cjbanning: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension during our service of Morning Prayer, this twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2012.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In Joss Whedon’s 2005 science-fiction film Serenity, the disheveled spaceship captain and smuggler Malcolm Reynolds, who had lost his Christian faith in an interplanetary civil war, kneels down in front of a statue of the Buddha while disguised as a woman and mockingly says, “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a plastic rocket.” This comment is, I think, evocative of the discomfort both Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have with petitionary prayer. After all, isn’t Christianity a religion about selflessness and self-sacrifice and love of neighbor? How could we possibly make that fit with getting down on our knees and giving God our grocery list of needs and wants?

That sentiment might only be intensified over these last few weeks as so many so relatively close to us find themselves without their homes or livelihoods. When they have lost so much, we might be wary to bring our own petty wants before the LORD. I think this is what prompted one of my friends to post as their facebook status:
I don't care if your electricity is restored, please stop praying
- God
I should note this was almost immediately after the hurricane, before the utter seriousness of people going weeks without power made itself clear. But when I objected that I couldn’t imagine God ever saying “please stop praying,” no matter how superficial the subject of the prayers might be, I was told, “but it was still funny.” I’ve listened to friends complain about their mother-in-law’s habit of praying for finding good parking spaces, or their sibling’s prayers for the success of his business. Countless times I’ve encountered critics pointing to two groups of fans of rival sports teams, or rival political candidates, praying to the same God that their respective team will win, as if that was nothing more than an absurdity.

It would be wonderful if we were all perfect people whose only desires were high-minded, for world peace and an end to global poverty. But we’re not perfect people; we’re human beings, our very nature wounded by the reality of sin.

But that’s okay. Because that’s where Jesus Christ, who is a perfect person, the only perfect person, comes in. And because of this, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” This refers, of course, to our ultimate hope, that we will come to share in Christ’s resurrection. But it also applies to all of our little hopes, our petty desires, our secret wishes, our hopes for the future. We approach God as who we are, wanting what we want, and it is a good and rightful thing to put those needs and desires before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. We trust in Jesus to wash us clean.

For me the best example of this is found in Psalm 137, in which the psalmist prays that the heads of babies might be dashed upon the rocks. Clearly, this is not a righteous desire for a person to have. But given the historical context of the psalm, amidst the Babylonian captivity, it is arguably a very human one. And so Scripture provides us with this example set among many examples of how to pray of a person in their human brokenness reaching out to God from within that human brokenness.

The great Hindu activist Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The God who took on our human nature and was born of the Blessed Virgin Mother in order to suffer a painful death on a cross wants to be invited into our suffering, our longing, our weakness. Don’t get me wrong, God is present with us in our suffering whether we extend that invitation or not, whether we are aware of it or not. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t appreciate being given the invitation anyway.

These are the dynamics at work in our Hebrew scripture passage this morning.

By many standards, Hannah had a comfortable life, with a husband who loved and supported her. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her. She wanted a son--a daughter wasn’t good enough!--in order to keep her husband’s other wife from mocking her.

And so, as is good and right, she brought her desire before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. And “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the LORD.’”

No doubt Penninah too prayed to the LORD, asking God that she might earn the love and favor of her husband which had been given to Hannah instead. And yet, unlike Hannah, Penninah did not receive what she had asked for. Indeed, there is a story found in the Jewish midrash which provides a fate even worse for Penninah: “Hannah would give birth to one child, and Peninnah would bury two; Hannah bore four, and Peninnah buried eight. When Hannah was pregnant with her fifth child, Peninnah feared that now she would bury her last two children.”

God did not give Hannah what she asked for and deny Penninah because God loved Penninah any less than Hannah. Nor was it because Hannah knew some special way to pray in order to ensure the result she wanted, to force God’s hand. No, it’s just that, in this fallen world, it’s a simple fact that we don’t always get what we want, no matter how hard we pray, no matter who we are.

And no matter what the Rolling Stones might say, neither do we even always get what we need. Every fifteen seconds, a child dies from hunger-related causes somewhere on Planet Earth. That’s a problem worth praying over. But prayer alone isn’t going to the solve the problem.

Prayer is not a magic spell or a letter to Santa. God is not a genie in a bottle.

Hurricane Sandy did not hit the shores of our region because people didn’t pray hard enough. Nor was it to punish the godlessness of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. Barack Obama was not re-elected President because God likes Democrats better than Republicans. Nor was it to pave the way for the Antichrist, as Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffries suggested before the election.

Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us against this type of superstitious thinking in today’s Gospel passage. The earliest written of the four canonical gospels, St. Mark’s gospel was probably written in the immediate wake of the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple, the center of Jewish life and religion. Like a flood-displaced North Jerseyan or our Texan pastor, the Jewish community found their very world turned upside down and inside out. Part of the evangelist’s task, then, was to help them understand how to make sense of the significance of this sort of event of seeming apocalyptic proportions in terms of their Christian faith and practice. And Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Jesus warns us against those who come in the name of Christ and yet lead many astray, the pastors and pundits who would turn hurricanes into instruments of a wrathful God and elections into the first phase of the apocalypse, who would have us make a false choice between religion and science, who twist and pervert our faith so it stands in opposition to the God-given gift of human reason, who use our scriptures and traditions as weapons with which to bludgeon.

Hurricane Sandy hit our shores because a tropical storm came in contact with a cold front which intensified it and propelled it towards our region. Barack Obama was re-elected President, for better or worse, because he received more votes in the electoral college than did his opponent.

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Christian prayer is not--or at least should not be--an attempt to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want. Instead, it 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. But equally important is the fact that we need to be open to being transformed ourselves when we pray. This is the very essence of prayer.

Amen.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Or, as my friend Ruth Ellen and I like to joke, should the plural of Jesus be Jesi?

Anyway, it's been several months since I've posted to this blog, in large part because I've been working full-time and going to school full-time and that combination unfortunately doesn't leave very much time for blogging. I certainly have a number of topics queued up that I'd like to talk about, including but certainly not limited to completing my series on what I want from an Atonement theology.

Tonight, however, this "Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?" quiz I've seen passed around a little on Facebook has caught my attention. I've only been able to answer about roughly half the questions, and many of those only by making major mental caveats. I thought that, in a rare moment of free time, in might be worthwhile spending some time deconstructing the questions I couldn't answer.

Do you believe Jesus was crucified because he was the Son of God who took upon himself the sins of mankind to save the world from God's wrath? Or do you believe Jesus was crucified because he preached radical social change that threatened the powerful and the wealthy?

