Monday, December 23, 2013

"Discerning the (Holiday) Spirits: On Prophecy in the Negative Mode Only" Published on the Tokens Blog

It's been crickets and tumbleweeds on the blog this fall, due not to inactivity but to a surplus of commitments, professional and otherwise. Unfortunately, I expect that to be the case for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the Tokens blog graciously invited me to be a regular contributor, and my first post went up on Friday: "Discerning the (Holiday) Spirits: On Prophecy in the Negative Mode only." Consider it my semiannual Christmas exercise in not being cranky, and trying to spread the non-crankiness to others.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

In Which Freud Reveals the Methodological Secret of Historical Criticism

"When I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way, draw on it for confirmation whenever it is convenient, and dismiss its evidence without scruple when it contradicts my conclusions, I know full well that I am exposing myself to severe criticism concerning my method and that I weaken the force of my proofs. But this is the only way in which to treat material whose trustworthiness—as we know for certain—was seriously damaged by the influence of distorting tendencies. Some justification will be forthcoming later, it is hoped, when we have unearthed those secret motives. Certainty is not to be gained in any case, and, moreover, we may say that all other authors have acted likewise."

—Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage Books, 1939), 30n.1

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On Being a Scholar of John Howard Yoder Without Ignoring or Omitting His Mistreatment of Women

A few weeks ago I followed a link from my friend Jimmy McCarty's blog to a post on Our Stories Untold written by Barbra Graber. Titled "What's to be done about John Howard Yoder?", Graber's piece brought home to me, with a depth and force I had not encountered before, the profound problems bound up with the ongoing scholarly reception and interpretation of Yoder's work in light of his mistreatment of women. Specifically, many of these women (along with their families and friends) continue to belong to and worship in Mennonite communities which often speak in glowing terms of Yoder and his writings. Graber isn't concerned with stamping out interest in Yoder's thought, much less with suggesting that his wrongdoing nullifies any positive contribution his work could have either in the academy or in the church. Rather, she is identifying a disturbing but rarely noted reality: namely, the profound and disorienting disjunction between the memory and modes of speech regarding Yoder on the part of theologians and those on the part of the women hurt by him.

She therefore writes, with people like me in mind:
For journalists and book reviewers: When you discuss JHY’s work, have the courage to acknowledge the controversy, at least every once in awhile. It could be the simplest of statements: “In troubling contrast to his work, we now know that John Howard Yoder’s life was seriously flawed by acts of sexual violence against women. Though he left a legacy of harm, ironically his writings continue to inspire and attract new readers.”  If this has ever happened in a JHY book review, please forward on to me.
For scholars of JHY’s works: Welcome, encourage and make efforts to include analysis of the astoundingly ironic disconnect between Yoder’s orthodoxy  (right belief) and his severe lack of orthopraxy (right action) in the discourses you initiate. Stop barring, marginalizing and shunning anyone who suggests this might be a worthy and beneficial scholarly endeavor.
This is both convicting and persuasive. John Howard Yoder will feature in a good deal of my work as an academic theologian, and I have no interest in contributing to this ongoing blind spot or rhetorical disjunction. I have already published one article in which Yoder features, and I have another article forthcoming whose final editorial version may already be set; but I do have an essay in a book coming out next year which I was revising when I read Graber's post, and I attached this footnote to Yoder's name when he appeared in the text:
Yoder’s legacy is seriously complicated by what was apparently a long history of mistreatment of women, whose complaints only came to be acknowledged—by his denomination and by himself—late in his life. I do not know the details well enough to offer educated remarks, but a short piece written by Barbra Graber (available online: alerted me to the disjunction between, on the one hand, the ongoing process of recovery and healing on the part of women and Mennonite communities who were hurt by Yoder’s actions and, on the other hand, the glowing rhetoric which tends to pervade academic theological engagement of Yoder’s work. Graber remarks that she doesn’t want Yoder scholars to stop studying Yoder; she merely thinks they ought to note the problems involved in interpreting the work of a man whose victims are still alive, and must go on living in his shadow. This request seems to me exactly right, and I mean to signal this challenge in all my subsequent published work on Yoder. How to negotiate the related issue of interpreting the thought of a Christian theologian who fell so short of his own vision—a vision which, by all accounts, does not contain the seeds of his abusive behavior—is an important question for another time.
I am interested to hear from others, whether Yoder scholars or not. Is this sort of comment appropriate? If inappropriate, how so? If appropriate, is it good as stands? Do I say too little? Do I say too much? Should I include a version of it in all my writings which mention Yoder? What sort of personal illicit behavior demands this kind of explicit signal? Is it only required so long as the victims are alive? What other thinkers and authors belong to this (regrettable) category?

