Friday, October 21, 2016

The Love of Christ vs. the "Leap of Faith": Once More with Barth on Calvin's Catechism

A few weeks ago, I offered an introductory post on Karl Barth's fascinating little book on Calvin's Geneva Catechism.
Tandem in freefall, over Chicagoland, by Douglas S. Smith
(Public domain. Courtesy
The genre is a little misleading, as is often the case in Barth's works of historical theology: The catechism often seems more like a convenient vehicle for Barth to articulate own critical and constructive commitments rather than simply an object of historical interest in its own right. We find this early in the text, where Barth offers a critical gloss on Questions 13-14. The topic: How do we attain certainty that God loves us?

Karl Barth. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed According to Calvin's Catechism, trans. Gabriel Vahanian (Wipf & Stock, 2006).

Unsurprisingly, Barth highlights the Christocentric focus of Calvin's answers, and spurns an abstract approach rooted in natural theology:

Calvin clearly indicates the origin of our knowledge of God's love. Note well: it is not a question of a general and abstract and philosophical knowledge, not a question of a treatise on the love of God in nature or on love in general; all this, all these abstract ideas are a piece of paper, a great noise, only ideas. The Gospel, on the contrary, tells us about realities (p. 37).

Along with this goes Barth's characteristic actualism:

The task of theological reflection and of preaching does not begin at all with abstract ideas, but with the reality of God's action. The love of God is not an abstract quality of God's; it is an act: God takes to heart our misery (ibid.)

Still, Barth notes, human reason and philosophy naturally resist this direct confrontation with divine love in Christ. Perhaps God's love can be conceived as a general phenomenon, or as an ideal that Jesus instantiates paradigmatically? Barth insists, rather:

For Calvin, on the contrary, Jesus Christ holds a central position. There is not an "essence" of God's love that one could know as such, and then a "manifestation" of such a love whose eminent representative is Jesus Christ. No distinction is made between the principle and the person, between the message and the messenger. Jesus Christ is what he brings forth. (p. 38, italics in original).

Finally, Barth never misses a chance to slam an existentialist emphasis on trust in God as a experiential leap of faith; nor is he warm to the notion of the cool-headed and rational Pascalian wager. He adds these additional remarks on the the theme of "the authority of the Word":

To "trust" in God is not taking a chance, leaping into the darkness, or gambling and betting. For the Word of God is the very revelation of God, and the revelation of God is the demonstration of God. On the basis of that demonstration we have this "trust" -- a "trust" that is not out of whimsey but an act of true wisdom (p. 39).


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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger - New DET Contributing Author

“I hold to theology because only theology embraces the true,
tenable, and flawed as reality holds them.” – Marilynne Robinson

Hi! My name is Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger and I’m thrilled to be a new contributing author here at DET. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, the state with the nicest people and most breathtaking sunsets. I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, and I'm grateful for the ways in which that tradition taught me to love Scripture, modeled how to seek God in prayer, and encouraged me to take my profession of faith in Christ seriously.

I attended Wheaton College in IL where I intended to major in music performance, though I quickly discovered that the kinds of questions I was asking weren’t being answered in orchestra rehearsal. So I found my way to the Biblical and Theological Studies department, where I was challenged to carefully and charitably assess my long-held beliefs and was encouraged to embrace my academic passion - studying theology opened up a new language for me to interact with faith and practice. Feeling like I was just starting to scratch the surface of some fascinating conversations I was having in the classroom, I applied to Princeton Theological Seminary to continue my education in the MDiv program. One of the best parts about seminary was getting to do it with my husband, Max, who is an excellent theologian and scholar. My greatest joy is doing life with him.

At PTS I focused mainly on historical and systematic theology, initially avoiding Karl Barth but inevitably coming to love him. I avoided Barth because I thought he was the theologian who all the white bearded guys studied (no harm intended here!), but quickly discovered a theological voice that spoke with such passion and brilliance that I had to listen. I love Barth’s complexity, conviction, and creativity, and hope to make his work an integral part of my own in the future.

