Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"

This post belongs to an ongoing series engaging David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, as part of an online reading group for the year 2011. For more information, read the introductory posts here and here.

Previous posts: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"; Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"

Section of text: Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"

Pages: 46-79

Summary: This chapter is somewhat of a summary run-through of Trinitarian tradition construed both historically and theologically. Kelsey's stated "aim in this project is to think through the agenda of theological anthropology in a way shaped from beginning to end by the triunity of the God with whom we have to do" (p. 46). Kelsey takes God's triunity for granted, rather than defending it explicitly. His theocentric approach demands that an answer be given to the question about what sort of God it is who relates to all that is not God.

He proceeds in five movements, much of which I need not recount in detail here. The first two consist of explaining the way in which the biblical materials call forth a triadic conception of God's actions (pp. 47-48), and of the historical account of the crises and challenges, especially between Arius and Athanasius, that issued in explicitly Trinitarian articulations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as each to be counted on the "God" side of the Creator/creature ontological line -- all of which centering on the relation of God to the saving story of Jesus (pp. 48-58).

The third movement is an exploration of the creedal formulations climaxing in and extending from Nicaea and Constantinople (pp. 59-66). Regarding this monumental statement on the part of the church, Kelsey says that "the bishops were not merely summarizing Scripture's stories of God's ways of relating to reality other than God," but more, "they were making decisions about how best to construe those stories insofar as they render the identity of God . . . giving broad hermeneutical guidance about how best to interpret Scripture" (p. 61).

The creed has three functions within the life of the church. The first is existential: in naming God as Trinity, Christians "have publicly committed themselves, with others, to a way of understanding to God with whom they believe all humankind to do"; and in so doing, "Christians have shaped, as well as expressed, their personal identities" (p. 62). The second role of the creed is rhetorical, that is, "shaping the rhetoric appropriate God's ways of relating to us" (pp. 62-63). Finally, the creed's third role is methodological: on the one hand, no anthropological proposal or understanding "may contradict or conceptually undercut the implications of God's relating to [humans] as [our] Creator, and vice versa"; on the other hand, though such proposals "will inescapably be indirectly christocentric epistemically, they need not derive their material content from Christology" (p. 64).

Finally, the fourth and fifth moves Kelsey makes with regard to Trinitarian theology is to shift from economic to immanent Trinity, and then to return to implications for the triune God's relation to all else. Kelsey grants the force of the equivalence and simultaneity of the economic and immanent conceptions of the Trinity, but not only does he believe the distinction to be valid, it is necessary lest "the priority of the immanent Trinity in the order of grace [be] denied and the graciousness of the economic Trinity [be] in question" (p. 68).

From here he goes on to a discussion of the Cappadocian innovations in defining ousia and hypostasis and of the nature of the eternal interpersonal life of love, of community-in-communion, that is the triune God -- and this suggesting what human flourishing might look like by analogy (p. 72).

Kelsey's concluding comments consider the issue of "mystery" in relation both to God and to humanity. Two summarizing statements will help conclude our own summary: "In this project, unless otherwise stipulated, 'mystery' will be used in the singular to refer to God's incomprehensibility to human cognitive capacities, to refer to revelation insofar as it is God's faithful communication of Godself precisely as incomprehensible, and in an analogical sense to characterize human beings as related-to by God" (p. 75). And: "The interdependence of its glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, I suggest, constitutes God's life as a 'mystery' " (p. 77). The anthropological implications of these matters, specifically of God's character and of God's triunity, will be dealt with explicitly in Chapter 3A (p. 79).

Reflection: Unfortunately, I am heading out of town for a couple days and have little time to offer substantive reflection. I'll share questions below to provoke conversation, but I'm depending on others to sustain the response in the comments. See you there.

Quote: "In this project, use of 'mystery' will seek to conform to Foster's distinction between 'mystery' on one side, and 'problems' and 'puzzles' on the other. In particular, the use of 'mystery' herein seeks to hold together as least clear features of the community-in-communion that is God's life and help make it incomprehensible to us (although presumably not to God!). First, as reciprocal self-giving out of fullness, not out of need, it is immeasurably rich life, inexhaustible in its resources. That, we may say, is the glory of God's life. Second, in its inexhaustible richness, it cannot be comprehended cognitively. We may apprehend it, but we cannot hope to comprehend it, to get our minds around it. It is impossible exhaustively to map it conceptually or to catch it all up in a net of theory. That, we may say, is the incomprehensibility of God's life. Third, if we think of God's life as God's self-relating, then we must say that in all of these reciprocal relations God is at once radically freely self-determining, so that God's self-giving in love is independent of and never exacted by the creaturely beloved other; and in self-giving God is true to Godself, never compromising divine love. That, we may say, is the holiness of God's life. The interdependence of its glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, I suggest, constitutes God's life as a 'mystery.'