I believe that Jesus was and is God's Only Begotten who took upon Christself the sins of humankind to save the world. But Scripture is clear that the thing Jesus was saving the world from was death, not God's wrath.

I think that Scripture is also pretty clear that those powerful figures directly responsible for crucifying Jesus felt threatened by Jesus.

Do you believe Jesus was a healer who provided free universal health care to "the least of these," and so should our government? Or do you believe Jesus' statement, "My kingdom is not of this world," means Scripture can't be used to justify universal government health care?

This one was the easiest to answer, because that's not what John 18:6 actually means. Here's the Bishop of Liverpool:
Not only is it impossible to square this with the teaching and activity of Jesus as set out in the Nazareth Manifesto in Luke chapter 4 about healing the sick and liberating the oppressed, these rendered words of Jesus misrepresent what he actually said. The original Greek text has Jesus saying something very different: “My Kingdom is not FROM this world”. In other words, faced with the power and authority of Pontius Pilate Jesus was telling him and the world that his own authority to rule came from God.

Everything Jesus did and taught was about extending the rule of God on earth. It’s there explicitly in the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus calls us to pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom and the doing of God’s will on earth as it is done in Heaven.
So, yeah, universal healthcare is a Christian imperative.

Do you believe that "salvation is found in no one else" besides Jesus? Or do you believe that "God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus" and that Jesus embodies one of many paths to God?

I don't know what "God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus" is supposed to mean, so I can't know whether I believe it or not.

In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus says
I myself am the Way--
I am Truth, and I am Life.
No one comes to the Divine Parent
but through me.
If you really knew me,
you would know the Divine Parent also.
From this point on,
you know the Divine Parent,
and you have seen God.
All who are saved are saved through the power and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is no salvation outside the Church. The previous two sentences draw on Christian language to express a truth which is universal.

What they do not say, however, is only people who identify as Christians can be saved. I hold the Second Vatican Council's position that "those who seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do [God's] will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too may achieve eternal salvation." In a sense, there is no salvation outside the Church precisely because the true Church of Christ is large enough to contain everybody, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Do you believe Jesus is going to return one day, descending from the clouds with an army of angels to fight the final battle between good and evil? Or are you focused on creating Jesus' kingdom "on earth as it is heaven" and not too worried about who's left behind or whether Jesus is coming back -- or perhaps never even left?

I suppose I don't dogmatically discount the possibility of a literal return, although I'll admit to my share of doubts. But I am a liberal postmillenialist who, yes, is much more focused on being the agents of God's liberatory kindom becoming established upon Earth, for we are, as St. Teresa famously wrote, the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth.

Do you think people who describe Jesus as prophetic mean that he had the ability to see into the future? Or do you think describing Jesus as "prophetic" meant that he was more of a prophet willing to speak truth to power and suffer the consequences?

Okay this is a question of what the word "prophet" means in the context of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And I don't there is any question that "making prophecies" in the sense of seeing the future is simply something that prophets were often supposed to have done, but was not their defining characteristic by virtue of which they gained their prophet status. Rather, a prophet was--and is--simply an intermediary empowered by God to express the will of God to the people. I suppose that "willing to speak truth to power and suffer the consequences" expresses this idea decently enough in a somewhat looser way.

Have you ever asked strangers if they've accepted Jesus as their Lord and savior? Or do you think of evangelism as more helping people in need and hoping they see Jesus in your actions?

As a purely factual question, no, I don't think I've ever asked a stranger if they had accepted Jesus as their Lord and savior, in part because that's such a darned Protestant question to ask! But I don't think either option given really encapsulates what we need Christian evangelism to be, which is a way of articulating what the Church of Christ has to offer to the world in the 21st-century world which doesn't reduce her down to being little more than either just a social justice organization or a Get Out of Hell Free card.

Were you inspired by watching Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" because you thought it showed how much Jesus was willing to suffer to save mankind? Or were you revolted by Gibson's film and thought its long and bloody depiction of Jesus' death reflected Gibson's obsession?

I have not seen The Passion of the Christ. The part where it's based on the writings of a female German mystic intrigues me somewhat, but knowing of "its long and bloody depiction of Jesus' death" and Gibson's prejudices and, yes, obsessions really kills any desire to ever do so. But by the same token, I can't honestly critique something which I haven't seen.

Do you think the most important biblical passage that distills Jesus' message is John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son," and that salvation is determined by your acceptance of Jesus as savior? Or do you think it's Matthew 25: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me," and that salvation is determined by how you treat the poor and vulnerable?

I found this question the most frustrating out of the entire set of ten because it actually asks two very different questions, one about Jesus' message and one about salvation. Let's take the one about Jesus' message first, and then tackle the soteriological one afterwards.

When we look at the overt teaching of Jesus, the things said and done by Jesus of Nazareth as written down by the New Testament, then I think the words that St. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying are a good distillation of that ministry: "Every time you did this for the least of my sisters or brothers or siblings, you did it for me. As often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me."

But! When we look at the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ with the benefit of hindsight, through the lens of the evangelists and the other New Testament authors, a new significance emerges, one that can be seen as being articulated in St. John's words at the beginning of that gospel, a gospel not coincidentally written a good thirty years after St. Matthew's was, giving the early Church time to come to terms with that which was not only explicit but also in implicit in Jesus' ministry: "Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, so that those with faith might not die, but have eternal life."

Both of these messages are true. Both of them find their meaning in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And one of them is not more important than the other. The choice between John 3:16 and Matthew 25 is, of course, a false choice, for they each reflect different but equally important facets of Who Jesus Is. That's why we have four different canonical gospels, after all.

And yet we can see how these two important messages--both of them true--about the significance of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection could lead to a degree of confusion about soteriology. In the passage from St. Matthew's gospel, as in fact is quite common in the synoptic gospels, Jesus seems to be preaching works-righteousness, that human beings will be saved or damned based on their actions in this life:
To those on the right will be said: "Come, you blessed of my Divine Parent, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!"

To those on the left will be said: "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and the fallen angels."
But in fact, this seeming confusion actually stems from the false binary the CNN quiz offers. It actually turns out that both of the possible answers the quiz gives to the soteriological question--both "salvation is determined by your acceptance of Jesus as savior" and "salvation is determined by how you treat the poor and vulnerable"--turn out to be heretical.

For the Calvinist, it should be obvious why this is so. Both possible answers share a certain assumption, that salvation is determined by our actions, whether by our acceptance of Jesus as savior or by our treatment of the poor and vulnerable. But under Calvinism, we actually have no ability to determine our own salvation. It's all determined by God, by God's decision either to extend the free gift of grace or to withhold it.

