Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This Present Forgiveness

The paper I'm scrambling to finish up today has been a long time in the writing. Though only 3000 words, it has been one of the more difficult papers I have ever written. I started by noting a certain difference between two theologians and suspecting it had significant ramifications and then I had to try to figure out what those were. At some point maybe for the first time in my life I began to feel like I was trying to think my own new thoughts (based on what others had taught me of course) rather than merely put in a new way what others had already said. That may not turn out to be the case, but the point is that I've really struggled to sort this one out. The weird thing is that once I finally felt like I'd formulated a kind of answer, I had forgotten what the question was. Thus in the last month I have written the introduction like a dozen times.

Anyway, I need to finish it today, so here is that introduction in what I hope is its final state. Incidentally, the conference theme is "The Present Moment" and the paper is called "Once for All and New Every Morning: Forgiveness in the Theology of Miroslav Volf and Karl Barth".

"Christians tend to be quite clear about the Father’s once-and-for-all forgiveness in Jesus’ name, but less so about whether or how it is articulated and applied as an ongoing event. There may be fresh requests for forgiveness, but these are the crisis moments and not the norm; the interruptions of a Christian life which is characterized more by other things. Where forgiveness is asked for repeatedly, it is doubtful whether many Christians believe God needs to actually re-forgive. Confession may then be more therapy than invocation—forgiveness being construed as a divine act of the past which clears the ground for a redemptive future but is related to the present by other means.

When applied on the day to day level of interpersonal relationships, then, what it means to forgive can also be quite ambiguous. No wonder that it frequently becomes a therapeutically decisive deference to the cross that justifiably renders the past passed and diffuses conflict or distances from pain, but goes no further. In light of the teachings of Jesus in places such as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, or the post-resurrection charge to the disciples in John 20 and its reverberations in Ephesians 4 and 1 John 4, it must be asked whether forgiveness might have more of an abiding part in the Christian life.

This question surfaces and clarifies quite illustratively in a comparative analysis of the theologies of Miroslav Volf and Karl Barth. Taking its cues especially from Volf ’s influential Exclusion and Embrace and his more recent The End of Memory and Barth’s turn to The Doctrine of Reconciliation in volume four of his Church Dogmatics, this paper seeks to explore divine forgiveness as a once-for-all event which is also new every morning in the lives of Jesus’ disciples and the perpetuation of Christian community.

While neither focuses on either divine or human agency to the express exclusion of the other, with Volf’s emphasis on human agency one sees forgiveness as an ongoing reinterpretation of the past in the present that does not deny sin but in light of Christ’s death and resurrection remembers it negated and overcome. This is both complimented and challenged by Barth’s insistent depiction of Christian forgiveness as inseparably embedded in the whole scope of Christ’s reconciling activity which is both an event and a history still underway. With Barth’s emphasis on divine agency one sees that, considered along with not only the crucifixion but also the resurrection of Christ, divine forgiveness is once-for-all not merely in the sense that it was accomplished in a particular historical event preceding our time but in the sense that the event itself envelopes our time—ever present to it and perpetually invoked from within it."

I am writing this with the intention of seeking publication for it elsewhere, so I won't post the entirety of it here, but if you would like to read it drop me a line and I'll email it your way. I will be thinking about this for quite some time and would love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Church as the this-sidedness of Christ

In Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation there are plenty of fascinating passages describing what the Church is and does with an idealist realism. I strongly recommend that if you ever want to get your ecclesiology straight you read the 100+ page section in Church Dogmatics IV entitled "The Being of the Community."

The following is by no means the best of possible excerpts, but it is a cool description of how it is understood that the risen and ascended Jesus Christ--true God and the true human!--has his presence on earth in the meantime before the new creation and the Kingdom come. It is also another place where my blog title crops up in the theology I'm studying and so I like the echoes it sounds into what I tend to yammer on about here.
[I]n its [the Community's] very this-sidedness, in its human doing and non-doing, in its common action and the life of all its members it is continually confronted with His presence as the Holy One, it is continually exposed to His activity, it is continually jolted by Him, it is continually asked whether and to what extent it corresponds in its visible existence to the fact that it is His body, His earthly-historical form of existence. (CD IV/1, 700-701).

