cjbanning: (Default)
On November 8, 2016--the night Donald J. Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States despite losing the popular vote by a record number of votes--New York Times columnist Ross Douthat posted the following tweet:
This is apiece with many similar statements Douthat has made over the last year or so, responding in part to Francis Fukuyama's opus The End of History but also much more directly to the progressive and social liberal use of the famous line of uncertain attribution, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." For perhaps understandable reasons coming from a social conservative, Douthat objects to this sentiment, and those objections have served as a constant refrain within his columns, blog posts, and tweets. Two representative columns are The Case for Old Ideas and The Myth of Cosmopolitanism. I suspect there are blog posts which made the argument even more directly and concisely, but they fail to come up in a quick Google search.

In Checking Charlie Hebdo’s Privilege, Douthat argued that "Rather than a clear arc, [history] offers what T. S. Eliot called 'many cunning passages' — in which persecutors and persecuted can trade places, and even the well-meaning can lose their way entirely." But surely this oversimplifies, if not willfully misunderstands, just what progressives mean when they invoke the arc of history thesis. The belief is not, and never has been, in what Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, in a sermon published in 1853, called the "continual and progressive triumph of the right" (i.e., "the right" as in the morally correct, not the political right):
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
But progressives who accept the arc of history thesis also agree with Parker that from what we can see we are sure the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. We don't require historical omniscience to be optimistic about the direction of human history.

One can understand the argument that the ascension of Donald J. Trump, first in the Republican primaries and then in his surprise victory on Election Night, somehow refutes the "arc of history" thesis. But such an argument actually seriously misunderstands the thesis it attempts to refute, refuting only a caricature in its place. To believe to be on the right side of history is not to believe that one's position is infallible in the short term, incapable of losing elections. After all, one of the fundamental tenets of the arc of history thesis is that the arc of the moral universe is indeed long--and is not a straight line, either.

Insofar as Douthat is simply reminding us that those who believe they are on the right side of history can in fact be mistaken, it is of course difficult to disagree with his corrective. But by repeatedly (despite his own Catholicism) effectively denying the directionality of history altogether, he implies that just because progressives could conceivably be wrong on any given issue, we ought to assume we are wrong on every issue, and concede the debate to the religious conservatives before it has even begun. It's as if Douthat thinks a belief in one's own side's objective correctness ought to be somehow reserved for conservatives alone. And by attacking the arc of history thesis itself, Douthat sidesteps having to engage with the actual content of progressive and left-liberal arguments, why it is exactly we believe our positions to be on the correct side of history and those of conservatives on the wrong side.

For me, my belief in the directionality of history is a fundamentally Christian belief; before my conversion to Christianity, I understood history as being chaotic and directionless, but such a belief no longer seems to me possible, being incompatible with the fullness of the Christian hope and promise. And as a Christian, my new belief in the directionality of history is rooted in Scripture, in particular the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom:
It was Wisdom who delivered a holy people, a blameless stock, from a nation of oppressors. She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest, becoming their shade by day and their starlight at night. And when these just people stood in victory over the godless, they sang of your glory, God our Deliverer, and in one voice praised your power and called you their champion--because Wisdom gave speech to those who could not speak and brought eloquence to the lips of infants. (10:15, 17-18, 20-21)
The above passage is part of a larger narrative, spanning the 10th through 12th chapters of the Book of Wisdom, which describe Wisdom's presence at crucial moments in the Biblical narrative, beginning with Adam and Eve. These are shown not as discrete divine (or quasi-divine) interventions, but part of a pattern of Wisdom leading and guiding the people of Israel through human history. By constructing this greater narrative of divine presence in history via Wisdom, the author of Wisdom is thus putting forth what I call a "theology of history": a speculative account of the significance and directive principle(s) intrinsic to human history from a position within a particular faith tradition. As Peter Enns notes in Wisdom of Solomon and Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period ("Ps-Solomon" refers to "Pseuodo-Solomon," i.e. the author of the Book of Wisdom writing pseudepigraphically as King Solomon):
In the light of Ps-Solomon’s clear purpose—giving encouragement to a people facing the possibility of death—one begins to see a possible motive behind not only his reference to death as an “exodus” in the opening chapters of the work, but also his choice of Israel’s exodus experience as one of the primary themes of chs. 10–19. Israel’s exodus, her passage from death to life, as it were, is presented by Ps-Solomon as the prime biblical portrait of what Wisdom is doing now in the lives of these persecuted Alexandrian Jews—in their own passage from death to life, their own exodus.
Simillarly, in the Gospel According to St. John, Jesus promises before his death to send humanity the Paraclete (another name for the Holy Spirit, meaning "Advocate") to "abide with us forever"--that is, throughout the entirety of human history (14:16). According to the Episcopal catechism, the Holy Spirit is revealed in the New Covenant "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ."

In the Book of Revelation, St. John the Divine writes of a "millenium"--a period of time during which Christ reigns over the Earth. As a postmillenialist, I understand this to describe the current epoch of human history:
Postmillennialism holds that Jesus Christ establishes his kingdom on earth through his preaching and redemptive work in the first century and that he equips his church with the gospel, empowers her by the Spirit, and charges her with the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) to disciple all nations. Postmillennialism expects that eventually the vast majority of men [sic] living will be saved. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ's return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of men [sic] and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions Jesus Christ will return visibly, bodily, and gloriously, to end history with the general resurrection and the final judgment after which the eternal order follows. [. . .] Postmillennialism also teaches that the forces of Satan will gradually be defeated by the expansion of the Kingdom of God throughout history up until the second coming of Christ.
So in a sense, I agree with Douthat that history's only arc is the one described in Revelation--but I believe the millenium (understand to figuratively describe a long period of time rather than a literal 1,000 years) to have already begun. Postmillenialists take very seriously the third petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven." The millenium is thus understood to be characterized by increasing peace and social justice--the arc of the moral universe bending towards Christ, the Prince of Peace--as the Kin-dom of Heaven is established (through the work of the Holy Spirit) upon the planet Earth. This understanding of history recognizes the power of human beings, when empowered by the amazing and unmerited gift of God's grace, to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

Taking this Biblical understanding of history and synthesizing it alongside the great philosophers of history--Hegel, Marx, Kojève, Foucault, Kuhn, Fukuyama, et alii--yields the theology of history I tried to articulate in part in my essay, History and Christ. As I noted there, it is hardly an accident that Hegel also wrote of a "spirit"--geist--at work in human history. These philosophers helped to identify the dialectical mechanisms through which God is at work in human history. This is of course appropriate because the God of the Trinity is Godself dialectical: three hypostases in perichoretic conversation with one another. (The relational ontology of the Trinitarian relationship is of course prefigured by the relationship between YHWH and Wisdom in the Hebrew Wisdom literature.) To quote Karl Rahner, "the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity" (and I would add, is the social Trinity): God's work in history is a reflection of Who God Is.

Linear history can thus be said to have a progressive nature--i.e. the changes from era to era (scientific advances, evolving moral norms, new forms of polity) can be said to represent in the aggregate objective improvements in some sense, even if what we are not always able to articulate quite what that sense might be. (I suspect both Wittgenstein and his cousin Hayek--a beloved philosopher of the intellectual right--might be helpful there, but that's another subject for another post.) I do not, like Fukuyama, think that modern liberal democracy represents the end of history. But I do think it is the pinnacle of what we have achieved so far, and I certainly do not claim to know what comes after. I also--again pace Fukuyama--do not think the project of liberal democracy itself has yet come close to achieving perfection, as so many important civil rights and essential freedoms remain under attack by structural systems of sin and injustice.

I do, however, see the expansion of civil rights and social justice which I've have witnessed even in my own life as a, however incomplete and impartial, unfolding of the Kin-dom of Heaven. And since my political left-liberalism is grounded in my theological belief in the human dignity of all people as divine image-bearers, I bear no apology for understanding this theological unfolding in explicitly political terms.

Yet if this is the case, how do we explain President Trump? I will not spend time here making the Christian argument against Donald Trump, as that has been done adequately elsewhere, often by religious conservatives (and thus, obviously not every anti-Trump argument linked here is one I personally endorse, since I was and am unequivocally pro-Clinton and many of these . . . aren't, to say the least): Yet we can accept that Trumpism and Christianity are mutually incompatible and still believe that history is guided by the providential hand of God's Holy Wisdom. Believing that God is present in the historical dialectic does not mean that God personally and directly micromanages every historical event. Given the concupiscient nature of fallen humanity, there will be setbacks and backlashes. Humanity will collectively stumble and fall.

