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: (St. Thomas)
As part of his "Questions That Haunt" series, Tony Jones has taken on the question of theodicy and come to a startling conclusion (emphasis his):
I know this: No one — not the Jews, not the Romans — was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. God was was ultimately responsible. That blood is ultimately on God’s hands. God could have stopped it; God didn’t. And so we’re all left to wonder about God’s responsibility for that act of evil, and for all acts of evil.
First off, I find Tony's disavowal of human responsibility for the crucifixion perplexing. It doesn't follow obviously from anything else he says (as far as I can tell) and, at least for me, seems to me to undermine the power of the Incarnation, the entire point of which was for God's Begotten One to enter into our human suffering and become vulnerable to human evil. Even if we were to agree that God were ultimately responsible, it's not at all clear to me how that absolves Judas of Jesus' betrayal or Pilate of Jesus' condemnation.

The question of God's responsibility, however, is much more interesting and challenging. Here's some more of Tony's logic:
God is ultimately liable for the evil in the world. On my theory, God could reclaim omnipotence at any moment, step in, and stop evils and horrors. The fact that God doesn’t, implicates God.

Does this make God less than perfectly benevolent? Maybe. Maybe God also abdicated “benevolence” at creation, or at least perfect benevolence. Or maybe God’s all-in-allness means that our conception of “goodness” and “benevolence” is swallowed up in God’s fullness.
I think much of this is at least partly right. Certainly it is probably a mistake to think of God's omnibenevolence as just like human benevolence, only better. But I think a lot is also caught up in the word "could." Could God step in and stop evils and horrors? At first glance, it seems like to deny this is to deny God's omnipotence; of course, God could, because God can do anything and, being the highest authority, answers to no authority higher than Godself.

But God is answerable to Godself, to the perfect goodness of God's own nature which requires God to respect the dignity and free will of God's creatures created in God's own image. This is no more to speak of a limitation on the part of God than it would be to say that God "cannot" create a stone so heavy that God "cannot" lift it. In both cases, the true limitation resides in the ability of our language to describe that which lies past its limits. Instead, to speak of God's "inability" to act contrary to God's nature is actually to speak of the very perfection of divine freedom; there is no division in God's will and thus no force which could possibly coerce God into acting against Godself.

Of course, without getting needlessly metaphysical, the above does assume there is some sort of enduring character to God's goodness, that God cannot and would not simply decide today that respecting human dignity and free will is a good thing and decide tomorrow that it is bad. This, then, is against what Roger Olson calls "nominalistic voluntarism," the claim that "“Whatever God does is automatically good and right just because God does it":
[The nominalistic voluntarist believes that] God does not have an eternal nature of character; he [sic] is pure power and will. God is whatever God decides to be. The result is that the “good” is whatever God commands and God does not command anything because it is good. It is good only because God commands it.

[. . .]

This makes God truly monstrous because God, then, has no virtuous character. “Good” becomes whatever God decides and does and, ultimately, becomes meaningless because it has no essential connection with anything we know as “the good.”
Drawing then on the scriptural truth that "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), I affirm that the enduring nature of moral goodness is discernible, if imperfectly, by human beings through the dialectic of human reason and history, as I note in my blog post on Liberalism and Moral Absolutes and perhaps most fully in my essay History and Christ. While our understanding of what is good and evil is always evolving and improving through history as it is led by the Spirit, good and evil themselves do not change, and certainly not at the whims of a capricious deity. So when the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts
As to whom we are to obey, there can be no doubt that first we are bound to offer an unreserved service to Almighty God in all His [sic] commands. No real difficulty against this truth can be gathered from putting in juxtaposition the unchangeableness of the natural law and an order, such as that given to Abraham to slay his son Isaac. The conclusive answer is that the absolute sovereignty of God over life and death made it right in that particular instance to undertake the killing of an innocent human being at His [sic] direction.
I simply cannot go there with it. If God had allowed Abraham to kill Isaac at God's direction, God would have revealed Godself to be a moral monster unworthy both of worship and of obdeience. Following a line of throught I encountered (if I remember correctly) in Elie Wiesel's Messengers of God, I tend to assume that Abraham knew this too. By going ahead and carrying out God's outrageous command, Abraham was calling God's bluff, so to speak--putting the Lord God Almighty to the test.

Does this understanding of the relationship between God and goodness require us to posit some independent existence for goodness in some Platonic heaven in order for God to perfectly embody it? Of course not, and I plan soon to write a post on Wittgenstein's metaethical mysticism to gesture towards how we can talk practically about enduring good and evil without getting needlessly caught up in metaphysics.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Speaking from the pulpit last Sunday at the Church of the Ascension, I said that "[prayer] is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God."

Looking over a recent post from Roger E. Olson, one of my favorite theo-bloggers among those with whom I typically expect to disagree, I see him developing this point by describing his youthful encounter with an essay by Reformed theologian James Daane called “Can a Man Bless God?”:
Like many seminary students, I was taught in my theology classes that God is immutable; nothing any creature can do can add anything to God. God is in every way always complete and unconditioned—incapable of being given anything he does not already possess in himself eternally. Traditional theologians like to pay God metaphysical compliments like that.