Of course, I'm not a Calvinist, and under free-will theism, the question becomes a little bit trickier, because under free-will theism, once we have been empowered by God through what is known as prevenient grace, we then gain an ability to determine our salvation or damnation. But it must be stressed that this determination rests solely upon our response to this free gift of grace, and not to any action we are capable of performing by ourselves apart from that gift. So by themselves, neither an acceptance of Jesus as savior nor loving treatment of the poor would have the power to save. Grace, and grace alone, has the power to save. Period.

The classic debate over the role of faith and the role of works is a question of what is known as "justification"--how it is that we become to be considered righteous in the eyes of God. But our justification is really a consequence of our salvation. It is not a precondition for it.

Have you ever rebuked an evil spirit in the name of Jesus? Or do you think the biblical stories of Jesus casting out demons were not literally true but metaphors for Jesus' ability to make broken people whole again?

I don't think I've ever rebuked an evil spirit in the name of Jesus. I think that the gospel accounts of Jesus casting out demons signify the ability of the Christ to make broken people whole again regardless of whether or not they were literally true. I don't see why understanding demons as "merely" metaphorical should prevent someone from rebuking them in the name of Jesus. As an Anglo-Catholic I tend to think that the richer the liturgical life of a religious community, the better, and I don't see any reason why an exorcism can't be a legitimate and spiritually fulfilling ritual. I think there's space for broadening the understanding of demonic possession to include the possibility of it supervening in cases with emprically-discernible causal determinants, without carving out a metaphysical realist niche for possession which I would be unable to see as anything other than superstition.

Do you believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead after his crucifixion? Or do you believe that Jesus' resurrection was symbolic and not dependent on his body rising from the grave?

I think everyone, regardless of whether or not they believe the bodily resurrection was a literal historic event, would agree that the event was symbolic in the sense that it has the capacity to act as a signifier. That doesn't seem like it should be controversial.

I tipped my hand to my own position in my post What I Want from an Atonement Theology: Resurrection Emphasis when I wrote:
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.
Note that I'm careful to include the bodily resurrection as part of the spiritual truth of the Risen Christ. Setting the bodily resurrection up against a symbolic one, as the question seems to do, has the capacity to lead us into Gnosticism, where the body becomes undervalued. Instead, the fact that Jesus' physical body was resurrected in the gospel accounts represents a critical element of the spiritual truth the story is signifying, one we ignore at very great peril.

Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

These truths, regardless of whether or not they ever have been or ever will be instantiated in literal historical sequence, are the truths which set my heart alleluia-ing. The choice cannot be one between Jesus as symbol and the Risen Jesus. Jesus always is, and must be, both at the same time.
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.

A Response to #GC77

Sunday, 15 July 2012 05:34 am
cjbanning: (Trinity)
As many of you reading this may well already know, the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church happened this past week. And of course, the entire world is talking about how TEC reauthorized use of the 1979 lectionary as an alternative to the Revised Common Lectionary with the permission of one's bishop and reaffirmed the sacrament of baptism as the normative entry to Holy Communion.

Okay, pretty much nobody's talking about those things. But they probably should be. So it goes.

Admittedly, the things everyone is focusing on--those having to do with sex--are pretty important too. D019 and D002 were resolutions which explicitly forbid discrimination against transgender individuals for lay ministry and ordination, respectively. These two resolutions are, to my mind, unmitigated goods. The morning after the House of Bishops passed them, essentially ensuring their passage as it is more conservative than the House of Deputies, I was messaged on OK!Cupid by a trans woman asking about "what [your] christain church thinks about ppl like me???" I was proud to be able to tell her.

I am slightly more conflicted--but only slightly--about the progress on same-sex unions. A049 approved a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Now, these unions are not marriages, but I think the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music correctly decided a revision of the sacramental marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer would go beyond the mandate given to them by the 76th General Convention. However, they did propose resolution A050 to create a task force on the study of marriage. They explained their reasoning as follows:
As the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music developed liturgical resources for blessing same-gender relationships, it faced repeated questions about marriage. What makes a marriage Christian? What is the relationship between the Church’s blessing of a relationship, whether different-gender or same-gender, and a union, “marriage” or otherwise, created by civil law? Is the blessing of a same-gender relationship equivalent to the marriage of a different-gender couple, and if so, should this liturgy be called “marriage”? Because the Church’s understanding of marriage affects so many of its members, the Commission believes it is important to engage in a Churchwide conversation about our theology of marriage.
To me, this makes a lot of sense. I think it is important that we as a church take time out to articulate our theology of sacramental marriage. What is the function of the sacrament? For many people, it is to differentiate between licit and illicit sexual acts, but I actually reject that answer as still far too socially conservative. But if it is not about regulating sex, then what is the purpose?

There are many ways in which the sacrament of marriage is the odd one out among the seven traditional sacraments. (I feel the need here to note in passing that the BCP distinguishes between baptism and eucharist as "sacraments of the gospel" and the other five as "sacramental rites.") I know I'm not the only one to find Mt 22:23-33 strangely in tension with Mt 16:18-19 and Mt 18:18-20. While the understanding of marriage as a sacrament dates back to at least St. Augustine of Hippo, the Church herself did not officiate marriages until the second millenium C.E. Now it is true that anyone can baptize and that within Anglicanism lay persons can hear confessions, so the non-sacerdotal application of the sacraments is hardly without precedent. But it still makes me pause in my considerations of just what the sacrament of marriage is, exactly, and how it works as a means of grace. I look forward to hearing the conclusions of the taskforce in 2015 with excitement.

In any case, I am confident the foundation is being laid for full sacramental marriage to be expanded to same-sex couples within TEC within the next decade. I look forward to that time.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
The issue which Wittgenstein's mysticism foregrounds is not unique to his philosophy, as it seems some of his interpreters would have one believe, but rather are as old as philosophy itself, with poststructuralist theorists like (here it comes) that of Jacques Derrida or Julia Kristeva locating it in Plato's cosmological Timaeus, in the notion of the chora, the chasm which lies beyond the limits of time and space. (Derrida omits the article before the term chora, claiming that “the definitive article presupposes the existence of a thing, the existent chorato which, via a common name, it would be easy to refer” [“Chora.” Trans. Ian McCloud. Chora L Works. By Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman. Ed. Jeffrey Kipnis and Thomas Leeser. New York: Monacelli, 1997: 17]. I know of no such grammatical principle in either English or French, and thus I refrain from this practice.) Kristeva acknowledges that naming the chora (even in Greek) “ontologizes” it, i.e. makes it a “thing,” but concludes that we cannot not talk about it either (Kristeva, Julia. “From Revolution in Poetic Language.” Trans. Margaret Walker. The Nortan Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001: 2171).

