Monday, November 29, 2010

Everyone's A Theologian, part III

We hear lots of talk these days about whether religion is a bad thing. I am sympathetic to some of the points here, but think it a drastically over-simplified view of 'religion' and also a naive failure to see the inherent 'beliefs' that underlie atheism. More about that another time. My point here, once again, is that everyone is a theologian. In other words, there is a god that is either being believed or rejected, and it stands to reason that in either case the source for surmising who or what that god is ought to be up for consideration at every point. This goes for professing theologians as well as for anti-theogians.

Barth's focus in the following excerpt is the professing theologian. But in the end we see that the challenge comes back on the philosopher also. (And frankly, we have plenty of philosophers within the faith as well. Everyone's a philosopher too). Anyway, Barth says it better than I:
"The recognition of divine attributes cannot be taken to mean that for us God is subsumed under general notions, under the loftiest ideas of our knowledge of creaturely reality, and that He participates in its perfections. It is not that we recognise and acknowledge the infinity, justice, wisdom, etc. of God because we already know from other sources what all this means and we apply it to God in an eminent sense, thus fashioning for ourselves an image of God after the pattern of our image of the world, i.e., in the last analysis after our own image....

[Y]et it remains true that we are invited and authorised by His revelation to name Him with these words of ours in the confidence that in this way we are moving in the sphere of truth and not of falsehood so long as we are always willing to allow Him to be Himself the interpreter of these human words which He has placed upon our lips.

If this is the case, the question of understanding His being in detail, the question of the derivation and distribution of His attributes—however inappropriate such ideas may seem to be at first sight—cannot really be meaningless and void. If we are not to renounce altogether the task of saying who and in what mode God is ... we will not try to evade this very task, however strange it may appear....

The humility of our knowledge of God does not consist in the laziness of the servant who took his pound and buried it (Mt. 25:18), but in the fact that, invited and authorised by revelation to do so, we give God the honour which belongs to Him, to the very best—no less—of our ability, i.e., of the ability which He Himself gives us. But this being the case, we not merely may but must ask in human words and concepts what God is and is not, and in what way He is what He is, and therefore in some sense what are the upper and lower aspects, the right and the left, the contours of His being....

If we refuse to ask these questions, we must consider whether we are not secretly of the opinion that it is preferable to renounce the attempt to know God, or to abandon ourselves in this matter to our own arbitrary opinion or to chance. We must consider how we can accept responsibility for either the one or the other in view of the fact of divine revelation, which takes from us the pretext of our incapacity, and in face of which we have therefore no excuse if—especially in view of the many attempts in this sphere already undertaken in the history of theology—we should wish to prefer laziness to industry or confusion to order."
In the case of the professing theologian, the question continues to come back to the simple yet utterly profound test of 1 John 4: Is Jesus God? If one believes this to be so, one then repeatedly puts one's thoughts about God to the test by submitting them to the God that is revealed by Jesus Christ. (Thus the reason why theology continues to be important church practice in every generation.)

In the case of the anti-theist or the religious philosopher, the question is whether one's notion of what god would or would not be or do is good enough to reject outright the possibility that Jesus is God. If one does not believe Jesus is God, what reasons does one have? Is it not the case that Jesus is considered not-god because one has elevated something else as the standard for discerning god (as a reality or as a possibility)? On what basis this elevation?

(excerpt from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 333-336, emphasis mine)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Barth on 'Church Growth' (acc to Bender)

"Numerical growth certainly will mark the community, Barth maintains, but this growth is secondary and dependent upon its spiritual growth. The expansive and numerical growth of the community is growth on the horizontal plane that is dependent upon its prior spiritual growth, and thus growth on the vertical plane. This inner invisible growth and maturity of the community is the basis by which the other exists. To consider numerical increase for its own sake would be an abstraction, a consideration of visible growth apart from the invisible power that makes it possible. Worse, a church’s numerical growth could display not the true strength of the community, but may rather point to its weakness ....