Against the stream of traditional Christian theism, and against the grain of his own Reformed tradition, Daane wrote that “[The] God of the Bible is not unresponsive to finite human condition. His freedom does not consist in being free from the touch of what is not God, nor is his immutability a change of relationship to the world that involves no change in God….” (p. 171) Daane asked why theologians came up with the idea of God as the “Unconditioned Absolute” and answered that they “lingered too long at the waterholes of Western rationalism.” (p. 172) He concluded that “In the biblical view God hears and responds to the cries of the needy, and is indeed so involved in conditional, contingent reality that he can be both sinned against and, no less, blessed by man in such a way that it makes a difference to God himself. But a God who is unconditional because he himself accounts for all conditions by virtue of his essence or decree is a God who cannot hear, let alone answer prayer.” (p. 173)

Daane was one of several Christian thinkers who together liberated me from thinking of God as absolute, unconditioned, incapable of being changed or affected by what creatures, by what I, do.
While I am as I said sympathetic with their premise to a point, I find myself only able to go so far with Daane and Olson. [And, for that matter, with Tony Jones.] I entered into my theism--such as it is--through Wittgenstein and Tillich. It was, in some important sense, at the very "waterholes of Western rationalism" that I learned to make sense of my belief in the Ground of Being. If we too divorce the God of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar too much from the God of philosophy, then the "Biblical" God we are left with may seem more like a superpowered alien than anything else, an empirical being which can be said to either exist or not exist and demands evidence, empirical evidence, for the claim that it exists. And that evidence is, to say the least, sorely lacking. Worse yet, it would always make God and our belief in God contingent upon that evidence--the God Who Might Be, and Who Might Not Have Been in some other possible world--instead of allowing God to exist in Godself as the One Who Is, the most-real reality which is primal and ultimate. If God exists, then God exists necessarily, for any being who exists other than necessarily cannot in truth, by my reckoning, be called God.

More importantly, even if we were to conclude such evidence did exist, little would flow from it. I do not worship a being simply because it is more powerful than I am. I do not consent to obey its edicts simply because it has the power to torture or annihilate me--or if I do, then I do so out of cowardice rather than virtue. Such a view of God degrades God in a way which makes theism unpalatable down to its core. Instead of the source of all goodness in which we live and move and have our being, we are left with a jealous tyrant in the sky.

Admittedly, I have subtitled this blog "A Messiah without Metaphysics." But I write that as a Wittgensteinian, so what I am trying to describe is not so much a God without metaphysics as it is a God which is past metaphysics. Both Wittgenstein and Nietzsche--two of the philosophers who have influenced me most profoundly--were not afraid to use "metaphysics" as a pejorative. But I think both of them also understood the subtle truth that the movement beyond metaphysics is itself in some sense always-already a deeply metaphysical move. We cannot escape the limits of our language even as we do our best to gesture at what lies beyond them.

But to believe in a truly unmetaphysical God in the sense I've laid out above--a God who is simply a contingent being who can be said to exist or not on the basis of contingent evidence--represents turning our back on millennia of theological tradition and Church teaching, as Olson plainly admits:
I came to believe that paying too many metaphysical compliments to God can de-personalize God. That trend was, I believe, unwittingly set in motion by some of the church fathers as they adopted Greek philosophical modes of thinking about God, carried forward by Augustine under the spell of neo-Platonism, deepened by Thomas Aquinas who borrowed from Aristotle to describe God as actus purus—pure actuality without potentiality, and brought into evangelical thought by Reformed theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge.
Now of course I do not assume that everything the Church fathers and mothers, or Augustine or Aquinas, wrote is inspired and authorative truth. Far from it! If anything, I am the first to critique what I see as an untenable neo-Aristotelianism in Roman Catholic theology since Aquinas.

But as an Anglo-Catholic, I am also far more wary than a Protestant like Olson might be to conclude that such constant and uniform Church teaching represents some sort of poisoned well. The solution is to put Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas in dialogue with Hume and Kant and Wittgenstein, not to retreat to some illusion of sola scriptura. This is especially important because I cannot see the Greek-influenced understandings of God's nature as being something separable from other key conclusions made by the early Councils, e.g. about the Trinity. I don't see how we can throw out the influence of Greek philosophy and still keep our understanding of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as described in the creeds and confessions of the ecumenical councils.