And while I believe that God is present in the overarching dialectic of human history, I also believe that God respects the free will of human beings created by God in God's own image, that our free will is the exceptional sign of that divine image within us. The belief that there is an arc to history, then, does not require an ignorance of, or a blindness to, that arc's many curlicues.

But this is no reason to abandon those central virtues which define the Christian vision: faith, hope, and love. After all, the fact that the Hebrews stopped to worship a golden calf did not mean that God's Wisdom was not leading them to the Promised Land of Canaan; the fact that we have stopped to elect Donald Trump POTUS does not mean that She is not still leading us today to the Kin-dom of Heaven.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, writing in the Huffington Post in 2013, put it eloquently:
The moral arc of the universe is about the transformation of that which “is” to that which “can and must be.” That includes the redemption of every single life, transformed with the vision of a more just and equal world; a vision that [Martin Luther] King[, Jr.] dreamed of and preached about 50 years ago this week. The most dangerous mistake we can make is to be blind to the continued injustice or assume that the moral arc of the universe moves towards justice on its own and that we are not a part of the bending. [. . .] Believing in the moral arc of the universe that King talked about is more than a faith statement — it is a hope statement — and many people have lost their hope. But we are meant to be used as instruments and with God’s assistant [sic] we can help bend the arc.
And thus, motivated by faith, hope, and love, I reject Ross Douthat's cynicism towards the arc of history, and say with Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of other Christians that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does bend towards justice. Alleluia, alleluia!
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
Yes, I'm still working on my Wittgenstein and metatheics series. (And my atonement theology series, too, for that matter, although at present the metaethics one has the precedence.) I promise.




Fred Clark wrote about patripassianism recently, and got an "Amen!" from Tony Jones. I share their instinct that God the Parent can known, and more importantly has known, suffering, but am uncomfortable with Clark's description of Trinitarian theological reasoning:
one is “allowed” to recite the lawyerly formulations of the Athanasian Creed, but if you stray at all from that narrow path or attempt to say anything more — any positive statements, clarifications, analogies, applications — you’re screwed. [. . . T]his doctrine creates so many different ways in which you can be screwed that it’s hard not to suspect this was the intention — a doctrine more useful for generating and then condemning heresies than for avoiding error.
A lot of this comes down to Clark being much more Protestant than I am, so traditional notions of heresy and orthodoxy don't hold the same authority for him as for me. But I do think the best articulation of the pure theology of the Trinity is found in the Athanasian articulation (although admittedly it's light on the practical implications), and that it's important to be mindful of the ancient heresies precisely because God defies the categories we are liable to try to place God in if we're not eternally vigilant.

Insofar as patripassianism is by definition a form of modalism, confusing or conflating in some sense the distinction in persons between God the Parent and God the Begotten, then it represents a damaging heresy and should be denounced. That strikes me as pretty straight forward. But does it?

I think it's possible to meaningfully still speak about God the Parent being present with and sharing the suffering of God the Begotten upon the Cross (or, if our theology requires God the Parent to forsake God the Begotten in order for God to experience the absence of God, then surely the Parent suffers in the act of forsaking the beloved Child!) without falling into modalism, without confusing the distinction in persons between the Parent and the Begotten. The question then becomes a defitional one, whether a suffering Parent still constitutes heretical patripassianism even when it isn't modalist. I suspect the answer should be no, but the trail goes pretty much cold at the Wikipedia article, and without reading the primary texts in which member (or better yet, ecumenical councils) of the early Church denounce the heresy it's impossible to say.




In a talk on theodicy, Roger Olson says, "Well, theology has four criteria: revelation, including Jesus Christ and Scripture, tradition, reason and experience." Now, Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to the world. That's central to my faith. But I don't know how much sense it makes to talk about Jesus Christ as a subcategory of revelation when we are talking about criteria of theology. The revelation which was the historical Jesus is mediated to us through scripture and tradition. And the revelation of the Risen Christ is mediated to us through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience--the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a variation of the Anglican three-legged stool. So I'm not sure what sense it makes to talk of Jesus as a separate revelation when we're talking about our work as a theologians. In a sense, what Christian theology does is precisely try to arrive at the revelation of Jesus Christ through the tools of scripture, tradition, reason, experience, etc.

Furthermore, the way Olson formulates the Quadrilateral implies that tradition, reason, and experience are not also forms of revelation. I suppose I can understood why a non-liberal ("post-conservative") evangelical Protestant wouldn't classify them as such, but as a post-liberal Anglo-Catholic I absolutely would. Again, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are the means we have by which we come to terms with the revelation of God to the world: the person of Jesus Christ.




My twitter feed seemed to be, well, a-twitter with comments about Christological and/or Messianic themes in Man of Steel, the Superman mythos in general, and the superhero genre even more in general. I'll put forth Five Reasons Why Superman Isn't Jesus and Five Reasons Why Jesus Isn't Superman, both from Pop Theology at Patheos, as semi-representative. I tend to think the question is mostly silly (although the theology is usually right-on). No, Jesus isn't a superhero. He certainly isn't the "first superhero"; Gilgamesh and Herakles not only fit the "superhero" mold much better than Jesus, but they pre-date the birth of Jesus by several centuries.

At the same time, it's silly to think that how we tell superhero stories isn't influenced by the story of Jesus. I haven't seen Man of Steel yet, but the fact that there will be parallels, both in terms of imagery and of plot, between Superman and Christ, is pretty much inevitable. That doesn't make Jesus a superhero. It doesn't mean Snyder was somehow blaspheming in creating the movie, or that we are in seeing such parallels. It does mean that the great secular myths of the postmodern era do--as arguably all myths do--have a complicated, messy relationship with what Lewis famously called the "true myth": the Christian narrative.
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
Responding to Scot Miller's response to Robert Gagnon's The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Scott R. Paeth writes:
For someone like Gagnon, [the Bible] seems to center faith precisely in presenting commands and propositions that, even if one is not a fundamentalist, one must accept as normative without qualification. [ . . . F]or me, understanding it not as a set of divinely ordained commands and norms, but as the very human story of how the community of faith comes to understand itself as related to God, in a very fallible and evolving way, is much truer to what one can actually read from the text.
I would locate my own approach as actually somewhere in between these two approaches--ideally a via media, but possibly just muddled thinking. I do consider the Bible to, generally speaking, not only contain all that is necessary for salvation (whatever that means!), but also to be normative to Christian practice and doctrine in a fairly direct way. That said, when I say "the Bible" I am speaking of
  1. a text which, by virtue of being a text, permits a wide range of hermeneutical freedom
  2. not, e.g., the various intended meanings which may have been in the authors' minds as they composed the various works
I don't really doubt that St. Paul disapproved of homosexuality. But at the same time, I don't really care whether St. Paul would have disapproved of homosexuality or not. I'm sure there are many things St. Paul would have thought and I would disagree with today. Luckily, St. Paul's prejudices are not normative to Christian belief and practice; St. Paul's letters, however, are. (This is where I see myself as parting company with Paeth's description: I do not see St. Paul's letters as simply the usefully instructive record of one man's experience of God, but also as being generally binding on the Christian in one way or another.)

Now, of course it's possible we might come across a Biblical command that's just so plain wrong--Ephesians 5:22/Colossians 3:18 jumps to mind--that it can't possibly be plausibly rationalized or contextualized away, and we're left with no choice but to just abandon it with sorrow. And that's okay, I suppose; I do not require the Bible to be totally inerrant. But this must always, I think, be the move of absolutely last resort. (And I'm not totally convinced it's required even in the cases of Eph. 5:22 and Col. 3:18--language is infinitely flexible, after all.) But our default assumption must be, I think, that when Scripture makes a statement about faith or morals, then we must, if at all possible, treat that statement as authoritative in some sense. Our task then is to determine what sense, exploiting language's fundamental fluidity, by placing scripture into its proper dialectic with tradition and reason (and experience).

Luckily, of course, none of the NT references to homosexuality are anywhere as near as unambiguous as Eph. 5:22 and Col. 3:18 seem to be (although, again, even they are not totally without ambiguity to be exploited!).