I welcome feedback on this whole constellation of issues, which I do not pretend is simple or easy to sort through but which I do believe requires thoughtful, intentional care for the sake of truthfulness regarding Yoder's deeds and justice regarding his victims.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"An Interview With Miroslav Volf" Published in Missio Dei Journal

The latest issue of Missio Dei Journal is beginning to be published online, and one of the first pieces up is my interview with Miroslav Volf. Guest editor John Barton asked me to conduct the interview focusing on matters related to the issue's theme, "Christ's Mission Among the Abrahamic Faiths." The conversation ranges from Volf's book Allah: A Christian Response to Christian–Muslim Relations to the nature and character of Christian evangelism and more. Head on over and check it out, along with the rest of the issue as it gets posted these next few weeks.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Resource Request: A Full Bibliography for Rowan Williams

I'm doing a bit of research on Rowan Williams, and am on the hunt for a comprehensive bibliography of his writings (books, articles, essays, interviews, book reviews, etc.). My guess is that plenty of folks out there already have in their possession such a document (and one that's basically up-to-date), given the amount of recent work dedicated to Williams's thought. If anyone has such a document or can point me to one (online or in a published book), I would greatly appreciate it. Feel free to do so via comment or email: eastbk [AT] gmail [DOT] com. Many thanks in advance.

Monday, July 1, 2013

On Christians "Celebrating" the Fourth of July: A Proposal

This is a re-post from July 4th last year.

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For Christians concerned with issues like nationalism, the violence of the state, and bearing witness to God's peaceable kingdom, one might expect the Fourth of July to be a straightforward call to action. An opportunity to debunk American myths; a day of truthtelling about those who suffer as a consequence of American policies, foreign and domestic; a chance to offer a counter-witness to the civil liturgies covertly clamoring for the allegiance of God's people. And there are compelling, laudable voices doing just that sort of thing today.

On the Fourth, however, I find myself wondering whether there might also be another option available. Not as a replacement of those I've listed above, but rather as another way of "being" on the Fourth that, on the one hand, betrays not an inch on the issues (which, of course, do not disappear for 24 hours), yet on the other hand is able to see the holiday as something other than just one more chance for another round of imperial debunking.

To put it differently, I'm wondering whether there might be certain goods attendant to some "celebrations" of the Fourth of July, and whether it might sometimes be a good idea for Christians to share in those goods. If an affirmative answer is appropriate to both questions, I'm wondering finally what faithful participation might look like.

For example, I grew up in a decidedly non-patriotic household. Not "anti-patriotic," mind you, but "non-." It just wasn't an issue. No flag burnings (hence not "anti-") -- but no flags around to begin with. Even on a day like the Fourth, while there was probably a dessert lurking somewhere colored red, white, and blue, that was both the extent of it and about as meaningful as having silver-and-black cupcakes when the Spurs won the championship. In other words, not much. Beyond that, we didn't sing patriotic songs or wax nostalgic about the glories of the U.S.A. or thank God incessantly for making us Americans and not communists. We cooked a lot of food, had lots of people over, ate and laughed and napped and swam and ate again, and concluded the night by watching fireworks. Then we crashed.

Perhaps my experience is not representative, but in reflecting on it, I have a hard time getting very worked up by what is generically derided as hyper-patriotic, nationalistic, blasphemous, violence-perpetuating, etc. No doubt there are gatherings and celebrations which do earn those and other descriptors, and Christians shouldn't hold back even a second in truthfully naming them for what they are. My point is merely that not all are like that. And my question is this: Might Christians' sharing in ordinary gatherings like the ones I have in mind be one faithful option for the Fourth of July?

While I don't see this as some kind of paradoxical subversion of the holiday, the possibility is worth pondering for at least a moment. America's particular brand of individualism and pluralism at times affords some unexpected benefits, not least of which is the notion that the meaning of common set-aside days is not a shared given but rather what each of us decides to make it mean for oneself. Thus we "do" or "do not" celebrate x holiday; or we "don't do it that way," but "this way"; etc.

Well, why can't the church -- not as a day off from its witness to the God of peace against the violent idolatries of the state, but precisely as one form of it -- make its own meaning on the Fourth? The meaning can be simple: Rest from work is good; time shared with neighbors, friends, and family is good; feasting with others (when done neither every day nor alone -- which is generally the American way) is good. I've been part of celebrations like this that go the whole day without waving a flag, memorializing a war, comparing a soldier's sacrifice to Jesus's, or mentioning "the greatest country on Earth" -- and that without anyone present consciously intending to avoid such things! It just happened; and I suspect it did, apart from consideration of the faithfulness of those gathered, simply because of all the good being shared among and between us. Almost like an unconscious tapping-in to that ancient notion of habitual rest and feasting, only we were so preoccupied with one another's company that we forgot "the reason" we were together at all.