She thus turns to the ontologized term and its self-contradiction as an example of the very difficulties inherent in its use. When we speak of chora we do not so much use language as reveal its limits. By relying on a brutish display of linguistic force, a “bastard reasoning,” we can assert that the chora is pre-symbolic—not de-ontologizing the term chora but at least recalling to the mind the need to de-ontologize (2171). This assertion of negative theology—the via negativa—is enough for Kristeva to feel she can dismiss any worries that she is illegitimately ontologizing the chora.

Derrida is distrustful of projects like Kristeva's which apply bastard reasoning in order to build a psychoanalytic theory upon the chora—there is a point, it seems,” Derrida argues, “where the relevance of this rhetorical code meets a limit and must be questioned as such, must become a theme and cease to be merely operatory”—but nonetheless recognizes that its very impossibility brings its reader to the problems of philosophy which it fails to denote (31). For Kristeva and Derrida, then, the quietist conclusion of the Tractatus must be rejected.

Note that my appeal to Derrida and Kristeva has not really gotten us any farther than we were before (which is why, I think, any accusation of “Derrida-izing” Wittgenstein must ultimately fall flat); we have only put forth the problem in a way which will be familiar to students of the postmodernist Continental tradition and, in so doing, perhaps made clear its essential features. Derrida and Kristeva merely seem to have fallen into the same trap that Wittgenstein has in the Tractatus. Both Derrida and Kristeva's responses do not, after all, seem to be significantly different from what we have already called the ineffabilist interpretation: "there is something which is sort of true, but sort of not, because we really cannot talk about it, but we sort of can, and you know what I'm trying to say, right?" No wonder the analytic philosophers throw up their arms in disgust!

But my interest is not so much in how Wittgenstein's conception of the mystical is similar to the Derridean or Kristevan chora—the similarities are undoubtedly great—but how differently he talks about it, the stark disconnect between the philosophical methods employed. Invoking these two French thinkers clarifies for me exactly what it is that we need from the Austrian: a sustained defense of this type of bastard reasoning. Instead, we get a call for silence:
7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Thus ends the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Having concluded that philosophy can produce no truths, no genuine insights gained, the project is drawn to a close. Philosophy is finished.

Yet note that the quietism of the Tractatus, like any quietism which is spoken aloud (or, in this case, written down), is always-already unstable; as Russell scathingly points out, “Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said” (xxiii). "Wittgenstein did want to write the Tractatus,” Moyal-Sharrock notes, “indeed put great effort into writing it, and into producing its translation. So that not following the strictly correct method in the Tractatus, far from implying a repudiation of what was achieved, was essential to achieving it” (168)

Nor is there anything to lead us to assume that the Tractarian project of a “strictly incorrect” but nontheless elucidatory method of philosophy (cf. proposition 6.53) is unique to the Tractatus itself or to Wittgenstein; proposition 6.53 immediately makes one think of the Platonic dialogues (and their similarly therapeutic-poetic formats), as Russell does when he notes in the Introduction that “[i]t is true that the fate of Socrates might befall a man who attempted this method of teaching, but we are not to be deterred by that fear, if it is the only right method” (xxiii).

Wittgenstein too notes that he has “fallen a long way short of what is possible” because his “powers [of expression] are too slight for the accomplishment of the task,” adding, “May others come and do better” (pg. 4). So we do not have one single descent into bastard reasoning, like Dante's into Hell, so as to forever more escape it, but one more work in a line of bastard reasonings—an entire bastard discourse, that is, which as a collective we can and do call “philosophy”—which is neither the first nor the last of its kind, nor should it be.

That said, it is true that Wittgenstein, in his Preface, claims to “have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems” (pg. 4); it is equally true that following the writing and publishing of the Tractatus he dropped out of philosophy. But even this is painted as a personal enlightenment―of the sort which might more easily come to a St. Teresa or a Julian of Norwich than an analytic philosopher—which cannot be reliably shared or reproduced. “Perhaps,” Wittgenstein suggests in the Preface, “this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts expressed in it―or at least similar thoughts” (pg. 3). Indeed, for austere readers and some varieties of non-therapists, the only thing that makes the nonsense of the Tractatus more likely to be elucidatory than that of, say, Lewis Carroll's poem “Jabberwocky”―if the Tractatus is in fact more likely to be so (there is indeed, after all, a good deal to be learned about language and its limits by reading Carroll's poem)—is an accident of historical contingency. For the ineffabilist, presumably there is some truth which inheres in the Tractatus which does not in Carroll—although for all one knows, perhaps the meaning of life is that the snark was a boojum after all!

This not to say there is not an uneasy sense―born of the Tractatus' own bastard logic, I believe―that philosophy up to Wittgenstein has been a productive struggle in the sense that it has been striving for its own dissolution which it at last finds in the Tractatus, only afterwards being replaced with the therapeutic approach described in 6.53. At the very least there is the assertion that for at least those who can be said to understand the work it represents an end to their philosophizing, even if other people might well need other works. The Tractatus is, in the end, a quietist document, and this should not be glossed over.

Nor need it be, since Wittgenstein's philosophizing does not in fact end here. Enter the Philosophical Investigations: at some point prior to Wittgenstein's return to philosophy, he clearly abandoned the quietism of the Tractatus; when contrasted with the style of the previous work, in the Investigations he has become downright chatty. This might seem obvious and trivial, but it is worth saying nonetheless, for it represents the most fundamental shift and break between the late and early Wittgensteins.

What we have in the Investigations is the articulation of an entire bastard language. The halfway language, neither sense nor quite what we would typically call nonsense, which the non-therapists attempt to rehabilitate in the Tractatus suddenly becomes all of language. Language guesses/plays/sings/solves (§23) but no longer does it mean in the Tractarian sense. Instead, questions of ontology drop out altogether.
For this is what disputes between Idealists, Solipsists, and Realists look like. The one party attack the normal form of expression as if they were attacking a statement; the others defend it, as if they were stating facts recognized by every reasonable human being. (§402)
Language is described; the world―the mystical―is experienced.