At the same time, I agree--as I said plainly in my sermon--that God's being in true relationship with humanity requires God to be able to be transformed by us and by our prayers. And Scripture does indeed seem to agree with this point and confirm it: even if we don't understand the repeated references to God changing God's mind in the Hebrew scriptures completely literally, neither do I think we can write them off entirely. Instead, I see them gesturing towards the higher reality of a mysterious God who is at once immutable and always changing, who is at once relational and absolute. And as I said in my sermon, I don't really pretend to understand this paradox, but I do think that either of our choices in trying to defuse it is going to end up falling short in one way or another.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Just as theology of the Atonement should not treat the Incarnation merely as a necessary prerequisite for the Cross, neither should it treat Easter morning as a mere afterthought, but rather as an integral element of the story of our salvation. Does St. Paul not say,
If Christ is not raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless--and everything you've believed has been just as meaningless. If Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins. (1 Cor. 15:4, 7, The Inclusive Bible)
Now, I don't take this to mean that we necessarily need to understand the Resurrection as a literal event within history--although neither do I deny the historicity of the Resurrection. I wasn't present at the Empty Tomb, so I cannot testify to what was there. If the Resuurection qua historical event was necessary to reconcile humanity to God, then that's how it happened. But what I can, and as a Christian must, testify to is the importance and indispensability of the bodily Resurrection of the Christ as a spiritual truth.

Because of this, I don't think it's sufficient either to "demythologize it to mean only the restitution of faith in the hearts of the disciples," a view Roger Olson ascribes to Bultmann and Tillich. If anything, we need a postmodern, postliberal remythologization of the Resurrection to avoid the dual modernist errors of liberal demythologization on the one hand and conservative hyperliteralism--in truth, its own form of demythologization--on the other. If nothing else, we need to understand the bodily (and we must retain the "bodily" as part of the mytheme, lest we risk Gnosticism) Resurrection of Christ as a profound metaphysical event which eternally alters the relationship between embodied humanity and God regardless of whether that event was instantiated within historical time and space. As the Rt. Rev. David Edward Jenkins is reported to have said, the Resurrection is "not just a conjuring trick with bones," but something deeper and far more mysterious.

And it is this understanding of the profundity of the Resurrection that I believe it is vitally important to bring with us to our understanding of the Atonement. In some understandings of the Atonement, the Resurrection seems to be little more than a divine encore--after doing the really difficult work of reconciling humanity to God on the Cross, Jesus rises from the dead as one last miraculous work to allow the disciples to go home feeling satisfied. This is problematic in many ways, not least because it focuses the moment of redemption within murder and suffering rather than in the promise of new life.

It is out of these sort of concerns that leads Tony Jones to say of the Ransom Captive theory of the Atonement that
it does have the upper hand over PSA [Penal Substitutionary Atonement] in one regard: in the Ransom Captive understanding of the atonement, Christ’s resurrection is central.

The one thing that Satan doesn’t understand is that death cannot vanquish God. That lack of understanding leads to Satan’s downfall, and to the ultimate liberation of humanity from Satan’s clutches.
This is because under the Ransom Captive understanding, the resurrection of Jesus allows God to "trick" Satan and "have his cake (the freedom of the human race) and eat it too (the resurrection of his son)." Of course, both Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the Ransom Captive theory have fairly fatal flaws which I will no doubt consider when we reach Part 5 of this series, on God's authority, but it does show the way in which the presence or absence of a Resurrection emphasis might be used as a criterion in evaluating theologies of the Atonement.

Another theology of the Atonement, somewhat related to the Ransom Captive theory, which also scores high marks in Resurrection emphasis is Christus Victor, which is of course Latin for "Christ the Victor." In this understanding, Jesus' death is not seen as any type of payment, either to Satan or to God the Parent, except perhaps in a highly figurative sense. Instead, by moving into death and embracing mortality fully, and then moving on to new life in the Resurrection, Christ victoriously breaks the hold death and sin have over all of humanity. The problem, insofar as there is one, is that, as Wikipedia notes, "the Christus Victor view of the Atonement is not so much a rational systematic theory as it is a drama, a passion story of God triumphing over the Powers and liberating humanity from the bondage of sin."
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
It's been a while since I've posted an entry in my "What I Want From an Atonement Theology" series, but I have not forgotten it! I'm still very interested in articulating just what I'd like to see in a theology of atonement, and then perhaps thinking about just how a theology might manage to fill those requirements.

And one of the important--I was tempted to say "most important," but really all of the criteria I specified at the beginning of this project are pretty critically important--requirements which I have for an atonement theology is that it treat the Incarnation not merely as a necessary prerequisite for the Cross, but recognize that "Incarnation is redemption."

You might remember that I actually preached on this in my sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name:
[There is] a tendency we sometime see in some parts of Christianity to view the Incarnation as a mere prerequisite to the Cross, something God had to do in order to accomplish the plan of salvation just as it might be necessary for a high school student to take Algebra I before she can take Algebra II. Roger Olson speaks of it as a “rescue mission”: “its only purpose being to get God the Son onto the cross to change God’s attitude toward us from wrath to love. This,” Olson says, “does not take the truth of the incarnation seriously enough.”
I contrasted this with a Franciscan understanding of the Incarnation as articulated by Fr. Richard Rohr:
For Francis and the early Franciscans, "incarnation was already redemption," and the feast of Christmas said that God was saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of his Son in our midst. If that were true, then all questions of inherent dignity, worthiness, and belovedness were resolved once and forever—and for everything that was human, material, physical, and in the whole of creation. That's why Francis liked animals and nature, praising the sun, moon, and stars, like some New Ager from California. It was all good and chosen and beautiful if God came among us "as Emmanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
What are the implications of this understanding of the Incarnation as "already redemption" on how we view the Atonement? What happens when we view the Cross through the lens of the Incarnation instead of vice versa?

