Monday, May 31, 2010

Barth On Not Taking the Preacher Seriously in Order to Take Preaching Seriously

As someone who both cringes before and feels compelled toward the pulpit, I find these words of Karl Barth both freeing and challenging. I also think the stuff in bold contains a call to reform that our evangelical preaching ministry could probably benefit from chewing on for awhile.
[Paul] asks: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher (χωρς κηρύσσοντος)? and how shall they (the subject of the sentence has obviously changed) preach, except they be sent?" When we quote this passage, we must not miss out the last link in the series. For it is on this that all the rest depends. . . .

How, then, can it turn in upon itself? How can it be grounded in itself? How can it crowd out the kerygma [self-proclamation] of Jesus? How can it make this superfluous? It is a call to hearing, faith and confession, news of an accomplished salvation, to the extent that it derives from His sending, consists in the execution of His commission, and therefore, dependent absolutely on His sending and commission, takes up and reproduces the kerygma of Jesus. The power of their action lies in this relationship. It is because of this relationship that there can be said of them and their work: "He that heareth you heareth me" ( Lk. 1016). . . .

Without this relationship it would be nothing. It must say always, in supreme concretion: "We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves (we regard as) your servants for Jesus' sake" ( 2 Cor. 45). . . . There is no place, therefore, for any appeal to the undoubted philosophy, scholarship, eloquence, moral impeccability and personal Christianity of the preacher, or for any notion that there is in his preaching any immanent power or value or salvation, or that the Christian kerygma is a self-sufficient and self-operative hypostasis which is as such the πρτον [first] and the σχατον [last]. This notion is one of the most monstrous mythologoumena of all times.

Christian preaching is the Word of the cross ( 1 Cor. 118), the Word of reconciliation ( 2 Cor. 519). As such it points beyond itself to the concrete history of Jesus Christ. To use the Johannine term, it is witness to Him. The preacher need not be ashamed, therefore, for as such it is the δύναμις [power] of God to salvation to everyone that believes ( Rom. 116). Christ Himself is both its divine σοφία [wisdom] and its divine δύναμις ( 1 Cor. 124). It is not itself the kingdom of God, the divine seizure of power. It makes known the fact that this has happened. It is the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, the giving of factual information and the summons to an appropriate attitude of repentance and faith. And it is all this as the word of the ambassador who is not himself Christ, but speaks in His stead (πρ Χριστο).

(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, 207-209)

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Judge Judges in our Place

It is a well-known but easily misapplied tenet of Christianity that we should not judge others. One of the ways that Christians combat this is to remember to judge ourselves first. This humble approach is commendable, and is in fact a kind of foundation on which popular variations of tolerance and philosophical variations of self-criticism are built. But when it comes to the internal meaning of the Christian life, it does not go far enough.

Yes, the New Testament tells us to judge ourselves lest we be judged, and to consider others better than ourselves, but when we lose our Christian moorings on this we tend toward the inward spiral of self-criticism instead of hearing in it the fulfilment of the Psalmist's "search me O God and know my heart . . . . and lead me in the way everlasting."

Karl Barth brought this home to me in a very prolific and personal way not too long ago -- and as I've been going over my notes from his Doctrine of Reconciliation I've been reminded of the way I was first taken aback. In a section titled "The Judge Judged in Our Place", he writes about Jesus as not only the substitutionary sacrifice, but also the substitutionary judge. Guilt-ridden evangelical that I am -- addicted to and troubled by the psychological self-enclosed spiral of introspection and release (but seeing a worse alternative in oblivious self-deception) -- this came as a great revelation to me:

The fact that Jesus Christ judges in our place means an immeasurable liberation and hope. The loss which we always bewail and which we seem to suffer means in reality that a heavy and indeed oppressive burden is lifted from us when Jesus Christ becomes our Judge.

It is a nuisance, and at bottom an intolerable nuisance, to have to be the man who gives sentence. It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right. It is similarly an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. . . .

[I]f we eat of this tree we must die. We are all in process of dying from this office of judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is, therefore, a liberation that it has come to pass in Jesus Christ that we are deposed and dismissed from this office because He has come to exercise it in our place. What does that mean but that at one stroke the whole of the evil responsibility which man has arrogantly taken to himself is taken from him?

It is no longer necessary that I should pronounce myself free and righteous. It is no longer necessary that even if only in my heart I should pronounce others guilty. Neither will help either me or them in the very least. Whatever may be the answer to the question of their life and mine, at any rate it no longer needs to be given by me. To find it and to pronounce it is no longer my office or in any way my concern. I am not the Judge. Jesus Christ is Judge. The matter is taken out of my hands. And that means liberation.

