Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Fall 2011 Course Load

It is finally here: my first semester as a doctoral student in theology. Perhaps the feelings will wear off as quickly as the first class session (scheduled for tomorrow), but I'm something of a Pollyanna Susie Derkins at the moment: one great bundle of gratitude and excitement. As I have the habit of doing, I thought I'd share the courses I'm taking this semester, which are an especially intriguing cross-section of theology, religious studies, philosophy, and sociology. No doubt themes and quotes and questions from the following will find their way onto the blog in the coming months.

I should also note that the course descriptions below are taken from the professors' syllabi, and so are not in "my" voice but rather in theirs.

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Theology Doctoral Seminar (Kathryn Tanner)

This is the required seminar for all doctoral students in theology. In keeping with the usual agendas for this required seminar, this year’s course is designed (1) to familiarize doctoral students with a faculty member’s current research—specifically, her methodology, rationale for research, and conclusions—and (2) to offer a broad overview of the contemporary theological landscape on selected themes, issues, and approaches of importance to theology today. The course this year will involve a close reading of Kathryn Tanner's most recent book, Christ the Key. One chapter of the book will be assigned each session, with supplementary readings to include (a) major historical sources in theology that inform her constructive work; and (b) contemporary theologies treating the same issues in theological anthropology, Christology, pneumatology, nature and grace, trinitarian theology, and atonement theory.
  • Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor
  • Basil the Great, On the Human Condition (ed. Verna Harrison)
  • Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society
  • Henri de Lubac, Augustinianism and Modern Theology
  • Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4
  • Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith
  • John Milbank, The Suspended Middle
  • Janet Soskice, The Kindness of God
  • Dumitru Staniloae, Theology and the Church
  • Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key
  • Michael Welker, God the Spirit
  • Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness
The Life and Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Denys Turner)

This course is intended for those who would like to explore the reasons both why Thomas is a great theologian and why he is a saint, and is particularly addressed to those who would not be entirely surprised to discover that the reasons for the one are much the same as the reasons for the other. It is not a survey course covering his theology as a whole. It is a course designed to get to the place in Thomas’s mind and soul where theology and prayer, Dominican poverty and Dominican preaching, university professor and pastor priest, intersect so as to result in not only his best known work of systematic theology, the Summa Theologiae, but also in his Reportatio on the Gospel of John, in many ways his theological masterpiece. Something is canonized in 1323, and it is not a book. Nor is it a martyr. Nor is it a great preacher. Just a rather fat and balding theologian. There is hope for us all.
  • Thomas Aquinas, Reportatio (Commentary on the Gospel of John)
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (selections)
  • G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas
  • Herbert McCabe, God Matters
  • Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas
  • Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas
  • Denys Turner, The Life and Thought of Thomas Aquinas (draft monograph)
Theories in the Study of Religion (Dale Martin)

This course offers an introduction designed for doctoral students in religious studies to modern theories of religion from mainly the 20th century. The course includes study of major figures in anthropological, social-scientific, historical, comparative, and theoretical approaches to the newly created discipline of the academic and secular study of religion, which led in the latter part of the 20th century to “religious studies” and the creation during the past 50 years of departments of religious studies in American universities. That development will be traced as we also explore major intellectual and philosophical issues raised by its history.
  • Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy
  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
  • David Chidester, Savage Systems
  • Jacques Derrida, Dissemination
  • Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger
  • Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
  • Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
  • Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures
  • Edward Said, Orientalism
  • Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion
Secularism: From the Enlightenment to the Present (Elli Stern)

Secular worldviews are said to have emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the result of an attempt to find a lowest common denominator between various warring Christian denominations. Recent political events and social developments have brought historians, political theorists, and anthropologists to reexamine the nature of and relationship between secular and religious (or more broadly “traditional”) worldviews. This course examines the way secularism has been constructed and also the way it has shaped how we understand groups and ideas identified as traditional or religious. Specifically, it will understand the way contemporary scholars define, conceptualize, and in some instances critique “secular” notions of time, space, knowledge and self.
  • Talal Assad, Formations of the Secular
  • Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World
  • Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative
  • Marcel Grouchet, The Disenchantment of the World
  • Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
  • Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past
  • Marc Lilla, The Stillborn God
  • John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration
  • Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
  • Saba Mahmood, The Politics of Piety
  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age
  • Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self
  • Claude Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R. S. Thomas (III)

A theodical poem -- the second in a row by R. S. Thomas -- for reflection in light of the present and potential suffering in the northeast. Living there ourselves, and on the coast, we pray for shelter for the homeless and safety for what matters (human lives) and wisdom for leaders called upon to make difficult decisions. Most of all, we pray for God to be present to and with and among us. See you on the other side.