So perhaps that can be the understated motto for what I'm suggesting. Let American Christians across the land feel free to "celebrate" the Fourth of July, sharing in its manifold goods with our neighbors with a clean conscience; only let us do so, at every moment and with focused purpose, forgetting the reason for the season.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Notes on Christology in the Tradition, 3: Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus on the Normativity of Jesus's Life for Believers

This series consists of my notes in preparation for a (now completed) comprehensive exam in historical theology. Some of it is simply representation of figures' positions, but much of it is also interpretive, so I thought it might be of some use or interest to others. Each doctrinal locus is focused around a governing question.

Previous posts: Part 1: A Fivefold Schema; Part 2: Origen

To what extent is the shape of Jesus’s life a paradigm for the life of the Christian (e.g., how is the story of Jesus normative)?

Briefly, I locate Athanasius in the fourth type of the christological schema: Jesus as author and interpreter of Scripture.  I do this because, for Athanasius, one of Christ’s chief tasks was to enlighten us with the knowledge of God—hence we learn from his teaching both about God and about how to live (e.g., we die as martyrs rather than kill). From my foray into Athanasius's writings, however, I found little more that pertained directly to this question, so I'll leave it there.

As for Gregory of Nazianzus, he is clearly the prototypical representative of the third type: Christ as forerunner of the spiritual life. His rhetorical appeal in one of his Epiphany sermons is indicative here. He calls on his parishioners to "[t]ravel without fault through every stage and faculty of the life of Christ.” This journey includes birth, exile, purification, circumcision, presentation at the temple, threatened stonings, Herod's wrath, scourges, blows, and so on. He concludes: "[L]astly, be crucified with him, and share his death and burial gladly, that you may rise with him, and be glorified with him and reign with him."

In this way the life of Jesus is not normative literally—that is, corporeally—but spiritually: we needn't map every particular aspect of his human life to ours, for that would be absurd and would grossly generalize what needn't be universal. Rather, we must discover ourselves in his life, in his way, placed there by grace, and in turn undergo the trials which await through the spiritual example he has set us. For we know how we may succeed without falling because he walks ahead of us; and we practice such triumphs in advance through liturgical, scriptural, and prayerful inhabitation of his life as pictured for us by the Spirit in the prophetic and apostolic texts.

Elsewhere Gregory calls on his listeners to preserve the baptismal gift. For after baptism new Christians cannot give in to languor but must engage, like all Christians, in constant and consistent discipleship to Christ in order to live in purified correspondence to him. Recommended practices include vigils, fasts, sleeping on the ground, prayers, tears, pity of and almsgiving to those who are in need. His exhortation is to remember, for example, how when poor Christ made you rich; how when hungry Christ fed you at table; how Christ became a stranger for your sake; how when wounded Christ healed you; how when indebted Christ forgave all you owed, and so on. Believers' lives follow after Christ's example when they recall what Christ has done for them, and do as Christ did, having already been practicing such obedience through various rituals and habits of mortification of the flesh and spiritual imitation of the incarnate One.

Gregory's views would prove profoundly influential for both the western and especially the eastern tradition of understanding how Jesus's story is normative for the life of Christian faith.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Notes on Christology in the Tradition, 2: Origen on the Normativity of Jesus's Life for Believers

This series consists of my notes in preparation for a (now completed) comprehensive exam in historical theology. Some of it is simply representation of figures' positions, but much of it is also interpretive, so I thought it might be of some use or interest to others. Each doctrinal locus is focused around a governing question.

Previous posts: Part 1: A Fivefold Schema;

To what extent is the shape of Jesus’s life a paradigm for the life of the Christian (e.g., how is the story of Jesus normative)?

I locate Origen in the first type of the christological schema, wherein Jesus is seen as a binding exemplar for imitation by believers. Origen is justly famous for his christological moralism and ethical perfectionism. For example, An Exhortation to Martyrdom assumes radical and unstinting obedience to Christ’s command and example. The sense one gets is that in order to be saved one has to be utterly faithful, and faithfulness is extremely strenuous. (The connections to his doctrine of the person of Christ are suggestive; if Jesus is fundamentally God-in-(a-)man, then God may rightly expect each of us to be basically as obedient as Jesus.)

Specifically, though along with most everything else in Jesus's life, it is his self-denial in suffering and death combined with total submission to God’s will that is fundamentally normative for all believers’ lives.

