. Like Latino immigrants that carry the stigma of illegal immigration, we associate any homeless-looking person with everything that threatens our way of life. Even if they take on this way of life—even if the homeless person rents an apartment or buys a home, as the man says in the South Park episode—they remain “homeless.” Like the gay man who works in the next cubicle or the Muslim family who participates in the local PTA, the homeless can never be true members of society. They can never be fully human. They still and always remain representatives of everything that we find undesirable and scary, unwanted and unknown. The homeless become part of this ever-expanding list of groups whom we identify as America’s enemies: terrorists, immigrants, blacks, gays, Europeans, liberals, Muslims, and now homeless. The list goes on.

Todd asks the question, “Why do we hate the homeless?” The answer, I submit, is that we simply hate that which is different from us. We hate the Other. We hate difference and diversity. This is the basis for misogyny, racism, and homophobia. People adopt the creed that we protect “our own,” and no one else. We look out for our individual interests and the interests of those who are “like us.” That is the limit of our interest and concern. Our empathy only extends to those with whom it is natural for us to empathize. In the end, it comes down to a blanket rejection of Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan and his command to love our enemies. One might even say it boils down to a hatred, or at least suspicion, of our neighbor. Hence the “white flight” from the city to the suburbs.

In the end, we are called to love our neighbor, to love our enemy, to show compassion on those who different, other, and unknown. Like Israel, we are called to welcome the stranger, for we were once aliens and strangers in the land. We must remember that “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11). Translated, we might say, there is no longer White and Black, gay and straight, homeless, Muslim, immigrant and citizen, imprisoned and free; but Christ is all and in all.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Five Theological Words I Like and Five I Do Not Like

After D. W. Horstkoetter wrote a list of theological words that annoy him and a list of theological words that he really likes, I was inspired to draft my own similar lists. I have combined both lists together in this post.

Five Theological Words I Like

1. Missional. I firmly believe that theology has to be missional if it is going to be truly theological. Missional theology forces us to rethink all of the doctrinal loci around a center in mission. Missional theology grounds our understanding of the gospel in the triune mission of God (missio Dei)—actualized in the reconciling history of Jesus Christ—and the corresponding mission of the church, which witnesses to God’s reconciliation of the world as the contextual and inculturated community of God. The implications of this position are vast, capable of addressing many, if not all, of the theological debates we currently face today. In my opinion, theology needs to become missional or perish.

2. Apocalyptic. The word “apocalyptic” is perhaps on the verge of becoming a word that annoys people, but I still find it deeply useful and meaningful. The word is often paired with eschatological language, which is certain appropriate. However, the word is often limited in its semantic range to the eschatological future, when it has a wider meaning. The word comes from the Greek word meaning “to reveal,” the basis for our word “revelation.” The “apocalyptic” is a moment of divine revelation, a shattering of the old world and the in-breaking of the new, primarily in the eschatological present but also in the eschatological future—or, rather, the present moment is the in-breaking of the future.

3. Liberation. Here I agree with Horstkoetter in using “liberation.” I am both happy and sad that we have liberation theology: happy because we need to be reminded of the politically radical nature of the gospel, but also sad because they seem to have monopolized the word. Liberation is a far more rich concept than one might suppose from the writings of liberation theologians. I find it very helpful in connecting the Exodus event to the Christ event in the cross and resurrection. We are liberated from sin and death just as Israel was liberated from Pharoah and Egypt. We need to recover and explore the depth of this word.

4. Theological Exegesis. One of the happiest developments in recent theology is the emphasis on the theological interpretation/exegesis of Scripture. The notion of “biblical theology” is really problematic, for two main reasons: (1) it assumes that biblical interpretation forms the foundation for later theological reflection, and (2) it implies that other forms of theology are not necessarily biblical in nature. Theological exegesis, by contrast, understands that our interpretation of Scripture is guided by theological presuppositions. Theological reflection and biblical interpretation both condition and determine each other. While Brevard Childs is to be commended for showing the promise of biblical theology, we have people like Daniel Treier and Kevin Vanhoozer to thank for showing the promise of theological exegesis, but they are only the beginning.

5. Extra nos. Latin for “outside ourselves,” the phrase extra nos gained currency in Barthian circles, specifically in the work of Eberhard Jüngel. The term is used properly to speak of the reality of the gospel which both exists and comes to us from outside ourselves. The reconciliation accomplished in the cross and resurrection of Jesus exists extra nos, and is thus a reality for us independent of our acknowledgment of the event. As a result, we are disrupted by the grace of God which is extra nos, which comes to us as a word of death and new life, a word of interruption and redemption.


