R is for Revelation and the book of Revelation

Revelation is a topic sure to bring raised blood-pressure and raised voices! This is true no matter which ‘revelation’ you mean.

R-Revelation

  • ‘Revelation’ to theologians and philosophers is a meta-category addressing the manner and result of this concept.
  • ‘Revelation’ to most conservative-evangelical-charismatic believers will refer to the last book in the New Testament.

Both are deadly serious in their respective arenas.

Let’s deal with the concept first and then with the Biblical book.

Revelation: Refers both to the process by which God discloses the divine nature and the mystery of the divine will and purpose to human beings, and to the corpus of truth disclosed. Some theologians maintain that revelation consists of both God’s activity in *salvation history through word and deed, culminating in Jesus (who mediates and fulfills God’s self-revelation) and the ongoing activity of God to move people to yield to, accept and personally appropriate that reality.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1139-1143). Kindle Edition.

 Revelation is often further parsed out into two categories:

  • General revelation concerned with what can be known (and ascertained) through nature and history.
  • Special revelation is used to designate that which can be known through particular (special) people and events. This is often related particularly to ‘salvation’. [more on that tomorrow]

Those who are suspicious of General revelation say that it can be misleading to try to decipher things about a perfect God from a fallen world.
Those who are suspicious of Special revelation say that it wreaks of fideism – only those who already believe, have read the Bible and been empowered by Holy Spirit can truly understand.

There are many insightful schools of thought that address the concept of ‘revelation’. For many in the evangelical camp, they look to the thought of Karl Barth as the final word on the subject. [If you are interested in such things, please consider signing up for the upcoming 6-week online intensive with Tripp Fuller. Barth is week one.]

_________

Growing up, when someone said ‘revelation’ they meant the Book of Revelation – as in the apocalyptic letter that closes out the New Testament.
I love the book of Revelation. I study it all the time. I am inspired by it and challenged by it and am constantly referring to imagery within it.
The only thing I dislike is what most people do with the book of Revelation.

  1. It is not a book about the end of the world.
  2. It is not a book about the 21st century.
  3. It is not a book that should terrify or intimidate us.

The early audience for that book would have taken great consolation and comfort from it. The sad thing is that we should be writing things like the book Revelation for our time – but don’t because we think that John’s letter is about our time!

The book of Revelation is written in a literary form called apocalyptic. It is part of a genre called literature of the oppressed. When you lived in an occupied territory under an oppressive regime, you write in code. You use imagery. You use allegory and analogy.
The book of Revelation is political critique and prophetic hope about those first couple of centuries of the church! It was meant to give hope and raise expectation for those early believers.

We should study the forms and harness the same prophetic imagination that the author of Revelation had and use it for our time. Unfortunately, we have had a failure of imagination because we have been taught to think that Revelation is about our time …

I could literally give you 1,000 examples of how the imagery in the book of Revelation is genius and time appropriate to the first two centuries. I have spent countless hours studying the subject. [as I talked about at the end of this week's TNT]

My one prayer is that God reveals to those who are most sincere that the inspiration and imagery that we see in the book of Revelation would be replicated (and surpassed) in our generation for our generation.

God knows we need it.

 Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

If you want to dig deeper I suggest commentary on Revelation by Ronald Farmer in the Chalice series

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O is for Open & Relational

One of the most vibrant developments in Christian theology has happened in the past 50 years. The conversation is diverse and includes everyone from Process friendly Mainliners to Vatican II Catholics, from Emergent types to progressive Evangelicals – and plenty of others.O-OpenRelational

These diverse perspectives come under a canopy called “Open and Relational Theologies”. The name itself is instructive and helpful in this case. Here is the easiest way to think about the name:

  • Open addresses the nature of the future.
  • Relational addresses the nature of power.

The Open crew often hale from more evangelical camps who question the common held belief (in their circles) that the future is determined. Questions of human free will, God’s intervention and nature of certainty when interpreting things like biblical prophecy, salvation, and world history.
The Relational crew is more concerned with assumptions of God’s character and power and thus question common held beliefs about things like omnipotence and intervention. This camp looks at world history and says, ‘We know how God’s activity has been framed and thought of in the past but is that really how the world works?’ Challenges to the other famous ‘O’ words are seriously undertaken: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.