The money quote here is from Contra Celsum:
Both Jesus himself and his disciples did not want people who came to them to believe only in his divine nature and miracles, as though he did not share in human nature and had not assumed the human flesh which lusts against the spirit; but as a result of their faith they also saw the power that descended into human nature and human limitations, and which assumed a human soul and body, combined with the divine characteristics, to bring salvation to believers. For Christians see that with Jesus human and divine nature began to be woven together, so that by fellowship with divinity human nature might become divine, not only in Jesus, but also in all those who believe and go on to undertake the life which Jesus taught, the life which leads everyone who lives according to Jesus’ commandments to friendship with God and fellowship with Jesus. (III.28)
Elsewhere, both in this and other works, Origen refers to Jesus as "the moral ideal," "a pattern of the way to endure religious persecution," "an example of the way to despise people who laugh and mock at [religion]," "an example of the life that [men] ought to live," "a noble example to men to show how to bear calamities," "an example of the way to die for the sake of religion."

Jesus's life is thus, in every sense of the word, a compulsory moral paradigm for believers' lives, and most of all in the way he endured suffering and death for the sake of faithfulness to God's will.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Notes on Christology in the Tradition, 1: A Fivefold Schema on the Normativity of Jesus's Life for Believers

This series consists of my notes in preparation for a (now completed) comprehensive exam in historical theology. Some of it is simply representation of figures' positions, but much of it is also interpretive, so I thought it might be of some use or interest to others. Each doctrinal locus is focused around a governing question.

To what extent is the shape of Jesus’s life a paradigm for the life of the Christian (e.g., how is the story of Jesus normative)?

In seeking to discover how various theologians in the tradition have answered this question, whether explicitly or implicitly, it seemed to me that they fell roughly into five groups. To be sure, many of them could be classed with more than one group, but nonetheless they usually assign priority to one perspective over others, or in turn the tradition has taken them to do so (and so their openness to other positions tends to drop out).

I organized this grouping into a fivefold schema.

1. Binding exemplar for imitation

On this view Jesus is consistently put forth as the normative pattern for human life—considered morally, spiritually, politically, or otherwise. Allowances and exceptions are of course made, but the most perfect and commended form of life is that in strict correspondence to Christ’s. Representative theologians include Origen and Michael Sattler (in the Schleitheim Articles).

2. Non-binding but trustworthy example

In this approach Jesus’s example is supremely trustworthy and beneficial in every respect for everyone, and yet it is allowed that not everyone can, or should be expected to, follow Jesus’s way so closely. As a consequence, formal and institutional distinctions are made between, e.g., precepts and counsels, or clergy and lay, rulers and priests, etc. Appeal is also made to natural law, reason, virtues, philosophical conceptions of the moral life, and the like. Thomas Aquinas is an instance of this position—although, I hasten to add, he is also one of the most sophisticated christologians on this question, so he is absolutely not limited to this view.

3. Forerunner of the spiritual life

Here Jesus’s life is the spiritual paradigm of the believer’s life, especially in temptation. Rather than making parts of Jesus’s life fit to theirs (i.e., celibate, homeless, itinerant, wonderworking, whatever), believers should locate their lives in his earthly career. In the process they will find that he has paved the way for them to live in obedience to God’s will, purified and empowered to do so by Christ’s having blazed a trail in the flesh by the power of the Spirit. This is a popular patristic perspective, and can be found in Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus Confessor.

4. Author and interpreter of Scripture

This answer to the question is something of a departure from the previous three. Jesus’s life isn’t so much not an example as it is subordinate to his teaching, which on the one hand is a sort of microcosm and intensification of Scripture as a whole, even as, on the other hand, the voice of this One is itself the voice of Scripture. In this way Jesus’s life and teachings are located and qualified within the broad scope of one and the same Lord’s teaching across the whole biblical text, which often will prove to be more relevant than the limited ministry of Jesus, whose words are on a level with those of the rest of sacred Scripture. Athanasius is a minor example, but the two chief figures in this line are Augustine and Calvin (even as each differs in emphasizing aspects of the other answers in the schema).

5. Inimitable summit of righteousness

Finally, as a more polemical response to the first three, this position admits that Jesus’s life is undeniably a perfect model for Christians’ lives, but insists that for that very reason it can be a terror and a scourge to faith and to holy living, especially if taken as primarily or merely an example. Better to consider Jesus’s life evangelically, as the unapproachable and inimitable summit of righteousness, which fulfills what we never could, and thus is to be received as a gift imputed to us by God’s grace, not (first of all, at least) as a model for imitation. Luther is of course the culprit here.

In subsequent posts in the series I will outline the particularities of the theologians' actual answers.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The 2013 Christian Scholars' Conference

Next week in Nashville, Tennessee, Lipscomb University is hosting the annual meeting of The Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars' Conference. This will be my fourth time to attend in the last five years, and it never disappoints (as I've written previously).