A great anxiety is lifted, the greatest of all. I can turn to other more important and more happy and more fruitful activities. I have space and freedom for them in view of what has happened in Jesus Christ. And that also means hope. I have good cause to fear before the true Judge, who is not I. When I think of Him I may have fears for others. But . . . . in fear before the Judge on whose good and redemptive will I can already count, whose decision I can look forward to with trust whatever it may be, in whose hands I can know that my own case and that of others is at least safe. In a fear, therefore, which at bottom is hope.

He who knows about myself and others as I never could or should do, will judge concerning me and them in a way which is again infinitely more just than I could ever do-and judge and decide in such a way that it will be well done. Indeed, in such a way that it is well done, this real Judge having already decided at the point when the Word became and was flesh. And whatever the decision may be, I have reason to look forward to its disclosure with terror, but with a terror-stricken joy.

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 234-235

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Blog, Thinking Back, and Thinking Ahead

Last week at Pluscarden Abbey an external consultant to our systematic theology department challenged us to be well-versed in the ancient texts that make up our tradition and to read, read, read. He also acknowledged that we are in a bit of a theological hotbed and he exhorted us to both not take that for granted and to make sure that we don't get too caught up in it. In regard to the latter warning, he advised that we be sure to (a) be aware of what is going on outside of our own school walls and to (b) find our own distinct voice and opinion and not be mere ventriloquists. They were good words.

I had already been thinking about going back through my own writing, now that I'm through my first read of my dissertation's primary resources, to see how my thinking had brought me to this point, had perhaps coloured my reading, and had perhaps changed at all along the way. As part of that endeavour I've browsed through the archives of this blog and discovered (to my partial reinvigoration!) that my current dissertation is even more of a culmination of prior thinking and yearning than I had realized.

Amongst all the things I've written about here in the 300+ posts of the past 4+ years, there are a few themes that keep popping up again and again. Of those, the recurring themes of community, forgiveness, and communion likely top the list. As I've looked them over I've been reminded of who it is that is meeting Barth on these issues (me, but also my influences), and what it is that has brought me to this point (passion for church and community, as it relates to real life issues). I also feel like I have a clearer sense of my own appraisal of Barth's work and his ongoing effect on me.

In the process of this exercise, I've kept track of some of my favourite posts (on all variety of themes) and have compiled a "best of this side" page for posterity's sake (also now linked on the sidebar). And as I, once again, reconsider the value of blogging going forward, I am spurred on a bit by my recent walk down memory lane. Who knows how long I'll keep on with it, or whether there will be hiatuses or not, but I must say I didn't realize having a blog would help me down the road in this way. I've actually made a document of the relevant posts (including reader comments) to refer to and mine for ideas. Some of you, undoubtedly, will end up having helped me in ways you may not ever know! Thanks again for reading along and interacting.

I'll be writing a first draft of one of my dissertation chapters between now and World Cup kickoff on June 11 (a self-imposed deadline) and so can't guarantee the blog will see much new writing. I'll either ignore it, or need it as an outlet. We'll see. In the meantime, if you are really that bored you can peruse the "best of " archives and maybe there something will catch your eye.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Little More Church Satire

A friend of mine passed this hilarious and biting video around lately and it seemed a perfect follow up to a running theme on this blog. I know a lot of us don't need any help being cynical, in fact we probably need a little more help being less Pharisaical about how we push church off of our high horses. Having said that, check out this satire on church worship culture! It is devastating! Full disclosure: I've been the guys in this video before -- which makes me both cringe and thank God for his mercy.

Oh man: you gotta love the church. I hope we can laugh at ourselves, and also think seriously about the stuff this video exposes. I do want to make it clear that I don't doubt the sincerity of most of what church worship is doing, trying to do, or thinking it is accomplishing. And lots of that ends up being very good, by God's grace and the trajectory and power of the gospel hidden away inside of all the forms taken by our gospel presentations. This is not a critique of Christianity or Christians, per se. But I do like its creative and satirical way of exposing some stuff for reflection.

We need to reflect on what has become the new liturgy for so much of evangelicalism (which ironically is generally anti-liturgical). What is driving it? And for all the "success" it might have and the numbers it might bring in, we need to ask ourselves how many people it might actually be driving away, and whether, at the end of the day, what it is doing is really all that Christian. We don't need to have that discussion here, necessarily, but if discussions happen, here or elsewhere I think that's where they should go.