Jesus' death was an inevitable consequence of the Christ becoming human, of sharing our mortal nature. Whether it was at 33 years old on the Cross, or as an elderly person on a deathbed, Jesus was always going to die. That's part and parcel of being human, an inescapable result of the kenotic process described in the early Christian hymn quoted by St. Paul in his letter to the Phillipians:
Christ, though in the image of God,
didn't deem equality with God
something to be clung to--
but instead became completely empty
and took on the image of oppressed humankind:
born into the human condition,
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled--
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! (2:6-8, The Inclusive Bible)
By emptying Christself and becoming human, Christ doomed Christself to death. So it seems to me that the question of the Cross is: in what ways, if any, does Jesus' violent death on a cross accomplish something that a death in bed from natural causes at age 90 would not have? I think the hymn above implies an answer in its phrase "death, even death on a cross!" Crucifixion is, in a sense, the sine qua non of deaths, dramatically underscoring what it means to be mortal, to be subject to suffering and ultimately to death. Jesus' experience on the Cross was what every human being faces in death, only more so. "Jesus' cry from the cross—'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'—shows that in the crucifixion, God experienced the most human of all feelings: the absence of God. In so doing, God bridged the gap that sin had caused between us," writes Tony Jones, explicating the view of the atonement held by theologian Jürgen Moltman.

In The Crucified God, Moltman writes--quoted by Tony Jones here--that it is on the Cross that Christ takes upon Christself "the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and godforsaken can experience communion" with the Christ. That's the sort of insight that I think a theology of the atonement has to take into account if it is to properly understand the Cross in light of the Incarnation, rather than simply understanding the Incarnation in light of the Cross, as has been lamentably more common within Western Christianity.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
Tony Jones has challenged "all progressive theo-bloggers to write one post about God between now and August 15."

"Write something substantive about God," Tony writes. "Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God." He's afraid that progressive Christians "don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc."
We might think that people know what we think about God, but they don’t. It’s clear in the comments on this blog and elsewhere.

It really struck me yesterday, when listening to a recent edition of the TNT podcast, in which Tripp repeatedly and forcefully said things about who God is and how God acts. He didn’t relativize those statements with qualifiers, and he didn’t cowtow to political correctness or academic jargon. That was jarring to me because it so rarely happens.
Tony's challenge reminds me of the story of Moses before the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3. Moses knows that when he returns to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt to tell them of God's promise of liberation for them, they're going to want to know just who this god is who is giving the promise. "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is this god's name?' what shall I say to them?" asks Moses.

And God answers back to Moses, "I am who I am":
Thus you shall say to the Israelites, "I AM has sent me to you. YHWH, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you." This is my name forever, and my title for all generations.
Tony's point seems to be that progressive Christians, when we speak of justice and love and liberation and mercy, need to be prepared also to answer the question that Moses knew the Israelites would ask him: "What is the name of the god who has sent you?"

God is who God is. Liberals know well that God transcends any attempt by human beings to describe the divine, that our attempts to make God fit into our own categories and concepts can quickly become idolatry. As Scott Paeth puts it:
we are using human language to describe the indescribable, and referring to a human being as the incarnation of that which is beyond all created order. These are the paradoxes that exist at the heart of the Christian tradition. This is what makes it a mystery. In speaking of God, the answers aren't at the back of the book. And the mistake that is too often made by conservative and liberal Christians alike is to believe that in their God talk they are speaking about something that can be definitively spoken of, rather than alluding to something that in the end we know only in partial and fragmentary ways.

What this ought to lead to is a great deal of theological humility, especially about the kinds of things that seem to animate contemporary American Christians so thoroughly. Yet if as Christians we are to attempt to live lives in accord with our faith, we have no choice except to attempt to speak of the unspeakable and know the unknowable. The challenge then is to do so in ways that acknowledge our inherent limitations, and the ultimate futility of any attempt to speak definitively of God.
For Paeth, as of course for me, it all comes back to Wittgenstein's Tractatus:
I am always drawn back in these conversations to the ending of Ludwig Wittenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where after sketching out the basis of an approach to philosophy that would come to dominate the discipline in the ensuing years, he ended with the much misunderstood dictum: "Of that about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent."

For Christians of course, it is possible to recognize the truth of that, and yet feel compelled to speak nevertheless. The basis of our speech though, is always the very human reality of Jesus Christ, and our very human attempts to understand the connection between him and the God whom we believe he revealed. Once again, this ought to lead us to a great deal of humility. More's the pity it seldom does.
At the same time, I take Tony's point. What can we say as progressive Christians about God? And as I reflect about what insight our revealed tradition has given us into the nature of God, two points stand out in particular. One is broadly Abrahamic; the other is very specifically Trinitarian Christian. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the two points reinforce and illuminate each other.