I also moderated a student group - Food Justice Fellows - which works to raise awareness of the connections between hunger and systemic racism within American urban environments. It was around the table and because of the patience of friends that I was gently brought around to the realities of racism within the United States, and the strong Biblical witness of justice that calls us to act against oppressive systems. I got woke. Now I cannot do theology without attending to justice, to the life of God who ultimately will lift up the oppressed and will bring low the privileged. Now I cannot do theology without literature, art, and poetry, because they often tell the story of justice in ways that theology alone cannot. To this end, I find Mary, the mother of God, to be a particularly helpful starting point for theology, both in her artistic expression and her prophetic witness.

All that to say, my interests are pretty broad, and I’m excited to explore some of them here with y’all at DET (like that quote by Robinson up there!). I’m currently working as a Campus Minister at Benedictine University and, God willing, will be applying to PhD programs in the next year or so. Though I have deep Baptist roots, I now worship within the Anglican Communion. Outside of the workplace and the classroom, you’ll usually find me spending time with Max and our adorable Bernese mountain dog, Calvin, aptly named after the Reformation theologian. I say aptly named because once Calvin, the dog, barked so loudly that our icon of Jesus was knocked off the shelf. He is a true Calvinist, indeed. We love being outside, reading, and doing most anything and everything together.

Also, beyond writing for DET, I am a guest contributor over at the Women in Theology blog. You can read my first post, which was all about Barth and his alleged affair (yep, I went there). Be on the lookout for my second post, which will be published soon!

[Ed. note: And, of course, stay tuned for more of Kathryn here at DET! ;-) ]

Follow @KBHeidelberger

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Gollwitzer Gold (part 2): More gleanings from Twitter

Some of you, gentle readers, may remember when I previously posted a collection of Gollwitzer quotes that I had shared on Twitter. Well, Gollwitzer died today 23 years ago, in 1993. And so I have gathered another assortment of #Golli tweets for you all as a way to commemorate his passing into the ecclesia triumphans.

So, I give you the following without further ado and in honor of Gollwitzer's life and thought.

By Stiftung Haus der Geschichte (2001_03_0275.4240) [CC BY-SA 2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

And how's this for a little gem with which to conclude?

Now, I realize that I'm one of the few people who read Gollwitzer. Perhaps you can tell that I'm trying to change that. So if you have also discovered the power and vitality of Gollwitzer's life and theology, and the deep relevance of his work for our own time, I invite you to write a note in the comments section. That would, indeed, be a truly fitting monument to Golli. Besides, I'd love to hear from you and know that there are others out there!


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Friday, October 14, 2016

Back to Square One: Weiss on Jesus' Apocalyptic Kingdom Message

Reading David Congdon's seminal work has brought home for me how crucial for Rudolf Bultmann was the turn-of-the-century recovery, within New Testament studies, of apocalyptic eschatology, especially as this development helped bring to a close the first, liberal quest for the historical Jesus. (For a primer on this topic, I recommend Congdon's Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology, Cascade, 2015, chap. 1).

Johannes Weiss, with a child (Heidelberg, 1914)
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The scholarship of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, especially, established a revolutionary -- and especially, in those days, jarring -- portrait of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who foretold a cosmic, cataclysmic and immanent judgement of the present evil age that would usher in the Kingdom of God. Previous portraits of Jesus, marked by post-Kantian ethical idealism, had interpreted the coming of the Kingdom of God as an internal affair -- or maybe more precisely, a reality that begins interiorly and spreads outward into the social world. That is to say, the kindgom in such view serves as a catalyst of a subjective spiritual transformation that would foster an emerging ethical commonwealth centered upon love of God and neighbor. In a popularizing vein, Adolf von Harnack portrayed the teaching of Jesus as a dual affirmation of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all people.

Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom by Johannes Weiss. Ed. R. Hiers & L. Holland (Fortress, 1971).