I suppose you could challenge the appropriateness of satire as a form of communication if you wanted, too. I tend to like it, when the heart behind it is interested in carrying through to a genuine and humble conversation rather than biting cynicism that enables distancing elitism. Basically, satire needs to be taken seriously and not seriously at the same time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Snippet from Pluscarden Abbey

This week I'll be at Aberdeen University's year-end Systematic Theology workshop at Pluscarden Abbey in north-east Scotland, the oldest active Abbey in the UK. Here's a snippet from somewhere in the middle of the paper I ended up writing for it, called "Binding or Loosing: Forgiveness and Epistemology in Karl Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation."
. . . . Crucial to an understanding of Barth on this matter is the realization that, for him, divine forgiveness is not simply a power, an art, a step in a relational model, a psycho-social experience, or even a “miracle” to be activated in the interpersonal realm. Contemporary literature tends to cast it in these lights, but one who searches Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation for such things does so in vain. (Believe me, I tried!)

Rather than divorcing it from its larger context and ascribing to it a power of its own, or systematizing it within a self-help process for negotiating relationships, Barth offers an opportunity to see forgiveness as participation in Christ’s ongoing work. Further to this, rather than making forgiveness contingent upon the penitence of the offender or the conjured-up compassion of the offended, Barth grounds it in the work of Christ already accomplished and being unveiled in the world. In the transition from divine-human reality to human interrelationships, forgiveness does not become a tool in our hands, utilized to certain known and desirable results, but is simply part and parcel of Christian being and activity.

A secularized version of forgiveness which makes people the ultimate subject of the forgiving act knows not what it does. Such a construal may generate a community more on the mark than an unforgiving Christian community that fails to live from its Lord’s liberation, but it is limited by its inability to maintain this posture. Rootless, it inevitably degenerates into the frustrated introspection and false peace of mere tolerance.

The “Church is neither author, dispenser, nor mediator of grace and its revelation,” says Barth. Further: “Luther knew what he was talking about when he dared to say [There is no sinner so great as the Christian church]. It is the Church which prays, ‘Forgive us our trespasses,’ which therefore knows and confesses that it needs the forgiveness of sins”(Church Dogmatics IV/1, 658). . . .

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Nature of Doctrine: 25 Years Ago

These lines stuck out to me while reading this watershed book for a recent Philosophy of Religion seminar. Now 25 years old, it seems to me that George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine is still hitting some nails on the head. (I use that expression too much, don't I?) He makes some grand claims here, but for the most part I'm on board with what he's suggested. I'm pretty busy writing papers these days, but I wanted to pause and share these excerpts; foods for thought:

"Sociologists have been telling us for a hundred years or more that the rationalization, pluralism, and mobility of modern life dissolves the bonds of tradition and community. This produces multitudes of men and women who are impelled, if they have religious yearnings, to embark on their own individual quests for symbols of transcendence. The churches have become purveyors of this commodity [along with artists and the media, I might add] rather than communities that socialize their members into coherent and comprehensive religious outlooks and forms of life.

Society paradoxically conditions human beings to experience selfhood as somehow prior to social influences, and Eastern religions and philosophies are utilized to support what, from a cultural-linguistic perspective, is the myth of the transcendental ego. Selfhood is experienced as a given rather than as either a gift or an achievement, and fulfillment comes from exfoliating or penetrating into the inner depths rather than from communally responsible action in the public world. . . .

Religious communities are likely to be practically relevant in the long run to the degree that they do not first ask what is either practical or relevant, but instead concentrate on their own intratextual outlooks and forms of life. The much-debated problem of the relation of theory and praxis is thus dissolved by the communal analogue of justification by faith. As is true for individuals, so also a religious community's salvation is not by works, nor is it faith for the sake of practical efficacy, and yet good works of unforseeable kinds flow from faithfulness" (George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (2d. edition), 112, 114).

This particular excerpt might sound like it recommends holing ourselves up in navel-gazing ghettoes, but that is not the main concern of the book. The concern is to promote inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue by having people own their community life rather than dabble in it, and then to see themselves as contributing to the world around as self-aware groups rather than shopping or competing with the world around as individual consumers or solicitors. The idea is to seek communion from the postures of listening and speaking that can come from this healthier place. In my view, a whole lot of reason to do so is needed, but Christian communities of all people ought to have plenty of reason for this at their disposal, shouldn't they?