Both groups have many positive assertions even though they often grow out of a negative critique of established or institutional assumption regarding God’s character and work in the world.

There is much overlap between the two schools and thus they often work together and can be grouped at partners.
There are, however, three significant differences:

  1. Open thinkers often come from an evangelical background and thus are heavily Bible focused. They question the nature of the future and of God’s power but are unwilling to come all the way over to Process thoughts or to convert to a different metaphysic.
  2. Relational folks may be more likely to engage liberal brands of biblical scholarship and to shed antiquated our outdated notions by integrating scientific discoveries and new models (and better explanations) of reality.
  3. Open thinkers also hold that God could be coercive and interventionist, but willing holds back (or relinquished this) in love and for human free-will. Relational thinkers may be more willing to go all the way and say ‘no – this is just not the nature of God or God’s character. It is not that God could if God wanted to … it is simply not the way that things work.’

I came to O&R through Emergence thought. Emergent explanations of science and society make far more sense than former top-down and authoritarian (coercive) models of God and the world.
Emergence thought focus on the inter-related nature of existence and how higher forms of organization emerged from simpler and smaller  elements (or entities) within the organization or eco-system.

Many of the models we have inherited from church history are either based in hierarchy (like King-Caesar thought) or are mechanical (from the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment on). Those mechanistic explanations of God’s power and God’s work become problematic and seem entirely outdated (and unprovable) in a world come of age.

Open & Relational schools of thought provide a much better model of reality (nature) and human experience than antiquated explanations based in the 3-tiered Universe and ancient metaphysics.

Here is a bullet point list of themes from a previous post by Tripp Fuller:

  • God’s primary characteristic is love.
  • Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
  • Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
  • God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
  • Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
  • God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
  • God created all nondivine things.
  • God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
  • Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
  • The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
  • God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
  • Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

You can listen to HBC episode 107 with Thomas J. Oord for more.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

 

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N is for Neoplatonism

In the same way that Empire influences and underlies nearly every thing in the Bible – and yet many do not know about it – Aristotelian thought, Platonism, and neo-Platonism saturate early church history and thus the inherited tradition.N-NeoPlatonism I had also suggested (in Liberation & Logos) that all theology has philosophical underpinnings – whether it admits it or not. It is no surprise then that much of the what would become Christianity had integrated/appropriated the philosophy of the world that it emerged from.

Neo-Platonism: The last stage of Greek philosophy (identified with Plotinus), which greatly influenced certain early church thinkers, particularly *Origen and *Augustine. Neo-Platonists taught that everything emanates (flows) from the transcendent principle of the One and is destined to return to the One through a process of purification.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 921-922). Kindle Edition.

Justo L. González. has some helpful additions:

In these emanations, the One moves toward multiplicity. Evil as such does not exist, but is rather the deprivation of the good, so that something is said to be “bad” or “corrupted” as it moves toward multiplicity and away from the One. True knowledge is attained through the contemplation of higher realities, and specifically of the One, and its goal is to culminate in *ecstasy, where the soul contemplates the One directly and loses itself into the One.

It is interesting to think about how influential these philosophies have been and to discover when they have most popular. Neoplatonism was initially rejected by christians.

Augustine (354-430) found Neoplatonism helpful in dealing with some of the difficulties he had with Christian doctrines such as the incorporeity of God and the *soul, and in dealing with the problem of how evil can exist in a world created by a good God (sec *Theodicy). He thus became one of the main channels through which Neoplatonism impacted Western Christian theology.

 Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 2887-2896). Kindle Edition.

Neoplatonism was tweaked a bit (losing its objectionable elements) and was the dominant thought in Western Christianity until the 13th century when Aristotle was reintroduced – mainly through the work of Thomas Aquinas into what become known as Thomism.