Weiss and Schweitzer changed all that, and their work sparked a series of crises in biblical studies and theology that marked the beginning of 20th century theology. The effects of this revolution continue to this day, though I would argue the older liberal-historical type of reading continues to thrive in certain circles as well, for example among some proposals authored or inspired by the work of the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s and 90s.

As with the earlier scholars, so too with me: My first encounter with the apocalyptic Jesus instigated my own crisis of sorts, goading me to pursue graduate studies in theology. I will always partially praise (or perhaps blame) a political philosophy professor for his offhand remarks about Schweitzer's Quest for the Historical Jesus and about the problem of "myth" in the Gospels for my decision to enter seminary rather than soldiering on in my little part-time job as a burglary reporter at The Birmingham News (that's Alabama, folks, not the UK). Before long, I had worked through Schweitzer's Quest and then his other major Jesus book, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, and before long I was reading one of his books on Paul. Then I was reading Tillich and Teilhard, and on it went.

Bultmann himself found Schweitzer's conclusions to be too extreme and considered Weiss to be the more seminal figure in the field. Weiss (1863–1914) taught biblical criticism at three major German universities -- Göttingen, Marburg, and Heidelberg -- and died as the shock waves from his work were still cresting across the Protestant academy. Bultmann wrote this about Weiss' impact:

When I began to study theology, theologians as well as laymen were excited and frightened by the theories of Johannes Weiss. I remember that Julius Kaftan, my teacher in dogmatics in Berlin, said: "If Johannes Weiss is right and the conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one, then it is impossibleto make use of this conception in dogmatics." (Jesus Christ and Mythology, Scribners: 1958, p. 13).

The situation changed dramatically in the decades that followed:

Today (in 1958) nobody doubts that Jesus' conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one -- at least in European theology and, as far as I can see, also among American New Testament scholars. Indeed, it has become more and more clear that the eschatological expectation and hope is the core of the New Tesament preaching throughout (ibid.).

Though I've read a decent amount of Schweitzer's work in Christian origins, I had never read the original text that proved so important in Bultmann's development -- namely, Johannes Weiss' groundbreaking tract, Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. As it happened, I grabbed this book at a church tag sale a while ago, so I thought I'd write a post or two carefully working through the text. The editors of my edition indicate Weiss's work, despite its historical importance, was relatively neglected by the early 1970s. I don't know whether that is still the case, though I do know that the winds of historical Jesus scholarship have shifted in recent decades among a number of the Third Questers, and also that critical research on apocalyptic eschatology has achieved crucial advances. Still, I like old books, and often find they understand newer ones better. So please join me -- ad fontes! -- as I hope to explore in future posts one of the classic texts that spurred a theological revolution more than a century ago.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Receiving God's Shalom as a Gift: A Guest Sermon about Peace and Justice by Josiah Daniels

Foolishly taking matters of peace and justice into our own hands leads to death. We can only receive the justice and peace of God as a gift. All that’s left is to live a life of thanksgiving, oriented towards the kingdom.

We as humans are more interested in taking than receiving. Because of this, we are not accustomed to living a life of gratitude. To view justice and peace as a gift, versus something to be established via human ingenuity, is a radical reorientation. But that is just what the Word of God means to do: reorient us. God’s Word provides a counter-text for the community of faith. This counter-text puts a major emphasis on God’s shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word for the socially and individually restorative peace and justice of God. Our texts today detail how God expects the world to work. But, as is to be expected, humans tend to have “better,” more “efficient” ways to establish peace and justice.

Both the fascists and the neoliberals alike are convinced they are the final authorities on what constitutes as “justice” and “peace.” One group speaks of “law and order” while the other group speaks of “mandatory minimum sentencing.”

By Philip De Vere (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Those who dare to allow the Word to reorient their lives are stumbling blocks to some and mere fools to others. We have learned to say no to the negative definitions of peace and justice which have been defined as the absence of tension. God’s shalom can only be received in struggling with those on the margins who have been left out or cut out due to humans taking matters of peace and justice into their own hands.