While real spiritual growth will manifest itself in numerical growth, it is not simply a means toward this end: 'We cannot, therefore strive for vertical renewal merely to produce greater horizontal extension and a wider audience. At some point and in some way, where it is really engaged in vertical renewal, it will always experience the arising of new Christians and therefore an increase in its constituency, but perhaps at a very different point and in a very different manner and compass from that expected.... It can be fulfilled only for its own sake, and then—unplanned and unarranged—it will bear its own fruits'"

(From Kimlyn Bender, Karl Barth's Christological Ecclesiology, 180-181, quoting Barth's Church Dogmatics IV/2, 648. Emphasis all mine.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

We Are No Longer Citizens, We Are Consumers

Growing up amidst the 80s evangelical sub-culture of end-times fear and speculation may have made me overly suspicious of the environmental alarmists of the past decade.

But this did get to me. I think this Vancouver professor is drawing some very interesting, compelling stuff to our attention.



Putting the rhetoric of alarm to the side for a moment, I think creation care and sustainable, ecologically friendly local living need to be importants topic of conversation and change for Christians living in the post-industrialized world, not first because of ecological alarm bells (although those are not to be ignored), but because of our beliefs about creation, the Creator, and neighbourliness. Even if the planet were not in trouble, the amount of 'taking' going on by largely consumer societies, coupled by the 'offloading' onto less-consumerist societies, is troubling.

As this video indicates, personal life-changes won't 'save the planet' (I can't stand commercials for 'green' this and 'eco-friendly' that which suggest they will). It is governments and corporations that have to be made to change. But until some catastrophe hits home (where the consumers live) such change will be impossible if citizens and consumers don't have it in them to ask for it, let alone to make the sacrifices such lifestyle change involves.

Whatever one takes away from this video, I think perhaps the most poignant observation is that we are no longer citizens, we are consumers. I think we need to start thinking more about the fact that we vote for the country and the world we want to live in, not every four years, but every time we pull out our wallet.

Your thoughts?

HT: Byron Smith

Friday, November 19, 2010

Five Links for Five Years

It seems I let the blog's fifth anniversary come and go without the necessary narcissistic fanfare. So I'm making it up to my blog with a makeover (it was about time) and a throw-over to some link-worthy posts on other blogs to which I have recently begun paying attention.



- Kyle Strobel flags a commonly used term that is often more harmful than helpful to a discussion


- Richard Beck looks at 1 Peter 3 with a view to context, with provocative and insightful results


- James Smith tells us why George Barna's recent study is worthy neither to be called 'research', nor 'helpful'. Yes, I have a problem with Barna, ever since Revolution.

Faith and Theology: On Joy: Twelve Theses

- A fitting and beautiful follow up to the previously linked theses on smiling and sadness. If that one was a must read, I don't know what to call this.

Flowers in these Weeds: Jesse and Matty are turning 2!

- And last but the opposite of least, Angie Coutts' new blog gives the lowdown on something a tad more important to me than my blog's fifth: our twin's second! What a couple years it has been and what a couple of characters these guys are!


Thanks for reading and thinking along with me for any or all of these past five years. It has been good to converse across distance, especially under the belief that we are, all of us, reconciled to God in Christ.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

von Balthasar on Barth and the Church

Reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's assessment of Karl Barth's theology this week has been fruitful for my understanding of diverse Catholic and Protestant perceptions of the one Church.

Barth and von Balthasar are agreed that "the content of revelation can never be cut off from the act of revealing, that is, from the God who freely and sovereignly chooses to reveal himself." However, as von Balthasar notes, for Barth the Protestant church is best poised to keep central the fact that "grace ‘remains grace’, so that man ‘has not the least control over it.'’’ In Barth's view the Catholic Church "becomes a self-governing Church," thus robbing the "great prerogative of God." The response from von Balthasar is telling:

"Only a fool would deny that each one of [Barth's] accusations could be on target. The Church would not be a church composed of . . . sinners and tax-collectors, if this itch to ‘lay hands on God’ (which indeed is just another term for sin) did not occur in her each and every day."

Indeed, this is an itch that is scratched in Protestant evangelical circles as often as in Catholic ones. The difference may only be in the diversity of ways it is itched and the multiplicity of persons doing the scratching. (Garrett East signals a manifestation of this here.)

As a Protestant, I find von Balthasar's defense of Catholicism on this point quite illuminating, even if I desire a more thoroughgoing ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (church reformed and always reforming):

"Sinners we are, insofar as we abuse the grace of God as it has been revealed to us in its forms shaped to the world. But being formed to the world is never in itself guilty of sin. . . . . [The] institution is God’s trusting selfsurrender to the world in second potency. . . . Does the Church—knowing as she does that she has been founded by Christ—not have the right to regard herself as true? Can she relativize herself without abrogating her obedience to her Lord? And where would such a self-relativization ever come to an end? The ‘absoluteness’ that the Catholic Church must claim for herself really represents her obedience . . . . For every member of the Church, even for the infallible Pope, the essence of the Church is the promise of salvation and not its ‘guarantee’. . . . Christianity is no abstract affair. It is God’s own cause in Jesus Christ, who is the most concrete of all. . . .