Now, it's actually far from clear to me that Paeth would actually disagree with anything I've written here. Something like the hermeneutical process I've outlined here may well be what he has in mind when he writes of our need as Christians "to struggle to understand ourselves as related to God, in light of the experiences of those who have come before us, and in conversation with the world we find ourselves in the midst of." I suspect that ultimately my disagreement is not so much with Paeth's position as with how he chose to articulate it in this particular blog post. But I do think that focusing only on Scripture as being the recorded saga of a people's wrestling with the divine--although it certainly is that!--can problematically underplay the importance of its function as a normative authority for Christians, albeit one always in need of a certain amount of hermeneutical play.
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
Ever since the creation of the world, the eternal power and divine nature of God, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made. (Romans 1:20)
My assumption always is that, while the Holy Scriptures do indeed contain all that is necessary for salvation, if "there is anything at all that is morally universal" (to paraphrase Brian MacArevey), then it can be determined independently of Scripture. (I'm sure there's a good quote of St. Thomas Aquinas' to invoke at this point, but I honestly can't be bothered to look it up.) Kantian deontological ethics (and other systems of secular moral philosophy) may have its flaws, but I don’t see that those flaws are any greater from a philosophical perspective than a meta-ethic of “Whatever the Bible says, is good.” Generally, speaking, liberals and post-liberals--whether their post/liberalism be theological, political, social, or some combination thereof–-are not relativists; indeed, their--our!--post/liberalism motivates and is motivated by some very strong normative claims about human dignity.

The continuing, ongoing, and Spirit-led dialectic between scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (which is, as I have often noted here, a reflection of the perichoretic dialectic which is the Triune God) will always be allowed to override any “newly universalized viewpoint.” This, I believe, is how the Spirit moves through history, as I have already discussed at length in my essay History and Christ.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Okay, returning to the train of thought inspired by Roger Olson's thoughts on universalism (if you haven't been following along, he's not sympathetic), I'm particular interested, for the moment, in these passages:
I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it? If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious. Barth’s universalism (yes, I believe Karl Barth was a universalist and I’ll post a message here about why later) did not arise out of those denials which is why he didn’t like the appellation “universalist.” The term is usually associated with liberal theology. In that case, as part of an overall liberal/modernist theology, I consider it very serious indeed.

[. . .]

When universalism is believed on biblical grounds (as in The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory McDonald–a pseudonym), it is much less serious than when it is believed as part of a liberal theology that denies the wrath of God and the sinfulness of all human beings (except Jesus Christ, of course).

[. . .]

There is egregious error and there is simple error. One kind of universalism (based on denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness) is egregious error. Another kind (based on confusion about God’s love requiring his overriding free will) is simple error.
I'm not a universalist, of course, but I am a modernist or a liberal theologian? I certainly don't think I'm a modernist, at least not by the definition given by D.A. Carson in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:
Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we know is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to be true or right. Modernism tries to find unquestioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and then proceeds with methodological rigor; postmodernism denies that such foundations exist (it is antifoundational) and insists that we come to know things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Modernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth versus error, right belief, confessionalism; postmodernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses on relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion.
Am I liberal? Well, I'm certainly not illiberal. I've recently stopped identifying as a liberal theologian, deciding to instead to identify as a "post/liberal" theologian (even as I don't yet claim even a simplistic mastery of what that means). From the Wikipedia article on post-liberal theology:
In contrast to liberal individualism in theology, postliberal theology roots rationality not in the certainty of the individual thinking subject (cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am") but in the language and culture of a living tradition of communal life. The postliberals argue that the Christian faith be equated with neither the religious feelings of Romanticism nor the propositions of a Rationalist or fundamentalist approach to religion. Rather, the Christian faith is understood as a culture and a language, in which doctrines are likened to a "depth grammar" for the first-order language and culture (practices, skills, habits) of the church that is historically shaped by the continuous, regulated reading of the scriptural narrative over time. Thus, in addition to a critique of theological liberalism, and an emphasis upon the Bible, there is also a stress upon tradition, and upon the language, culture and intelligibility intrinsic to the Christian community. As a result, postliberal theologies are often oriented around the scriptural narrative as a script to be performed, understand orthodox dogmas (esp. the creeds) as depth-grammars for Christian life, and see such scriptural and traditional grammars as a resource for both Christian self-critique and culture critique.
At the same time, I use the virgule instead of the hyphen (i.e., post/liberal rather than post-liberal) out of an understanding that our post-liberalism needs to be firmly grounded in those aspects which liberal theology gets right. While Olson and I clearly agree that both overly modernistic theology (what I tend to call "liberal historicism" or--worse--"ethical Jesusism") and fundamentalism both rest on the same set of problematic assumptions which need to be removed beyong, reading over past posts by Olsen on liberal theology, modernism, and the Emergent Church movement, however, I get the sense that neither my postmodernism nor my post/liberalism are sufficiently different for his tastes than that which he considers central and problematic to modernism/liberalism (which is probably not the same as I what I see as central and problematic).

That's fair enough; it's silly to get too involved in a debate over labels, and I didn't enter into this expecting to agree with a conservative evangelical Baptist theologian, after all. But I think it's important to locate the exact nature of Olson's critique--which is to say, is there a critique here of the way that liberal theologians might come to universalism which is independent of the overall methodology of (post/)liberal theology as a whole? Is the problem simply that liberals have allowed outside sources of authority (reason and experience) to color the way they interpret the Bible and come to a conclusion different to the one that some might claim one to in a purely exegetical reading (as if such a thing were possible)? Or is there a particular theological error ("denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness)") that liberals might be especially prone to, but which perhaps could be articulated without relying on any specific theological methodology?

If it is the former, then Olson and I are clearly on different side of the issue (no matter how much our final conclusions might seem in agreement) without any meaningful persuasion really possible; our starting premises are simply too incommensurate. I look to reason and authority, in dialectical conversation with scripture and tradition, as legitimate sources of Christian authority, and I don't think an interpretation-free reading of the Bible is possible even in theory (so that the attempt to perform such a reading isn't merely subject to human fallibility, but is profoundly mistaken at its heart).

If the latter however, then it seems there might be some starting-point for dialogue. What does it mean for a liberal theology to deny "God's wrath and human sinfulness"--and is it possible for a liberal theologian, using a liberal theological method, to come to universalist or quasi-universalist conclusions without so denying? Yes, there are liberal theologians who have clearly denied, in a non-controversial way (that is, it's not controversial whether they did the denying), that "sin" is a useful category for 20th and 21st century. I think they're wrong, and if that's all who Olson is critiquing, then I'll join him in his critique without reservations. But they, if anything, seem to be in the majority and, in particular. feminist, queer, and anti-racist theologies are very much aware of the fallen nature of humanity. A Christian theology lacking the concepts of sin and wrath seems to be lacking, in a very profound sense, just on purely practical grounds.

Yet it's not clear to me that Olson intends his critique to be that narrow; indeed, he seems to see the denial of sin and/or wrath as endemic to liberal Christianity. Is there, then,  a way that a liberal theologian can acknowledge that human beings are suceptible to moral evil and that God hates evil and wants to erase it from the world, and still count for Graff as denying the wrathfulness of God? One way would be to view the use of any knowledge of God's nature not derived directly from Scripture using an evangelical hermeneutic in order to come to conclusions about universalism as a de facto denial of God's wrathfulness. Under this understanding, then it'd be a tautology that any liberal theologian who was also a universalist would be, necessarily, denying God's wrath. Again, this doesn't really leave open any avenues for dialogue between the liberal theologian and the evangelical.
cjbanning: (Default)
Over at The Piety That Lies Between, Eric Reitan responds in two posts (On Heresy and Universalism and On Heresy and Universalism, Part 2) to Roger Olson's question How serious a heresy is universalism? by deconstructing the question through examining Olson's understandingh of heresy and orthodoxy. In the first post, Reitan writes:
Olson does offer a brief definition of heresy in a parenthetical remark, saying that heresies are "theologically incorrect beliefs," but he doesn't consider the adequacy of this definition in the face of alternatives. A "theologically incorrect belief" is presumably a belief about God that doesn't correspond with the way God really is.
Now, it's not actually obvious that this is right. It might seem like an unnecessarily pedantic quibble about grammar, but a "theologically incorrect belief" does not mean the same thing as an "incorrect theological belief." The latter noun phrase simply calls out a belief which is both incorrect (under some epistemological understanding of "incorrect") and theological. As Reitan points out, if this is what heresy consists of, there are some rather strange conclusions to be drawn:
But the reason why this definition of heresy (and the contrary notion of orthodoxy) has these implications is because it makes the objective nature of reality the standard by which beliefs are judged heretical (or orthodox)--and it seems inevitable that each of us will, in our beliefs about ultimate reality, get some things wrong. But I think this way of understanding heresy has deeper implications that Olson (and other evangelical Christians) would be unhappy to accept. Consider: on this definition, if atheists are right about the nature of reality then all Christians of every stripe are heretical in all their theological beliefs, since all their theological beliefs would then be wrong.
But in the actual phrase Olson uses, "theologically incorrect belief," theologically isn't an adjective modifying belief, but rather an adverb modifying incorrect. Which is to say, there could be a special of type of (in)correctness distinct from "objective (in)correctness," called "theological (in)correctness," and it would be by this standard (not our regular epistemological criteria, whatever they may be) which theological claims would (and/or should) be judged. I think this is actually the much more intuitive reading for many of us, precisely for the reason that, as Reitan shows, the alternate reading leads to an absurdity.