In Isaiah chapter 1, the prophet has rather adversarial language for those who have convinced themselves they’ve got justice and peace figured out and all that remains is making a few sacrifices, having some parties and singing a few worship choruses. Isaiah perceives the foolishness of the people and, as Isaiah tends to do, he lets them have it starting in v. 10:

10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,[a]
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

To say Isaiah is harsh here is putting it mildly. Isaiah uses poetry to break through the ideological safeguards his listeners have created. Isaiah’s listeners are likely the “urban elite” who rarely think about justice and peace for those on the margins because they have found themselves in positions of prestige and power. These people are not compelled to think about the orphan, the widow or the oppressed because they are established citizens with rights, privileges, food, housing etcetera. Maybe they thought to themselves, “This is all the justice and peace that’s needed!” It seems as though it never occurred to them the justice and peace they established for themselves excludes and oppresses the vulnerable of society.

So YHWH, through Isaiah, labels their rituals of thanksgiving as “abominations.” These acts are not done as a response to God’s gift of justice and peace; these “sacrificial acts” are half-assed attempts at diverting God’s attention away from the poor and oppressed. I can hear these disobedient people saying, “We’ve perfected the whole justice and peace thing. Look at what we’ve accomplished! Now, pay attention to our personal piety, our immaculate festivals, our abundance of material goods that we are willing to let you in on, God!” But God’s not buying it. In fact, Isaiah says God “hates it.” God hates it because the people have convinced themselves they have it all figured out and all that’s left is to congratulate themselves by giving thanks while the orphan and widow suffer evil under their heel. The dire tone of this passage is crystal clear as God does the unthinkable: compares the people of Judah and the city Jerusalem to the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Sodom is especially infamous for its alleged sexual immorality. I’m confident everyone here has heard a sermon where the preacher has explained that the reason Sodom was judged by God was due to their “homosexual perversity.” Well, that’s just not what the text tells us. The prophet Ezekiel tells us why Sodom was judged, chapter 16 verse 49:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom, “As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

Two important things to notice: ONE) Sodom’s judgment has nothing to do with people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans or Queer and everything to do with exploitation of the poor. The sooner we Christians get that through our thick skulls the better. TWO) Both Ezekiel and Isaiah poetically connect the accumulation, arrogance and abusive attitude of the powerful with the violent exploitation of the poor.

Today, in our own city, the powerful continue to exploit the poor but try to tell us it is for the sake of “peace and justice.” The city of Chicago continues to assure us the reason so much of the city’s budget goes to the police department is to maintain “peace and justice.” God forbid that that money be put towards preventative programs, mental health facilities or restorative justice initiatives! They tell us the blacksite known as Homan Square is not a torture dungeon, but simply a storage facility for police cars, equipment, weapons. There have been activists across the street from Homan Square occupying a space known as Freedom Square for 17 days straight. Well for what reason? Because they wish to expose how the police stockpile and exploit under the guise of “peace and justice.” The psalmist, like the activists at Freedom Square, exposes the oppressor’s propensity to accumulate and abuse all for the sake of “security.” Psalm 33 verses 16 and 17:

16 A king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
and by its great might it cannot save.

This passage should scandalize us when we hear it. It should scandalize us just like it would have scandalized the original hearers. Think about it… the king or, for us, all state authority, is not the final arbiter of peace and justice. The warrior or, for us, the police officer, is not the one who will save us as a result of better, stronger weapons. The war horse or, for us, the military-grade tank, will not give us the hope of shalom, but only more violence and carnage. Here the psalmist exposes just how disastrous it can be when humans foolishly convince themselves that through their own might, justice and peace can be attained!