"By just this life humans are engaged when the triune God relates to them. Therein lay its anthropological implications, for it defines human flourishing. By such engagement humans are called to analogous life which is their flourishing. Their flourishing lay in a community in communion analogous to that of the triune God, marked by mystery -- that is, by analogous glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, analogous to that of the triune God. Such life can only be analogous to the triune God's eternal life because humans are on the creaturely side of the creature/Creator ontological distinction." (pp. 77-78)

Questions: Does it matter for Christian anthropology that God is triune? Why or why not? Is it important or valid to distinguish between the economic and the immanent Trinity? What is lost or gained thereby? Are the conclusions reached at Nicaea and Constantinople binding on Christians today? What if their philosophical or anthropological or metaphysical working assumptions were misguided or wrong? What of the process that led to the creed's formulation -- how does the politics of its coming-to-be affect our reading of its authority or truth? What do you make of Kelsey's insistence that the incarnation does not necessarily reveal anything to us about human being? Put differently, do you agree with his claim that Christian anthropological proposals "need not derive their material content from Christology" (p. 64)? What were your thoughts on his highly nuanced discussion of "mystery," and how does that topic seem to relate to questions of anthropology?

Next week: Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Projects This Isn't," pages 80-119

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reflections on a Chief Challenge for Christian Seminaries and Schools of Theology

It seems to me that there are two primary questions to ask concerning theological students: Are they heading toward ministry or toward academics? And do they have a committed life outside of school, or is school the focus of their life at present?

The latter questions concerns a kind of gradated spectrum from single 22-year olds straight out of college, to married mid-20s folks, to students married with children, to those for whom graduate school is a means to a second (or third) career. Furthermore, any of these may be working part- or full-time (or more than full-time, unfortunately).

Thus we are left with something like four identifiable groups:
  1. School-is-life academics
  2. School-is-life pastors
  3. Life-outside-school academics
  4. Life-outside-school pastors
Seen in this order and identified in this way, it quickly becomes clear how great the challenge is for faculty and staff to formulate an educational strategy that will teach, shape, form, and train each of these types of students -- and everyone in between -- in a way that is in equal parts academically challenging, theologically appropriate, pastorally minded, and practically aimed.

The simplest way to see the problem is to compare the first and the last categories with each other. For example, I happen to fit the first category perfectly: I entered seminary as a 22-year old, with a four-year degree in Bible, knowing that I was headed for doctoral work, and while I was/am married, not only did/do we not have children, my wife's full time income has meant that I only had/have to work part-time -- and that 10-15 hours a week at the theology library on campus.

Now take an example of the fourth category: a man in his mid-40s with a spouse and three teenage children, with a background/degree in a discipline other than religion, preparing to go into ministry, and in fact already working full-time at his church (in a provisional situation, pending his ordination).

How could a professor possibly craft a syllabus and pedagogical plan for a class with only us two students in his class, much less others? I am able to read hundreds of pages a week, digest them, reflect on them, blog about them, enjoy them, compare them with all of my past and present extracurricular theological reading. In my fellow student's case, he has a single aim: to get to the end with a passing grade (and so to the end of the degree). If he learns something valuable (read: practicable), even better. Otherwise, he has a family to take care of, a job to attend to, needy parishioners to be mindful of, worship to lead on the weekends, and this with little to no prior theological education (much less contemporary reading on the side "just for fun").

Whatever various faults and misguided decisions mark the current state of graduate theological education in America -- and there are many -- this single challenge, taken on its own, is enough to complicate matters to a nearly insoluble degree. Keeping it in mind does good work in softening cynicism for institutional choices that prove so annoyingly common, as well as in tempering impatience with fellow students who just do not seem to be keeping up.

In other words, a bit of institutional grace to remember every now and then.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"

This post belongs to an ongoing series engaging David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, as part of an online reading group for the year 2011. For more information, read the introductory posts here and here.

Last week's post: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"

Section of text: Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"

Pages: 12-45

Summary: This chapter is, as promised, lengthy, extensive in detail, and relentlessly precise, constructed as one long answer to its titular question, with Kelsey offering at the outset his explicit methodological commitments. To begin, Kelsey names his task as one of "ecclesial theology," a churchly practice whose subject is always "God, and all else as related to by God and as related to God" (p. 14). Churches -- "communities of Christian faith" -- are defined as "a community of response" whose "communal identity ... is formed" from the outside, by God through Scripture and collective practices, and this God is known particularly or especially by reference to Jesus Christ (pp. 14-15).