However, there is actually some support for Reitan's reading, because Olson goes on to say:
Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy--according to all major branches of Christianity. The Catholic church allows hope for universal salvation but not confident affirmation of it. But, of course, as Luther demonstrated, all branches of Christianity can be wrong. That is why I reject paleo-orthodoxy and any appeal to absolute authority of tradition. Tradition gets a vote but never a veto. The Bible trumps tradition.
By allowing (through an overconfidence in Luther) that "all branches of Christianity can be wrong," Reitan seems to be assuming a standard by which the theological correctness of a belief can be judged which is extrinsic to the discipline of theology itself. He's even quite clear what that standard should be: the Bible--and of course, if the Bible is perfectly perspicuous and inerrant in all things, or at least all things pertaining to faith and/or morals (and I don't know if Olson thinks it is these things or not, but obviously many Christians do), then the distinction between "biblically correct" and "objectively correct" actually collapses in upon itself.

Yet as Reitan notes in his second post:
Scripture, by virtue of its tensions and complexities and ambiguities, is a much more slippery standard that may require an interpretive hermeneutic in order to be applied effectively (which may mean that what is really operating as the standard isn't Scripture as such, but Scripture as read through a particular interpretive lens).
"A similar problem arises," Reitan notes, "when attempting to test a belief against a theological tradition."

Now, for the theologicall liberal, be they Emergent ex-Evangelical or Mainline Protestant, this apparent problem really isn't. Whether using the Anglican formulation of scripture/tradition/reason (the "three-legged stool") or the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture/tradition/reason/experience (and I think the distinction between the two is ultimately one without a difference), we understand scripture, tradition, and reason (and experience) to be in dialectical conversation with each other (as modeled by the perichoretic dialectic of conversation which is the the Triune God) and the fact that this cannot provide us with any hard and fast, final and ultimate answers to our questions is seen as a feature rather than a bug. There is always room for the Spirit to move us further in our understanding. Or as Reitan says using even bigger words (impressive, isn't it?):
this serves as part of a broader Hegelian project of preserving the internal integrity of a system of beliefs so as to make it possible for it to evolve in the face of the lived encounter with ultimate reality.
But that's dealing in abstraction. What does it mean in practice to evaluate the orthodoxy or hereticalness of some particular claim, such as universalism?

what IS heretical )

what is orthodox )

the value of orthodoxy )
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Putting aside for the moment the question of whether (and, if so, to what degree) it is condemned by scripture, what exactly is the problem with works-righteousness?

Some accounts I’ve read seem to imply that works-righteousness is implicitly Pelagian—that is, that it allows for righteousness (which can always also be translated as either “justice” or “justness”) to be earned either partially or totally independent of grace. (“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. . . .”) Now, to be clear, let me be the first one to stand up against the heresy of Pelagius and to acknowledge that it is only by virtue of the freely-given and unearned grace of God that we are capable of achieving salvation, of being put right with God and with God’s Church. But if we more closely examine the elements underlying the faith/works distinction the question of Pelagianism quickly reveals itself to be a nonissue.

I simply do not see any reason why we should be required to understand works-righteousness as either implicitly or explicitly Pelagian (or at least no more so than already inherent in a theological system under which grace is resistable, e.g. Wesleyanism)—unless we are working with some strange definitions of “works” and “faith” such that works are established a priori to be capable of being performed by a human agent independent of God’s grace, and faith as being something over which the person of faith has no control over or participation in. But I cannot for the life of me understand what would lead us to accept such strange and idiosyncratic definitions in the first place, and see several strong reasons, grounded in experience and scripture, as to why we should reject them.

In his letter to the churches of Galatia, St. Paul asks:
Does God give you the Spirit so freely and works miracles among you because practice the Law, or because you believe what was preached to you?
Here the choice seems to be between two actions capable of being performed by a human agent (that is, essentially between two types of “works”), not between an action and an unearned state of being. In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, St. Paul actually refers to “the work of faith” (unsusprisingly, the NIV opts to translate this as “your work produced by faith”) of the Thessalonians.

Indeed, even under a strictly Calvinist account of sola gratia—in which atonement is limited, election unconditional, and grace irresistible—there doesn’t seem to be any inherent link necessitating sola fide or faith-righteousness. Instead, the two doctrines seem to function completely independently from each other, such that irresistible grace provided to God’s elect would manifest itself (without any cooperating effort on the part of the elected humans) as justifying works rather than (or in addition to) justifying faith.

Of course, I don’t actually agree with the Calvinist that anti-Pelagianism requires grace to be irresistible. But even if we are to stipulate that point, there is still nothing inherently Pelagian about works-righteousness, nor anything inherently anti-Pelagianism about justification by faith.
cjbanning: (Default)
This is the second in a series of posts reposting content from "Our Lenten Collage," in which my cell at the time blogged our way through the Lenten season of 2009.

5 March 2009: Going Deep with Scripture )
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
This is the first in a series of posts reposting content from "Our Lenten Collage," in which my cell at the time blogged our way through the Lenten season of 2009.

26 Feb 2009: Prayer and Scripture )
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
Fr. Dan Dunlap, writing at Catholic in the Third Millenium, nicely puts his finger on the way that both conservative and liberal approaches to the historicity of Scripture manage to miss the point completely:
[A]cademic honesty compels the scholar to admit that "proving" the historicity of the mythos is impossible. But then it should be noted that disproving the historicity of the mythos is just as certainly impossible (a fact that the likes of John Shelby Spong and company disingenuously dismiss). Simply put, the mythos – the very object of the Church's faith – is not subject to historical or scientific investigation (either in proof or disproof). Rather it transcends critical inquiry, while, paradoxically, benefiting in the many new ways of understanding the Faith that may thus emerge from such investigation into the biblical milieu itself.

[. . .]

The Christian Faith is not a belief in the historicity of the resurrection (as an end in itself), but rather faith in the resurrected Christ; it is not a belief in the historicity of the virgin birth (as an end in itself), but rather faith in the Christ who was born of a Virgin.
While Fr. Dan is, in my opinion, quite too quick to expel from the big tent of Christianity those who don't adhere to the doctrines that he and I see as central (e.g., the Trinity), he has an interesting view (which I can't disagree with) on how the apostolic churches (Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, some parts of Lutheranism, etc.)  have a "unique and peculiar calling within the kingdom of God to preserve and guard what can be termed the 'Great Story' or 'True Myth' (in Lewis' sense)." I in particular agree that it's not always clear how the process of demythologization inherent in the type of liberal historicism represented by "the likes of John Shelby Spong and company" serves to achieve this aim, which in many ways is the argument I make in my post Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus is a Spiritual Dead-End. (All through college I was convinced, albeit falsely, that Protestantism simply had no place for any viewpoint other than either this sort of liberal historicism or else biblical literalism.)

Of course, a large part of why this resonates with me is my peculiar mix of a relatively low view of Scripture (without disagreeing that the Bible contains all that is necessary to salvation, whatever that means) and my relatively high ecclesiology, which makes me committed first and foremost to what Fr. Dan calls "the mythos to which the early fathers provided normative articulation in ancient creedal and doxological symbols that are with us to the present day -- preserved in the liturgies of the great apostolic churches."
cjbanning: (Default)
The Gospel in BriefThe Gospel in Brief by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The most interesting thing about this book is not that it omits "the miracles," but that it is a harmonization of the four canonical gospels; that is, it edits together material from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John without regard to the specific and differing agendas the authors of each of those works were pursuing in their specific accountings of the Christ myth to their specific audiences in their specific places and times, in favor of Tolstoy's own pet interpretation of what the Christian message is (or should be) saying. In doing so, multiple perspectives are collapsed into a single perspective, and the gospel loses the important dialectical plurality manifested in the canonical version in favor of a dogmatic, modernist "one true reading."