So Karl Barth is absolutely right that the problem of analogy in theology must finally be a problem of Christology. . . . [But] Such a doctrine of the Church [as Barth’s] forgets that the Church is not only the Body of Christ but also his Bride. That is, she is both in reality and in parable a ‘self-substituting’ relational Other. Of course this otherness is scarcely a ‘sovereign’ freedom from Christ. On the contrary, analogous to the relation of creation to the Creator but far transcending it, the Church’s relational otherness to Christ is a freedom of dependence (this is why she is also the Body of Christ). But it really is a freedom, a freedom in which she truly and officially represents Christ."

I do not agree with von Balthasar that there is an official representative standing granted to and thus possessed by a certain structure of human community. But I take his point that the same questions that Protestants ask of the Catholic institution can be asked, perhaps even more scathingly, of individuals and church movements that "lay hands on God" in some other manner (again, see here). I can appreciate the truth of von Balthasar's frank confession, especially considering the increasingly to-each-his-own mood of modern times:

"Who among us has not been tempted even once to jump out of his own skin? (A Protestant is a Catholic who has leaped out of his own skin.) But we then recall that it is now high time we jump out of our own skin and not out of the Church."

(Quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992, pp. 48-55, 107, 54)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Zizek, Tolerance & the 'Decaffeinated Other'

In a television interview on Friday Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek addressed the question of tolerance. I found his answer insightful:

"I think tolerance is one of those notions that I call 'notions of disorientation' -- of course it points toward a true problem; of course, the way we use this term in the West, it also mystifies things. For example, I made the simple test: When Martin Luther King, half a century ago, was fighting against racism -- for the rights of the blacks -- he practically never used the term 'tolerance.' We use it today. Why? Because we live in what I call a post-political society: The main problems we have are perceived as cultural problems and so on, and so everything becomes a matter of tolerance.

[But] if you look closely at it, tolerance is a very suspicious notion. It means, yes, 'let's tolerate each other,' but it also means, 'don't harass me,' which means 'remain at a proper distance from me.' If you scratch the surface you will also discover that the 'other' that more liberal multi-culturalists are ready to tolerate are (what I ironically refer to as) the 'decaffeinated other.'

You know, we have products deprived of their poisonous substance; decaf coffee, beer without alcohol, fat-free chocolate and so on -- and it seems to me that people also want 'decaffeinated other'; this mythic, holistic 'good other' and so on and so on. So tolerance is for me a very confused, disorienting term. I don't like it so much. I don't want tolerance, I want military spirit; struggle -- but for a good cause.... The only way to light is courageously confronting darkness."

To my mind it is the nature of that confrontation that is a key question, but I certainly agree that a bland and confused notion of 'tolerance' is not strong enough to sustain a society that can deal equitably and compassionately with today's problems.

(Interview by Riz Khan on Aljazeera, 12 Nov 2010, quoting from 8:35)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Honouring Veterans with a War on War

Every year at this time I think about war and remembrance, about my grandparents and WWII, about those who gave of their lives to put themselves in harm's way, about those who died so doing, and about those who survived but were never the same. I tremble at the thought of being put in their situation and I am thankful for them. The holocaust is enough of a stain on our past, I can't imagine if it hadn't been opposed.

That said, this time of year I am also conflicted, because I also want to remember that war is the evil result of our failings as a human society. As my past musings on this topic indicate, I am undecided of a position regarding war. Clearly, however, the base Christian posture is opposition to violence that takes the form of a preference to die before killing another.

Obviously, the conditions of war are complicated. I am open to the possibility that war of some kind is sometimes a necessary evil, but it is full of evils even then. From all accounts even the purest of soldiers, the most self-giving of martyrs, spends the rest of their lives wrestling with this ugly reality. This may sound like an unappreciative or even a condemning sentiment toward those in the military. Far from. I think in every generation we all share this complicity in one way or another and have to face these facts as well. And so in the case of the wars fought in the past I think we can remember, and honour, and be thankful for, our country's veterans precisely by remembering along with them the horrors they faced, and by working for a just peace whatever way we can.