Kelsey is keen to emphasize the priority of communal practices over against notions of conceptuality, subjectivity, or interiority divorced from socially embedded context and temporal formation. Such practices are inherently and inalterably public, sharing "a single end: to respond appropriately to the distinctive ways in which God relates to all that is not God" (p. 18), some of which are oriented solely to God, some to God and to one another, and some to God as well as to nonhuman creatures (pp 18-19).

"Primary theology" for Kelsey identifies the ordinary ad hoc gospeled thinking internal to the life of ecclesial communities over time, caught up within and indistinguishable from their regular communal practices (pp. 19-20). "Secondary theology," the category to which E.E. belongs, is the second-order discourse at some remove from the constitutive practices of churches, and therefore a practice in and of itself that seeks continually to identify, analyze, confirm, and/or revise beliefs and practices of the community in a self-critical and consistent way (pp. 20-22). Thus: "The overall end or purpose of this project is to commend proposals to ecclesial communities about how best to formulate their claims about what and who human beings are and how they ought to be existentially set into and oriented toward their lived worlds" (p. 22).

The standards of excellence which Kelsey offers for his project are fourfold (and here I quote since we will likely return to these for confirmation of whether Kelsey succeeds by his own standards): proposals about God "must comport with the person of Jesus"; "proposals about the ways in which God relates to all that is not God must comport with Holy Scripture's accounts"; "theological proposals on any topic must either be shown to comport with relevant theological formulations in the communities' theological traditions or be shown to be preferable to them"; and proposals must "provide analyses of the relevant features of the current culture of the ecclesial community's host society that show in what ways and why the former are inadequate in that cultural context" (p. 24). As the latter point suggests, the traditions that constitute communities of Christian faith are unavoidably complex, extremely diverse, and profoundly fallible (pp. 25-26).

The rest of the chapter is devoted to what Kelsey calls "desiderata for a secondary theology anthropology" (p. 27), a significant interaction with the broad premodern strands of agreement in anthropological matters in a process of affirming reception and critical revision. Kelsey is concerned with one primary guiding question, "What is the logic of the beliefs that inform the practices composing the common life of communities of Christian faith?" rather than with "coming to belief" or "the life of Christian believing" (p. 27).

Kelsey identifies four loci of theological anthropological focus in premodern theology, all of which "had in common that their internal logic was theocentric," a value Kelsey heartily and insistently affirms as central to his own project (p. 29). The first locus is "creation" (pp. 29-31), whose positive influence necessitates stressing "that human creatures are bodily public agents," while avoiding the tendency to "rely on invidious comparison and contrast either with other, allegedly lesser creatures, or between human creatures' 'physical' and 'mental' capacities" (not to mention between various hierarchies within human social ordering; p. 31).

The second locus is "salvation" or "redemption" (pp. 31-35), which yields four guiding lessons: that anthropological proposals be truly personal, relate to modern conceptions of psychology, do not imply or suggest that human beings earn their salvation, and "do not logically depend on the historicity of Adam, Eve, and the fall" (p. 35).

The third locus is "eschatological consummation" (pp. 35-39). The basic (less specific) challenge here is to articulate proposals that fit both "modern scientific interpretations of human being" and "canonical Christian Holy Scripture's narratives of God drawing all else, including human creatures, to eschatological consummation" (p. 38). This ambiguity is a result of the ambiguous nature of the eschaton itself, both as event in relation to human/cosmic history and as mysterious End prophesied and poetically performed and richly envisioned but never a-culturally specified (as if it could be) in the biblical texts.

The fourth and last locus is "revelation," which seems not to be its own area of discussion but rather one that relates uniquely to the prior three (p. 39). The fruit of this area is thus less its own than simply a reverting back to the problems and promises of the other three loci.

Finally, Kelsey characterizes E.E. as an exercise in "faith seeking understanding," with his own particular definitions of those terms that emphasize what he is seeking to avoid: any and all interiorization or objectification (p. 42), individualization or de-personalization (p. 43), abstractly enforced cultural/religious uniformity or incommensurable diversity (p. 44) of human being, as well as the mirroring temptations of either de-historicizing or unduly systematizing Christian faith (p. 44). The chapter concludes, appropriately, by calling the work "a project in systematically unsystematic secondary theology" (p. 45).

Reflection: It took a while to find a rhythm with Kelsey's (assumedly intentional) hyper-specific and monotonously repetitive style -- at times I wished he'd go David Foster Wallace on us and just start abbreviating his much-repeated, multiple-lines-long detailed phrases into manageable acronyms. Once I got a grip on it, however, I found the chapter intriguing and helpful as a set-up to the work as a whole.