But this recognition only pushes back the demand for explanations, which (we have argued) neither the austere readers nor the ineffabilists nor the non-therapists could quite provide, one step further, so that it now engulfs the Investigations as well as the Tractatus. The non-therapist's reading of the Tractatus is dependent on the premise that nonsense sentences can have “performative significance” (Brand 332), that we can articulate grammatical rules (Moyal-Sharrock 162) or make “purely linguistic proposals” (Matthew B. Ostrow, Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U P, 2002: 4, describing Carnap) or use our language “intransitively”—in short, that some nonsense is desirable (Philip M. Hallie, “Wittgenstein's Exclusion of Metaphysical Nonsense.” The Philosophical Quarterly16 [1966]: 101-104).

The Investigations does not defend any of these premises. Wittgenstein does not argue that meaning is use—indeed, he explicitly recognizes that for some ways we use the word “meaning,” meaning is not use:
For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (§43)
Instead he simply demonstrates—makes manifest—the manifold of ways that language can function. If some set of analytic philosophers wish to exclude the mystical from their language game, then they are free to do so—or at least to try. And, Wittgenstein recognizes, often it is best to do so. We cannot always live in an ecstatic state in which things are and are not true, do and do not exist. For science, law, and many other language games, trying to grasp what is—the mystical—that is, to theorize—would be a grave mistake: a confusion, an illness, a disease.

Having grown out of the mystical which, resisting language, both is and is not, Wittgenstein's anti/theory similarly both is and is not a theory. This is not a naïve positivism, in which comprehension is confused for apprehension and the theoretical structures used to understand the world are rendered invisible. That would be the position he attacks, that of the Saint Augustine and the picture theory, when he exposes the insidious assumptions which underly our ways of talking about language: “How does one know?” is the constant refrain throughout the first hundred sections of the Investigations, giving the lie to the idea that our language games are transparent or immediate. Wittgenstein recognizes and accepts the deeply theoretical nature (by which we mean, based on unquestioned rules) of every game, including Wittgensteinian therapy. Wittgenstein's anti/theory (like Foucault's, ultimately) is descriptive, not destructive.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
The Tractatus opens with what appears to be a description of an ideal language of a vaguely logical positivist character, but which by the end of the work has revealed itself to have taken a strange—and, to many philosophers, even alarming—turn: it announces that everything it has been saying (and continues to say) has been (and is) nonsense, espouses the mystical character of not only ethics and religion but also grammar, and then concludes with a quietist call to silence.

Most troubling has been the first claim, that the Tractatus itself is nonsensical. Wittgenstein's exact words are:
6.54  My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he [sic] used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
Interpretations of this passage in the Tractatus (at least, those which do not simply assume he was wrong and move on) can be said to fall into three groups: the austere reading (emerging, as Danièle Moyal-Sherrock not incorrectly notes, “not accidentally in the wake of Deconstruction” [“Good Sense of Nonsense: A Reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as Nonself-Repudiating.” Philosophy 82 (2007): 147]), which claims that Tractarian nonsense must be rejected completely; the ineffable reading, which argues that Tractarian nonsense gestures towards ineffable truths which cannot be put into words; and non-therapeutic readings which claim that by nonsense Wittgenstein meant something quite technical and limited and which should not, properly understood, bother us. 

As Roy Brand has argued in his essay “Making Sense Speaking Nonsense" (The Philosophical Forum 35.3 [2004]: 311-339), the three positions are actually in substantial agreement with each other, with most of their apparent differences being the result of different emphasis and terminology (331-333). After all, all three schools of interpretation agree that Tractarian sentences are, by the standards of the Tractatus, nonsensical. (They hardly could deny it without departing from Wittgenstein at the start.) And all three acknowledge also that those sentences nonetheless have a specific function which they can play, at least sometimes do play, and which Wittgenstein seemed to want them to play, in the natural history of human beings. Even in early Wittgenstein, then, we have the conception of sentences which function without signifying, of (what Wittgenstein does not yet call) meaning as use, which will go on to become the main impetus of Wittgenstein's discussions in the Investigations. The disagreement, then, is over exactly what words we should use to describe these sentences.

Wittgenstein's description, such as it is, of the mystical is found in the following Tractarian proposition:
6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
This seems to result only in meaningless mystery-mongering. (I am indebted to Paul Horwich for the term "mystery-mongering.") If the mystical cannot be put into words, how can we say it exists? Obviously, we cannot; therefore we require the elucidatory nonsense of the Tractatus to gesture towards it. But how can we say that the nonsense of Tractatus gestures towards it—remember we cannot speak of it at all. So we are left not being able to say that we can't say that we can't say that we can't say . . . that we can't say, an infinite regress of meaningless sounds following meaningless sounds of which we seem we will never, ever, be able to escape. Even the suggestion that we should not talk about the mystical lest we be trapped in this infinite regress—the Tractatus' quietist conclusion—manages to fall within it. Thus the implicit ineffablism of even the austere reading:
It is a feature of the austere reading that these propositions mean nothing, but they must somehow succeed in attracting our metaphysical urge to go beyond what can be said and this illusion to be nothing more than nonsense. [. . .] But for this to be successful, so the austere reading claims, we must attribute some transitory sense to the propositions of the book or, alternatively, go beyond those and understand the author the book in some ineffable way. (Brand 333)
Similarly, even the non-therapists, who attempt to preserve the say/show distinction in order to hold off this ineffability, are nonetheless left with sentences halfway between sense and nonsense which we are nonetheless able to understand.

It is understandable, then, why it is tempting for philosophers to want to view Wittgenstein's early mysticism as a mistake—or, for the austere reading, something which he is even then rejecting—and to see his later philosophy as a break away from and a rejection of this mysticism. However, there are two reasons why this view of Wittgenstein's development is unsatisfactory. The first is that Wittgenstein's critiques of the Tractatus—for example, as found in the Investigations at §23, §97, and §114, and by implication spread liberally throughout §§1 to 120 seem not to focus, or even touch, on the mysticism of the Tractatus but on the positivistic characteristics of the work, the so-called "picture-theory of language" which many non-therapists understand it to be espousing (wrongly, I would argue--for any non-austere, non-ineffable understanding of nonsense, the existence of ethics and the truth of the picture theory are in fact incommensurate.). Furthermore, there are statements in the Investigations which Wittgenstein seems to endorse and which thus reaffirm the Tractatus' mystical vision:
The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of pure nonsense [. . .] that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. (§119)
Here is where the accusation of reading postmodernism into Wittgenstein will begin. But if we are to take Wittgenstein seriously, then we must turn to as guides those thinkers who do, as he does, take mysticism seriously—and these are not to be found (at least not in any great number) within the analytic tradition. In my next post I'll compare Wittgenstein's mysticism with the thought of two French post-structuralists, Derrida and Kristeva.