But when it comes to describing the ideal nature of that work, Revelation 5 comes to mind as the appropriate metaphor. When the martyrs and saints and angels gather around the throne in the Kingdom of heaven they hear of a lion and see a lamb that was slain by and for the sins of others.

There are different kinds of martyrdom, of course, but the kind commended to us by Christ is in line with "considering others before ourselves," and I think it means trying to take the cost upon ourselves before it should come upon another. I can't be sure what they meant when they wrote it, but I'm thinking of this Wilco song today: "Its a war on war" and for this war to be won "you have to lose, you have to learn how to die." We still have a lot to learn from those who have done just that, but who would have hoped their war was the last. We honour them best by working for just peace; a preemptive war on war.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Faith and Theology On Smiling and Sadness

I don't spend many posts simply linking to other posts, since the blogroll usually directs interested onlookers where they might want to go. But I highly recommend reading Faith and Theology: On smiling and sadness: twelve theses. An excerpt of theses 2-4 is followed by my own posted comment below.
2. In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative....

3. The motif of late-capitalist society is the stylisation of happiness, the cultivation of lifestyles from which every trace of sadness has been expunged... Our cultural obsession with health, happiness, and positive thinking is a secularisation of the evangelical church service.

4. The cultural triumph of the smile leaves behind a trail of casualties. Where evangelical churches theologise happiness and ritualise the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracised....

Pretty provocative and onto something with which many of you will know I resonate. Head on over there and read it in its entirety and let me know what you think. Here is the comment that I left:

"This is a fantastic piece with its finger on an important truth, pointing quite piercingly in a number of appropriate directions.

When I was interviewed for ordination I expressed my passion for theology and the church with a certain melancholy seriousness and one of the interviewers accused me of not really seeming very passionate at all. I did not go into the etymology of 'passion', but kind of wish I would have.

Anyway, thanks for this. Despite my deep resonance with it, however, I do agree with some of the above recollections of joy. I am reminded of Chesterton's adage that today's priest, as the bearer of news that is good, might be needed not so much to remind the world that it is on the road to death but that it is not dead yet. But joy and 'happiness' are not the same thing."

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Sins of Memory and Forgiveness

In his 2001 book How the Mind Forgets and Remembers Harvard professor Daniel L. Schacter draws upon neuroscientific and psychological analysis to describe the malfunctions of memory and point out how they can be both detrimental and advantageous. He categorizes them and names them quite cleverly the 'seven sins of memory':
  1. Transience: The first of three 'sins of omission', transience 'refers to a weakening or loss of memory over time.'
  2. Absent-mindedness: Less a fading and more of a misplacement of information, absent-mindedness is 'a breakdown at the interface between attention and memory' which quite simply is too distracted to file something away properly at the key moment. Even when all the attention is focussed on remembering later, the lack of attention when it was needed has left the memory irretrievable.
  3. Blocking: This is a problem of access to old, even well-worn information. You can't put the name to the face, even though you could yesterday, because something is blocking it; temporarily getting in the way.
  4. Misattribution: The first of four 'sins of commission', misattribution is remembering, but remembering incorrectly, particularly as it has to do with recalling the source of the information or the venue or date of the event.
  5. Suggestibility: A more twisted form of this, suggestibility, is when current information given about the past leads one to the immediate or eventual conflation of the learning of the information with the event itself. One thinks it happened just the way it was later said to have happened.
  6. Bias: This is when we 'edit or entirely rewrite previous experiences -- unknowingly or unconsciously -- in light of what we now know or believe.' The biased memory, even if it is in some sense truer, will say more about what we feel now than it does then.
  7. Persistence: These are the memories a person just cannot get rid of, no matter how hard they try. Persistence describes 'remembering what we cannot forget.'
Interestingly, although Schacter calls these 'transgressions', he resists a merely negative account of their function in human life. As he puts it: 'Rather than portraying them as inherent weaknesses or flaws in system design, I suggest that they provide a window on the adaptive strengths of memory. The seven sins allow us to appreciate why memory works as well as it does most of the time, and why it evolved the design that it has.'