This year's theme is "Crises in Ethics: Theology, Business, Law and the Liberal and Fine Arts," and the plenary speakers include Charles Mathewes, John Dean, and David Miller. Further, the annual meeting of the Church of Christ Theology Students will feature an address by Yale's own John Hare. Finally, there will be two performances of the controversial David Mamet play Oleanna, and a one-night-only performance by my personal favorite, TOKENS, led as always by the inimitable Lee Camp.

I have a packed schedule in terms of my own responsibilities this year.

First, I will be delivering a paper in a session on Thursday afternoon dedicated to "Ethical Teaching in the Petrine Epistles." The paper is titled "Patiently Awaiting the Death and Resurrection of the Universe: Eschatological Memory and Ecological Ethics in 2 Peter 3:1-13." It should be fun—we'll see what the text folks make of a theologian reading the Bible! Here's the abstract:
This paper considers the (in)famous passage of the earth's “burning up” in 2 Peter 3:1-13. It proceeds in three steps. First, an exegetical reading that situates the image of God’s coming judgment in relation to the flood—which purified, not annihilated. Second, a theological explication that connects divine judgment to the wider scriptural notion of longed-for divine justice as well as the christological shape of God’s eschatological liberation-through-judgment. Third, a proposal regarding the content of the church’s witness in a world of unabated ecological destruction, finding in this text a resource rather than a hindrance for faithful care of creation.
Second, I will be moderating a session on Friday afternoon titled "Faith in Public: A Conversation Between John Hare and Charles Mathewes on Religious Commitment, Christian Ethics, and Political Engagement." This should be a blast; I basically get to facilitate two brilliant theological-ethical minds discussing Christians and politics. In other words, a nice way to spend an afternoon. Here's the abstract:
This conversation between Professors Hare and Mathewes will focus on the often volatile intersection of “religion” and “politics.” Specifically, the session will reflect on issues relating to public political engagement on the part of Christians in the American context. Some of these include: the role of religious commitments in political advocacy; the relationship between ecclesial communities and public policy; the contribution(s) which formal Christian ethics has to make in this realm; potential limits on Christian political engagement; abiding disagreement among Christians on matters of principle or strategy; the current state of politicized Christianity and hopes and fears for its future.
Finally, I will have the pleasure of introducing John Hare to the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Church of Christ Theology Students (previous guest scholars include Bruce Marshall, David Bentley Hart, and Gregory Sterling). His address it titled "Three Arguments for the Dependence of Morality Upon Religion," to which Lauren Smelser White, a PhD student in theological studies at Vanderbilt, will offer a response. Here's the abstract:
This paper gives three arguments for the dependence of morality upon religion, "the argument from Providence," "the argument from Grace," and "the argument from Justification." The first argument is that morality becomes rationally unstable if we do not have a way to assure ourselves, through belief in God, that morality and happiness are consistent. The second argument is that we are born preferring ourselves to the demands of morality, and reversing this priority needs assistance from outside ourselves. The third argument is that we need some answer to the question "Why should I be moral?". The religious answer to this question is that God calls us to it.
There are about a thousand other things happening during the conference, not least of which is the sheer proliferation of brilliant scholars presenting original research or responding to others'. Just a few include—and many of these are friends—Joe Gordon, Spencer Bogle (whose theological Padawan I am), David Mahfood, Mark Lackowski, (Yoderian master) John Nugent, Matt Tapie, (force of nature) Richard Beck, Shaun Casey, Joel Brown, James Thompson, Carl Holladay, (the one and only) Jimmy McCarty, Branson Parler, Ron Clark, Richard Hughes, (renowned shortform man of letters) Chris Dowdy, Vic McCracken, (all-around superwoman) Jennifer Thweatt-Bates, Trevor Thompson, Gregory Sterling, John Willis, John Senior, Vadim Kochetkov, Joe Kauslick, Jarrod Longbons, Leonard Allen, Royce Money, Carson Reed, Stuart Love, Thomas Olbricht, Rodney Ashlock, Larry James, M. Eugene Boring, David Scobey, (the delightful) Tracy Shilcutt, Ken Cukrowski, Mark Powell, John Mark Hicks, Eric Magnusson, Mark Cullum, Paul DeHart, Ron Highfield, Mark Wiebe, Lauren Smelser White, Justin Barringer, Randy Harris, John Barton, Steven Kraftchick, and more.