First off, God is concerned with justice. This is incredibly clear throughout the Hebrew scriptures. The prophet Micah asks, "What does YHWH require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" In the first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet likewise instructs Israel: "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Jeremiah agrees:
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphans, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. "Shall I not punish them for these things," says YHWH, "and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?"
These are just a few of the most obvious examples, but the thread of justice weaves itself visibly through the entirety of the scriptures. The very worst sin Israel could commit is to turn away from God and commit idolatry, but the second is to fail to take care of the society's most vulnerable members.

That is the God who has sent us.

The preoccupation with justice continues into the Christian scriptures. Part of the process of our salvation is "justification"--literally the process by which we are "made just" by taking the character of God's divine justice upon ourselves. In Matthew 5:10, Jesus says that those who are persecuted for the sake of justice are especially blessed: for the kindom of Heaven is theirs. Similarly, in Matthew 6:33, Jesus instructs us to strive first for the justice of God's kindom--and tells us that it is in the process of that striving that that kindom is made available to us.

That is the God who has sent us.

And of course, God's concern with justice is seen in the witness of the saints, perhaps most visibly in Francis and Clare, but also in Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and in the whole number of those compelled by the grace of God and the love of Christ to do our part to create a just and loving society in which all are capable of flourishing, in tearing down the sinful social structures which stand in the way of that flourishing.

That is the God who has sent us.

Secondly, God exists in community, in relationship, in dialectic, in conversation, in dialogue. I've already written about this character of the Triune God of Trinitarian Christianity extensively elsewhere in this blog, so I won't belabor the point here. But the God who has sent us is the God who is Parent and Child and Spirit all at once, three persons in the unity of a single being, each the equal of the others, all complicated and messy and perichoretic. The God who has sent us models for us a way of living in community and engaging in dialogue. The God who has sent us is dynamic, never static.

That is the God who has sent us. And it is because we have been sent by this God that we progressive Christians strive and work for the justice of God's kindom, because we have been promised by our God that it will indeed be opened unto us.

That is the God who has sent us. Amen.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
A theology of the Atonement must, like any other theological endeavor, have as its starting place Who Christ Is, firmly rooted both in the hypostatic union and in the Holy Trinity as perichoretic dialectic. Without a firm appreciation of the full humanity and full divinity of the One who is God's Eternally Begotten, consubstantial with God the Parent in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the full meaning and power of the Cross simply cannot be hoped to be grasped: " the Cross was required for the world's redemption [. . .] because of the transcendence of the very bounds of sense which the Cross represents: the death of the immortal, ever-living God; the helplessness of the omnipotent Ruler of the Universe while undergoing cruel torture; the questioning cry from the omniscient Overseer" (as I put it in my 2010 post, On Atonement).

Here's Tony Jones:
Am I just too evangelical, looking as I am for cosmic import and redemption in the death of at Galilean peasant two millennia ago?

I think not.

If Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity — which I believe he was — then his crucifixion matters. And it matters more than as an example of someone who demonstrated “a Jesus-like revolutionary resistance in relation to a culture of unprecedented social inequality—and of unprecedented and appalling economic, racial, military, penal, environmental, and psychological violence.” (Oh, wait, that quote was about us, not Jesus.)

Atonement theologies insufficiently rooted in these mysteries end up subject to what I think of as the "Life of Brian problem." I first proposed this thought experiment--based of course on Monty Python's 1979 comedy film The Life of Brian in which a man named Brian lives a life strangely parallel to that of Jesus Christ--while I was in undergrad reading René Girard's The Scapegoat. Why is Jesus' death on a cross salvific when Brian's is not?

I never really figured out in undergrad whether Girard's theology held an answer to the Life of Brian problem or not. But Tony Jones' description seems to indicate that it does--and that that answer is located precisely in the hypostatic union: "the scapegoat is not one us us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself [sic] enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices"--although I still don't claim to understand how exactly it all works. In particular, the explanation seems to conflate Jesus' divinity with Jesus' sinlessness; Wikipedia states that "the difference [. . .] is that [Jesus] was resurrected from the dead and shown to be innocent"--is the only difference between Jesus and Brian that Brian committed some (presumably fairly minor) sin? (Or is crucifixion considered to be in some way some sort of reasonable response to the mere stain of original sin?) I don't get it--which ultimately says more about me than Girard, perhaps.

One way for non-Trinitarians and other holders of unorthodox Christologies to escape the Life of Brian problem is to ground the uniqueness of the Cross of Jesus in Christ's sinlessness or in a sort of quasi-divinity rather than in full, actual divinity. But for an orthodox Trinitarian, I think any answer to the question "Why is the Cross of Jesus special?" other than "Because Jesus is the Begotten One of God, consubstantial with God the Parent in the unity of the Holy Spirit" is indicative of an atonement theory which is somehow deficient. It might perhaps provide us with a true and important piece of the puzzle, but it will also be lacking in some major way.