Kelsey wants to do exactly what he outlined in the first chapter: suggest anthropological proposals for churches that stand in appreciable but critical relation to the tradition and that "make sense" with contemporary scientific and cultural knowledge and assumptions. This chapter is the "how" to that "what." As a reader, I am perhaps most excited about three areas he is sure to address: humanity's relation to the nonhuman creation; how fallenness and sin "fit" in a cosmic and earthly history understood in the light of evolutionary biology; and how biblical language and concepts like "soul" and "spirit" might be construed theologically (if at all) with assumed modern scientific approval.

Quote: "Tradition-as-action is inherent in each of the practices that make up the common life of communities of Christian faith. As responses to the good news -- that is, the gospel -- of the ways in which God relates to all that is not God, ecclesial practices explicitly or implicitly hand over that good news in two ways: by celebrating ways in which God concretely relates to all else and by holding themselves accountable to the concrete ways in which God relates as the standards of the appropriateness of practices as a response.

"Consequently, tradition as action shares the ambiguity and fallibility of the practices that constitute the community's common life. It can go wrong. The Greek word stem for "hand over," as it is used in the New Testament, can mean both the faithful handing over of the good news of the way God relates to estranged humankind to reconcile them in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection appearances of Jesus, and the treacherous handing over by Judas of Jesus to the authorities for his arrest, trial, and crucifixion." (p. 25)

Questions: Do you agree with Kelsey's anthropological emphasis on "theocentricity"? What do you make of Kelsey's understanding and appraisal of modern cultural forms of knowledge? How are we to understand sin and fallenness without a historical Adam and Eve or discrete "fall" event? How are Christians to use language of "soul" or "spirit" if modern scientific or cultural understanding disallows belief in any such "substance"? Is Christian faith inherently anthropocentric over against the nonhuman creation, and why or why not? What else in Kelsey's methodological proposals or desideratum stimulated theologically, brought forth a delighted "Aha!" or perhaps proved disagreeably wrong-headed?

Next week: Chapter 2A: "The One With Whom We Have To Do," pages 46-79

Drew McWeeny Takes on/down Kevin Smith and Red State

Your regularly scheduled E.E. post will be coming momentarily; until then, check out Drew McWeeny's take on (and take-down of) Kevin Smith's Sundance premiere event and supposed auctioning of his new film Red State.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry (XI)

This is the eleventh time I have called forth poetry from one Wendell Berry for a Sunday Sabbath post. There is little else to say to introduce him; feel free to peruse other posts involving him.

The poems below are taken, respectively, from his collections A Part (1980) and The Country of Marriage (1973). I offer them here for their beauty and for their thematic similarities, but also because I am presently working my way through to the completion of all of Berry's poetry, and wanted to share poems that thus happen to be new to me also.

- - - - - - -

A Warning to My Reader

By Wendell Berry

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

- - - - - - -


By Wendell Berry

Don't think of it.
Vanity is absence.
Be here. Here
is the root and stem
on whose life
your life depends.

Be here
like the water
of the hill
that fills each
opening it
comes to, to leave
with a sound
that is a part
of local speech.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Modern Theology Devotes Its Latest Issue to Eccentric Existence

Todd Walatka over at memoria dei has a post up discussing the latest issue of Modern Theology, which is a symposium on David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence. I wanted to alert fellow-readers in the E.E. reading group in case anyone is interested in checking it out; I know I'll be sure to tomorrow.

(Side note: Though I can't find information about the issue online, when I visited with Paul Jones at UVA last November, he mentioned that he was in the midst of writing an extensive, perhaps long-form, review of E.E. Does anyone know if Jones' piece is included in this issue of MT?)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Hearing a Sermon With Nary a Reference to God, Jesus, Church, or Kingdom, But Which Instead Evaluated the State of Race Relations in America

Stanley Hauerwas castigates liberalism with the reminder that the subject of Christian ethics is not America, but the church. In this way, mainline Protestant thinking is simply an inverse mirror of conservative evangelicalism, for both assume that the point, the real business, the actually important stuff is found most of all in that shining city on a hill, the United States of America and its political swirl, rather than in irrelevant parochial opinions or in dogmatic but powerless personal convictions.

The critique applies no less to preaching: The subject of Christian proclamation is neither the church nor America, but the triune God. A sermon which did not make God its subject could scarcely be called "Christian" in any meaningful sense of the term.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"

This post belongs to an ongoing series engaging David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, as part of an online reading group for the year 2011. For more information, read the introductory posts here and here.

Section of text: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"

Pages: 1-11

Summary: Kelsey intentionally weaves two different projected aims into this single work, one for broad constructive suggestions for more general theological digestion ("A" chapters), and one for more detailed, fine-tuned arguments with the technical literature ("B" chapters). The former are generally shorter and in normal size print, while the latter are much longer and in smaller print. Thus, given that this opening salvo is an "A" chapter and that it is the introductory chapter explaining the project's overriding questions and interests, this summary will be able to follow the thread of thought much more closely than what will often be the case.