I wanted to put this entry into the ABCs series because we live in a time when many are unaware of their religion’s philosophical past relationships. I will often hear concern from sincere and devout evangelical,charismatic or conservative believers who say “why do you mess around with all of that philosophical mumbo-jumbo? We already have the Bible and it should be enough. Just preach the Word.” It isn’t that easy of course. As I pointed about the Gospel of John with its use of the Logos, both scripture and church history draw deeply on philosophical underpinnings. I would actually argue that we owe it to out faith and to the contemporary culture to engage (not just combat) the contemporary philosophy of our day! If you want to follow-up on this historic precedent and trajectory, I would recommend Philosophy and Theology by John D. Caputo. It is thin and written for a wide audience. His writing style is also wonderfully light-hearted.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

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L is for Liberation (and Logos)

Two concepts that anybody doing theology in the 21st century must know are Liberation and Logos. They play into so much of what we do in the theological endeavor.L-Liberation

Liberation Theology: This term most often refers to a theological movement developed in the late 1960s in Latin America (where it continues to hold prominence). In attempting to unite theology and sociopolitical concerns, liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez emphasize the scriptural theme of liberation, understood as the overcoming of poverty and oppression. Liberation theologies have also found expression among representatives of seemingly marginalized groups in North American society, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 797-800). Kindle Edition.

It might be helpful to understand how I came to liberation theologies. I was writing my Master’s Thesis at an evangelical seminary on ‘Contextual Theology’. I was doing so because I had been raised and ordained in a Missionary denomination. I wanted to encourage and advance the work of those who claimed the ‘missional’ and/or ‘missions’ moniker.
It was in the midst of engagement with Bevans and Schreiter that I stumbled upon a form of contextual theology (an alternative perspective) that stood apart from the enlightenment/colonial models. It was called ‘Liberation’ and it was unlike any of the other models being examined.

Gonzalez adds a couple of important clarifications:

Some liberation theologies center their attention on international economic oppression, while others are particularly concerned with classism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and other foci. Besides acknowledging and claiming their contextuality, … liberation theologies insist on the need to promote and practice justice and love, not only at the personal level, but also in societal practices and structures.

Justo L. González. Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 2442-2446). Kindle Edition.

The only thing that I will add as far a Logos theology goes is that one must account for they way in which the word (logos) became flesh. ?This is the case, not just because John 1 is so important in protestant-conservative-evangelical-charismatic circles, but because one must figure out in what way God was present in Christ.

There is much to be said on this issue not just because the Incarnation sets the tone for contextual (liberation) models of ministry but because the entire christian gospel is based on (centered on) the reality that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt (camped-tabernacled) among us.

In more philosophical circles, Logos theology takes on a much broader concern. As early as the 6th century B.C.E. Greek philosophers were addressing the Logos as “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.”
The Gospel of John borrows/appropriates/adopts this term to address the pre-existence of Christ and how that manifested in the person of Jesus. It is important to understand that the gospel writer integrated/adapted Greek philosophy. This move is significant for several reasons:

  1. Proclamations about Jesus were not made in a vacuum.
  2. Some early church writers drew from Hebrew narratives and themes.
  3. Others spliced in philosophical ideas and concepts from non-Jewish sources.
  4. Both in scripture and in church history we see a constant and elaborate mixing/integrating of external philosophies and concepts.

I bring this up because a major objection to Liberation theology is its use/appropriation of secular political theories (like Marxism) and critics will use this to discredit Liberation thought. We need to be careful with that kind of easy dismissal. ?Liberation theology does have its drawbacks and limitations* – but simply having philosophical partnership is not one of them. In fact, there has never been a theological or ‘biblical’ expression that did not have philosophical underpinnings or explicit frameworks.
Theology does not happen in a vacuum. All theology is contextual theology. This is not a problem. The only problem is when certain theologies don’t recognize their contextual nature with time and place and purport to being both universal and timeless.

Liberation theology is not for everyone and it does not happen everywhere. While true that it is thoroughly political and radically ideological at points, it is also highly contextual and local – as all theology should be.

 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

 

* some object to Liberation’s emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed. 