Five Theological Words I Do Not Like

1. Perichoresis/Perichoretic. The word “perichoresis” or “perichoretic” is not problematic in itself, but in practice, the word has come to be used (1) as a way of making three divine persons into one deity and (2) as a synonym for “relational.” The most crude form of the first type of thinking is found in Moltmann’s worst book, The Trinity and the Kingdom, where he throws around the word “perichoretic” in ways that are simply unacceptable, using it to do all kinds of theological work which it is not cut out to do. “Perichoresis” needs to be used in an analytic sense—describing the nature of the unity in the Trinity—rather than in a synthetic sense—establishing the unity among the triune persons. The second use of the word is epitomized by the work of Colin Gunton and other social trinitarians. In books like The One, the Three and the Many, he uses perichoresis analogically to describe human relationality: God’s eternal interrelatedness is analogically mapped upon human interrelatedness. Gunton thus defines “perichoretic” as “a dynamism of relatedness.” This kind of language about the Trinity is far too abstract and watered-down. It fails to acknowledge that perichoresis describes a reality proper to God alone.

2. Biblical. Again, I agree with Horstkoetter here. Applying the adjective “biblical” to something is less a mark of theological content than it is a power-play, an attempt to mark something as “right” over against other things that are “wrong.” The word “biblical” becomes a way to discriminate between what a person likes and does not like, regardless of whether it has any relation to Scripture. It’s sort of like the conservative evangelical counterpart to the liberal’s usage of “fundamentalist.”

3. Orthopraxy. How many times do we have to hear people talk about moving past orthodoxy to orthopraxy? I am sick and tired of hearing people blame orthodoxy for the church’s problems and claiming to solve them through orthopraxy. What this basically means in the end is that they want to toss out theology and doctrine in exchange for ecclesial practices and sociopolitical transformation. I heard this kind of talk repeatedly at the Envision Conference, and emergent types love it. If we’re going to use it, then use it in conjunction with orthodoxy, and always be sure to emphasize that “right action” must always correspond with “right belief” and vice versa. The two go together as a dialectical pair, never one to the subjugation of the other.

4. Doxological. Here I have to be careful: doxological is a perfectly good word. But I feel about this word the same way Ben Myers feels about the word “trinitarian”: that more often than not it “has become an obstacle to real theological thinking.” Doxological covers up a lot of bad theological thinking by ushering us all too quickly into the numinous realm of divine worship. In this sense, it functions similarly to “orthopraxy,” which brushes over the dullness of doctrine to get us into the sexiness of praxis. The word “doxological” often seems to sublate all theological thinking into the warm and mysterious embrace of the divine glory and the heavenly liturgy. Such ideas are trascendent in their aesthetic power, but all too often are superficial in their theological reflection. I’m looking at you, Halden—with a smile and a wink, of course.

5. Postmodern/Postmodernism/Postmodernity. Need I say more?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Suburban poverty and the mission of the church

My church, The Well, recently held a week long missions trip to its own suburban neighborhood in order to open our eyes to the poor living “next door,” so to speak. The week was full of activities, including: working at a soup kitchen, caring for single mothers dealing with drugs at a halfway house, visiting the Russian immigrants at a nursing home, and helping the local Salvation Army stock their food pantry and catch up on yard work. We spent a great deal of time with children, many of whom were living in difficult situations of poverty and yet were filled with joy. We learned a lot about what the suburbs hide behind the veneer of shopping malls and carbon-copy home developments.

One of the most exciting events was a community forum that we held on Thursday, July 24, on suburban poverty. We invited five speakers from our area, including a local politician, a pastor, and a couple people involved with NGOs. The event was attended mostly by people outside of our church community. The dialogue was excellent, touching on important issues of government policy and the unique difficulties and complexities of suburban poverty.

Our church is following up on that insightful and humbling week with a seminar on “Missional in Suburbia” this Saturday, Aug. 9, with Al Hsu, author of The Suburban Christian. The seminar will take place from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and costs $25. There is an open house meet-and-greet time on Friday evening. If you are in the area, I would recommend trying to attend this event.