 

cjbanning: (Trinity)
Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy is, throughout his philosophical career(s) but perhaps most strikingly in the Philosophical Investigations, characterized by its deflationary nature, and by its resistance to theory. To a Wittgensteinian, philosophical theories do not provide the answer to philosophical questions; instead, the urge to theorize is the source of philosophical questions. We as philosophers strive for “something like a final analysis of our forms of language,” but to the Wittgensteinian this is little more than a pipe dream (Investigations §91). Philosophical “therapy” is thus necessary to “uncover [. . .] one or another piece of plain nonsense” (§119).

Theorists, understandably, are not sure what to make of these claims. Is Wittgenstein advancing a theory about theories—a self-contradicting one, in that case? A meta-theory (but what would such a thing be)? An empirical observation (how is it falsified)? Something he just thinks is true (for what value of truth)? Wishes were true? Is amused (or disturbed) that people treat seriously?

I will not respond at length to each of the possibilities that have been put forth here, but I will say that none of them seem, to me, to be satisfactory. Wittgenstein does seem to be making serious, normative claims about how we should and should not talk about and perform philosophy, and seems to make meaty theoretical claims about what we are doing and how we are doing it when we philosophize—that there really are “bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language” that we need to get rid of (§119).

The therapist can get around these questions, of course, dissolving each one of them in turn; when Wittgenstein's intelocutor asks what is the essence of a language game, Wittgenstein responds with a rumination on the multiplicitous nature of various types of games (§§65-66). But at some point this pas de deux will seem less like a reasoned conversation and more like something out of Monty Python's famous "Argument Clinic" sketch: the Wittgensteinian always has an answer, but it's never the type of answer a traditional analytic philosopher can accept or respect; leaving both the skeptic and the foundationalist with the feeling that they simply have not been addressed and so that they, along with their claims, have simply been arbitrarily rejected (see Gaile Pohlhaus and John R. Wright, “Using Wittgenstein Critically: A Politcal Approach to Philosophy,” in Political Theory 30.6 [2002]: 802.)



These questions centering on Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy will be recognizable to any student of twentieth- and twenty-first century thought, from the Frankfurt School through contemporary queer theory: it is the question of soi-disant “critical” theory, theory which attacks, deconstructs, turns upon itself. Jana Sawicki, in discussing French theorist Michel Foucault in her book Disciplining Foucault (London: Routledge, 1991), calls this impulse “anti-theory”: “not a theory, but an instrument for criticizing theories” (53). The problem with this analysis is that an instrument needs a wielder to use it, and she must use it with a purpose. What is Wittgenstein's purpose?

Anti-theory, it seems, can be a useful critical tool in service of an independently held philosophical position but not a fully-realized, coherent method of living in the world on its own; in many ways, this is the argument I made in The Eschatology of Radical Negativity. Unable to recognize even temporary, strategic, or contingent foundations, it can only blunder on, destructively tearing theoretical structures down for no reason it can articulate. As far as illnesses go, this can seem far more terminally cancerous than any philosophical theory!

Instead of trying to resolve these contradictions, however, I would suggest that Wittgenstein would have us embrace them: he is advocating not “anti-theory” but anti/theory, something which at once both is and is not a theory. This is not merely reading poststructuralism and deconstruction back into Wittgenstein in an eisegetical manner, as some have suggested of far more modest readings than this one (although of course one's reading of poststructuralism and deconstruction will of course influence the exegesis she performs), writing Derrida (for example) “on top of” Wittgenstein.  Instead, I'll demonstrate in a future post how recognizing Wittgenstein's use of this vital contradiction allows us to see the answer to one of the vexed questions of Wittgenstein scholarship—the interpretation of Wittgenstein's other great philosophical treatise, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and its relation to Wittgenstein's later philosophy—by recognizing the strand of mysticism which persists from the Tractatus into Wittgenstein's later work.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
The first and most important need of the Church is of course to serve as a means of grace for the members of the Body of Christ and as a source of light for the world as a whole. All other needs must, if necessary, be ultimately subordinated to that central one. On the parish level, this means first and foremost performing the sacraments, serving the community (global and local) through the works of mercy and justice work, and seeing to the spiritual and corporeal needs of parishioners. Much of a priest’s attention, then, is quite properly focused on the “bread and butter” of church operations: on celebrating the Eucharist, preaching the Good News, baptising infants and converts, visiting the sick, comforting the distressed, marrying those in love, and burying the dead.

To most fully achieve its purpose, however, it is necessary for a parish or mission to draw on the various gifts provided by the Spirit to each and every member; a church which authentically lives out the calling the Spirit delivers to its members will (if such is God’s will) thrive and grow as a consequence, whereas one which adopts a false persona in order to attract new members will in fact alienate them by virtue of that very inauthenticity. The role of the ordained presbytery, then, is to assist congregations in thinking theologically so as to develop their own sense of their guiding principles in order to live them out in their engagement with the world as a whole, to help a congregation realize what makes them special and unique and to more fully grow into that vision which is organic to them alone--through their liturgy, through their service, and through their attempts at dialogue. Christian education opportunities need to be available for both adults and youth to “teach the conflicts” (cf. Gerald Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars ) that have divided the Church, both historical and contemporary (e.g., Eucharistic presence, the resistability of grace, the nature(s) of Christ, etc.), while making clear that all points of view are welcome in the Episcopal Church and at the Lord’s table.

Furthermore, each parish or mission must seek to build connections not only in the local community (although of course it must not stop building such connections!) but also across the diocese and across the globe. For better or worse, the era in which a parish could survive by serving a small local community bound together by their geographical condition is ending; in what Tony Jones calls “this postmodern, wiki-world,” the churches which are thriving are those urban and suburban churches which can reach across an urban city or suburban region to form connections among geographically disparate members.

For myself as a young adult in the Diocese of New Jersey, I have found myself invaluably enriched by a number of retreats and volunteer opportunities offered to young adults in the diocese, almost all organized by the Rev. Greg Bezilla (the Episcopal chaplain to Rutgers University). These diocesan events have managed to supplement what my parish offers in an area where it is particularly weak (it having relatively few young adults, and literally no other regular attenders in their late twenties) and connect me with other Episcopalian young adults in New Jersey. The age of Facebook and other social networking technologies (including this one!) makes it possible for the relationships forged at such events to endure even across distances as far as that between New Jersey and Arizona--or even across the globe itself.