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Sobering Dose of Kierkegaard

I preached two weeks ago and led our church's worship service this week and, I won't lie to you, after all these years I am still at a loss as to how to evaluate such things. I can only hope and trust that God condescends to speak and be heard in and around our speaking and listening activities. I think we should probably do our very best with such things, but I am increasingly aware that "doing our best" can be one of the worst things that we do. Perhaps this excerpt from Søren Kierkegaard explains what I mean:
To ask whether Christ is profound is blasphemy and is an attempt (be it conscious or unconscious) to destroy him in a subtle way.
On the ensuing pages Kierkegaard explains that extravagant thought into the deep and profound which is treated as the key to removal of disbelief is treasonous, and that preaching becomes an exercise in such treason it is best described as affected. He then writes:
[I]t is corrupting when the thought process of the sermon address is affected, when its orthodoxy is achieved by placing the emphasis on an entirely wrong place . . . . If a son were to say, ‘I obey my father not because he is my father but because he is genius, or because his commands are always profound and brilliant,’ this filial obedience is affected. The son emphasizes something altogether wrong, emphasizes the brilliance, the profundity in a command, whereas a command is simply indifferent to this qualification. The son is willing to obey on the basis of the father’s profundity and brilliance, and on that basis he simply cannot obey him, because his critical attitude with regard to whether the command is profound and brilliant undermines the obedience.
But, we might ask, if God's Word is profound should it not be presented as such? The counter-question comes back: If God's Word is profound, what need does it have of you dressing it up as such? Kierkegaard puts a pretty fine point on it, no doubt, but it should still be a sobering word for preachers, not to mention worship leaders---One which is surely worthy of some reflection in this age of rampant justifying of means according to the worthiness of their intended ends.

Rhetoric and its tools abound. With music, words, media, and environment we can conjure up a feeling and create a desired response if we really try. But should we? I asked this question of a pretty prominent authority in homiletics a few years back and was startled by his seeming lack of concern over such things. Is everything in our arsenal to be crafted and utilized toward a moving presentation of the gospel or does the gospel itself demand that we not get carried away? I don't know. These thoughts can be either paralyzing or liberating.

(Quotation from Søren Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, 2009), 183-185.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reflection on "Flame of Love" by Clark Pinnock

In the wake of Clark Pinnock's death I thought I'd dig up a seminary "reflection paper" that I had to write in 2006 after reading his Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Here it is in its entirety, for those who may not have ever read the man, or who want a bit of a reminder of one of his theological contributions. I am not going to bother saying at the outset whether I now fully agree with everything I said then, but I have highlighted some key statements, and if you read this and want to discuss the content further I will more than happy to take such things up there. Mostly I just post this as a tribute to Pinnock's legacy, at least where it touched one person in the Canadian Christian wilderness.

It is indicative of both the influence of the author and of the rapid changes in theology that Clark H. Pinnock’s “risky” suggestions in 1996's Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit have now earned a comfortable home in theological discussion. “Risks were taken in interpretation, with the intention of stimulating discussion” (248), he says, and even he seems surprised at the results, concluding, “I was not thinking that a constructive vision of Spirit would take shape. But it did” (247). Pinnock displays a sincere desire to better understand the mysterious and oft-overlooked (yet presumably not completely incomprehensible) Holy Spirit. He presents a compelling and refreshing vision of the Spirit and also explores its ramifications for other areas of theology. Whether or not they agree with all of Pinnock’s assertions, readers of this book are bound not only to better appreciate the Spirit, but also to have a fuller theology of the Trinity, creation, Christ, the Church, the nature of salvation, culture, and Scriptural Revelation.