The church is called to be with the poor, because that is where Jesus is. According to Matt. 25, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ demands that we follow him into solidarity with the poor, seeking liberation for them in correspondence with the way Jesus accomplished liberation for us all in his reconciling life, death, and resurrection. The mission of the church is constituted by its being sent by God to those who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, and imprisoned. We are commissioned by God to be with them as God came to be with us, to love them as God first loved us. Certainly, the efforts of our church and any church to embody the love of God in our local community are broken and incomplete, but they remain humble efforts at following Paul’s appeal “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1).

We do not worship first and then engage in the mission of the church to the poor and homeless. We worship precisely by engaging in mission. The being of the church is actualized in the act of mission. We are the church in that we are sent forth as God’s disciples, commissioned to love others in humble obedience to the command of Jesus Christ. Toward this end, we remember that “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:11-12).

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Spirit of the Lord: Update

It has been almost a full year since I wrote the last post in my series on “The Spirit of the Lord.” The time has come to bring this series to a close, though that may still take awhile. I have expanded the final sections somewhat, and I remain as prolix as ever. For those readers who are not familiar with this series, the entire series began as a response to a sermon about the meaning of Immanuel given on Christmas Eve of 2006. In this sermon, the pastor said that the peace which Christ brings is entirely an inner, spiritual peace which has no relation whatsoever with one’s physical existence and social relations with others. I was incensed, and I began writing that very evening. The series has now reached well over 30,000 words. While I began focusing on issues of christology, I have spent the most time on ecclesiology. My argument is that the gospel (what I call the euangelion of shalom) embraces the whole of creaturely existence, including the material, political, and economic dimensions of human society. The series is thus an effort at a missionally-shaped, christologically-grounded, and eschatologically-oriented ecclesiology.

Below is the outline of the series so far. Like most series on this blog, each successive post seems to get longer and more sophisticated than the last. The heart of the series is thus §10, and for those reading this series for the first time and looking for a way to catch up quickly, I recommend reading those posts.


The Spirit of the Lord God Is Upon Me:
Theological Reflections on Immanuel

§1. Introduction

§2. Sanitized Savior of Suburbia

§3. Deus Nobiscum

§4. Deus Pro Nobis

§4.1. Simul iustus et peccator


§4.2. Death of Death


§4.3. Yes and No


§4.4. Munus triplex


§4.5. God in the Abyss


§5. Euangelion of Shalom

§6. Israel’s Messiah

§7. The Mediation of Christ

§8. Missio Dei and Missio Communionis

§9. Corpus Christi

§10. The New Jerusalem

§10.1. Covenant


§10.2. Universality


§10.3. Political pacifism


§10.4. Logocentricism


§10.5. Forensicism


§10.6. Eschatology


§10.6.1. The Eschatological Being of the Ekklesia


§10.6.2. The Eschatological Basis of the Ekklesia


§10.6.3. The Eschatological Limit of the Ekklesia


§11. The Banquet of the New Jerusalem: Eucharistic Shalom

§11.1. The Eucharist and the Spirit


§11.2. The Eucharist and Mission


§11.3. The Eucharist and Peace


§11.4. The Eucharist and the Kingdom


§12. Anima Pacis: The Spirit of the New Jerusalem

§13. The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Us

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Augustine Blog Conference

Cynthia Nielsen of Per Caritatem is currently holding the first annual Augustine Blog Conference, entitled “Conversations with Augustine.” The conference seeks to bring Augustine’s thought “into conversation with philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages, Reformation, Modernity, and Postmodernity.” Here is the current index of posts, which I will keep updated as the conference progresses:

“Conversations with Augustine

1. Augustine and the Middle Ages

2. Augustine and the Reformation
3. Augustine and Modernity

Monday, August 04, 2008

Del Toro on demons

In anticipation of my upcoming AAR paper on Guillermo del Toro’s theopolitical imagination, here is a selection from a new USA Today article on del Toro’s understanding of demons and monsters:

"I'm interested in monsters because, much like archangels and angels, they represent a portion of the human soul," says the Mexican writer/director of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which arrives Friday.

Del Toro has become a sought-after director for his distinctive creatures and otherworldly parables that use the realms of fantasy to explore fundamental human issues such as love, alienation, weakness and, of course, fear. . . .

"In adult movies, R-rated movies, monsters can signify many different things," says del Toro. "But in the (PG-13) Hellboy mythology, they symbolize our imperfections and how we can embrace them. If we were more eager and willing to accept otherness, things would be better between people." . . .