View all my reviews
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
In my experience, progressive Christians generally have--at best--an ambivalent relationship with St. Paul. Admittedly, often it seems as if the apostle is the source of much which, from the perspective of 21st-century progressive Christiaity, seems to be problematic about soi-disant "traditional" Christianity: oppressive gender roles, prudishness about sexuality, resistance towards secular reason, and so forth.

One way some Christians (including "Jesus followers" and others who might resist the term) have navigated the issue is to try and make a distinction between the religion of Jesus and that of Paul. N.T. Wright summarizes this "old argument," en passant to refuting it, thusly: "Paul was the real founder of Christianity, misrepresenting Jesus and inventing a theology in which a 'Christ' figure, nothing really to do with the Jesus of history, becomes central." Since St. Paul thus represents in this account a corruption of the true Christian message, the Christian is thus free to ignore him to a greater or lesser degree.

There are a number of problems with this train of thought. Firstly, it is historically uninformed insofar as it assumes that the Gospel accounts of Jesus, which postdate the Pauline epistles, provide a more reliable record of the actual ministry and teachings of the historical Jesus, largely because we like the Gospel version better (assuming there is indeed a disparity between the Gospel and Pauline understandings of Christ). Secondly, insofar as we assume (instead of or in addition to the previous assumption) that the true message of the historical Jesus, when liberated from its Pauline filter, would automatically look like 21st-century liberal progressivism (or 1960's/1970's-era hippiedom), we fairly clearly open ourselves to accusations of intellectual dishonesty.

Depending on one's Christology, the notion that the historical Jesus would have thought and acted like a 21st-century progressive isn't exactly incoherent, of course; insofar as 21st-century progressives have gotten their general account of life, the universe, and everything more right than have those who have come before us (and as a 21st-century progressive, there is certainly a sense in which I think it is true), then it would make sense that it more perfectly align with a God's-eye view of the universe. The problem is that this reasoning is that it's bad Christology, bad metaphysics, and simply isn't informed by our secular understanding of history (which requires us to assume that the historical Jesus would have thought and acted like--surprise!--a first-century Jew) and thus has to be accepted on the basis of blind, unmotivated belief (not faith, which is fundamentally experiential rather than cogitational).

Most fundamentally, I think the sort of fetishization of the historical Jesus one often sees in liberal or progressive circles ultimately falls prey to what my friend Ruth Ellen, in her sermon "the cancer sermon (no snazzy title)" places under the category of "angel worship." She's responding to St. Paul's urging in Col. 2:18-19 to
not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
Ruth Ellen reminds us that
there's a deeper kind of angel worship that arises when we begin worshiping the messenger instead of living the message. When we start worshiping the Bible instead of the living Word that is Christ, when we devote our energy to preserving the edifice of the church instead of living as Christ's Body -- then we are worshiping angels instead of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the angel worship has become cancerous.

I'm 100% agreed with her that Bibliolatry is cancerous in this type of way. However, I think the "quest for the historical Jesus" also becomes the type of angelogical project that Ruth Ellen talks about, a type of "worshiping the messenger," when it represents (as I think it usually does) an attempt to avoid having to engage in Spirit-driven dialectical conversation with the Risen Christ in the context of our contemporary world and culture, here and now. By trying to determine what we would or would not hear if we were able to travel via TARDIS to the times and places at which Yeshua bar Yosef would have taught, I think we "empty out" Christianity and the empty shell which is left is little more than a cult of personality. The attempt to recover some type of uncorrupted pre-Pauline Gospel message can quickly develop into its own type of fundamentalism when it becomes little more than a search for rules and principles to follow handed down by a millenia-old source.

My bias is to think that properly understood (where "properly understood" of course means "understood the way Cole wants it to be understood") Chalcedonian Christology presents us with the antidotes to both types of fundamentalism. Worship of the Word-Made-Flesh, eternally begotten from God the Mother, both fully human AND fully divine, two natures in one person: this, I think, is about as far removed from a cult of personality as it is possible to get.

Of course, there are those who would argue that my account of "Word made flesh" is implicitly docetist. I'd argue that the fact that "made flesh" is in the title automatically negates any possibility of a fall into the docetist heresy (not that I'm any advocate for orthodoxy for orthodoxy's sake, exactly), but I understand the argument that the "made flesh" is meaningless without an emphasis on the particularity of the incarnated human being within history. I understand it--but I still think it's wrong.

Following a Chalcedonian-Christological Jesus means more than simply following the ethical principles the historical Jesus would have exemplified in his life, then (even if we did have a reliable mechanism for extrapolating those principles apart from the post-Pauline Christian tradition, which we don't). We don't just follow Jesus. We worship Christ. More importantly, we are part of Christ's Body--"Christ has no hands on Earth but ours" (St. Teresa de Avilla)--and it falls to us, the Church, with the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, to build God's Kingdom--a kingdom which is marked primarily by sexual, economic, and political liberation, because Christ IS liberation; that's the essence of the Sacred Heart.



So where does this leave St. Paul?

I've already written about my view of the role of Scripture, both in the essay History and Christ and in my Our Lenten Collage post Going Deep with Scripture. I'll briefly quote from the latter:
[T]he Bible is [. . . ] a gift from God, a tool for understanding God and seeing God and discerning God's will. As Christians, the Bible is part of our inheritance, the lens through which we understand the transcendent. It is a shared language and history which binds us together as sisters and brothers in Christ. It's the core of the basis for our entire religious symbology (with additions made here and there, sure). Its stories inform who we are, both culturally and spiritually. These are the documents which we as a Church look to as foundational.
This understanding of Scripture does not require St. Paul to be a completely reliable witness. Instead, it recognizes that within his writing there exists the potentiality for inspiration.

I adhere to the faitly common tenet of contemporary literary criticism that meaning does not inhere within a text, but rather within the dialectical engagement which exists between a reader and a text. When we engage with St. Paul, we enter into a process which opens us up for inspiration--whether or not we agree with what St. Paul has written.

As a series of Catholic (in the non-Roman sense) councils and synods presided over by the Holy Spirit, their eventual consensus as to which works are the canonical books of the Bible, eventually codified in the Vulgate version of St. Jerome and accepted at large by the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, is binding. And it includes Saint Paul.

Returning to "Going Deep with Scripture," I find that I wrote:
When I read Scripture [. . .] I can know that I am turning to the same book that billions (yes, billions) of Christians have turned to over nearly two thousand years, since befoire Scripture was even Scripture. I'm walking in the footprints of the Saints.

Our challenge today is not fundamentally different than theirs was: to use Scripture constructively, to find within it ethical solutions to the unique challenges which face us in our lives, and not to use it as an instrument of hate or war. (Obviously, at various moments in history the Church has fallen short of this challenge.) This is not a passive processs of God telling us what to do and us doing it, and to treat it that way is (I believe) a cop-out, an abdication of moral responsibility. The paradigm for our encounters with Scripture should be not Sinai, but Penuel.

I don't believe there is a "pure" or interpretation-free reading of the Bible. Our task is to, guided by the Holy Spirit and the evolving teaching of Mother Church, choose those interpretations which are most ethical, loving, and empowering to all human beings, drawing on in our discernment all the resources God has given us.
Now, the actual process of finding these "best readings" is a time-consuming process, and one I haven't really approached in any systematic way when it comes to the epistles. But that's not because I don't think the process is worthwhile.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in God's image; in the image of the gods, God created them; male and female God created them.
Needless to say, the interpretation of Genesis 1:27 I give in my recent post On Being Straight is not the only interpretation which exists in the cultural sphere. All too often, I think people read it as actually affirming binary gender as something which is somehow divinely ordained--that God personally, actively, and deliberately separated the human species into male and female, all by Godself. But I think that's a bad interpretation.

Now admittedly, the hermeneutic criteria I take with me to Scripture--that an interpretation of Scripture is true (good? correct? best?) if and only if it is empowering to oppressed classes (women, queer people, the impoverished, etc.)--rules out the "divinely ordained binary gender" reading right from the get-go. But I don't think you need to be actively seeking to re-vision the text as I am in order to recognize that that interpretation doesn't really make sense when viewed in the greater context of what Genesis 1 is attempting to accomplish.