As the basis for his inquiry into Spirit theology, Pinnock focuses intently on the relational dynamic of the Godhead as testified by the incarnate Christ and witnessed by the New Testament. When Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (John 15:9 NRSV), he is revealing the “triune love that flows among the persons of the Godhead” (30) and overflows as an expression of the free love of God toward His creation. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the imposition of theology on the Bible nor is it the fabrication of human philosophy, rather, it is a direct result of the implicit teaching of the New Testament about the “relationality” (30) of God. Though there are echoes of the Trinity within the Old Testament, the “trinity was revealed when the Father, seeking to show his love for lost humanity, communicated with us through Word and Spirit” (30).

Pinnock feels that Trinitarian theology is not containable in human propositions nor reducible to human analogies, but is significantly comprehensible to those made in the image of God. As a result we expect to better understand God by thinking of Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we expect to better understand each of these three persons by thinking of them within this Unity; this perfect communion of three persons. Although no person of the Trinity can be understood without the others, something can still be known about each of them and, thanks to God’s gracious revelation, each of them can be known. Since God is Triune, in fact, He can not really be known without all three. With this in mind Pinnock seeks a clearer profile of the person of the Spirit. He is careful to explain that even the word “person” is not to be thought of in merely individualistic or rational terms, but in the relational terms of “intersubjectivity ... mutuality and reciprocity” (36). He asserts that this is a biblical approach and that if there has been any accommodation to culture or philosophy in theology it came with those who insisted on viewing God as the Unmoved Mover: simplistic, deterministic, and detached. This is not the God of the Bible, and such a misapprehension of God may be partly to blame for the lack of Spirit theology, since Spirit is where God most directly interacts with humanity.

Pinnock shows an authentic humility before the Word of God by admitting the limitations of Spirit theology, but he also shows confidence in the graciousness of God’s Revelation when he refuses to allow those limitations to hinder a genuine search for understanding. He shows refreshing candor in facing head-on the obstacles of spirit terminology in the Bible and the intentional aloofness of the Spirit. While the Bible does not always explain whether it is talking generally about God as Spirit or specifically about the person of the Spirit, Pinnock does not shy away from gleaning what it does have to say about the third person of the Trinity. As a matter of fact, one of the most central attributes of the Trinity is this self-effacing humility. Like Father and Son the Spirit clearly wishes to exalt the others above self, however, in the economy of the Trinity the Spirit seems even more disposed to fade into the background. Rather than taking this as a reason to avoid the issue altogether, Pinnock rightly takes this and enfolds it into his understanding of the person of the Spirit.

Humble and self-giving in love, the Spirit has been for good reason confused with the force that brings the Trinity together. Taking his cue from the Scriptures Pinnock does not settle for such an impersonal concept and sees the Spirit as the person who enacts the communion of the Trinity as well as the overflow of that communion into creation. This overflow into creation enacted by the Spirit is understood by Pinnock as the “ecstasy” (38) of God. Although by virtue of His internal communion the Triune God is not dependent upon creation in any sense, it is out of His benevolence–even His playfulness–that God creates a cosmos and a people in His own image with whom He may share communion. At integral moments in this creation Spirit is present, hovering over the waters at creation and over the virgin at the incarnation; bringing cosmos out of chaos and a new creation out of the fallen one.

Moving from an understanding of the Spirit’s involvement in creation, Pinnock rightly demonstrates that the Spirit has not stepped back like a watchmaker but is still involved in moving creation toward His goals. In this way the Spirit brings continuity to creation and redemption. Embarking on an idea experiment of sorts, with Pinnock we begin to see the interconnectedness of Son and Spirit in redemption, viewing “Christ as an aspect of the Spirit’s mission, instead of (as is more usual) viewing Spirit as a function of Christ’s” (80). Without denigrating the Son of God to the status of a merely spirit-filled human, Pinnock does well to emphasize Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit. “He was the Son of God who nevertheless emptied himself to live in solidarity with others, as dependent on the Spirit as any of them” (85). Jesus’ trust in the Spirit not only represents what human life is meant to be like, but is also an indicator of the vicarious humanity of Christ within which the Spirit wishes to enfold us by faith, as we become participators in the Son’s communion with the Father.