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Ivan Karamazov

By R. S. Thomas

Yes, I know what he is like:
a kind of impossible robot
you insert your prayers into
like tickets, that after a while
are returned to you with the words
'Not granted' written upon them.
I repudiate such a god.
But if, as you say, he exists,
and what I do is an offence
to him, let him punish me:
I shall not squeal; to be proved
right is worth a lifetime's
chastisement. And to have God
avenging himself is to have
the advantage, till the earth opens
to receive one into a dark
cleft, where, safer than Elijah,
one will know him trumpeting
in the wind and the fire
and the roar of the earthquake, but not
in the still, small voice of the
worms that deliver one for ever
out of the tyranny of his self-love.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Herbert McCabe on What is Wrong With Capitalism

"What is wrong with capitalism, then, is not that it involves some people being richer than I am. I cannot see the slightest objection to other people being richer than I am; I have no urge to be as rich as everybody else, and no Christian (and indeed no grown-up person) could possibly devote his life to trying to be as rich or richer than others. There are indeed people, very large numbers of people, who are obscenely poor, starving, diseased, illiterate, and it is quite obviously unjust and unreasonable that they should be left in this state while other people or other nations live in luxury; but this has nothing specially to do with capitalism, even though we will never now be able to alter that situation until capitalism has been abolished. You find exactly the same conditions in, say, slave societies and, moreover, capitalism, during its prosperous boom phases, is quite capable of relieving distress at least in fully industrialised societies -- this is what the 'Welfare State' is all about. What is wrong with capitalism is simply that it is based on human antagonism, and it is precisely here that it comes in conflict with Christianity. Capitalism is a state of war, but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, as an economy, and those who do not. The permanent capitalist state of war erupts every now and then into a major killing war, but its so-called peacetime is just war carried on by other means. The recent [1979] strategic arms limitation talks (SALT II) have produced an agreement whereby the US should deploy a capacity to inflict 600,000 Hiroshimas on the human race. But at the heart of all this violence is the class war."

--Herbert McCabe, God Matters (New York: Continuum, 1987), 192-93

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R. S. Thomas (II)

Requisite heading as always: "no introduction needed from me." (Seriously: Search some variant of that phrase in my blog, and you'll find a dozen instances of my parroting that phrase, followed by an introduction in disguise.) So instead of enacting the unnecessary -- given that I've done so with him before -- here, without context or qualification, is a poem by Ronald Stuart Thomas.

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By R. S. Thomas

Moments of great calm,

Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun's light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

On the Ways People Respond When I Say I Belong to the Churches of Christ

For some time I've noticed something peculiar. Especially outside of the South, though often there also, people seem to have approximately four responses to my answer that the ecclesial tradition which my wife and I belong to is "the churches of Christ." They are as follows:
1. "Oh." [Ignorance.] "Which one is that again?"

2. "Oh?" [Six degrees.] "Yeah, yeah, a guy we knew who lived down the street from my aunt said he went to a Church of Christ. Never been myself though."

3. "Oh..." [Knowledge + apprehension.] Either: "You're the ones who (hate women / think no one else is saved but you / sing without instruments), right?" or: "I actually left the Church some years ago."

4. "Oh!" [Delight.] "Me too!"
I might be overreacting, but it seems safe to say this is not a good sign.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Adventures in Feminist-Grimacing Church Language

Overheard eight weeks ago in a New Haven Presbyterian church, spoken off the cuff by the head pastor in a closing prayer, as a riff on the sermon's theme: "As a wife adores her husband, O God, so let us worship you."

And so it goes.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Concise Definition of Repentance

"Repentance does not mean to go back to the beginnings but to turn toward God's future."

—Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man, 2d ed. (trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968, 1977), 228

Monday, August 8, 2011

Glossing the Phrase "Personal Relationship With Jesus"

Growing up in church, no memories stand out in which the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" played any significant part. That is not to say that I never heard it, just that in what were my given ecclesial circles -- both youth and adult -- the expression exerted little to no formative weight.