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H is for Hermeneutics

You may know that I hail from an evangelical-charismatic background.  What you may not know is that I am continually challenged in conversations about the need to interpret our experiences and texts.H-Hermeneutics

We don’t just have experiences – like we don’t just read (and believe) the Bible – we interpret. We do it as second nature because to be human – and thus social – is to be thoroughly saturated in language and symbols. We speak, and indeed think, in language. It permeates every thing we do and are. It is part of what being human means.

Our pocket dictionary defines hermeneutics as:

Hermeneutics: The discipline that studies the principles and theories of how texts ought to be interpreted, particularly sacred texts such as the Scriptures. Hermeneutics also concerns itself with understanding the unique roles and relationships between the author, the text and the original or subsequent readers.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 638-640). Kindle Edition.
Hermeneutics is a massive and complex field. Since this an ABC’s series, there are two things that you need to know :

  1. The word has been in use since the 17th century even though the idea is an ancient one that can be traced all the way back to the Greek philosophers.
  2. Everything changed in past 90 years. With the publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time in 1927, philosophy (and then subsequently the human sciences) took a hermeneutical turn.

One of Heidegger’s most famous students was Hans-Georg Gadamer. His 1975 book about the world of interpretation called Truth and Method expanded what is called the hermeneutical circle.
The five elements are characterized as:

  • pre-understanding
  • the experience of being brought up short
  • dialogical interplay
  • fusion of horizons
  • application.

I could not possibly do this topic justice in a single blog post – If you want more info there are links at the bottom of the page. ?

I just wanted to share an example of how the hermeneutical circle is employed in my field of Practical Theology. I tend toward utilizing the work of Paul Ricoeur and his ‘second naivety’ myself, but the example I want share is from Richard Osmer who utilizes Gadamer as his framework.

These elements allow Osmer to transition into analyzing the role of the congregational leader along these lines.

  1. He first examines the idea of guiding the congregation as a community of interpretation.
  2. Secondly, he addresses the need to guide interpretation evoked by the experience of being brought up short.
  3. Lastly, guiding the dialogue between theology and other fields of knowledge. Leadership of this kind is defined as “the exercise of influence.”

This influence engages in different forms of communication and is a collaborative effort. These three elements factor in significantly for the spirituality required to carry out the leadership that Osmer envisions.

  • The Descriptive–Empirical Task is called Priestley Listening and finds great importance in the power of presence.

The author illustrates the spirituality of presence by addressing several levels of what is called attending which is then integrated into concepts introduced earlier such as the congregation as a community of interpretation.

  • The second task is the Interpretive Task called Sagely Wisdom.

The interpretive task draws off of thoughtfulness, theory, and wise judgment. Osmer appeals to Israel’s wisdom tradition and to Jesus being the hidden wisdom of God revealed.

  • The third task is the Normative Task, which is called Prophetic Discernment.

The author utilizes a familiar pattern in this chapter similar to the previous two. Weaving together narrative, theory, and scriptural illustration.

  • The final task is the Pragmatic Task, classified as Servant Leadership.

Osmer identifies the three forms of leadership as task competence, transactional leadership, and transforming leadership.
The motif of “deep change” is introduced through the writing of Robert Quinn and is woven together with Old Testament imagery in order to illustrate the type of leadership that is required in this task. Quinn’s Four-stage model of organizational change (called the transformational cycle) involves: Initiation, Uncertainty, Transformation, and Routinization.

You will find that in almost all hermeneutical addresses, there is a common two common themes:

  1. They form a cycle, a circle or a spiral – signifying an ongoing (continual) process.
  2. The second stage or step is one of negativity, negation or something negative (like Uncertainty). This is important because it is only after was pass through the unknowing that we come to see-know-engage-understand-assimilate-fuse in a new way.

In conclusion:
We all interpret. We think, experience and speak through this lens.
The past century has seen a hermeneutical turn in almost every area related to human behavior, belief and social understanding.