The people this sort of “might-makes-right” attitude impacts the most are the vulnerable or, as the psalmist puts it, “the poor and needy.” Psalm 37 verses 14 and 15:

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to kill those who walk uprightly;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

Violence consistently and disproportionately plagues the vulnerable. But there is a cycle to the specific sort of violence I am talking about--it is a vicious cycle. Those on the top exploit those on the bottom, which often leads to those on the bottom responding with force. The biblical witness understands this vicious cycle and therefore chides the powerful for abusing the powerless. Dissimilar to our society today, you will not catch the Bible proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter activists are responsible for being nonviolent if they expect the same from police.” Against this popular opinion, the bible demonstrates an awareness to the ways in which the vicious cycle of violence finds its genesis in the powerful exploiting the powerless, moves to the powerless avenging injustices, resulting in the cycle beginning all over again.

I want to make two very crucial points here: Firstly, while I consider myself to be a proponent of militant nonviolence, to me, it seems completely bass ackwards to criticize oppressed people for violently responding to those who abuse their positions of authority. Secondly, while I wholeheartedly believe that the cycle of violence is only perpetuated by retaliation, it does not mean that the oppressor and the oppressed are both equally victims. A somewhat controversial example is this: For the 5 police officers murdered in Dallas--the sacredness, the quality of their lives are just as important as the lives of Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin. But the quantity of systemic injustices perpetrated against people of color by the police is one major point of departure that needs to be recognized if the cycle of violence is to ever be broken. The person who helped me understand this truth was Martin Luther King Jr. As he reflected on the emergence of “black rage” in 1967, and an increasing amount of young people who were becoming disenchanted with nonviolence, King was tempted to paternalistically chastise youth who had given up on radical pacifism. But as he thought more about the systemic conditions that created ghettos, economic inequality and police brutality, he was forced to conclude that he could not speak out against the violent retaliation of the oppressed without speaking clearly against the violence of the powerful. For the psalmist, this means critiquing the “king” and the “warrior.” For Dr. King, and for us, this means critiquing the politicians and the police.

At this point, you might be thinking, “It sounds like we just need to try harder to make sure the vulnerable experience God’s justice and peace.” If you are understandably thinking that, listen closely to our gospel reading for today found in Luke 12, starting in verse 32:

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Stop. Did you hear that? The kingdom of God, where justice and peace are perfectly embodied, is not something we can make or take with our own hands, it is something our extravagant, faithful, loving, merciful, righteous God gives to us as a gift.

Francisco de Zurbarán [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
This gift of the kingdom is perfectly embodied in the gift of Jesus Christ. The peace and justice of God’s rule is evident in the words and deeds of Jesus. In his book, God of the Oppressed, James Cone observes that Christ articulates a preferential option for the oppressed when he says things like, “Blessed are the poor,” “the last will be first,” and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Here, in Christ, is God’s gift of peace and justice. Here, in Christ, is God’s gift of the kingdom.

This free gift given to us by our God should illicit a life oriented towards thanksgiving. The thanksgiving God desires is peace and justice. Thankfully, we do not have to scramble around worrying about how to create this peace and justice; all we need to do is look at the kingdom-oriented life of Christ to get an image of what justice and peace are actually supposed to look like.

Back in Luke 12, Jesus shows us what a kingdom-oriented life of gratitude, justice and peace looks like, verse 33:

33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Those who live a life of thanksgiving cannot help but be generous to the poor and needy. These folks cannot control their desire to see the vulnerable lifted up because they have the gift of the kingdom, that is, Christ Jesus, living inside of them.

As is our custom here at Church on the Block, the first Sunday of every month is when we gather together to partake in the Eucharist. The word “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” We come to this table with thanksgiving because we know Christ’s presence is mediated through this meal. And where the gift of Christ’s presence resides, God’s peace and justice abound. By eating this bread and drinking this “wine”, we consume peace and justice. And then we go out from this place, with peace and justice in our bones, to live a life oriented towards thanksgiving.

Our posture when approaching this table is key. By posture, I do not mean credentials--this table is open to everyone. The way we should approach this table is with a posture of thanksgiving, hands out, ready to receive the good gifts God wishes to give us.