The easiest positive function to illustrate is that of the 'memory sin' of persistence. Like Gandalf said in The Lord of the Rings: "The burned hand teaches best." Remembering trauma helps avoid it next time around and aids in seeking reparation. In this light we can see some advantage to bias as well. Innocent generalizations simply help us negotiate life. The stereotype of crocodiles reminds us to keep a safe distance. Even remembering ourselves better than we ought to remember ourselves can serve a positive function, causing us to actually live up to our slightly egocentric optimism, says Schacter.

Transience, though annoying, can also be positive. One does not need to remember where one put one's keys the time before last. One needs to remember this time. Blocking is positive for a similar reason. Looking for keys in this house one benefits from not recalling every house. Absent-mindedness is normally a positive function as well. Remembering everything the senses take in at every moment is an overwhelming prospect. We focus because we are finite: As Schacter says, 'less is sometimes more.'

Misattribution and suggestibility can have positive functions as well, even though they can be fairly problematic. Altering recall can actually be corrective. In other words, one might have remembered it wrong the first time! Later 'rewriting' can actually be re-righting. Or perhaps an event can be re-remembered according to a new interpretation of events. This might be false, naive, and pie-in-the-sky, or it could be healthy and true. How often does an over-reaction benefit from another perspective, so that the suggestibility or misattribution maturely places an event in context of its larger narrative?

Schacter proposes, therefore, that these memory 'sins' are evolutionary adaptations of one kind or another (e.g., 'exaptations' -- developed human skills like reading, or 'spandrels' -- flexible utilizations like using the space under the stairs as a closet) which ought to be considered for their positive possibilities as well as their negative ones. Which leads me to my question:

What is forgiveness if it is not one of the above?

A secular humanist might suggest that human forgiveness is a conscious appropriation of one of the above memory sins for some greater good. A Christian might believe forgiveness something more: A gift to humanity from heaven; a force for new creation and not a human capacity either evolved or designed. In either case, a number of things seem worth thinking about:
  • What makes a memory 'transgression' positive or negative?
  • Which of the above is most like forgiveness?
  • When Christians preach interpersonal forgiveness, are they talking about what Christ introduced into the world and commanded his followers to do or are they merely 'baptizing' a therapeutic memory strategy of some kind? What would be wrong with that?
  • Are any of the above creaturely capacities utilized in the redemptive gift of Christian forgiveness?
[Daniel Schacter, How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 1-6,187,190-1,194,195-6]

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Grace to say "Our Father"

I gave the first in a series of children's talks at our church on Sunday in which we will be trying to memorize and understand the Lord's Prayer. It went something like this:

I put on the wall the first line of the prayer, with the opening address omitted, and asked: "So who is in heaven?" I was holding a felt pen in my hand, and was interrupted by my near-two-year-old, who wanted said pen. I gave it to him, because I had another. But my other near-two-year-old wanted that one. So I gave it to him. I would have to borrow it back when I had the answer to my question.

"Who is in heaven?" I repeated. Now, as I'm sure you know, sometimes you can hardly contain the children and sometimes you can hardly get a word out of them. Sometimes I think that, like adults, they are less likely to answer out loud the more obvious the answer seems.

In this case they did not answer. Blank stares. Look up at the congregated adults. Blank stares.

Okay, I committed the classic blunder of the teacher: A dumb question.

Or was it? For some reason I rolled with the silence, and said something that I doubt I would have thought to say if I hadn't spent the last year reading Barth:

"Actually you are right, in a way. We don't know! We don't know who is in heaven unless Jesus tells us. Has anyone been to heaven and back? How would we know who was in heaven, or even that there is a heaven, unless someone from heaven came to us? That's what we believe Jesus is: The Son of God come to earth to tell us who is in heaven. His Father, God Almighty, is in heaven, and He and the Father are One, and God has come to us and has given us permission to speak with Him. So already in the Lord's Prayer we have a miracle. The Son of God comes to us and invites and enables us to say together: 'Our Father, who is in heaven...'"

We went on to talk about "Hallowed be thy name", and I tried to segue from the "fright" of Halloween to the "reverent awe and wonder" of "hallowing" the name God gives us to speak to Him by -- but I can't be too sure how much they were following me. I am glad, however, that I didn't skip over this first line. I imagine they'll have to keep hearing stuff like this to have it sink in, but it seems to me that this is exactly the kind of teaching about God that Christian children need to hear. My kids recently told me that they used to think they prayed before meals in order for the food to cool down.