Some background: the reference to the imago dei in Gen. 1:27 comes towards the end of what is the first of two creation narratives in Genesis. Gen. 1:1-2:3 is called by scholars the "Priestly" account; Genesis 2:4-25ff is called the "Yahwist." Both stories represent the result of many generations of oral tradition which were ultimately compiled together in the work that would come to be known as the Book of Genesis.

The primary purpose of both narratives, but especially the Priestly account, is etiological: it explains how and why the world came into being. I don't think it's intended to explain what came into being at all; the ancient Hebrews simply could look around to see that. Of course, the "what" needed to be described in order to discuss the how and the why, and the ancient Hebrews did so in the languuage which was available to them, but I don't think the Priestly account is really making an ontological point at all. The Priestly account doesn't tell us that God created birds on the fifth day in order to explain that there is a such thing as "birdness" which all those flying things have in common (leading one to wonder whether non-flying birds like ostriches, and fying mammals like bats, were created on the fifth or sixth day); it does so to explain where all those flying things (whatever we want to call them and however we wish to classify them) came from. Trying to force metaphysics onto the myth seems to be doing it a great disservice, especially if one believes (I do not) that ideologically-neutral "textualist" or "functionalist" readings are available to a reader.

I'd argue that the mention of gender in 1:27 is functionally equivalent to the mention of avians in 1:20-24: "men" and "women" were categories which were already experientially present to the ancient Hebrews. That men and women existed was already stipulated, rightly or wrongly; they didn't need oral tradition to tell them that. The creation narrative would thus have functioned to explain where both genders came from--from God--rather than to assign them some type of eternal, unchanging essence.

If we assume the opposite, that Gen. 1:27 is detailing some sort of deliberate "creation" of gender and/or gendered differences (prominent marriage equality opponent Maggie Gallagher describes it as "the idea that God himself [sic] made man [sic] as male and female and commanded men and women to come together in a special way to image the fruitfulness of God"), then we're left with the uncomfortable question of just what was the deal with all those birds and fish that were created (the story goes) on the fifth day. Did the ancient Hebrews assume they just sort of existed genderlessly until the sixth day?

Why mention gender in 1:27 at all, then? Part of me thinks this question is wrongheaded--we might just as well ask why 1:20-24 mentions birds specifically. But insofar as we read Genesis as making a more profound point about men and women than it is about fish and sea creatures, I think the point is to make it explicit that men and women shared equally in the imago dei. Granted that the overall culture would have been a patriarchal one, I don't think this reading is in any way anachronistic, or at least not inherently so. Since Genesis is a compilation of often contradictory oral traditions, we shouldn't be surprised to find a proto-feminist sentiment lurking among the patriarchalism. Furthermore, there's plenty of patriarchal notions which are simultaneously deeply sexist but still (arguably) compatible with the notion of equal participation in the imago dei--for example, the notion of two separate but equal spheres.

Of course, as moderns and postmoderns we do not look to Genesis as etiological in the same way as did those who were actually shaping those oral traditions. For us, the spiritual truth testified to in Genesis 1 that all of creation is God-breathed is in some sense divorceable from any sense of Genesis 1 (or Genesis 2) as historical or scientific fact. But the spiritual truth is still a truth about a relationship between God and the world--that God is the ground and source of all being--and not one about the contents or structure of that world.

We don't construct our taxonomies of nature based on a division between "flying birds," "sea creatures," and "land animals," but based on (if you accept evolution, which I'm hoping you do) DNA and evolutionary processes and so on or (if you don't accept natural selection) fundamental similarities in anatomic structures, so that (for example) bats and whales are both mammals, ostriches and penguins are birds, etc. We recognize that the storytellers which passed down the Priestly creation story were expressing a profound spiritual truth using a pre-scientific language.

Furthermore, we don't consider even our more scientific classifications to represent ontological essences, but simply convenient ways of structuring our knowledge of the natural world. That the platypus is a mammal which happens to lay eggs isn't something that many lose all that much sleep over, nor should they. It's an example of the limitation of human systems of categorization, not a transgression against some law of nature, be it divine or scientific.

It seems to me that the same approach is appropriate in terms of gender. Male and female are categories which we use, for good or ill, to structure the way we think (and which the ancient Hebrews certainly used to structure the way they thought) of human (and non-human animal) diversity, in much the same way that "bird," "fish," and "mammal" are used to structure our understanding of a different type of animal diversity. But these are no more divinely-ordained categories than are "bird," "fish," and "mammal," and nothing in Genesis 1 should make us think that they are. Rather we recognize that they were using their own flawed patriarchal language, lacking the concepts of "intersexed" and "genderqueer," to express a powerful truth as best as they were able, that every human being--male, female, intersexed, and/or genderqueer--is reflective of the divine.

On Being Straight

Monday, 16 August 2010 07:43 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
From Ross Douthat's blog:
The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, “thick.” All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not. (And I do mean all straight relationships. Because they’ve grown up and fallen in love as heterosexuals, the infertile straight couple will experience their inability to have children very differently than a same-sex couple does.)
Blech.

I accept the labels "heterosexual" and "straight" because I recognize that the contingent fact about the actual world that the set of people I find attractive exists almost without exception within the larger set of people who in this (sexist, patriarchal) culture identify as, and/or are interpellated as, female, that the most homosexual activity I could imagine myself participating in would be phone sex with David Tennant (although seriously, David, call me now)--these contingent facts about the actual world results in my inhabiting a position of power and privilege which is simply not possible for me to escape.

But I refuse to let those labels identify who or what I am.

It is of course true that the fact that I have, as a straight person, inhabited this position of power and privilege pretty much my entire life (at least since I was say, fourteen, which is when I consciously began being attracted to women), so much so that it takes an act of will not to take it for granted, this has influenced me--if I'm honest about it, has wounded me--is going to leave me with a radically different understanding of myself and the world, with different experiences, than someone who grew up ashamed of their sexuality or wondering if they would need to keep secret a basic truth of their condition in order to preserve their friendships, their family relationships, perhaps even their life.

But I fail to see how Ross Douthat, or anyone else, can celebrate this fact.
The marital ideal that justifies calling gay unions “marriage,” by contrast, is necessarily much thinner, because it’s an ideal that needs to encompass not two but three different kinds of sexual relationships — straight, gay male, and lesbian.
This is just wrong, of course. There's either just one type of marriage--human marriage--or a lot more than three, once we remember the truth of the existence of intersexed and genderqueer persons. But no, we must all be trapped into our little, oppressive cages of male and female.

Genesis presents us with an alternate truth: "So God created human beings in God's own image. In the image of God, God created them; male and female, God created them" (1:27). Gender difference is revealed by Scripture to ultimately be a superficial difference in the face of our common similarity: the imago dei, our inherent dignity which is a reflection of God.

It's probably overly facile to simply say that if the ancient Hebrews had the concepts "intersexed" and "genderqueer" in their vocabularies they would have included them in the oral tradition which became compiled in the Genesis narrative--the ancient Hebrews were, no less than we today, flawed humans subject to sexism and heterosexism and cisgenderism, and there are plenty of places where Holy Scripture reflects that, a fact with which every principled, progressive Christian must wrestle. To imagine the concepts of "intersexed" and "genderqueer" to exist in their vocabularies, meaning what they mean to us today, is to imagine a radically different ancient society. But that doesn't meant that the wisdom of Genesis doesn't present us with a call to recognize that we all, male and female and genderqueer and intersexed, share a basic commonality before the LORD that renders all other differences ultimately meaningless. As St. Paul writes in Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
A. SCRIPTURE AND HISTORY

Daniel G. Bloesch admits in the introduction to his Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 1 that "[i]t is to the credit of liberals [. . .] that they were profoundly aware of the corporate nature of evil and of the social imperatives of faith. [. . .] The Gospel is in reality a world-changing message" which has been obscured by "an overemphasis on individual salvation to the neglect of community responsibility" (3).

While calling for an increased level of "prophetic insight regarding social sin" within the Church, however, Bloesch nonetheless argues that "[t]he Gospel is a spiritual message which stands above all social ideologies" (3). I think Bloesch is correct only insofar as a) what a "spiritual message" is and what spiritual message the Gospel presents remains essentially vague, and b) by "social ideologies" he means any specific, static articulated formulation which grows out of feminist thought, which grows out of anti-racist thought, which grows out of queer theoretic thought, etc. But the conservative evangelical idea that we are free from the underlying necessity to be anti-racist, feminist, queer-theoretic, etc. insofar as Biblical theology (whatever that may be) does not explicitly command it is dangerous. No articulation of ideology, be it social or theological (however one might understand the distinction) should be exempt from the dialectical processes of which truth is a function. All ideological processes should hold truth, not orthodoxy for the sake of orthodoxy, as their ultimate objective.