For Further Reading:

A nice article on Heidegger and Gadamer

A massive and heady article on Hermeneutics from the Stanford Dictionary

A quick article on Paul Ricoeur and the Second Naïveté

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TNT: D E & F (the ABC’s of Theology)

Callid has been at the lake all week – and thus off the inter webs. He returns to a phone call from Bo to get his thoughts on the next 3 letters in the ABC’s series. D-Deconstruction

Today we talk through D, E, and F.

You can read the initial posts here:

D is for Deconstruction

E is from Empire 

F is for Fideism 

 

You can also catch episode 1 from earlier this week (ABC) 

 

We want to thank Jesse Turri for providing the art for each letter!  You can listen to the Unfolded podcast that Jesse and Matt run.

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TNT: Missions, Matthew, Jesus being nice & Stryper

Tripp and Bo field phone calls from the SpeakPipe about Missions (Russia), the gospel of Matthew, Jesus being at least as nice as God and a theology of Stryper. TNT

We love your calls and thoughts on the SpeakPipe !!!

Tell us what you want to talk about.

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Propitiation or Expiation: Michael Hardin Explains

A question was posed to me on twitter about propitiation in connection with last month’s pre-Easter posts (and good Friday). I got permission from Michael Hardin to use a large amount of text from his book A Jesus Driven Life.  You can also listen to my interview with Hardin for more. 

Here is Hardin (formatted for a blog):

Observe three critical areas where the early fathers missed important aspects of the non-sacrificial hermeneutic witnessed to in the Hebrew Bible and exploited in the New Testament.

  • First, most of the early Christian leadership failed to understand the critique of propitiatory sacrifices in the Hebrew prophets.

That is, they missed the insight that there was a development away from all sacrifice, and that God neither wanted nor desired sacrifices (Psalm 40; Jer. 7; Amos 5; Psalm 51, etc).

Had they perceived this they would not have laid the framework for the later church to speak of God in almost schizophrenic terms.  In what appears to become a tortured discussion in later Christian theology, the work of the Son somehow appeases the wrath and hatred of the father who loves (sic) humanity.  God’s anger and mercy battle like mythological Titans.  And this battle is still reflected in contemporary doctrines of the atonement.

  • Second, many early Christian interpreters missed the significance of the founding murder in Genesis 4.

Only in I Clement and a century later in Irenaeus are Cain and Abel even mentioned.  The crucial role of imitation in Genesis that issues in violence and sacrifice and the unmasking of the victim in Genesis 4 is muted when Augustine interprets Genesis 3 through his neo-Platonist glasses and blames humanity’s fall on sexual desire.  The other significant person to pick up on this some 1500 years later also, namely Sigmund Freud, like Augustine, missed the founding murder.  Sexual desire, like before, became the culprit.

  • Finally, I would contend that early Christian thinkers tended to miss the selective use of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament; a hermeneutic approach I believe can be traced back to Jesus’ exegesis of the Hebrew Bible.

There is no wholesale appropriation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament.  In short, the church’s indulgence in dualistic categories set up conflict in all of its subsequent theological discussion.

The disastrous dualism that plagued early Christian controversies continues to do so to the present day.

Colin Gunton claims that what the doctrine of impassability (that God the Father cannot suffer) was to the church fathers, post-Kantian dualism is to modern theology (the split between what you know and what is really there).  God is ‘beyond’ and there is no bridge between there and here; hence, there can be no suffering God. Indeed the patripassionist debate of the second and third centuries (could God suffer, did the Father also suffer or just the Son?) is, according to Jaroslav Pelikan, the same issue that faced Marcion and the Gnostics, viz., “the crucifixion and death of the one who was called God.”

It is no mistake that the very crisis of bringing together the two Testaments, and the two different understandings of God, was also the time when the church turned to the Platonic notion of the unchanging God.

Either God changes or God doesn’t change.  Or we have got God wrong.  And this last is tough to admit.

So tough in fact as to be unthinkable for those who were transforming Christianity from a persecuted movement into an institution of power.