However, and precisely for that reason, I was not immediately cognizant of the unfortunate uses to which the popular all-purpose phrase was put. It sounded to me both innocuous and generically (if blandly) correct, and so it took some time for me to grasp the offhand critiques and snide dismissals of those who paraded around such an (apparently) sappy and sentimental sense of faith. Since these were -- if not in congregational fact, then at least by the concentric circles of tradition, similar beliefs and practices, and sheer proximity -- "my people," I took the insults personally on their behalf, given what I knew many of them meant by the phrase. It was only when I realized what some others intended by it that I comprehended, and found myself in fullest agreement with, the critiques leveled by theological and other authorities.

My own language, personal and theological, remains more or less devoid of talk of a "personal relationship with Jesus" (or God), so I have no intention of rehabilitating a perhaps already irrevocably damaged expression (whether or not that spoiling deserves a cheer of "Good riddance!"). What I would like to do, instead, is to explicate the two chief alternative meanings behind uses of the saying, and so to defend one of them over against the other.

One use of "a personal relationship with Jesus" might be glossed as "an unmediated individual codependency with a self-validating ghost." All the key themes are there, for the phrase is deployed in an effort, first, to undercut connection to outward forms and to the church (warehouses of the bodily, by way of mediated living and communality); second, to engender an unhealthy independence from all other relationships except this one (thus making "this one" the far end of a continuum of ordinary "relationships," and so a case of soft idolatry); and, third, to facilitate a disembodied spirituality focused on an ever-present spooky companion who can always be relied upon to affirm me-and-my-decisions. And so we have it: the ever-reliant, ever-friendly, ever-smiling Jesus of American pop evangelicalism.

This Jesus is, of course, a terrifying (and quite new) hybrid creation of human hands, often innocent but at times deeply harmful in ugly and lasting ways, certainly to the gospel but no less to actual people's lives. Whole books have been written on the subject, so more of my two cents is unneeded.

My claim, however, is that there is another way of using the expression that both intends something substantially different than what is taken to be its more common use, and commends itself as theologically defensible, even valuable (in content if not in now-ruined parlance). This second glossing goes something like this: "personal relationship with Jesus" signifies that mediated but intimate relation, both communal and individual, to the risen crucified Messiah given to the church in the power of the Spirit.

Per this reading, "personal" stands in merely as antithesis to impersonal: God is no self-projected abstraction nor some generic numinousness, but rather living and acting, with a name and a story; a Person, not a thing -- or better, a communion of Persons, a personal communion, and therefore ripe for relation. (One encounters this emphasis especially in older church members who grew up in profoundly strict "religious" environments. The discovery that God is not a capricious and distant object to be appeased by formalized dead ritual is received as the genuine good news that it is.)

This brings us to the second term: "relationship" need not connote radical individualism or lack of mediation. It names, rather, the fact that what happens in the Christ event, in the incarnation of the living God among us, is the objective and subjective "new relation" in which humanity as a structural whole, and the church as a proleptic foretaste, stands before God. This "personal relationship" is neither islanded as an ideal nor alienated by distance, but, paradigmatically, is marked by the fellowship and mediation of life in community oriented "in both directions" by and to the God revealed in Jesus.

And who is this Jesus? Is it the ghost who puts to rest our fear that we might be wrong? No, this One is the crucified Jesus now risen in the power of God's Spirit -- and so the Jesus of both judgment and forgiveness, the true Jesus who speaks the divine No and the divine Yes, together and unseparated, on each of our lives. It is this Jesus and no other with whom we have, because we have been given, together, a "personal relationship."

Though the theological articulacy may be slight, and the terminology less than exact, and the usage at times slippery with ambiguity -- with the temptation never absent to adduce guilt by association -- this latter glossed meaning is, I propose, often as not the intended one. And whether it is or not, for those of us who hail from the tiny ranks of the theologically trained, ever ready with linguistic scalpel in hand, it seems a reasonable enough act of charity to let our first assumption be the better and the more respectable one.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Gillian Welch

One of my favorite albums of the year so far is Gillian Welch's The Harrow & the Harvest, so I thought this week we'd take a break from poetry proper for some good ol' country lyrics. Note especially that vivid second verse, which contains my personal favorite of her mashed-up metaphors: "Working the lowlands door-to-door / Like a latter day saint." Nice.