The job of the priest, then, is to facilitate the building of these types of connections and to empower parishioners to take their places as not only members of a parish, but citizens of a Church which is truly Catholic, taking part in conversations and dialogues which extend beyond the limits of a brick-and-mortar church building. This ecclesiology is distinctly Episcopal in both senses of the word: locating ultimate stability not in the parish church or the inter/national organization but in the diocesan cathedral.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
In a very real sense, my spiritual autobiography is simple and short, less of a spiritual journey and more of a spiritual home: stable, secure, sheltering. I have been in my life a sort of conservative Protestant, a pantheist, a deist, a neo-pagan, and of course an Anglican, but never an atheist. That there is a beauty beyond this world which undergirds it, a divinity which is the source and ground of Being itself, is a fact which has always been manifest in my experience.

In this sense, my journey has been theological, intellectual, a fluid relationship with ideas as I learned and grew in theological understanding but always moored by an unshakeable relationship with the God, the One Who Is, whom I sought to understand. I have had no crisis of faith--sometimes I wonder if this itself is not a failing--simply a long process of rejecting and accepting various understandings.

At the same time, of course, in a very real sense the two journeys cannot be divorced from each other. The ideas and images, the meanings and metaphors, which we use to grasp the divine provide the form and structure for our relationship with God; my Anglican spirituality is mediated by the prayers, practices, and sacraments of Anglicanism itself, as a culture and a church, which I have come to recognize as conveying the deepest of truths. And in this sense, my spirituality has indeed changed radically several times over my lifetime as it matured and evolved.

I was brought up in a secular, “culturally Christian,” atheistic-agnostic household, but I was brought up a Christian. I was read the Nativity story from an early age, even if sometimes before or after works of secular fiction such as The Pokey Little Puppy or The Cat in the Hat. I was sent to Methodist Sunday school, I am told in an attempt to expose me to many different beliefs and practices (an attempt which proved to be abortive past that point). And I did what any child does when someone they trust tells them that things are true: I believed.

I was not, however, afforded any resources in how to believe, or even really in what to believe. My Sunday school curriculum consisted of Bible stories--Jonah and the fish, Balaam and the donkey, the garden of Eden, the flood--without being taught how to approach these stories or to integrate them into my life. And so when, around the age of twelve, the cognitive dissonance between what I was taught in Sunday school and my secular understanding of the world and the way it worked grew too great, it was natural for me to reject Chrisitianity. Christianity’s claims seemed too limited, too small to be able capture the majesty of the divine.

In high school, however, at the private Roman Catholic school I attended, I was introduced to many important things which laid foundations for later developments in my theological thought. I was introduced to higher criticism, learning how our appreciation of the Biblical message can be enriched through understanding the human, historical processes which shaped its production. I learned also about Catholic social teaching and its roots in liberation theology, putting forth a model of what a progressive Christianity might look like, and the lives of such saintly figures as Dorothy Day and Clare of Assisi who would later become my personal heroes.

But most importantly, I was introduced to the sacraments, and to a method of “doing religion” which emphasized the sacramental life of the community rather than the piety of the individual believer, where one’s relationship with God was primarily mediated through ritual--through lived experience and action!--rather than written text, a medium by which I could directly experience being present in God’s movement. This resonated for me, as I recognized a beauty and sacred character in the mass. In college, I attended the weekly Roman Catholic mass each Sunday night (they were held at 10:30 p.m.!) and, beginning the second semester of my freshman year, was a member of the Newman Board, the executive committee overseeing the university’s Roman Catholic community.

Throughout high school and college, I studied--both inside and outside the classroom--theology and philosophy. Liberal theologians like Paul Tillich and Leonardo Boff provided for me a framework within which to understand Christian practice and belief in a way which respected my intellectual commitments, while feminist theologians like Rebecca S. Chopp provided ways in which the truth and beauty of Christianity could be preserved without its patriarchal baggage. At the same time, seeing the ways in which the great atheistic philosophers of the last 150 years--such heavyweights as Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jacques Derrida--were unable despite their best efforts to exorcise the transcendent from their philosophical systems provided philosophical justification for my developing theology.

Even as I found within Catholicism the type of religious truth I had not found in the Protestantism of my childhood, however, I knew that I would never be at home within the Roman church, feeling that it would not be possible as a convert to occupy with intellectual honesty the type of complicated relationship to the church held by “renegade” cradle Catholic theologians like Leonardo Boff and Hans Kung. Anglicanism’s combination of Catholic liturgy and practice alongside greater intellectual freedom and diversity thus proved powerfully attractive, and I was baptized in the Episcopal Church in 2007, at the age of 23, and confirmed by the Rt. Rev. George Councell in 2008.

Since then, my Anglican faith has only deepened and developed as I have attempted to live out my new identity as an Anglican and as a Christian and have more truly learned what it is like to exist within (rather than merely adjacent to), and be nourished by, a community of Christian believers. So too has it been enriched by my close contact with Circle of Hope, a network of Anabaptist congregations taking root in Philadelphia and South Jersey, as they have exposed me to a radically different set of practices and theologies, as well as providing me with many opportunities to work on strengthening my own faith, as they attempt to live out their lives authentically in Christ and in fellowship with each other and the world, “be[ing] a safe place to explore and express God’s love” and “birthing a new generation of the church” (as their website puts it).

While my Anglo-Catholicism persists undisturbed--strengthened even!--it has deepened my respect for the power of low-church liturgy and my gladness that Anglicanism has deep roots in both high-church and low-church traditions, providing it with an enviable set of resources in attempting to speak to the many different types of people with whom it finds itself in dialogue.
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.)
Amen!

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: (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: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City during the Celebration of Christmas Lessons and Carols on Jan. 1, 2012 C.E.

Genesis 3:1-15
Isaiah 40:1-11
Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

So here we are, the Eight Day of our voyage through the (relatively short) season of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Name. “When the eight day arrived for the child’s circumcision, [the child] was named Jesus.” This, the first shedding of Jesus’ blood, stands of course as a prefiguring of the Cross. It also stands as a powerful testimony to the truth of the Incarnation, that God became fully human, suffering out of love all the pains and frailties that we suffer out of sin.

We know that we are subject to injury, to pain, to illness, to temptation, and ultimately to death because of sin, because of our own turning away from God’s Love. The account of the Fall found in the Book of Genesis expresses this important truth in figurative terms. Yet Jesus was without the stain of that sin, and still Jesus’ blood was able to be shed, first at the circumcision and ultimately at the crucifixion.