As we prepare to enter into this time of thanksgiving, I would like to invite everyone in the room to come forward and be filled. With hands and hearts prepared to receive the gift that is Christ’s body. As you receive these gifts, don’t thank me, thank Christ. Once you receive the bread and the juice, return to your seat and when I ask, please stand and proclaim the Mystery of Faith. We will all say together, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Then, together as a body, we will eat the bread and drink the cup. Let us pray.

Lord, we thank you for the gift of your son, who perfectly embodied a kingdom-oriented life. As we partake in this meal, we pray that your peace and justice would live in us. We renounce our sinful desires to take matters of peace and justice into our own hands. We pray for you to remind us that peace and justice can only come from you. Once reminded Lord, we pray that we would live lives of thanksgiving. Remembering the poor and needy, just as Christ demonstrated for us. Lord, we remember you. Please, remember us.

[Ed. note: Josiah R. Daniels is an MDiv student at Northern Theological Seminary. He lives on the Westside of Chicago in the North Lawndale neighborhood. His primary interests are contextual theologies, political theologies, rhetorical criticism and the Hebrew Bible. You can follow him on twitter @josiah_Rdaniels. This sermon was preached on August 7th, 2016 at Church on the Block in Chicago, Illinois.]


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Monday, October 10, 2016

Prophecy vs. Apocalyptic: Heiko Oberman on the Reformation

Some of you, gentle readers, perhaps remember the brief video tribute to Heiko Oberman that I recorded (also embedded below). One of the books that I spoke about in that video was Forerunners of the Reformation (Fortress, 1981). I wanted to highlight a piece of Oberman’s introduction for you.

By Dürer [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Oberman discusses what it means to be a forerunner of the reformation, and how we ought to understand the reformation period and the late middle ages vis-à-vis one another. An important point here is that criticisms of church and clerics are not new to the reformation period; the late medieval period is replete with them. They are a standard feature. But Oberman notes that once you recognize them as a standard feature, you can better identify shifts within these persistent criticisms. And he characterizes the major shift that occurs moving into the 15th century as a shift from prophetic to apocalyptic criticism. Here is how he distinguishes between the two (as always, bold is mine:

[The sources] suggest a transition from a prophetic to an apocalyptic criticism of the times, new not in its despair but in the form of its hope. In its original sense, the word “apocalypse” means “revelation,” or “unveiling”; in its more technical sense, “apocalypticism” is a theology of history on the basis of often secret revelation with regard to the last things, the eschata (hence: eschatology).

The still uncharted and amazingly rich eschatological speculation in the later Middle Ages has led historians to describe the texture of late medieval thought as apocalyptic. In order to sharpen the meaning of the term as it is here used, we might contrast apocalypticism with prophecy as it is encountered in the pre-exilic period in the Old Testament. To phrase it as succinctly as possible: Prophecy judges the human condition on the basis of the acts of God; apocalypticism judges the acts of God on the basis of the human [im]moral condition. The focus of attention of prophecy is directed from God’s acts in history, for example, the Exodus from Egypt, to the moral implications these acts might have for the people of the Covenant. The focus of attention of apocalypticism is direct from the moral state of the people of the Covenant, that is, the Church, to the implied future acts of God. One of the mean features of the apocalyptic stance, then, is the computation of God’s final acts by reading “the signs of the times.” One may even go so far as to say that here prophecy has become eschatology.

. . . Whereas the prophet has a positive notion of history as the God-given time for repentance, the apocalyptic herald announces that the time for repentance is past, that the superhuman powers of good and evil have taken over, and that the final showdown, the Armageddon, is at hand. (12)

The significance of all this, as Oberman goes on to elucidate, is that criticism of church and clerics in the late middle ages was prophetic: it aimed at renewal or restoration, and viewed this as a possibility. But moving into the 15th century, the tone shifted to an apocalyptic one: this sort of renewal or restoration was no longer possible and if any improvement was to be expected it was only because God would intervene to reconstitute God’s people. From the perspective of those swept up in the Protestant reformation, that reformation and the early reformers (esp. Luther) are just such a divine intervention.