The point of exploring this issue is to note that the troublesome problem of the violence of God in the Hebrew Bible played a key role in how the early church understood God.  While it is true that the ethics they taught were nonviolent (as we saw in The Didache and the Gospel of Matthew), they could not see what Jesus also taught was the theology of a nonviolent God.

Their Platonism blinded them.  (1)

 

On Romans 3

  “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion], through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”  

There are several key questions we must resolve in order to interpret this text.

  • The first concerns the translation of hilasterion, which the NIV translates as “a sacrifice of atonement.”

The KJV translates this term as “propitiation” while the RSV uses “expiation.”

To propitiate a god is to make a sacrifice to appease wrath, anger or a curse.  We are already familiar with this as the sacrificial principle.

On the other hand, to expiate sin is to remove it; it looks to the object causing sin rather than God as the object to be appeased.

There has been quite a bit of ink spilled over which translation best captures hilasterion.  Those who reject an angry divinity prefer expiation while those like neo-Reformed thinkers John Piper and Thomas Schreiner believe that God’s wrath needs to be assuaged and justice satisfied prefer propitiation.   cross-150x150

The way out of this dilemma is to follow the logic of Paul’s subversion of the sacrificial process.  Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out that,   “The major new element is that Paul inverts the traditional understanding of sacrifice so that God is the offerer, not the receiver, and the scapegoat goes into the sacred precinct rather than out of it.  Christ is a divine offering to humankind, not a human offering to God.   In the normal order of sacrifice, humans give and the god receives; here the god gives and humans receive. The usual explanation of this passage is that human sin deserved divine punishment, but in mercy God substituted a propitiatory offering to bear the divine wrath instead of humanity. We must insist on the fact that the recipients are human, otherwise we fall into the absurdity of God’s giving a propitiatory gift to God.

  • The second point to note is that not only the order of giver and receiver is reversed but also the spatial order.

Normally the offerer goes from profane to sacred space to make the offering; here the offerer comes out of sacred space into profane, publically to set forth (proetheto) the propitiation (hilasterion) there.  These inversions of the normal order of sacrifice mean that it is not God who needs to be propitiated, but humanity, and not in the recesses of the Sacred, but in the full light of day.”

The point of this is that if one insists on translating hilasterion as propitiation then one must also take into consideration the subversion of the sacrificial principle.  There is therefore, in this passage no justification for arguing that God’s wrath must be propitiated.  We humans are the ones who need to be appeased.

Whether we translate hilasterion as ‘propitiation’ or ‘expiation’, in neither case do we need speak of God’s wrath being appeased, it is not in the text itself, it can only come from prior assumptions regarding sacrifice in general. (2)

____________

1: Hardin, Michael (2013-09-26). The Jesus Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity With Jesus, 2nd Edition Revised and Expanded (Kindle Locations 3641-3683). JDL Press. Kindle Edition.

2: Locations 6240-6278.

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Neither Barth Nor Schleiermacher: Modern Theology’s Opportunity (3/3)

Christian theology has an opportunity moving into the future. In part 1 I outlined modern Christianity’s problem. I could say more about Christendom, Colonialism and Consumerism (the 3 C’s of modern Christianity) and will later this week.

In part 2 I looked at modern Christianity’s temptation to concede, attack or retreat: concede to the private/personal realm, attack in the public realm or retreat into silos of privileged speech in the religious realm.

In order to understand how deep the problem really is, it might seem helpful to use modern Christianity’s binary way of thinking (as I alluded to in the title of this post). The either/or, mutually exclusive way of conceptualizing and framing issues is to tempting: conservative/liberal, literal/figurative, Catholic/Protestant, white/ethnic, male/female, gay/straight, etc.church-300x199

This is not our way forward.

When thinking about just Protestants in N. America you have to account for everyone from fundamentalist to charismatics, evangelicals to liberal mainliners, Pentecostals, Quakers and emergent types.

Ours is an age of diversity, multiplicity and plurality. Our theological approach needs to reflect that.

We are cresting into some form of late, high, hyper or post Modernity. This is evidenced in the fractured cultural arena and an unprecedented awareness of pluralism.