Effectively, Kelsey proposes three primary anthropological questions: What are we? How ought we to be? and Who am I and who are we? (pp. 1-2). The one asking belongs to the particular tradition of Christian faith and theology (pp. 2-3; Kelsey himself being "a North American white male Presbyterian" [p. 6]). Communities of the Christian tradition have always resided amongst and alongside other communities and traditions as well, and these include and/or influence both proximate and ultimate contexts of life, the former being "the physical and social worlds in which we live" and the latter the "most fundamental and decisive regarding what, who, and how we are" (p. 4). From a Christian perspective, God relates to humanity trinitarianly: as creator, as eschatos, and as reconciler (my terms, not Kelsey's). The entire project is an attempt to discover, given Christian theology's slim (that is, inconsistent and varied) anthropological history, whether there really is anything ineradicably central to a Christian articulation of the human.

Kelsey's thesis is "that the claims about human being that are nonnegotiable for Christian faith are claims about how God relates to human beings," which are fittingly threefold: that God creates human beings, "draw[s] them to eschatological consummation," and "reconcile[s] them when they are alienated from God" (p. 8). The chief question called forth for a Christian anthropology is what implications follow from these claims.

Finally, Kelsey states that he assumes, effectively (though with greater conceptual clarity than here stated), that there exist identifiable Christian communities in the world, that their ordering normative text is the Bible, and that they have (and employ) a capacity for self-criticism (pp. 9-10). In light of these basic assumptions, Eccentric Existence might be construed "as a set of remarks regarding three types of anthropological questions ... that are made as enactments of the communal practice of secondary theology," which "is enacted when the adequacy or appropriateness of the received conceptualizations and formulations themselves come into question" (p. 10). Kelsey hypothesizes "that there are now a lot of reasons to reexamine the adequacy of received theological anthropological formulations used in current primary theology" (p. 10).

The author hopes that by the end, the work will "hold together as a systematically unsystematic whole in which [the three parts] are related to one another in a triple helix as facets of the way in which human beings are imagers of the image of God, Jesus Christ" (p. 11).

Reflection: Little to say here; it sounds good to me. I'm a bit curious about Kelsey's felt need to defend his anthropology being Christian -- it might be required by the field, or by his surroundings, or it may be something more personal for which he feels compelled to answer. I thought it a bit odd, however, given the nature of the work. The questions and the thesis seem to me, however, to be wonderful overriding questions with which to be wrestling for the next year; and I am especially happy to see the explicitly Trinitarian approach at the outset.

Quote: "Simply put, a bridge requires two abutments, and I was clearer about the content of the abutment consisting of the anthropological wisdom of certain atheological conversation partners than I was about the content of the abutment consisting of specifically Christian anthropological wisdom. The historical evidence seemed to be that Christians in every age have largely appropriated the best anthropological wisdom of their host culture. .... My question became, 'Does Christian faith bring with it any convictions about human being that are so rock bottom for it that they are, so to speak, nonnegotiable in intellectual exchange with anthropologies shaped by other traditions?' " (p. 7)

Questions: Is understanding God in a Trinitarian way equivalent to recognizing God as creator, redeemer, and reconciler? What authorial or theological influences do we already find in Kelsey from the beginning? What received wisdom do we assume Kelsey is going to find wanting? What anthropological claims has the Christian tradition generally carried over and held close to the heart from one time and place to the next? What else stands out about this first chapter, and/or the structure of the work as a whole?

Next week: Chapter 1B, pages 12-45

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Marie Howe (II)

I have shared a poem from Marie Howe before, from the same collection entitled For the Living, and no less than that one is the following a crushing meditation on loss, sorrow, suffering, and the presence/absence of God. The entire series of poems in the book is an enormously open and brutal and courageous journey through death and separation and reunion and hope. I trust the poem below will speak to you as much as it does to me.

- - - - - - -


By Marie Howe

Someone or something is leaning close to me now
trying to tell me the one true story of my life:

one note,
low as a bass drum, beaten over and over:

It's beginning summer,
and the man I love has forgotten my smell

the cries I made when he touched me, and my laughter
when he picked me up

and carried me, still laughing, and laid me down,
among the scattered daffodils on the dining room table.

And Jane is dead,
and I want to go where she went,
where my brother went,

and whoever it is that whispered to me

when I was a child in my father's bed is come back now:
and I can't stop hearing:
This is the way it is,
the way it always was and will be --

beaten over and over -- panicking on street corners,
or crouched in the back of taxicabs,

afraid I'll cry out in jammed traffic, and no one will know me or
know where to bring me.

There is, I almost remember,
another story:

It runs alongside this one like a brook inside a train.
The sparrows know it; the grass rises with it.