That's a lot of good people. See you there.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Conference: Karl Barth in Dialogue

I'm late with this, as I've been mostly away from the blog this spring, but I still wanted to make sure people heard about it who may not have yet. The annual Karl Barth Conference this year is being held at Princeton Theological Seminary on June 16-19, with the theme of "Karl Barth in Dialogue: Encounters with Major Figures." You can register at the website here or contact those running the conference here. The lineup of speakers includes Nicholas Healy, George Hunsinger, D. Stephen Long, and Paul Molnar, among others. Thinkers put into conversation with Barth range from Catholics like Thomas Aquinas and Hans Urs von Balthasar to Orthodox like Georges Florovsky and Sergei Bulgakov to the wildly diverse mix of James Cone, Joseph Ratzinger, Paul Tillich, T.F. Torrance, and Elizabeth Johnson. I'm sorry not to be able to make it myself, but I'm sure it's going to be a wonderful gathering.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Julian of Norwich on Avoiding Thoughts of Other People's Sins

"The soul that wants to be at peace must flee from thoughts of other people's sins as though from the pains of hell, begging God for a remedy and for help against it; for the consideration of other people's sins makes a sort of thick mist before the eyes of the soul, and during such times we cannot see the beauty of God unless we regard the sins with sorrow for those who commit them, with compassion and with a holy wish for God to help them; for if we do not do this the consideration of sins harms and distresses and hinders the soul."

—Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (trans. Elizabeth Spearing), ch. 76

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Karl Rahner on the Words We Say in Prayer and the Single Word God Says in Return

"In the final analysis, talking about prayer doesn't matter; rather, only the words that we ourselves say to God. And one must say these words oneself.

"Oh, they can be quiet, poor, and diffident. They can rise up to God's heaven like silver doves from a happy heart, or they can be the inaudible flowing of bitter tears. They can be great and sublime like thunder that crashes in the high mountains, or diffident like the shy confession of a first love.

"If they only come from the heart. If they only might come from the heart. And if only the Spirit of God prays them together also. Then God hears them. Then he will forget none of these words. Then he will keep the words in his heart because one cannot forget the words of love.

"And then he will listen to us patiently, even blissfully, an entire life long until we are through talking, until we have spoken out our entire life. And then he will say one single word of love, but he is this word itself. And then our heart will stop beating at this word. For eternity.

"Don't we want to pray?"

—Karl Rahner, The Need and the Blessing of Prayer (cited in Kevin O'Brien, SJ, The Ignatian Adventure [Chicago: Loyola Press, 2011], 247)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

John Calvin on the Universality of Love for the Neighbor

"Our Savior having shown, in the parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:36), that the term neighbor comprehends the most remote stranger, there is no reason for limiting the precept of love to our own connections. I deny not that the closer the relation the more frequent our offices of kindness should be. For the condition of humanity requires that there be more duties in common between those who are more nearly connected by the ties of relationship, or friendship, or neighborhood. And this is done without any offense to God, by whose providence we are in a manner impelled to do it. But I say that the whole human race, without exception, are to be embraced with one feeling of charity: that here there is no distinction of Greek or Barbarian, worthy of unworthy, friend or foe, since all are to be viewed not in themselves, but in God. If we turn aside from this view, there is no wonder that we entangle ourselves in error. Wherefore, if we would hold the true course in love, our first step must be to turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom might oftener produce hatred than love, but to God, who requires that the love which we bear to him be diffused among all mankind, so that our fundamental principle must ever be, Let a man be what he may, he is still to be loved, because God is loved."

—John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge), Book II, 8.55

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

For the 10 Year Anniversary of the Beginning of the Iraq War: Wisdom from John Howard Yoder and Wendell Berry

"We have always been taught to understand the nature of power in society so as to expect that the way to get useful things done is to find a place at the command posts of the state. We have suggested already that the man in power is not as free or as strong as he assumes, that he is the prisoner of the friends and the promises he made in order to get into office. But an even more basic observation is that he is not at the place in society where the greatest contribution can be made. The creativity of the 'pilot project' or of the critic is more significant for a social change than is the coercive power which generalizes a new idea. Those who are at the 'top' of society are occupied largely with the routine tasks of keeping in position and keeping balance in society. The dominant group in any society is the one which provides its judges and lawyers, teachers and prelates -- their effort is largely committed to keeping things as they are. This busyness of rulers with routine gives an exceptional leverage to the creative minority, sometimes because it can up the scales between two power blocs and sometimes because it can pioneer a new idea. In every rapidly changing society a disproportionate share of leadership is carried by cultural, racial, and religious minorities.

"What is said here about the cultural strength of the numerical and social minority could just as well be said with regard to political strength. The freedom of the Christian, or of the church, from needing to invest his best effort or the effort of the Christian community, in obtaining the capacity to coerce others, and exercising and holding on to this power, is precisely the key to the creativity of the unique Christian mission in society. The rejection of violence appears to be social withdrawal if we assume that violence is the key to all that happens in society. But the logic shifts if we recognize that the number of locks that can be opened with the key of violence is very limited. The renunciation of coercive violence is the prerequisite of a genuinely social responsibility and to the exercise of those kinds of social power which are less self-defeating."