 

There will never be one great theologian again. The days of the great single voice are over. When Moltmann and Cobb pass, we will see the end of an era.

Now we refer to Feminist theologians, Liberationists, Process thinkers, the Yale School and Emergent voices. The closest we might get is referencing someone as Barthian or a Hauwerwasian.

This move toward the collective is significant. It pales, however, in comparison to the real shift.

 

The more significant shift is away from abstract, speculative and universalizing brands of thinking.
The future is found in:

  • concrete
  • interdisciplinary
  • qualitative analysis (observation)

These are but three of the reason that I love my discipline of Practical Theology. It is concerned not only with the ideas but with the practice of faith. It is inter-disciplinary because no one field is adequate to fully investigate or represent what is going on in an area of concern. It utilizes qualitative methods (interview, ethnography and case study) to flesh out the phenomenon under review and to represent the real and lived experience of those living faith out on the ground.

 

The models used in the past are inadequate then, they are harmful. Linell E. Cady’s chapter in Theology at the End of Modernity holds a powerful explanation of the problem and opportunity. [1]

The problem with a liberal approach’s emphasis on experience is obvious. The past century has exposed the fatal flaw of this opportunistic brand of Christianity. The ‘Christian Century’ ended somewhere between Hiroshima and 9/11. We can talk a more about this at a later time.

The answer, however, is not retreat into fideistic models that protect religious or god-talk from outside review by setting up religious speech as a privileged and incommensurable realm. I have been critical of both post-Liberal and Radical Orthodox approaches for this very reason. Neither the authoritarian modes of , say, Reformed thought nor confessional schools like these are sustainable in the 21st century.

“Moving toward this vision of theology means abandoning the systematic, ahistorical, textually driven mode of theology for one that is far more contextual in its attention to embodied religion.” [2]

Cady goes on:

“All too often theologians have pursued an ahistorical engagement with the great theologians of the past, regarding their positions as perennial Christian options rather than as strategies peculiar to a specific place and time.” [3]

 

In closing I want to make a subtle distinction. There is a deep resonance with the concerns about non-contextual, speculative, universalizing and systematizing approaches to theology. It just so happens that Practical Theology provides a different approach. Cady explains:

“(This) model of theology suggests the need for more careful attention to the historical and cultural context within which theological reflection is located. Moving in this direction would align theology closely with the history of religions … (becoming) more attentive to the analysis and evaluation of embodied religion.

The skills of the sociologist and ethnographer would begin to shape theological expertise, providing important supplements to the prevailing exegetical and philosophical orientations.” [4]

 

Our age asks us to move from abstraction, speculation and systematics to a collective and inter-disciplinary approach to lived religion. [5]

 

________________________

 

[1] It is not that I am fascinated with Gordon Kaufman – but with those who are attempting to answer the questions that he raised. I hope to address them from within a Practical Theology approach.

[2] p. 93

[3] p. 97

[4] p. 82

[5] Please read my previous post on The Body and Embodied Religion

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Modern Christianity’s Temptation (2/3)

In light of the massive shifts in culture, understanding and expectation that the last 300 years has seen, there seem to be three great temptations for the devout.

Last week we talked about the problems that Modernity brought to Christianity’s doorstep in the West. Science had moved into the driver’s seat and was none too kind to those who would not get on board.

The problem, of course, is that we are simply not left the option to go back to primitive Christianity. For Lent this year I read books about post-Nuclear theology and listened to lectures on the first twelve centuries of Church history. It has never been more apparent that the world has changed in drastic ways.

  • Christendom
  • The Scientific Age
  • Globalization

Are just 3 catalysts and results of this epic (and epoch) shift.

Tomorrow I will present what I see as the amazing opportunity. Today I want to comment on what seem to be the 3 biggest temptations for modern Christianity:

  1. to concede
  2. to attack
  3. to retreat.

 

Concede

Faith as a public matter has never been more challenging. The easiest response is to both personalize ones faith and then make it private. This is a two-step dance but either is dangerous on its own.