The wind moves through the highest tree branches without
seeming to hurt them.

Tell me.
Who was I when I used to call your name?

Friday, January 14, 2011

What Do Christians Mean When They Speak of Being Blessed by God?

"Blessing" is a complicated word. Its use in the Bible is panoramic and pluriform; there is no one "biblical definition" of blessing (much less of anything else). Moreover, none of the terms diffused throughout Scripture can have a simple one-to-one ratio of definition and interpretation, for all is relativized and redefined in the apocalypse of Christ's cross and empty tomb. What once was meant by "blessing" in old Israel must be submitted to the interruption of the old age by the new, and this reevaluation must first of all be linguistic.

What then might we be able to say about "blessing" in light of the death and resurrection of Israel's Messiah and of the pouring out of his Spirit as a sign of the impending new creation? Well, apart from positive statements, we can certainly rule out certain things. For example, if perfect faithfulness leads to a life of rejection, ridicule, suffering, and capital execution; and if followers of the Faithful One are called to the same way of life; and if the celebrated exemplars of discipleship have themselves time and again been given over to similar torment, torture, dearth, and death -- it seems that we have no logical connection between living faithfully before God and a surplus (or even an apparently ordinary amount) of material or visible goods. We might even be tempted to posit a negative relationship, such that, faithfulness being rewarded with trials and terrors and attacks, a lack thereof could indicate an equivalent lack of faithfulness. But we needn't make that connection, only note the negative boundary.

So: are human beings blessed by God when they live faithfully before him? In the light of the disfigured body on the cross and in the face of centuries of obedient martyrs -- not to mention killing fields and gas chambers and secret mass graves filled to the brim (in frightening consistency) with terrified children and ravaged mothers and brutalized fathers -- our first answer must be a decisive "no," given the cultural overtones of what "blessing" is generally meant to denote. One may be utterly innocent or impossibly faithful and still -- and likely -- be summoned swiftly and painfully to great loss or to unjust death; and this is the way of the world, every day. To imagine that things are otherwise -- to suggest with a straight face that not swearing or lying, or voting right, or tithing right, or not cheating on your spouse, or not cheating on your taxes, or going to church, or being generous, or whatever other bourgeois feel-good return-on-investment religious promise on offer, will result in material or visible "blessing" in this life -- has everything to do with an extraordinarily minute and historically exceptional social location, and nothing whatsoever to do with reality.

In reality, newborns die daily from malnutrition and faithful women die from AIDS contracted from their unfaithful husbands and untold uneducated unthought of hundreds of thousands collapse in exhaustion for want of water and bread. In the same reality, fantastically wealthy men and women live lives of extravagant pomposity, flagrant greed, unaccountable sin, and unheard of luxury, and their stocks keep rising, and their houses stay clean, and their pantries remain stocked.

Christian faith is incorrigibly foolish in this world precisely because it seems so self-evident, on the face of things, that no just God would ever allow such an inordinately unjust set of circumstances to exist, much less to endure with such raging obstinance. Christian faith is in spite of, not as a result of observation of the world's workings. Christian faith says to this overwhelming and treacherous world that Nevertheless, God reigns, and that the new world given glimpse in Jesus -- he the friend of the impoverished, the impaired, the imperfect -- will at last be the only world, will at last remake this same world, is even now sketching light into dark corners of despair.

Is Christian faith blessed in this world? To be sure: blessed by the hand of the God of Jesus, blessed to be courageous before evil and forthright before falsehood and peaceable before violence, blessed to be faithful when all else proves faithless and all the evidence demands unbelief. But blessed in this world according to the ways of this world?

Absolutely not.

And may God forgive us, with food on our plates and clothes on our backs and roofs over our heads, when we believe the lie that this all must somehow be in accordance with the religious rectitude of our lives. "This all" is free, and whatever more comes is free, too. As followers of Christ, we do not believe because we have; we believe in spite of the fact that most do not have. And we continue to believe because the Object of our faith calls us to give what we do have to the have-nots -- without any expectation of return, from them or from God -- and against every other explanation to trust and envision and work toward a world when not-having will have passed away, belonging to the old order of things. It is there, and only there, that we will come to know what true blessing means.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Introduction and Reading Plan

The time has come: today we begin reading David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. If you would like more information, see my earlier post; essentially, a small group of us, connected by friendship or online acquaintance, are taking the bulk of the year to read through this enormous and important work in order to think through and reflect on it together, in time set apart sufficient to the task. We've got about 15 folks at this point, and anyone is welcome to join at any time.