—John Howard Yoder, "Christ, the Hope of the World," in The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971), 171-72

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Now you know the worst

By Wendell Berry

To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin

Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,

for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know

there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.

But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine

though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.

You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be

the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
your light.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom: A Scriptural Manual for How to Be Killed

The most striking thing about Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom is not its otherworldliness, its openness to or even zest for dying, its idiosyncratic interpretation of Scripture, or its full-throated subordination of the body to the spirit (what a drag for souls to be saddled with bodies!). It is, rather, the dawning realization of what Origen is attempting to accomplish as the work slowly unfolds. Because Origen's Exhortation is nothing less than a biblical script for dying: a practical manual for Christians to be trained how to be murdered in public—and, moreover, how to do so in a way that is not shameful to Christ but faithful to his way. Origen views Scripture as typological all the way down; consequently, the words of the heroes, fathers, and forebears in the faith are there for the express purpose of contemporary appropriation. The Spirit has provides these for our use, so that we will know what to say when the time comes to die.

He therefore writes: "I pray that when you are at the gates of death, or rather of freedom, especially if tortures are brought . . ., you will use such words as these . . . [2 Macc. 6:30]" (Exhortation, XXII). Regarding the Maccabees, he says that "it would be appropriate for us, as well, in such circumstances to use their words . . . [2 Macc. 7:6]" (XXIII). Or when worries for one's family or children arise, with immediacy he urges: "Now have the words ready . . . [Matt. 10:37, 39]" (XXXVIII). Or perhaps one knows oneself to be "hated and abominated and considered impious"; in the event, "take up the saying . . . [John 15:19]" (XXXIX). Not only evil men but evil spirits may threaten, and in that case "let each one of you say when you smite [them] . . . [1 Cor. 9:26]" (XLVIII).

Scripture, in Origen's use, is a collection of various scenes and acts in the drama of God's victory over death through Christ. His advice to those who would be faithful μάρτυρες is simple: Know in your bones, through diligent and disciplined study, the trustworthy sayings of those who have come before; for when you, too, find yourself in similar dire straits, just the right words will come to you, and they will not fail.

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Christian Wiman (II)

It's hard for me to believe that it's been more than a month since my last post, and really a full three months since my last substantive post—i.e., where I wrote something of my own rather than quoted or excerpted someone or something else. I'm not quite sure these days how to make time for writing in this forum, but I would like to make the attempt. In the meantime, here is another wonderful poem from Christian Wiman's extraordinary collection, Every Riven Thing.

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Hammer is the Prayer

By Christian Wiman

There is no consolation in the thought of God,
he said, slamming another nail

in another house another havoc had half-taken.
Grace is not consciousness, nor is it beyond.

To hell with remembrance, to hell with heaven,
hammer is the prayer of the poor and the dying.

And as wind in some lordless random comes to rest,
and all the disquieted dust within,

peace came to the hinterlands of our minds,
too remote to know, but peace nonetheless.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Brief Teaching Tips

Having recently finished his MDiv, my brother Garrett shared three teaching tips—for current as well as hopeful professors—that I thought were worth re-posting over here. The second one in particular is at once basic common sense and, naturally, the exact opposite of undergraduate and seminary practice in theological studies:
1. Do not orient a course to the student in the class with the least knowledge of the subject matter. Only one person learns when you do that. Rather, aim to challenge your most advanced students. That way, everyone should learn something.

2. Giving a theology student a book about how to think theologically or how to do theology is like giving 7th grade students a book about how to read fiction novels instead of putting To Kill a Mockingbird in their hands. To learn to read fiction, 7th graders need to read fiction. To learn to do theology, graduate students need to read and engage substantive theological proposals.

3. Give choices for reading assignments. I love when a professor offers three books on a subject and lets you decide which one to read depending on your personal interests. If students pick their books themselves (within your parameters), they are more likely to read and enjoy them. One idea I have thought about pertains to teaching a course on Church History. Instead of trying to give even treatment to Latin American, African, North American, European, and Asian Christianity in a general introductory textbook, let students select the geographic region that they are most interested in and read extensively on Christianity in that region. Of course, students will need some general introductory textbooks to read together and class lectures should give each region a fair shake, but allowing students to choose one of their textbooks will likely lead to deeper engagement of the readings.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Christian Wiman (I)

Upon hearing the recent, very happy news that renowned poet Christian Wiman has been hired to join the faculty at the Institute for Sacred Music at Yale Divinity School for (at least) a five-year appointment, I immediately ordered his most recent collection of poems, Every Riven Thing. It is at once bleak and hope-ridden, unflinching and delicate, formally exemplary and invitingly inventive. It is, in other words, as good as promised. I look forward to engaging his work (both poems and prose) further as time goes on, not to mention potentially in the classroom. I'm sure this will be but the first of many of his poems shared in this space. Enjoy.