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Friday, October 07, 2016

Does God "Exist"? Meh. (With Apologies to my Atheist Friends)

In the coffee shop recently, I noticed that an older man was staring at me. I tried to ignore him and took a restroom break. When I came back to the bar-style table, I noticed he was thumbing through the 1928 Book of Common Prayer I had been reading. Slightly creeped out, I decided I should make verbal contact with this interloper (stalker?). We exchanged greetings. He asked me if my book was a Bible. I explained it was a prayer book, but it contained selections from scripture (As the cliche goes: The Bible quotes The Book of Common Prayer...bada bing).

"Do you believe in God," he asked me.
A picture of the Crab Nebula from NASA, which I snatched
from Wikimedia Commons. Since God is invisible, folks
often just put up a pic of stars, or clouds or a sunset.
"Yes," I said, without hesitation. "But it's hard sometimes." And indeed it is. Nonetheless, I didn't balk at answering affirmatively. That's not to say I don't struggle with doubts, for certainly I do. Rather, though, I have to admit the question of whether God exists simply doesn't interest me. Maybe that's because, by temperament and training (well, they tried, at any rate) I'm a theologian: Of course, the existence of God is usually seen as being axiomatic for the theological enterprise, Tillichian and apophatic sleights of hand by the notwithstanding. In fact, as it happens, many gods exist. More than you can shake a stick at, as we would say in Alabama. Perhaps Bhakti Hindus have made peace with this divine cacophony, Christians not so much, stubborn iconoclasts as we often have been.

And, please, don't give me this business about our putatively "secular" age. If anything, the gods have only multiplied exponentially since the onset of secularization in the modern West. Don't believe me? Try this: Pull out your wallet and empty the contents onto the table. Or flip through the 5,000 channels on your digital cable. QED.

So, given all the competition in the pantheons of Valhalla and Vegas, the interesting question for me is not whether God exists, but rather just who is God. And what does God do? If your answer is that transcending us finite plebs is pretty much God's full-time job, I say -- well, maybe, but how boring that is! The gods who don't whose existence is legion, albeit sketchy are, at least, actively involved in the world, and are therefore way more interesting than the God who can't manage more than functioning as a ground of being, a regulative ideal or a horizon of meaning. So too is the God of the Bible. But this was to be a screed about philosophical theology, and I'm getting ahead of myself....

Confessionalist theologians are notorious for not giving enough truck to the question of God's "existence." I hope I'm not offending the apologetes among you -- you budding C.S. Lewises and Tom Wrightses; well, probably most of you read other blogs anyway. But I think it's basically true: We theologians, by and large, just aren't interested in the question. Certainly, pondering the issue is part of the job description of the philosopher of religion -- that scholar who ruminates on the condition for the possibility or the verity of religious experience. For theologians, not so much.

Now I'm not going to play Tillich's game and answer the question "Does God exist," with a firm "No." ("No," not "nein." He spent most of his later career writing in English -- if you can call it that.) But then he turned it around into a trick question and reasserted the ontological argument for God's existence, which one might paraphrase: "Does God exist? Are you sitting here talking to me? Get over yourself." Perhaps I've read too much Karl Barth. Well, actually, that's impossible, but what I have managed to read has perhaps ruined what would have been a promising career in the philosophy of religion.

"Ah," you counter. "But what about Aquinas and his five proofs? What about Anselm and his 'necessary reasons' for God's existence? What about Descartes, sitting alone in his loft apartment while playing Eric Carmen's 'All by Myself?" Meh, meh, a thousand times meh, I say. Sure, these worthies offer "proofs" of the existence of God. But for my part, I think we tend to overstate this business. Aquinas was intent to move through this housekeeping business quickly and get on to his real concern -- training seminarians how to think logically and coherently about sacra doctrina. (Incidentally, I once heard the inimitable Jean-Luc Marion plausibly argue that Thomas was, after all, one of the quenticential apophatic theologians. Thomas the medieval Derrida. Who knew?)