One example of this which seems particularly clear for me is the "moral exemplar" theory. Here's Tony's description:
So God sent his [sic] son, Jesus, as the perfect example of a moral life. Jesus’ teachings and his healing miracles form the core of this message, and his death is as a martyr for this cause: the crucifixion both calls attention to Jesus’ life and message, and it is an act of self-sacrifice, one of the highest virtues of the moral life.
I think Tony's way of phrasing here is telling: "God sent his son." Now, this is a perfectly orthodox way of phrasing the relationship between Jesus and the one Jesus called Abba--it had better be, after all, since it's the main way of phrasing it used by the Christian Scriptures themselves. And if Tony is right that this "view of the atonement was the first post-biblical view articulated in the very earliest, post-Apostolic church" then I suppose we shouldn't be surprised it doesn't depend on an elaborate, sophisticated account of the Trinity which stresses Jesus' consubstantiality with God the Parent. But I do think that ultimately proves to be a weakness. While the moral exemplar theory is certainly true so far as it goes, it fails to adequately capture the fullness of the Atonement precisely because it fails to capture the fullness of Who Jesus Is. You can replace "his son" with "a prophet" or "an angel" or whatever and the sense of Tony's description isn't really changed.

Perhaps strangely, I think the most popular types of atonement theology--substitutionary theories, which include both the classic "ransom" view and the Reformed view of "penal substitution"--also fall prey to this criticism (as well as other logical criticisms we'll examine in future posts). As far as I can see, there is nothing preventing a Unitarian or quasi-Arian from holding a substitutionary account of the atonement; indeed, Jehovah's Witnesses typically advocate a version of the ransom theory. (And there is no contradiction I can see between the quasi-Arian understanding of Jesus as angel with penal substitution.) This indicates that these views, too, are ultimately lacking something crucial.
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
This past Lenten season, a lot of smart people have been thinking--and re-thinking--about the Atonement. Much of the conversation centered around Tony Jones, who was aggressively promoting his new e-book, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin. (I haven't read the e-book myself, but since it's supposedly largely adapted from old blog posts, I suspect I'm fairly deeply familiar with its contents.) Jones' interlocutors have included Daniel Kirk, Dallas Gingles, John Vest, Peter Laarman, Scott Paeth, Richard Beck, and others.

Meanwhile, my friend Elizabeth at more like a word theme, really was working on her sermon This is not really a sermon on The Cross:
While I don’t have a problem with discussion of sin, I have basically zero interest in the glorification of Jesus’ suffering and death. I have, in fact, an active resistance to it.

I absolutely, full-stop, refuse to believe in a God who requires the brutal death of a Beloved Child in order to reconcile the world to Godself. That’s abusive and cruel and irreconcilable with the God of Love who is at the center of my faith.

So I tend to not engage with the Cross much.
In the midst of all this reflection on the Atonement, I've been thinking too. I shared some thoughts with Elizabeth and left a couple of comments at Tony's blog, but I haven't said anything here because I didn't feel like I had anything to say. Of course, Elizabeth and Tony don't have fully developed theologies of the Atonement yet either, and it occurred to me a few days ago that while I can't articulate a fully developed Atonement theology, I can articulate a few specific features I think a theology of the Atonement ought to have, and that articulating those features might be a useful and instructive process in its own right.

These are the things I'd want to see in an Atonement theology:
1. Orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology. A theology of the Atonement should be fully grounded in an appreciation of Jesus Christ's full humanity and full divinity as God's Eternally Begotten One, consubstantial with God the Parent in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

2. Incarnational emphasis. A theology of the Atonement should not treat the Incarnation merely as a necessary prerequisite for the Cross, but recognize that "Incarnation is redemption."

3. Resurrection emphasis. By the same token, a theology of the Atonement should not treat Easter morning as a mere afterthought, but rather as an integral element of the story of our salvation.

4. Original Sin. A theology of the Atonement should take seriously the wounding of our human nature by sin and our subsequent need to be healed through sanctifying grace.

5. A comprehensible account of God's Sovereignty. A theology of the Atonement should not place limits on God's ability to forgive which seem (at best) arbitrary or (at worst) barbaric or bloodthirsty.

6. A praxis of peace. A theology of the Atonement should not glorify violence or suffering for their own sake, but instead inspire Christians to peacefully work for justice.
Any theology of the Atonement I would be able to accept would, I'd think, at the very least satisfy these six conditions. Any theology lacking one or more of these features would, in my opinion, contain a serious deficiency.

In the next few weeks, I hope to take each of these features in depth, each in its own blog post, exploring why I think it is important and perhaps considering how the major theories of the Atonement (penal substitution, ransom theory, moral exemplar, Christus Victor, etc.) stack up in light of these requirements. When I'm done, I'll probably make some sort of concluding post examining if what I think about the Cross and the Atonement has come into any clearer perspective through this examining process.