The most controversial part of this book comes when Pinnock applies all this theology to our understanding of the universality of redemption. Pinnock would agree that the grace of God in redemption is unlimited in scope and unconditionally given. However, he would assert that God does require faith and does not coerce this faith from people. In direct contrast to the determinism of Anthony Hoekema and the election theology of Donald Bloesch and James Torrance [these were other authors we were reading in this class], Pinnock proposes an openness in God’s providence that allows real human freedom so that real love and communion can thrive. God provides prevenient grace to all in a way that awakens in them the possibility of saying yes to God, but does not force them to do so. God respects the free will of humans because it is integral to the communion that he created us to have. Pinnock does not believe this to be what some have called a “low view of God” but sees it as God’s free and sovereign decision that speaks highly of his power to enact redemption resourcefully. This is a far more compelling and biblically cohesive understanding of redemption than those offered by the authors mentioned above.

Pinnock is not quite as convincing in his treatment of universality, but makes a good argument for hope in the wider mercy of God. Truly we do not know exactly what God may be doing in any human heart and it is entirely possible that God could choose to save people outside the church–even those in other religions. It is possible that the Spirit may impress an understanding of the Mediator upon people who have never actually heard the “four spiritual laws” or even the gospel per se. However, it is stretching the biblical warrant to suppose that we can lean on this hope in a significant way. The New Testament presents us with a vitality and urgency of mission that is diluted somewhat by any sort of reliance upon this wider hope. Having said that, Pinnock speaks a much needed corrective into the narrow-mindedness of evangelical Christians who often lack in listening skills and miss important bridges in sharing the gospel as a result of a deficient appreciation of what the Spirit is doing in the hearts and lives of other people and cultures, and even religions. For this and other insights, Clark Pinnock is to be thanked: What began as a risky idea experiment certainly blossomed into a helpful and inspiring approach to Spirit theology.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Clark Pinnock

Clark Pinnock has passed away at the age of 73. His theological work fascinated me. His work on Openness Theology and his later book on the Holy Spirit (Flame of Love) really made me think in new ways about the Christian faith. In some ways he was one of the first to feel the brunt of a kind of division in evangelical theology that has since then perhaps intensified but would still benefit from the legacy of his graciousness in conflict. As with the death of Stanley Grenz a few years back I feel that the theological community and the evangelical church has suffered a loss. Here's an excerpt of an obituary from one of his colleagues. The funeral is Thursday in Hamilton, Ontario.
1. Clark was not afraid to change his mind. He began his academic career as a quasi-fundamentalist with strong Calvinist leanings. He changed his mind about how we ought to read the Bible, how he should think of God’s nature, and what God knew about the possible future. I appreciated his honesty in his quest for strong theology!

2. Clark was unafraid to draw from many sources in his theological quest. While the Bible was his primary tool, he dipped in Arminian theology, Calvinist theology, process theology, Trinitarian theology, and creation theology, among others. The best theology can draw from diverse sources, while keeping a coherence amidst generative differences.

3. Clark was humble. Although he surely had convictions about how we should think theologically, he never presented himself as having all things figured out. When he and I disagreed about some issues, he was always ready to hear me out and learn from me. This made me more open to learning from him.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Story of Mario and Luigi

Downtown with my family and my folks on the weekend and it seemed like every shop we went into my two eldest boys found something they just had to buy. Immediately. It was as if now having laid eyes on it they could not live without it.

I don't blame them. I felt the same way when I saw the advertisement for a trip for two to London for a weekend watching football or the fine shirt on sale that would have made me look slightly more cool than I already am. It is only from experience that I am able to remind myself in those moments that this too shall pass.

It was difficult to negotiate this meandering from shop to shop with my boys. After all, we had dragged them downtown to window shop. This is by now for us adults a bit of a past-time, but for them is still like a long afternoon of teasing and temptation. You have to give in at some point and buy some kind of treat or the whole thing is borderline cruel. When to give in, and on what, is another matter.