Bloesch recognizes this when he states that "the fundamental norm of faith (Scripture) must continually be subordinated to and interpreted by the material norm, the Gospel of reconciliation and redemption"--although he resists those specific moves that liberals have made in the service of that material norm "against" in some sense the "objective criterion" of Holy Scripture (2), in contradition to "the objective basis of faith" (5, n. 3).

If by "objective" Bloesch is demanding a realist metaphysics akin to that argued for by recent pontiffs of the Roman church, then obviously any theology, especially a postmodernist theology like mine, which denies the possible independence of truth from the dialectial process in and of history--which is to say, from the work of the Spirit--will not satisfy him.

But that is not, despite what those Roman pontiffs might assert, to affirm relativism: the dialectical processes in effect are hardly of a nature such that we can make a thing true merely by, say, wanting it to be true, or even by believing it to be true. Truth is a force much, much greater than any one of us. It is transcendent--of divine origin, a gift from God. But, like God, it is always-already revealed through history.

The Scripturalism of evangelical theology is thus at once its greatest danger and its greatest weekness; indeed, in many ways it is the source of all of its other ills. Resistance to faddishness is always exemplary, but many evangelical Christians are sorely overconfident in their ability to distinguish what is a fad from what is progress. As fallible human beings, our understanding is always-already structured by our history; this is inevitable.

To claim to have in a static text an objective critierion which can then be freed from the historical context which produced it and applied uncritically to evaluate our experience today is thus to deny the possibility of further revelation, that the Spirit is still speaking to us and that the Church still has room to grow. It is to stunt our legs before we have learned to walk, on par on arbitrarily deciding that the medieval period represented the apex of medical advancement and that we should use only leeches to treat patients.

The Church simply cannot do this and survive. Stasis is death. Nor should it--authentic discipleship does not mean the abandonment of the criticial dialectic. We need a Church which engages with the dialectic of history, not merely deigning to stand apart and claim to "learn from" it or "take what is good" but to truly give itself up to it and find itself enriched, stronger, more ready for true apostleship. This is the way the Kingdom is built.

This is not to say that we should not look to the Scriptures for guidance, of course; after all, they contain all things necessary for salvation. In many ways it is in reading and telling the stories of the Bible that we find our identity as Christians: they are our stories (although of course they are not uniquely ours, some or all of them being shared with Jews, Muslims, Bahá'ís, and others). The Bible is our inheritance as Christians, the history of our community, a textbook not of religion and morals but of our religious and moral evolution. It is a shared language and history which binds us together as sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ. It's the core of the basis for our entire religious symbology (with additions made here and there, sure). Its stories inform who we are, both culturally and spiritually. These are the documents which we as a Church look to as foundational. "God still speaks to us through the Bible," the Episcopal catechism reminds us.

The Scriptures are a gift from God, a tool for understanding God and seeing God and discerning God's will, the lens through which we understand the transcendent.

But they're not everything.

B. HISTORY AND THE CHURCH
"The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of our encounter with Christ and of Christ's with us. And the seven sacraments, in their turn, are sacraments of our encounter with the Church and of the Church's with us. Indeed, the other members of the Church are sacraments of encounter for us and we for them because, in the Christian scheme of things, we exaperience and manifest the love of Gof through love of neighbor."
Richard P. McBrien, 101 Questions and Answers on the Church, 17.
The sacraments are the means of grace, and the Church is a sacramental institution. The institutional and corporate nature of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is often downplayed within Protestantism, which chooses to focus instead on personal experience and individual salvation--but only at great risk. The Church is a thing, an ontologic entity, which is Mother to us all and Bride to Christ.

The Church stands as means of grace not because of her ability to minister from some extrahistorical pulpit but rather because of her incarnational positionality from within history, as the Body of Christ, which uses the substance of the here and now to open a way to the transcendent.

While continuing to assert the Biblical truth that what shall be bound on Earth by the Church shall be so bound in heaven, however, we cannot accept the unbridled authority which the Roman church has claimed for itself. The Church is free from being subject to the dialectic of history only insofar as she is herself synonymous with that process. The Church is thus identified not with the top-down imposition of claimed authority (whether emanating directing from the ecclesia itself or from an interpretation of Scripture) but by the bottom-up practices of debate, dialogue, and critical reasoning as motivated by the Spirit.

In the Episcopal Church, my own denomination, this essential dialogic character is reflected in its very governance, which holds according to liberal democratic principles, the Church subject to the faithful, and not the other way around. The end effect is messy, as anyone who has been paying attention to the news (or has attended a diocesan convention!) knows--but it is also authentic.

The role of the Church on planet Earth is to build the Kin(g)dom. The Episcopal catechism states that it is the ministry of the laity "to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world" and of all Christians "to work [. . .] for the spread of the Kingdom of God." The Church is not, contrary to the teaching of some Protestants, called to exile. We return, then, to a Christian commission for the work of social justice. While not discounting what Bloesch calls "the realism of the Reformation which took seriously the lust for power embedded in the very being of [the human person] that so easily corrupts every human dream and achievement and whose most virulent manifestation is the collective pride of races and nations" (200), so too do we take seriously the transformative power of accepted grace. The pessimism of evangelical Protestantism, rooted as it is in the Reformation doctrine of total depravity, lies in contradiction to our catholic understanding that
the world is essentially good, although fallen, because it comes from the creative hand of God, has been redeemed by Jesus Christ, and has been renewed by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Human existence is graced existence. The history of the world is, at the same time, the history of salvation. (McBrien 17)
C. HISTORY AND THE SPIRIT

It is impossible to speak of history within a Christian context without mentioning the Holy Spirit. History for the Trinitarian Christian is always-already pneumatological in character; creation is breathed from the Breath of God, and all of human history is a testimony to the Works of the Spirit, who, according to the Episcopal catechism, "is revealed in the Old Covenant as the giver of life, the One who speaks through the prophets" and in the New "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ." Hegel famously spoke of a Spirit, or Geist, in history: obviously the Hegelian notion of Spirit and the Trinitarian Christian one will have deep similarities and even deeper dissimilarities, but the underlying notion of a spirit working in and through history is common to both.

Looking to all of history as salvation history, then, we see always the effects and presence of the Spirit. The deuterocanonical book known as the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that God's "Wisdom guided Her disciples safely though all the tribulations" (11:9); "She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest" (11:17).

To the secular materialist human history, like cosmic history, is purposeless, unthinking, subject only to causal necessities totally indifferent to us--"one fucking thing after another" as the eponymous teenagers in Alan Bennet's The History Boys are fond of saying. Any notion of "progress" is a myth in the pejorative sense: things do not get better, only different.

The Christian, on the other hand, looks at history and sees a Plan: a single narrative which speaks of redemption and reconciliation between the peoples of the world and their Creator. The Christian (although of course not only the Christian) is given by the Spirit the virtuous gift of hope, and the expectation of God's Kin(g)dom. To the Church, history is a testament to this hope, not only in Scripture but through all of human activity: while it is not always a straight line--in our human fallibility we are cursed with backsliding, as we reject the Spirit's gifts, not only as individual but also (and especially) as communities, as nations, as a planet--but in its whole it represents a progression from worse to better.

It is of course true, as Richard Rorty notes, that this "justification is not by reference to a criterion, but by various detailed practical advantages. It is circular only in tha the terms of praise used to describe liberal societies will be drawn from the vocabulary of the liberal societies themselves. Such praise has to be in some vocabulary, after all" (581). In other words, the teleological character of pneumatic history is not metaphysical in character; there is "no ahistorical standpoint from which to endorse the habits" which we wish to praise and to condemn the habits we dislike. To those who feel that the sort of realist metaphysics embraced (for example) by the Roman church is philosophically untenable, this is a point in this account's favor, not an objection against it.

The Spirit is not some principle which intervenes in human history from some position outside of it. On the contrary, it is the inevitable logic of who and what we are--the imago dei, the images of God.