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Small Prayer in a Hard Wind

By Christian Wiman

As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
only someone lost could find,

which, with its paneless windows and sagging crossbeams,
its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,

seems both ghost of the life that happened there
and living spirit of this wasted place,

wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
that is open enough to receive it,

shatter me God into my thousand sounds . . .

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

John Calvin on the Excuselessness of the Divine Command of Universal Love

"The Lord commands us to do 'good unto all men,' universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scripture assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honour and love; but that this image is most carefully to be observed in them 'who are of the household of faith,' inasmuch as it is renewed and restored by the spirit of Christ. Whoever, therefore, is presented to you that needs your kind offices, you have no reason to refuse him your assistance.

"Say he is a stranger; yet the Lord has impressed on him a character which ought to be familiar to you; for which reason he forbids you to despise your own flesh. Say that he is contemptible and worthless; but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to grace with his own image. Say that you are obliged to him for no services; but God has made him, as it were, his substitute, to whom you acknowledge yourself to be under obligations for numerous and important benefits. Say that he is unworthy of your making the smallest exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess.

"If he not only deserved no favour, but, on the contrary, has provoked you with injuries and insults,—even this is not just reason why you should cease to embrace him with your affection, and to perform to him the offices of love. He has deserved, you will say, very different treatment from me. But what has the Lord deserved? who, when he commands you to forgive all men their offences against you, certainly intends that they should be charged to himself."

—John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion III.7, cited in Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 77-78

Friday, January 25, 2013

Rowan Williams on the Sorts of Difficulty the Creed Does and Does Not Represent

"[I]f I say I've never found the creed difficult, I think that gives the wrong impression, but it does seem to me that the kind of difficulty that it represents is not the 'Is this true or isn't this true?' or 'That sounds silly' kind of difficulty, much more 'If this is true it needs a lot of hard work to understand it'—you know, the kind of difficulty that you face when you're trying to read Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic or something like that: the idea there must be something so important here if it's so difficult to get hold of. That, on the one hand, combined, I suppose, with a rather celebratory sense of the creed which has always been very important. I don't think it's entirely accidental or irrelevant to this . . . that I learned the creed by singing it. I don't imagine I'd ever encountered the Nicene Creed before I learned to sing it to Merbecke in All Saints', Oystermouth, and that means it becomes part of the idiom of worship, and you inhabit it in that way, not any other way, which is why, when I came to look at it critically or historically, I couldn't just turn off the music or the context."

—Rowan Williams, in Rupert Shortt, Rowan's Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008), 56-57

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Mary Oliver

I don't think I have ever shared a poem from Mary Oliver, whose work I have skimmed and stumbled across here and there, but never spent much time with. Happily, though, a family member gave us her latest collection of poems for Christmas, so I am making my way through it now. The poem below is, I think, a gentle and wry reminder for those of us who inhabit the social spheres of academy and church, each prone in its own way to an outstripping of its proper knowledges and of the mysteries which close them in. Enjoy.

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The Man Who Has Many Answers

By Mary Oliver

The man who has many answers
is often found
in the theaters of information
where he offers, graciously,
his deep findings.

While the man who has only questions,
to comfort himself, makes music.

Monday, January 7, 2013

John Webster on What Preaching Is and What the Preacher Does in Preaching

"[E]ntrusted with and responsible for the message of reconciliation, what does the preacher do? It is tempting to think of the task of preaching as one in which the preacher struggles to 'make real' the divine message by arts of application and cultural interpretation, seeking rhetorical ways of establishing continuity between the Word and the present situation. Built into that correlational model of preaching (which is by no means the preserve of the liberal Christian tradition) are two assumptions: an assumption that the Word is essentially inert or absent from the present until introduced by the act of human proclamation, and an assumption that the present is part of another economy from that of which Scripture speaks. But in acting as the ambassador of the Word, the preacher enters a situation which already lies within the economy of reconciliation, in which the Word is antecedently present and active. The church of the apostles and the church now form a single reality, held together not by precarious acts of human realization, but by the continuity of God's purpose and active presence. The preacher, therefore, faces a situation in which the Word has already addressed and continues to address the church, and does not need somehow by homiletic exertions to generate and present the Word's meaningfulness. The preacher speaks on Christ's behalf; the question of whether Christ is himself present and effectual is one which—in the realm of the resurrection and exaltation of the Son—has already been settled and which the preacher can safely leave behind.

"Preaching is commissioned human speech in which God makes his appeal. It is public reiteration of the divine Word as it articulates itself in the words of the prophets and apostles, and by it the Holy Spirit forms the church. This public reiteration both arises within and returns to contemplative attention to the Word; the church preaches because it is a reading and a hearing community."

—John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 26