The Way It Will Be

By Gillian Welch

I lost you a while ago
But still I don't know why
I can't say your name
Without a crow flying by
Got to watch my back
Now that you've turned me around
Got me walking backwards
In my hometown

Throw me a rope
On the rolling tide
What did you want me to be
He said it's him or me
The way you made it
That's the way it will be

It was seven years on the burnin' shore
With gatling guns and paint
Working the lowlands door-to-door
Like a latter day saint
Then you turn me out
At the top of the stairs
You took all the glory
That you just couldn't share

I've never been so disabused
I've never been so mad
I've never been served anything
That tasted so bad
You might need a friend
Any day now, any day
Oh my brother, be careful
You are drifting away

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On Losing the Plot: Musings About a Historical Fall, Original Sin, and the Gospel Story

Outside of certain self-consciously entrenched and/or conservative theological quarters, the notion of a historical "fall" into sin on the part of humanity is, to put it mildly, out of fashion. Even for those who want to identify a theologically sophisticated way of locating some "first" set or pair or community of identifiable human beings in the evolutionary tree, and so open a way to understand some kind of "fall" in their communal life together, do not -- so far as I know -- imagine a prior created order full of unmitigated bliss matched by an absence of sickness, biological death, and the like.

Thus, what seems to be most broadly assumed, for those seeking to remain within traditional ecumenical theological claims -- particularly having to do with sin's universality and its systemic deep-rootedness -- is that, in Kierkegaard's words, "sin posits itself." As David Kelsey expands on the phrase and on the concept, "original sin" is an acceptable term so long as it serves explanatory, not (what he calls) "genetic," purposes. (As it happens, I often misremember this latter term as "genital" -- which, in a real sense, identifies the traditional theme quite well in its own way.) That is, original sin names the condition of human being; whatever caused sin in the first place or causes sin at all is nothing for the doctrine to answer: as surd, as shadow of that which is good, there is nothing either to explain or to discover the origin of. It is simply there; it posits itself. In its very lack of origin and meaning it carries its essence as sheer negative, as death-dealing shatterer of meanings.

All this is well and good, but my sense is that the consensus mistakes a part for the whole. To be sure, one emphasis within the traditional "genetic" accounts of (original) sin was to find some explanation, some origin, some founding event that would help to make sense of how sin could be present -- seemingly omnipresent -- in a world Christians have always claimed God created good and without sin. On one side, it is an apologetic move, attempting to answer challenges from the outside; but it is also a catechetical move, seeking to find a way to raise up disciples who know that God is not the author of sin. So even if "finding a reason for sin" was inevitably a fool's errand, the attempt nevertheless does make sense on a number of accounts.

But the "search for a meaningful explanation" of sin is not the entirety of the "genetic" account. There is also what we might call the narratival aspect, and this is what contemporary theologians seem to elide or even to forget. In short, "the fall of man" was not merely a piece in a larger conceptual puzzle about God and human creation; it was also, perhaps even more so, a stage in the story of God and the world. Hence the great moments in the traditional theological narrative: creation, fall, redemption, glory. Yet in taking away anything like an identifiable (read: story-tell-able) event of humanity's falling into sin in the gospel story of God and God's creation, theologians, thinking they were being faithful to the historical record as well as amending a well-meant but wrongheaded philosophical predilection, have in fact swept the feet out from underneath the church's ability to proclaim a coherent salvific narrative.

Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), I have no quick remedy for this situation. I am as baffled as any other Christian desiring to be faithful both to history (evolutionary biology; no pre-fall idyllic creation sans disease and death) and to the gospel story (a good creation; God not authoring sin; nevertheless: sin; God in Christ forgiving sin and reconciling sinners) as to how to fit the pieces together. However, I am convinced that we shouldn't leave the two apart, much less splice them up for separate discourses; and, moreover, that we can't just leave it at "sin posits itself," lest we abandon storytelling in missional, apologetic, and catechetical proclamation. I for one think this particular plot point to be too important to give up without further critical reflection; nor does it seem at all unripe for creative reformulation today.

The challenge, therefore: How might Christian theologians go about reformulating the doctrine of (original) sin, all the while remaining faithful to the essential plot points of the gospel story, including humanity's being created good yet proving sinful, without indicting God as the author of sin (and so proposing a creation created good-and-sinful), and simultaneously keeping true to the historical record?