At the same time, however, one would of course not wish to deny the transcendent character of the Holy Spirit. Human history is a signifier of a transcendental signified greater than itself. Its dialectical processes are, or should be, what Immanuel Kant called a "transcendental dialectic": something which takes us beyond the rational to an apprehension of ultimate reality. All three Persons of the Trinity are transcendent as well as immanent, but this transcendence will always be and can only be the subject of the deepest and most profound mysticism. As the Creed of St. Athanasius states: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. And yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible."
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
I'm without a computer right now, so I'm not really upset about these not getting written; it's just the way things are. But for some reason this Sunday's took a hold of me, so here it is. As Elizabeth would say, written as if preached on the day (June 13).

Proper 6


1 Kings 21:1-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

The Church is a community of plurality, billions of people--many races, many genders, many sexualities, many nations, many ideologies and political viewpoints, many denominations and theologies--who are united, through the sacrament of their baptism, into a single Body, the mystical Body of Christ, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The God we worship is a God of plurality, three in One, three Persons in one Being: Adonai, Messiah, and Chokmah. Jesus is a man of plurality, fully God and fully human. The paschal meal which we share today is a meal of plurality: to all outward appearances mere bread and mere wine, but in its most fundamental being it contains the Real Presence of Christ Jesus.

It is appropriate, then, and perhaps shouldn't be too surprising, that our Scripture is a book of plurality: many books, written by many authors from many different times and historical contexts, testifying to many different understandings and experiences of the divine, uniting into one canon, the book, la biblia, the Bible. Any single viewpoint would be far too limited to be able to contain the multi-splendored nature of God; the multitude of inconsistencies and incoherencies which run througout Scripture, from the two competing accounts of Creation onwards, give necessary testimony that no collection of words could ever contain the fullness of the divine. This richness is sadly lost to those who would approach Scripture as a single discrete text by a single divine author, using the various prophets and evangelists merely as secretaries taking dictation.

Our Lectionary exploits this truth about Scripture by juxtaposing these various voices within the context of the praise, worship, and study which is the Liturgy of the Word, typically--as in this week--a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, a reading specifically from the Psalter, a reading from the Epistles, and a reading from the Gospels, but modified sometimes so as to fit the needs of various points in the church year. (For example, during Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles and the Revelation of St. John the Divine.) Sometimes, we walk away from this juxtaposition struck by the unity of the message running like a thread through disparate portions of Scripture; sometimes, the passages stand in critique and challenge to each other.

This week we see in our Lectionary passages several distinct perspectives on the moral order of the universe, perspectives which speak to different moments in Jewish thought, each which their own historical context which it is important for us to understand. While many of the psalms in the Psalter are attributed to King David within the text itself, modern scholars tend to see them as the product of many different authors--a microcosm of the Bible as a whole, so to speak--most of them probably written some time after the Exile, for liturgical uses. The Books of Kings was probably compiled around the same time, sometime in the sixth century B.C.E., from earlier historical material. It is not surprising, then, that to a great degree the two works share a common worldview as to the nature of good and evil in the world.

Central to understanding the moral order operative in the Psalter and in the Books of Kings is realizing that our notion of an afterlife as punishment or reward for a life ill- or well-lived did not yet exist in the times in which they were written. Sheol for these Jews was a shadowy half-existence more akin to oblivion than to our notions of Heaven or of Hell; indeed, there is some evidence of the Jews thinking of the soul as being utterly consumed and obliterated within it. The Hebrews thus looked to the more-or-less direct intervention of God, working through prophets like Elijah, through nature, and through history, to upkeep the moral order, to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, within the confines of an earthly lifespan.

Throughout the Psalter runs the faithful conviction, held both in good times and in bad, that righteousness will be rewarded and wickedness will be punished. Psalms of celebration exalt the way in which those rewards are enjoyed today; psalms of lamentation nonetheless are firm in their insistence that it will come tomorrow. Note that a critical element of this moral order is the destruction of one's enemies; not only will those who are faithful to God be raised up and exalted, but those who persecute God's faithfull will be laid low. God "hates all those who work wickedness," abhors "the bloodthirsty and deceitful," and "destroys those who speak lies"--and the Psalms positively relish in that destruction, unapologetically revelling in the misfortune of others and viewing it as evidence of a just god at work in the world. "Love your enemies" is not a message which one finds in the Psalter, at least not on the surface, nor is the unconditional love of God for all people and races.

Around the second century B.C.E., however, a new paradigm began to emerge in Jewish thought, in response to the Maccabean exile and a growing frustration with God's tendency to side with those with the larger armies, and a belief in the resurrection of the dead, that the faithful--defined as those who upheld God's law by keeping the Jewish purity laws--would be rewarded in a future, messianic age in which our bodies would be restored to life and made immortal. One of the sects which held this were the Pharisees, in contrast to the Sadducees, the temple priests, who denied the resurrection. Acts 23:8 reminds us that “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three." The Sadducees were religious conservatives who interpreted the Torah literally; the Pharisees were religious liberals who democratized Judaism by transferring authority from the priests to the people. While the Pharisees are attacked throughout the Gospels for their legalism, they were in fact less legalistic in most ways than the other Jewish sects in favor during the time of the life of Christ.

Jesus was, of course, Christself a Pharisee, at least insofar as Jesus' thought and teachings can be situated within the context of any particular school of Jewish thought. Perhaps this is why Jesus' spends so much time criticizing them, holding them to a higher standard because they have already glimpsed some small glimmer of the truth.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus eats at the home of another Pharisee, Simon. Simon, like Jesus, believes in the resurrection of the body; he recognizes the hope of a resurrected life. This is a point they agree on, a common starting point in their paradigmatic understandings of the universal moral order which unites them as they break bread with each other, Simon eager to learn from Jesus as Teacher. Yet Jesus nonetheless presents a fundamental challenge and correction to Simon's understanding.

Simon's belief in the resurrection only pushes the earlier Jewish understanding of God rewarding good and punishing evil onto a future afterlife; it is still, essentially, a bribe for being good, a celestial equivalent to a mother telling her children she'll buy them ice cream if they behave at Grandma's. The fundamental system of accounting, so to speak, which we see operative in the Psalter and in Kings has not been changed. But when Jesus forgives the sins of the woman kissing his feet, Jesus explodes this calculus, turning Simon's world upside down in the process.

Jesus presents instead a vision of a world where we do good and act justly not because we hope to earn some type of reward, whether in this life or in heaven--what craven people we must be to need to be bribed to do the right thing! Jesus shows us a world where we do not avoid evil because we are afraid of a Hell where we will be mercilessly punished forever for our sins. Jesus shows Simon the possibility of a still third moral order, one in which we act lovingly not in hope of some reward but because we are filled with love, because that is our authentic response as Christians to Jesus' redemptive Presence. Broken free from the calculus of reward-and-punish, we sing praise to God not to incur divine favor, but because our mouths cannot bear to be silent; we pray to God because our hearts will not be still; we do the work of God because our hands cannot bear to be idle.

May it ever be so for all of us.

Amen.

Things I've Written

Monday, 1 June 2009 09:51 pm
cjbanning: (Default)
I haven't quite decided how I'm going to use this journal--mostly I've set it up so I can follow the various blogs of people with whom I've interacted offline on this account's flist.

But it occurs to me that, to keep everything together, I should use this space to link to some things I've written elsewhere on the internet non-pseudonymously.

Over at Our Lenten Collage, I made a series of posts throughout Lent, once a week (posting on Thursdays), as I struggled with my Lenten devotion. The exact details of my Lenten devotion, which involved a combination of prayer and Scripture-reading, were described in my introductory post--entitled, simply enough, Prayer and Scripture. In the next two weeks I went on to provide in-depth exploration of each of these concepts and my complicated thoughts surrounding them in Going Deep with Scripture and Going Deep with Prayer. If you're interested in what I believe in terms of religion or what my approach to theology is, those two posts are very good places to start.

In A Parable, I tell a story about a Zen master and the student who comes to him seeking enlightenment. And in Emmaus Moments I briefly looked ahead out of Lent into Easter to meditate on the way in which I was walking to Emmaus in my own journey through Lent: "But unlike the disciples on the road to Emmaus," I remind myself, "we do know the end of the story, that God will do what is necessary to make Godself known to us." And finally, in This Boat I've Built, I return to the parable I told earlier as a means of looking back on and taking stock of my Lenten journey.

I also served as Symposium Editor for the first issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, an online academic journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works which examines "popular media, fan communities, and transformative works, broadly conceived."
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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