To cut to the chase, here is the breakdown of the book by sections and page amount:
  • Introduction - 156 pages
  • Part One - 280 pages
  • Part Two - 162 pages
  • Part Three - 285 pages
  • Codas - 160 pages
The breaks between each section are as follows:
  • Chapter 1A begins the Introduction
  • Chapter 4A begins Part One
  • Chapter 12A begins Part Two
  • Chapter 18 begins Part Three
  • Chapter 25 is the last chapter before the Codas
This is how I've broken up the reading for the year, beginning today, Monday, January 10:
  • January - 1A, 1B, 2A (80 pages)
  • February - 2B, 3A, 3B, 4A (95 pages)
  • March - 4B, 5A, 5B, 6 (105 pages)
  • April - 7, 8, 9A, 9B (120 pages)
  • May - 10, 11, 12A, 12B, 13 (100 pages)
  • June - 14, 15A, 15B, 16, 17 (100 pages)
  • July - 18, 19A, 19B (90 pages)
  • August - 20A, 20B, 21A, 21B, 22 (100 pages)
  • September - 23, 24, 25 (95 pages)
  • October/November - Coda A, Coda B, Coda (160 pages)
If you're like me and want to know how it breaks down by the week, here you go for the spring semester (dates are the week ending on that day, that is, the reading should be completed by the date specified):
  • Jan 17 - 1A
  • Jan 24 - 1B
  • Jan 31 - 2A
  • Feb 7 - 2B
  • Feb 14 - 3A
  • Feb 21 - 3B
  • Feb 28 - 4A
  • Mar 7 - 4B
  • Mar 14 - 5A
  • Mar 21 - 5B
  • Mar 28 - 6
  • Apr 4 - 7
  • Apr 11 - 8
  • Apr 18 - 9A
  • Apr 25 - 9B
I'm sure it was already pretty clear, but I figured I'd go ahead and do the work instead of each person calculating it out.

The plan itself will be simple: every Monday, I will post on the section completed the prior week with a brief summary, reflections, and questions for further conversation. I will of course begin the posting myself, but anyone is welcome to do them. Leave a comment or email me, claim a week, and I'll send you the basic (repeat: basic) template I'm following.

Also, I am open to the possibility that posting/reflecting on a weekly basis might be too often, so we might cut it back to twice a month to expand the content digested together.

Apart from that, it's off to the races. A final welcome and thanks to everyone participating, and hopefully this will be prove beneficial and stimulating to all involved. Until next week.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Spring 2011 Course Load

Just as I did for the fall semester, I thought I'd share what classes I'm taking this spring -- my final semester in the MDiv program -- and what books I will be reading, and therefore what I will be thinking about for the next few months, and so probably what I will be writing about and exploring here on the blog.

Introduction to Public Worship (James Abbington)

I'm currently in the midst of this eight day course, and we have read the first three books already. Smith's book, which I had begun in December before I learned it was assigned for this course, isn't due to be read until April, but I am eager to finish it. (I assume the title of the course is self-explanatory.)
  • Foundations of Christian Worship, by Susan J. White
  • The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources, by John Witvliet
  • Encounters With the Holy: A Conversational Model for Worship Planning, by Barbara Day Miller
  • Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, by James K. A. Smith
Theological Proposals for Criminal Punishment Reform (Steffen Lösel)

This course is the capstone for MDiv students with a concentration in Theology & Ethics. It is a theological engagement of societal punishment, prison reform, and the death penalty, particularly in the context of America and the American churches. Lösel is a German systematic theologian who studied under Moltmann, and taught a wonderful short course last January on theology in relation to art and architecture. He is also (to my great benefit) the second reader on my thesis. Out of my spring course load, I am most looking forward to this class.
  • God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation, by Timothy Gorringe
  • Good Punishment?: Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment, by James Samuel Logan
  • The Fall of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on Prison Abolition, by Lee Griffith
  • Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, by Martha Nussbaum
  • Punishment and Inequality in America, by Bruce Western
  • Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault
  • Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide between America and Europe, by James Q. Whitman
  • Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment, by Christopher Marshall
  • Political Writings, by Augustine
Morality in American Life (Steven Tipton)

I know little about this class, but the book list and the pedigree of the professor -- who, by the way, is one of those elusive alii in Bellah's standard retinue of suffixed co-authors -- are enough to assuage the sociological trepidation (and ineptitude) of this would-be theologian.
  • Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert Bellah, et al
  • The Good Society, by Robert Bellah, et al
  • Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith, by Marla Frederick
  • Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth, by Claude Fischer, et al
  • Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, by Mary Pattillo-McCoy
  • Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years, by Claude Fischer and Michael Hout
  • Family Transformed: Religion, Values, and Society in American Life, edited by Steven Tipton and John Witte, Jr.
  • The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America's Public Life, by Parker Palmer
  • Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville
The Gospel of Matthew (Luke Timothy Johnson)

Happily, my first semester with LTJ in the fall was not my last. It was a joy of a class, and his teaching lives up to the billing, so I am delighted to be able to focus on a single Gospel for 12 weeks with a living (and jolly) master of the subject.
  • The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina), by Daniel Harrington
  • Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew, by J. Andrew Overman
Thesis Research: Yoder and Jenson

It has been relatively quiet of late regarding my thesis, primarily because my research and writing peaked in late September, after which the time I was dedicating to it was snatched by the slog of PhD applications. But the actual writing begins in earnest next month, and I hope to finish the remaining books, at least by Yoder and Jenson themselves -- most of which I am about halfway through, having burnt out a bit by Thanksgiving -- by the end of January.