So, what do you think? What are the features that you would want to see in a theology of the Atonement?
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: (Trinity)
The Gospel According to St. Mark

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the river Jordan by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: "You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests."

Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.

Scot McKnight in 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed, 25-27:

At the center of the Shema is the God of love, and at the center of the God of love is the word “one”- and that word “one” is a dance. Let me explain briefly. When Jesus said in John’s tenth chapter that he and the Father were “one,” every Jew who heard him thought of theShema: “Here, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord isone.” Now Jesus was claiming that he and the Father were one. So somehow there were “two in one,” and, as the church gradually began to comprehend, there were actually “three in one.” The Jesus Creed derives from this “three-in-oneness of God.”

How are the three “one”? Here are Jesus’ own words: “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” The oneness of the Father and the Son is the oneness of mutual indwelling of one another. Now, if we add to the Father and the Son the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, we arrive at something distinct to our Christian faith: the Father and the Son and the Spirit are one because they indwell one another. They interpenetrate one another so deeply that they are one. This “oneness” is often called by theologians the “dance of the Trinity.” God is almost, to quote C.S. Lewis, “if you think me not irreverent, a kind of dance.” God is, to change the image only slightly, the dance of rope in the Celtic knot.

The same theologians often call this oneness of God the
perichoresis, a Greek word referring to mutual indwelling. To say the three are one is to say the one God is a community of mutually indwelling persons where each person delightfully dances with the other in endless holy love. This perichoretic dance is the love of the persons of the Trinity for each other- the Father for the Son and the Spirit, and the Son for the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father and the Son. Theologians and philosophers remind us that this perichoretic love is the origin, the tone, and the standard for all the love in the universe. There is no other love than God’s love.

Tony Jones in “Comp Three, Question Three” (an imaginary conversation with Jürgen Moltmann)

TJ: Doug, on this same theme, you have publicly wondered if the concept of the Trinity has run its course – this, of course, is a significant part of Dr. Moltmann’s corpus.

DP: What I think is that the doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated by Augustine and his peers, solved a certain problem at a certain time. Back then, people were saddled with this Greek concept of God as a distant, removed Being who wanted nothing to do with this earth, this creation. So, when these people inherited the story of Jesus, they had a bog problem to solve: how could the distant, removed God have possibly come to Earth? The concept of that was preposterous to them!

So the doctrine of the Trinity was of great help to them in getting over that dilemma. By conceiving of God as three persons or three parts, they could say that God did come to Earth, and he also stayed in heaven…and he also still dwells here today and still dwells in heaven.
Not only is this concept of a three-part God foreign to a holistic Hebrew-Old Testament mind, it is also becoming more and more unnecessary today. We don’t have the same Hellenistic philosophy mind-set of the Early Church. The people in my community, at Solomon’s Porch, have no trouble believing that God is holistically related to the entirety of creation. That’s just not an issue for us. Quantum physics? Nano-technology? Now those are issues that beg for theological consideration. But God becoming a man? That one is no problem.

JM: But, Doug, what I want to challenge you on is the beauty of the concept of the Trinity. Yes, I agree that when it is used as a rationalistic proof for the deity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Trinity falls short of its full theological potential. But instead of thinking of it rationalistically, I’d like you to consider it aesthetically. The Trinity affords a great deal of theological creativity to you as a pastor and preacher, and to the people who write the music for worship in your community. Don’t disparage the concept just because it’s old. Now, I don’t want you to idolize it, as some do, just because it’s old, but I don’t want you to disparage it, either.

Think of the Trinity as the dynamic, eternal dance of God. Doesn’t that jibe with your church’s desire to be a place of laughter and joy, a place where the body is honored, where worship is more than just words? I read the book about your church, and I think that Solomon’s Porch would be very well served by a robust and vibrant doctrine of the Trinity. You can talk about “following God in the way of Jesus,” and I am fully supportive of that, but part of your role as a pastor is to help the people paint a picture of God that is so beautiful that they can’t help but to follow him – that they can’t imagine following anyone else. I think the idea of Trinity as perichoresis would be a great help to you in that task.

TJ: It’s true that, just last month when I talked a bit about the Trinity at Solomon’s Porch – when I introduced that concept of the perichoresis – there were many who resonated with that idea. One man, a truck driver named Frank, said that he had been introduced to that idea just the previous week in Eugene Peterson’s new spiritual theology, God Plays in a Thousand Places, and he loves the idea. He said the world is moving so fast, it’s changing so dynamically, that it seems like we should have an image of God that is dynamic and changing.

DP: Listen, I’m open to it. I just don’t want us blindly following along with this doctrine or that doctrine because that’s the way they believed “back in the day.”

JM: Then we are of one accord. But I want to encourage you to explore the richness of the Trinity, because I am quite sure that you and your church will greatly benefit from it.’