Just as “in the free, overflowing rapture of [God’s] love, God makes a creation that is other than [God]self” (Jürgen Moltmann) in the Genesis accounts, in the Incarnation our loving God empties Godself, taking the form of a slave.

Think of the sacrifice! The omnipresent Christ becoming limited to a single human body in a single place; the omniscient Christ needing to learn and grow as human children do; the omnipotent Christ made weak and helpless. And then, on the eighth day, well, you know.

Fiction writers from Anne Rice in Out of Egypt to Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ have written novels trying to imagine what that sort of experience for the young Christ would have been like as Christ “grew in size and strength” (Invlusive Bible) and “increased in wisdom and in years” (NRSV), as two different translations of Luke 2:40 put it. There is no definitive answer to that question, of course, but we should not be surprised that so many authors’ pens have been inspired by the powerfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, confronting and conquering the worst of our human natures-- fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and perhaps, as in The Last Temptation, even lust--out of love rather than out of sin.

It’s true that here in the western Church we are more likely to talk about Jesus having two natures, one human and one divine, united in one person--what’s called the Definition of Chalcedon--while our siblings-in-Christ in Eastern Orthodoxy are more likely to speak of the humanity and divinity united in a single nature. But the underlying core doctrine--that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine--represents a central orthodoxy for the entire Church catholic in all her branches: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant alike.

But . . . so what? Hopefully I am my own harshest critic, but I can just imagine a hypothetical parishioner sitting in their pew, going, “Well, it was fun, reading lessons and and singing Christmas carols, but then we had to let the theology geek get up and talk.” Well, that hopefully fictional parishioner would be in good company: no less a personage than the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther himself once wrote: “What is it to me that Christ had two natures?” He did not, of course, mean that the doctrine was altogether unimportant, but his comments represent 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.”

Richard Rohr writes of the Incarnation as “God [. . .] saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of [God’s] Son in our midst. [. . . A]ll 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.” Rohr reminds us that for St. Francis, St. Clare, and the community they led at Asissi, “incarnation was already redemption.”

Earlier I mentioned the Definition of Chalcedon, the formula we in the western Church use to grasp as best as we are able the holy mystery which is Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity. The full text of the definition as composed at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 of the Common Era can be found on page 864 of your Prayer Book, albeit in incredibly small type, but part of that definition--and I’m tweaking the translation a bit here--states that Jesus is “truly God and truly human, of a rational soul and body, of one being with the One whom Jesus called 'Abba' according to the divinity of Christ, and of one being with us according to Christ’s humanity.”

Let’s say that again: by virtue of Jesus’ humanity, we are one in being with Christ. We share Christ’s essence, Christ’s substance, Christ’s being. Talk about a weighty message!

So when Mary and Joseph bring their infant child to be presented at the temple, in a sense it is all of humanity which is being presented before God. When that infant’s blood is shed according to the covenant made with Sarah and Abraham, all of humanity is bound in a New Covenant. And when that child is given the name Jesus--meaning “the LORD brings salvation”--that becomes our name, our promise, our truth.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
I'll be preaching at Ascension again at our Christmas Lessons and Carols service, on the 1st of January, 2012 C.E.

Which means it will be the Feast of the Holy Name.

In other words, I need to write a homily about the circumcision of Jesus.
cjbanning: (Default)
This is the text I preached off of for the children's sermon at both the Church of the Holy Spirit and the Church of the Ascension. As you might imagine, the actual sermons I gave were significantly different than each other, as a result of having two somewhat different audiences.

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, which was on Tuesday. Most of the time we celebrate one saint at a time, or maybe two or three or a certain group of people, but on All Saints’ Day we celebrate ALL the saints. Does anyone know how many saints that is, how many saints there are all together?

Well, there were twelve disciples, right? And Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ mom and dad, so that’s at least fourteen. What other saints can you think of?

What about the saint we usually celebrate with a party at the beginning of next month? He wears red and sometimes likes to give presents to kids.

In this book [hold up Holy Women, Holy Men], there’s a couple hundred different saints that we celebrate at different parts of the Church year, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You know what that means, the tip of the iceberg?

Icebergs are big blocks of ice, right? And when they float in the water, you can only see a little piece of them floating on top of the water--most of the ice is underwater, where you can’t see it. The people in this book, and all the saints with “Saint” in front of their name, they’re the tip of the iceberg--the part that’s easy to see. But what makes an iceberg such a big deal is all that part that’s under the water, that you can’t see but is still there. With the saints, we call that entire iceberg--all the saints put together--the “communion” of saints.

In the passage [X] read from the Revelation, which is a very weird book from the very back of the Bible, St. John the Divine--there’s another one!--talks about a “a great multitude [that means ‘a lot’] that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”

We don’t actually know how many saints there are, but there’s a lot of them, probably in the billions. That’s a lot of saints, isn’t it?

What do you think you need to do to become a saint?

Do you think saints make mistakes sometimes?

Did you know St. Nicholas punched somebody? He was at a big meeting of all the Church leaders, and they were trying to work out the Trinity--the relationship between God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Somebody said something he disagreed with, and he got so mad that he just punched the guy. That wasn’t a very good thing for him to do, was it?

Will you pray with me?

“Lord, we thank You for Your saints. We pray that we may be inspired by their example, so that we may join them in Your Presence. Amen.”
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: (Trinity)
I've talked a lot in this journal about the Trinity as "perichoretic dialectic of conversation," and the implications that holds for Christian community and our understanding of the relationship between scripture, tradition, and reason. I've also repeatedly critiqued the notion of individual salvation (although have stopped short of denying it altogether), most recently in the sermon I preached at Ascension last month.

What I haven't done, yet, is connect the two notions. But over at Realiter Loquendo, Paul Hunter does a good job of it:
the Trinity, which together with the Incarnation, is one of the central mysteries of Christianity, totally excludes individualism. It may be that there are individualistic Christians, but the Christian God is not a monad. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity teaches that God is personal, but God is not a single person, because such a being is finally unthinkable. To be a person is always to be in communion with other persons.

The practical meaning of this is that "individual salvation" is something of an oxymoron. As human beings we are made in the image of the Trinity, and so we can only be saved - in fact we can only really be human - by being in communion with others and with God. To be a human being fully alive we must pour out our lives in obedience and love to God, and service to our neighbors.
This is an elaboration of Hunter's previous explanation:
Christianity is the only religion I know of in which God is a community. God is Trinity and not a monad. Part of what that means is that individualism is totally excluded. A person alone is no person; if that is true for God how much more so for [God's] creatures.
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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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