As for Anslem: Well, as many of you know, Karl Barth wrote a famous book about the early scholastic genius from Canterbury. The book is a tough read, especially if Latin doesn't happen to be your second language. Barth hews quite closely to the primary sources. But it does become clear that -- according to Barth, at least -- Anselm conceived his work as an exercise in faith seeking understanding -- with faith, not philosophical speculation on its groundwork, being the a priori term of the inquiry.

But if you want me to throw off some gloss on Descartes, then I know you're reading the wrong blogger. Get out while you still can!

So systematic theologians -- perhaps, from reading this post, you'd prefer to rather label me an "ad hoc" theologian. Barth himself rendered an affirmative judgment on "irregular" dogmatics, so I'm okay with the label, sans any nasty gastro-intestinal associations. Confessional theologians -- okay, call us fideists, if you must (guilty!) -- are more interested in naming God, in describing God's character, in "hunting the divine fox" (to quote the late Robert Farrer Capon). Robert Jesnson has put it aptly: For the Christian theologian, "God is the one who has raised Jesus Christ from the dead." (I don't know where he wrote that, but lot's of y'all have quoted it already on Twitter, so I'm taking it from you on faith.)

Whither then this "modern" phenomenon of atheism? Now I probably already lost the atheists up in my first paragraph, but I feel I have to nuance my critique here a bit, because it is extremely rhetorical and a little on the hoary side. There are two major species of atheism, which can be separated logically but very often work in tandem. First is what I would call rationalist atheism. This type rejects the existence of God on the grounds either that the evidence doesn't seem to point in this direction (for example, the atheism of the radical empiricist) or that the idea of God's existence itself is conceptually incoherent. Sometimes such a critique presents itself under the guise of "science," "scientific thinking" or the "modern scientific (e.g. evolutionary) worldview." But don't be fooled by such labels: The fundamental stance, I maintain, is a rationalist naturalism; neither the presuppositions of scientific method nor any type of experiment could either prove or disprove God's existence. But such considerations as these quickly drive me into the realm of the philosopher of religion and, as I established above, I'm not really one of those.

The second type of atheism is protest atheism, and that is something I take seriously as a theologian because it is more closely tied to existential and moral worries; ethics, I'd argue, has a closer proximity to theology than the metaphysical concerns often driving rationalist atheisms. (On the subject of the close proximity of ethics and theology, see Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Along, or pretty much any premodern Christian theologian.) The protest atheist is obsessed with theodicy worries: How can the world be so crappy, if there is a God who is both powerful and loving? Indeed. I wish I myself had the answer to that question. Or maybe I wouldn't like the answer if actually had it.

Now I would say, though not a philosopher myself, that I probably would hold, if rather loosely, to some modest form of the ontological argument for God's existence.
According to legend, Aquinas was asked,
on his deathbed, if he could prove God's existence,
once and for all. Reportedly, he said:
"Reginald, et ego non potero."
(Image public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
But I wouldn't try to make much truck with it theologically, and it certainly is of limited value when dealing with rationalist atheism and of almost no use whatsoever -- indeed, it's rather offensive -- in the face of a genuine protest atheism. As it turns out, I don't have any great apologetic trump card vis-a-vis atheism. I have only one thing: The Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen -- "foolishness to the Greeks," as the Apostle said. So all I can really do is to try to love atheists -- and to love the little atheist who lives inside my own head -- because Christ died for them every bit as much as for me.

So I don't have much to more to contribute to the question of the existence of God. But if you're interested in talking shop -- talking theology, grab a beer (or a coffee, if you're a Baptist), pull up a chair and let's chat.

Dylan (channeling Calvin?) perhaps said it best: "You gotta serve somebody." So which God do you worship? What is she like? What is her character? And what might her next move be?


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