Yoder: He Came Preaching Peace; The War of the Lamb; Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution

Jenson: Lutheranism; The Knowledge of Things Hoped For; Visible Words; Alpha and Omega; God After God; Ezekiel

Other: Doctrine: Systematic Theology Volume 2 by James McClendon; Witness: Systematic Theology Volume 3 by James McClendon; A Grammar of Christian Faith: Volumes I and II by Joe R. Jones; The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder by Craig A. Carter; The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder edited by Stanley Hauerwas, et al

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Word on the Rhetorical Use of the Phrase "Christ-Centered"

Working in a theology library, I see hundreds of new titles come in every year, and one of the benefits of this experience is noticing new trends in topics, controversies, and language. One such is the term "Christ-centered." Of course, this is no new catchphrase; it has been a catchall descriptor beloved by preachers and writers for dozens (hundreds?) of years. However, of late it has been claimed and propagated by one particular theological and ecclesial subgroup, and repeated nearly ad nauseam in a stream of publications by certain mutually reinforcing authors influenced and shaped by the same sources. In coming across these authors and works, I have constantly undergone the same pattern: noting the title with appreciative interest; opening the book to explore the contents; and closing it disappointed, realizing I had made wrong assumptions about what the title meant to indicate.

This has happened enough to demonstrate that my understanding of what "Christ-centered" means and that of this group were at serious odds with each other. However, I wasn't able to put my finger on it until recently.

What I was continually expecting was what we might call a Yoderian Christ-centeredness: Christ the suffering servant, Christ the proclaimer of the kingdom, Christ the friend of the poor and the teacher of Torah, the speaker of truth to power and the revelation of cruciform love. (Incidentally, "cross" may at times replace "Christ" in the oft-repeated phrase, but my expectations -- and the subsequent disappointment -- are exactly the same.) I would also -- reaching here beyond Yoder -- expect Trinitarian elements of making central the Son of the Father in the power of the Spirit. In short, I plainly and self-evidently took Christ/cross-centrality to be a proper explication of the gospel, one which made the life, death, and resurrection of the crucified Messiah of Israel -- him whose life and salvation are inseparable from the call of his followers to the same path -- the ineradicable heart of Christian faith, proclamation, and theology.

What I have finally come to understand, however, is that for these authors "Christ-centered" means something far different. Instead of the subversive political figure from Nazareth, instead of the incarnation as the fullest and most complete revelation of who God is precisely in the form of dejection and solidarity with the marginalized, "Christ" seems to be shorthand for a particular salvific theory: penal substitutionary atonement. Insert "PSA" for "Christ," then, and everything falls into place. What is meant by centering on Christ or Christ's cross is in actuality an exhortation to emphasize, for example, the satisfaction of God's wrath, or the enormity of human sin, or the punishment of sin through the incomparable pain of crucifixion, or justification by faith, or Jesus' taking humanity's deserved place, or the extraordinary cost of saving the elect from hell, or the necessity of blood sacrifice, and so on.

Now, it is an open theological question whether some or all of these conceptions of salvation are helpful or correct or biblical. They may all be. The problem is that it is simply taken for granted that "Christ" is shorthand for a (not self-evident, and historically and theologically contested) nexus of interpretation of the atoning significance of the cross. Moreover, not only is this extremely complex synecdoche taken for granted -- perhaps somewhat innocently -- it is accordingly not even noted! To be centered theologically, homiletically, doctrinally, and otherwise on Christ or the cross just is exactly equivalent to reading, filtering, and communicating the message of the New Testament as penal substitutionary atonement. In this way, subtly but to great effect, preaching or teaching that is not PSA-centered must therefore also not be Christ-centered. Thus adherents to this perspective as well as unassuming readers are formed rhetorically to equate central emphasis on the person and work of Christ with a single (disputed) interpretation thereof.

I realize that this is not new news. Every catchphrase, all popular language comes loaded with baggage and unspoken prior interpretive decisions. But it at least proves helpful to me: Whenever I see the phrase now, I remember not to impose my own presumptions upon it, but instead to superimpose "PSA-centered" over it, and to keep on moving. I find I am less often disappointed.