"I'm eager to explore themes that lend themselves easily to metaphor," he says. "The fantastic is the only tool we have nowadays to explain spirituality to a generation that refuses to believe in dogma or religion. Superhero movies create a kind of mythology. Creature movies, horror movies, create at least a belief in something beyond."

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Multiculturalism and the problem of “authenticity”

“‘There is a certain way of being human that is my way’, wrote the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his much discussed essay on ‘The Politics of Recognition’. ‘I am called upon to live my life in this way… Being true to myself means being true to my own originality’. This sense of being ‘true to myself’ Taylor calls ‘the ideal of “authenticity”’. . . .

For the Enlightenment philosophes, equality required that the state should treat all citizens in the same fashion without regard to their race, religion or culture. This was at the heart of their arguments against the ancien regime and has been an important strand of liberal and radical thought ever since. For contemporary multiculturalists, on the other hand, people should be treated not equally despite their differences, but differently because of them. ‘Justice between groups’, as the political philosopher Will Kymlicka has put it, ‘requires that members of different groups are accorded different rights’. . . .

One expression of such equal treatment is the growing tendency in some Western nations for religious law – such as the Jewish halakha and the Islamic sharia – to take precedence over national secular law in civil, and occasionally criminal, cases. Another expression can be found in Australia, where the courts increasingly accept that Aborigines should have the right to be treated according to their own customs rather than be judged by ‘whitefella law’. . . .

The demand that because a cultural practice has existed for a long time, so it should be preserved . . . is a modern version of the naturalistic fallacy, the belief that ought derives from is. For nineteenth century social Darwinists, morality - how we ought to behave - derived from the facts of nature - how humans are. This became an argument to justify capitalist exploitation, colonial oppression, racial savagery and even genocide. Today, virtually everyone recognises the falsity of this argument. Yet, when talking of culture rather than of nature, many multiculturalists continue to insist that is defines ought. . . .

[T]here is something deeply inauthentic about the contemporary demand for authenticity.”
—Kenan Malik, “Identity Is That Which Is Given”

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Brian Howell on church leadership, gender, and culture

People everywhere place a great deal of importance on these biological differences; however, the specific expression of that importance is driven not by biology; but by culture. . . . [R]eactions within the church to the roles of men and women in leadership must be understood as embedded in the cultural context in which they occur. The very notion of a “head pastor” is a culturally-specific—and even a theologically-specific—innovation related to the Protestant and American heritage of evangelicalism. In some denominations, the pastor has become a combination of CEO, president, and Chief Development Officer. Some are discomfited to think of a woman there, not because of any particular theological commitment, but because it just does not seem right. The pastor is a person who tells you what to do, the decider, the disciplinarian. It is no fluke that in the Western tradition we have called this person “father.” In images of the shepherd, we like to see a man carrying a sheep (preferably a big heavy one) back to the fold. Even as some come to be convinced by the theological and scriptural arguments in favor of egalitarianism, they may find themselves held back only by the cultural connotations of these images and ideas of the leader as “father.” . . .

The metaphor of the family is a powerful one in Scripture and in the church. Most families in the United States operate on a fairly distinct division of gendered labor. I admit that in my home, I do the taxes, load the car, clean the gutters, and mow the lawn—or I did until our daughter turned eleven and involuntarily took that over. My wife does more laundry than I do, makes Halloween costumes for the kids, and arranges their dentist appointments. It is no surprise that in the church, women often get the job of organizing the nursery while men manage the finances; our families often run very similarly.

Other families, however, have other cultural traditions. Indonesian families do not trust men with money. Men are too easily swayed by their emotions, they say. Men are full of passion and behave erratically. Women are more stable, better able to think rationally and handle money or business transactions. In this case, it would be the women of the church who are more likely to sit on the finance committee. Perhaps men would be selected for arranging the entertainment at the church’s anniversary celebration.

I do not say all this to argue that some cultures are better than others. What an understanding of culture’s influence should do is put gross generalizations about the nature of men and women out of reach. Moreover, it challenges us to think about how and why we value particular attributes connected to these gender stereotypes. So often we believe that we are reacting to Scripture or that the powerful feelings we have about particular gender activities are our created nature. Rather, we need to realize that we are exhibiting the cultural context in which we live.

—Brian Howell, in E-Quality