Questions for Discussion

1. What do you think of the doctrine of the Trinity as put forward by McKnight and Jones? How is it similar to or different than your understanding of the Triune God?

2. When we begin new journeys, we often have a dance, from high school proms to wedding receptions. How is the “dance” of the Trinity at the River Jordan similar to or different than this?

3. When you begin a journey, what type of “dance” do you want from your community--and who is that community?

4. How can you be a part of that “dance” for others?

The Holy Trinity

Sunday, 23 January 2011 11:08 pm
cjbanning: (Trinity)
God exists in community, in relationship, in conversation. (The technical account of how the Trinity works is, of course, found in the Athanasian Creed. The Episcopal catechism is, as it often is, less than useless on this point, more or less referring one to the Creed.)

For many Trinitarian Christians, including me, this mystery--and, yes, it is a mystery--is absolutely central to our understanding and experience of divinity. Try out this account of the Trinity by a fictionalized Jürgen Moltmann (but actually by Tony Jones): "Think of the Trinity as the dynamic, eternal dance of God. Doesn’t that jibe with your church’s desire to be a place of laughter and joy, a place where the body is honored, where worship is more than just words?"

C. Leonard Allan writes in Things Unseen that:
God is not a solitary, domineering individual who rules through arbitrary exercise of power but rather the perfect model of loving community—becoming vulnerable, entering into partnership, sharing the divine life, loving like a parent. [. . .]

In this view God is essentially dynamic, relational, and ecstatic (going outside oneself). God is the very paragon of love in relationship, of living in intimate community and submissive freedom—the God who loved Israel like Hosea loved Gomer and who so loved the world that [God] sent [God's] only [Child]. And God invites human beings, [God's] creatures, to share the rich life and fellowship of the divine community, and through partaking of that life to become like [God's Child]. [. . .]

The Trinity provides our pattern or exemplar for unity and fellowship. God leads a relational life as [Parent], [Child], and Spirit. That life is characterized by submissive love, as each member of the Trinity pours [their] life into the other. In God’s own self there is an abundant outpouring of life, so abundant that it overflows and creates community with God’s creatures—those outside the relationship within God.
God's relational character as Three in One models for us our way of being Church, enmeshed in loving relationship, and also the way that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason remain in conversation with each other as complementary sources of revelation.

The RCC catechism can be long-winded sometimes )
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
This morning, Tony Jones embedded the following video on Christian orthodoxy tests in one of his blog posts:

(For people reading this from the Facebook crosspost, which strips out embedded video, rather than from my Dreamwidth journal, you'll want to watch it here.)

Christians who believe homosexuality is a sin are a lot more socially damaging, more obstructionist in the building of the kingdom of God so to speak, than those who believe that the Holy Spirit flows only from the First Person of the Trinity and not from the First and Second Persons, but I take the point. We--with "we" being the entire catholic Church, or at least all of Western Christianity (i.e., Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Protestantism; I don't make any claims to knowledge about Eastern Orthodoxy)--don’t talk enough anymore about the Trinity, about the Holy Eucharist, etc. (Although I think this criticism is particularly levelable against the emergent church movement, which sometimes seems to eschew high-falutin’ theology in favor of “relational dialogue.” And yes, Circle of Hope definitely falls as subject to that criticism as anyone--not that I think the Episcopal Church is any better on the macro level, and my home parish certainly isn't on the micro level.) As Christians, we need to talk about these things much more, although probably as well as rather than instead ofthe more sexy culture war issues.

I wonder how this understanding fits into Jones' anti-denominationalism, however. I mean, there’s nothing I can think of which would stop a Unitarian and a Trinitarian from breaking bread together inside an emergent church faith community (although Jones points to the relational nature of the Trinity as one of the central themes of emergent-ism in another post), and a move away from denominationalism opens up the potential for a dialogue between them which wouldn’t exist if they both stayed with home churches which each taught their own particular brand of theology. But what would a belief in transubstantiation look like outside the context of an ordained prebyterate? And what would dialogue look like between someone who accepts the authority of the deuterocanonical books of the Hebrew Scriptures and one who doesn’t?

I guess another way of asking my question is: Is there an implicit claim about normative theological authority already structured into the emergent praxis? And if so, what is it? In what ways does emergent praxis structure the content of our theological doctrine in addition to the methodology of our evangelization? Is the emergent church's particular style of "being Church" going to lead us to a different conclusion on, say, the nature of Hell, than would an alternate ecclesiology?

The larger point, of course, is that the authenticity of any person's Christianity shouldn't be called into question based on any sort of test of orthodoxy, whether it surrounds cultural/political issues or fine points of doctrine. I agree with that, and have posted to that effect before. (Of course, that's no reason we can't make a distinction between Christians we think have fallen into error and those on a better path, while still accepting our erring siblings in Christ as real, authentic members of the Body.) But it also seems to be the case that there might just be more tensions in an Anglo-Catholic understanding of emergence than just whether the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church requires the historic episcopate.
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"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

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