Personalizing faith is a natural response for an Enlightenment Individual. We major in ‘self’. We have cultivated the ability to think in ‘me’. This is a novel development in religion and some argue that it is against the very nature of religion! The purpose of religion is to bind us together in practice (re-ligio) or reconnect us as a belief-community.

The second step is to internalize ones personal faith. In liberal democracy, no one cares if you believe something – just keep it to yourself. Don’t put it on someone else. Your personal practice in there or over there is one thing … just don’t make too big of a deal about out here. Out here we have a civil expectation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If your religion helps as a means to those ends, fine. If not, it might become an issue of you infringe on someone else right. Go ahead and practice your ‘tradition’ on your own time but just keep it down when you’re out here in public.

The modern expression of Christianity has responded to this two-step dance in many little ways – my favorite of which is consumeristic-accessorization. The bumper sticker on my interal-combustion automobile and the fashionable yet ironic message T that imitates a popular ad campaign are just two examples. It allows me to allude to a Bible verse (I am not of the world after all) while participating in a capitalist system that goes unquestioned.

 

Attack

To counter the personal-and-internal compromise noted above, an aggressive and external coup has been attempted. The memory of Christendom has fueled a political response to take back power and ‘return to our roots’. The rise of the Religious Right (and Moral Majority) of the past four decades is perhaps the most high-profile example. It is, however, just the latest incarnation of this impulse.Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

The fond (and white-washed) memories of days gone by and yesteryear fuel an anger at what is seen as a disintegrating culture and a slouching toward Gomorrah. The resulting Culture Wars and political animosity have a fundamental problem however:

Ever since the Constantinian compromise in the 4th century is has been difficult (if not impossible) to get the Bible to say what one needs it to say in order to justify a claim to power.

A religion founded on the teaching of a marginalized prophet and incubated in persecuted minority communities does not lend itself to being in charge. An incredible amount of selective editing, creative hermeneutics and mental gymnastics are required to make it fit. At some point a voice like Yoder comes along and points out that ‘this is untenable’.

 

Retreat

The above two responses are both simpler and more obvious (and thus more popular) than our last response. The retreat is more subtle and sophisticated. I will return to Theology at the End of Modernity from the first post.

Those who seek to answer the questions raised by the work of Gordon Kaufman (primarily Sheila Greeve Davaney and Linell E. Cady) have deep concern about a school of thought that seeks to move the Christian tradition toward an “autonomous and protected location”.

A seductive temptation is found in an attempt to preserve former (historic) expressions of the faith behind linguistic fences (insulated language games) and communities that become isolated silos. These “are really retreats into forms of fideism or ‘protective strategies’ that seek ways of interpreting theological discourse so as to preserve its unique status.”

The Post-Liberal work of Lindbeck and the Radical Orthodoxy camp of Milbank and MacIntyre are in danger of this.[1]

Those who follow this line of reasoning:

“contend that theology is not properly about ascertaining indubitable truth claims about God or reality, nor about fathoming the depths of human subjectivity; rather, the task is to analyze and explicate the fundamental claims about reality and human life that have emerged within a specific tradition, so that believers might more fully appropriate and live out of their tradition’s vision of reality.”

It becomes a:

“self-enclosed historical community; its method is interpretive, not critical; and its goal is to aid in the internalization of central claim, not the critique or reconstruction of that which we have inherited.” p. 6

You can see the attraction of the retreat! By privileging “revelation” or the “given-ness” of the tradition, one is afforded the space to preserve and defend an inherited system which immune for outside critique and thus preserved in its ‘as is’ status.

This romantic preservation and reclamation mistakenly – and perhaps intentionally – defends and protects manifestations and consequences that we not only need to move on from but we to which we can not possible return to.

 

In part 3 we will conclude this series with a challenge to make the Christian faith “pluralistic, public, and critical”.

 

[1] “by emphasizing an ahistorical human subjectivity, (they seem) to find an autonomous sphere protected from the challenge of other forms of inquiry, then the cost of such independence was the removal of both theology and religion from the public sphere.” p.5

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