In the sports store I managed to deftly avoid purchasing a couple more footballs. Sure they were only £2 each, but we have a half dozen of them at home already. Evading the purchase of a Manchester United kit on sale was simply a matter of principle. Such a thing will not be allowed in my home. Both my boys need shoes, however, so weaseling out of buying the awesome mini-cleats was tough. We simply did not have time to give shoe-shopping the time required. How much of this satisfied my boys is something you will have to ask them.

But then we came to the Gaming store. Browsing through the Nintendo DS games a look of earnest came over my son Brady unlike anything yet or since. On these occasions he is usually pretty relaxed and content.

But there it was: A Luigi stuffy (stuffed toy).

When the DS is off he and Elijah have recently begun to be Luigi and Mario (respectively) in their adventures around the house. This is a development I have welcomed, since I had begun to suspect that DVDs and DS games were destroying and not feeding their imaginations. Anyway, as the second child to a gregarious older brother, Brady has taken an understandable liking to Luigi. Elijah of course wanted the corresponding Mario toy.

Here in the store their eyes were wide with desire.

However, this stuffy was pretty expensive -- a rip off, actually, considering what it was. Since they had moments before been insisting on buying something worthless, my parental discernment tactics began to kick in:

"Perhaps we should look in other stores for a better deal." (Read: Let's buy some time for this fleeting desire to fade.)

"Let's talk to Mom first." (Seriously, let's get out of here for a minute so you too can think straight, perhaps see a salted pretzel you want instead.)

"You'll have to spend your birthday money on it." (Count the cost, kid.)

"Wouldn't you rather have something else?" (Seriously, count the cost. They have no shortage of stuffies, trust me.)

After I had explored all my parental options, the two were unwavering. My "birthday money" strategy had decreased the eldest's zeal somewhat, since he spent his long ago, but Brady had some left and was not dissuaded. In fact -- get this -- he was willing to buy both with his money in order for the two of them to be happy. Of course his brother was pretty pleased with this idea.

This was getting out of hand.

I managed to get them out of the store, reunited with their mother and continuing on our way to "think about it". The younger of my sons was adamant. He was committed to this plan. No amount of "are you sures?" was going to change his answer. So he and I finally ducked back into the store alone to give it one last consideration.

I said: "Brady: You know you do not have to buy one for Elijah to feel okay about this. You can just buy Luigi for yourself and that is okay. If your brother is mad I will deal with it."

His answer was genuine: "I know. I want to buy him Mario."

So we took both to the counter. And what do you know, they were even more expensive than I thought. His birthday money would actually only cover one of them. Alas: A way out!

"I'm sorry Brady, you only have enough to buy one." (I may sound like a cruel parent here, and I guess I risk that by telling this story. Surely you can understand, given how sibling dynamics can get, that this seemed a window of opportunity for me to encourage this younger brother to do something for himself for once, guilt free.)

He paused. I confess that I realized only then I had taken my parental discernment tactics too far. I had underestimated the degree of agony I was laying on him. Trying to be Solomon had backfired. All he wanted was a Luigi toy for goodness' sake. It was time to let him off the hook.

Still, I was curious to see what he'd say. The question hung in the air: You can only buy one, so what will it be? I waited. Maybe this would work out after all.

The weight of his answer was crushing:

"Okay, I'll just buy Mario for Elijah."

. . . .

Perhaps needless to say, I pitched in and we bought both. I mean, at this point I felt that I was the one standing before Solomon. I was aghast. This was ridiculous. I had been teaching him to dance on this consumer's promenade and it was as if my five year old had shown me something greater than us all.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Karl Barth and Arts of Darkness

As mentioned before, I've written an article for an online conference which puts Karl Barth and the Coen brothers in dialogue on the content of their film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's dark western crime novel No Country for Old Men. Now that the article is in the hands of the editors, go figure, I've come across a passage of Karl Barth's writing which just might say it better than I did. Here's a pre-emptive footnote (or perhaps a teaser) to the piece, then, from Church Dogmatics III/2, 515-518.

Barth is writing about humanity and the insecurity of time, and he argues that the metaphysician lacking a positive ground for the present stands along with the poet who tells us that "our being in its time is an infinitely tragic destiny." As in illustration of such poetry he offers "Hyperion's Song of Fate" by Friedrich Holderlin, which concludes:
But to us poor men
Is given no place to rest.
Harried by pain,
We grope and fall
Blindly from hour to hour.
Like water dashed
From cliff to cliff,
In lifelong insecurity.
Following this, he puts such a depiction in the light of the incarnation of the Son of God. To my mind it is Barth's archetypal response to the picture of reality mirrored so well in the arts of Holderlin, McCarthy, and the Coens:
Yet we cannot be content with this simple contrast, for Jesus is not only God and therefore different from us, but also man and therefore like us. He is not only the Creator, but also a creature among creatures. He is not only eternal, but-in His own particular way-with us in time. To compare our lot with that of "blessed spirits," with very different and purely eternal beings, may produce a gloomy Hymn of Fate, but it gives us the easy evasion that we men in time are so totally different. Our comparison, however, is with the man Jesus. And although as the Son of God He is so utterly different from us, yet as the Son of Man He is wholly like us. Hence we cannot escape the contrast by pleading His absolute dissimilarity.

Nor can the painful contrast between Him and us be the last word on the subject. For it is intolerable to be able to develop the statement that we have time only in the form of the antithesis that we do not have it at any time; that we no longer have the past, do not yet have the future and certainly do not have the present, because it is only the step from the one darkness to the other. The monstrous nature of this situation may perhaps be overlooked or forgotten, but once seen and remembered, it cannot be denied. . . .

In this case we should have to resign ourselves to our fate, not hymning it like Hyperion but defying it like Prometheus. But its monstrous character remains. That this is the case, that neither questioning, complaint nor protest can be suppressed, is shown by the innumerable theoretical attempts to reinterpret this disconcerting picture of man's being in time. . . .

And the reality is so monstrous that it asserts itself against these interpretations, like the original of a picture which has been badly painted over. It is worth noting, however, that it has always been felt necessary to cover up the original. For this shows us with what cares and questions and protests man faces this reality, how hard he finds it to accept his being in time as normal. We all run away from this picture. We would all prefer it otherwise. This comes out even more plainly in the fact that in practice we usually close our eyes to the problems of our being in time, that we try not to see or consider the matter but live as if our past and future were really ours, as if we really had time.

For when we prefer not to look or think, trusting that we can find help in a resolute "as if," what is hidden beneath the surface is definitely something abnormal and unnatural: not an inevitability which we can calmly recognise and accept; but a contradiction in face of which we are powerless, yet which we try to escape by hook or by crook, even by putting it right out of our minds. . . .

What we have been describing is sinful man in time. The man who lives in that monstrous situation, in that loss of time which cannot be denied, reinterpreted or even forgotten, is the man who is alienated from his Creator and therefore from himself, from his creaturely nature, and who has to pay for his rebellion against God by living in contradiction with himself, in contradiction with his God-given nature. . . . And the real reason why we cannot accept it calmly, or gloss it over, or forget it, or effectively deny it, is that man is not left to his own devices in this contradiction, but that in the existence of the man Jesus with His very different being in time a divine protest is made against his perverted and disturbed reality. . . .

God did not undertake to recognise and accept our monstrous being in time. . . Because this protest is made, we may look our situation in the face and either handle it with metaphysical profundity or hymn it as our fate, or we may refuse to look it in the face, either glossing it over or simply living on in spite of it, but we cannot escape its monstrous abnormality or accommodate ourselves to it.
Excellent stuff. I take from this considerable license to allow Barth to interact with contemporary fiction both in qualified affirmation and Christocentric critique. Check out the blog conference when it comes out, and hopefully my article will capture this at least to some degree! If not, at least the conference has plenty of other good stuff going for it. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing Barth in conversation with Hauerwas, Milbank and Zizek, and even youth ministry!