Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"It Can Only Love": Karl Barth on the "Penultimate Seriousness" of the Church's Eschatological Politics

"But knowing the new reality of world history even if only in Him and as hidden in Him, [the community] is not merely enabled and authorized but also compelled and commanded to see world history as such very differently from the way in which the rest of humanity can see it. This is not because, in relation to the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow, it has certain higher or deeper insights than others which it can weave into a Christian theory of the meaning and course of world history and then teach to others. We are thinking of something much more solid. As the new reality of world history is made known to the people of God in Jesus Christ, it is enabled, permitted and commanded to see things very differently in practice, to participate in world history very differently in its own attitude and action, than is the case with those who do not yet have knowledge of this new reality. Knowing Him whom others do not know, it sees it very differently to the extent that it now exists and participates in it very differently.

"And when we say 'very differently' we do not mean this hypothetically, in the nature of an 'as if,' but in full and true reality on the basis of its knowledge of the true reality. Its faith may be only faith and not sight. But it is faith in Jesus Christ and therefore knowledge of what has taken place in Him. It is also obedient faith. It thus anticipates the appearance of that which already is but is not yet manifested. In its faith, which is both knowledge and obedience, it affirms already the transformation in which world-occurrence will be presented to it and to all humanity in the final, universal and definitive revelation of Jesus Christ, accepting the fact that this transformation has already taken place in His life and death and resurrection. Nor is this faith and anticipation an idle speculating and gaping. As obedience it is a resolute being and attitude and action. It is in this resoluteness that its view of world history will display the distinctiveness which makes it so different, so unique, as the Christian view. It is in this resoluteness that the people of God is already in its existence in world history a witness to the kingdom which it can se to have come already in Jesus Christ but towards the coming of which in direct and universal visibility it still looks forward. It is only in this resoluteness that it can and will properly discharge its ministry as a witness of Jesus Christ to the rest of man, as a people of those who see among the blind.

"This is the resoluteness of a definite confidence. We refer to confidence in Jesus Christ and Him alone. But as such, in all its exclusiveness, this is true and total confidence. In world-occurrence the people of God sees no more than others. Even more soberly than others, it sees in it the great rift between above and below, between light and darkness. With even sharper eyes than others it recognizes here the antithesis between the rule of God and the confusion of men. But it sees the same things differently. And the difference is real and indeed total to the extent that it always begins with the confidence, and may return to it, that in spite of everything the history which takes place is that of the world already reconciled to God. In spite of everything, the man who acts and postures on this stage, who in wickedness and folly, being blind to what he already is in Jesus Christ, thinks and speaks and acts, and arranges his sorry compromises, and sins, and causes so much suffering to himself and others, is the man who stands in the covenant with God which is already fulfilled. The order which is now so shamelessly and with such pregnant consequences attacked and violated, but which cannot be overthrown, is that which has been already and irrevocably restored.

"The people of God has no illusions about what goes on beneath its eyes, and not without its own participation. But it knows that in what takes place it is dealing with the passing and vanishing of a form of the world which is already judged, removed and outmoded by the coming and secret presence of the kingdom, so that, although it takes it seriously in all its consecutive and fading pictures, in none of them can it take it with ultimate, but only, as is proper, with penultimate seriousness. Or more positively, it knows that under, behind and in all that will be and is seen, there is concealed, and presses towards the light, the new form of the world which alone must be taken with first and final seriousness.

"Hence it can share neither the enthusiasm of those who regard the old form as capable of true and radical improvement nor the skepticism of those who in view of the impossibility of perfecting the old form think that they are compelled to doubt the possibility of a new form. It need judge no man either optimistically or pessimistically because in relation to all, whatever their virtues and accomplishments or their faults and blasphemies and crimes, it is sure of the one fact that Jesus Christ has lived and died and risen again for them too. In face of the disorder of historical relationships and interconnections it can yield neither to reactionary spasms on the one hand nor to revolutionary on the other, because in relation to the reality of history already present in Jesus Christ it knows how provisional and improper is all the construction and destruction of man, or more positively how definitive and proper are the demolition and rebuilding which have already taken place in Jesus Christ and only wait to be manifested in the world on behalf of which they have been accomplished. This is the confidence with which the community confronts world history and the rest of humanity which does not share it. In world-occurrence it can neither fear for it nor be afraid of it, nor can it fear for nor be afraid of the humanity which acts within it as if it still had ground or presupposition on which to do so.

"But just because it cannot fear, it cannot hate, and therefore basically, whether it finds it easy or difficult, it can only love. At bottom and in the long run it can only be pro, i.e., for men, since God in Jesus Christ is and has decided for them. It cannot be anti, i.e., against even individuals. Obviously it does not discuss or ponder its confidence. Nor does it experiment with it. What would become of it if it were regarded as marketable in this way? Nor does it resolve to maintain it. Since it is the community which has been called by Jesus Christ and which therefore knows Him, the decision has been made for it. It has no option but to maintain it. In all the necessity of its commitment to and orientation on Him, it can do no other. It thus maintains it, and it lives within world-occurrence with this great confidence."

--Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.2, pp. 716-718 (originally two paragraphs; emphases mine)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On Preaching Christ By Any Means: Means and Ends in Evangelism

In church discussions concerning popular evangelism, one often encounters the sentiment that, however odd or imperfect or even distasteful a certain kind of proselytism may seem to us, we ought to follow Paul in rejoicing that Christ is nevertheless being proclaimed (see Philippians 1:15-18). The reference is usually made quite sincerely, even to the detriment of the speaker -- i.e., "It may seem strange or wrong to me, but I should get over myself and my narrow predilections (or even standards), and recognize that the gospel is being preached. Who knows what God might do through or in spite of such practices?" However, while granting the spirit in which this attitude is typically expressed, I find it to be at once a conversation-stopper and theologically misguided, not to mention a misinterpretation of Paul.

Moreover, behind and alongside these would-be big-tent statements there is a sort of shadow side to them, namely a generic tolerance articulated as a desire not to "judge" others. This motivation surfaces especially in broadly evangelical discussions of different kinds of churches and worship practices -- i.e., "Though I don't agree with the mega-church model (or preacher-centered congregations, or technology-obsessed worship, or simplistic Jesus-prayer altar calls), I've known great Christians who do -- so who am I to limit God's ability to work in places I wouldn't expect to find him?" The implication that tends to follow is that one ought not to express any kind of real or substantive criticism of such practices and ideologies, since there is evidence Christians have been produced and/or sustained by them.

Again, though this is often well-intended, I think it is largely wrong-headed. I often find it helpful to clarify with an extreme example that reveals that all of us do, in fact, have a clear limit to our nonjudgmental ways. For example, imagine an evangelist who finds people walking alone on the street and beats them (while preaching) until they relent and confess Christian faith. For the sake of argument, let's also imagine that, oddly enough, the propositional content of this evangelist's preachments is doctrinally sound. No Christian would respond to news of this style of evangelism with approval, much less a resigned sigh of "Well, at least Christ is being proclaimed." Rather, they would react with shock and horror, and would want to see this person brought to justice and/or to persuade the person to stop immediately. Why? Because the means of the witness do not match the end; the form is incongruent with the content; the medium is ill fitting to the message. The truth of the Prince of Peace is rendered false -- the good news bad -- through the use of violence in the telling of it.

So, as in most matters, there is a continuum: In certain qualified instances, the imperfect communication of the gospel is worth celebrating in spite of what may be regrettable aspects involved therein; nevertheless, a line is crossed when the concrete shape of proclamation is so discordant with its subject -- Christ -- that it ceases to be the gospel but something else that is proclaimed. In that case it must either stop or be altered substantially; either way, it is something to lament, condemn, counter, repent of, rather than laud or encourage or rejoice in.

If this account is true, then it would be better to refuse the temptation to qualify or discredit our judgment of evangelistic practices for reasons of humility or celebration of Christ's proclamation by any means. Instead, we ought to develop and maintain, in dialogue with our sisters and brothers in Christ, the criteria by which we will in fact, and must, make such judgments, along with disciplined practices that nurture the kind of prudential wisdom that is crucial to their being applied in ways that are neither arrogant nor condemnatory.

To put some meat on these bones, allow me to share a story. A few weeks ago, standing on the quad at Yale while waiting for a friend, a man approached me and immediately started talking to me. Without introducing himself, asking my name, or looking me in the eye, he launched into what was clearly a rehearsed presentation of "the gospel." As he spoke he got out a tract and flipped through the pages, which contained illustrations of the gap between MAN and GOD resultant from SIN, the bridge between which ended up being -- surprise! -- the cross of JESUS. Arriving speedily at the last page, I was told that if I read aloud the four-line prayer printed there for my benefit, I would be saved from the hellish consequences of my sins and given eternal life in heaven. After about five minutes of this nonstop, I was finally able to interrupt the man and explain, first, that I was a Christian, and second, that I was waiting on a friend who was about to arrive. Looking both surprised and disappointed, the man went on to tell of how at one time he wasn't a Christian, but that after he converted he earned raises at work and has flourished ever since. As well, his life has been blessed spiritually, not least due to how wonderful (and important) it is to tell others about the gospel. With that, my friend appeared, and we walked away.

Based on the foregoing, ought we to rejoice that through this man Christ is being proclaimed? My answer is a flat no. Nothing about his demeanor, presence, words, or message was in alignment with the gospel ostensibly being shared. I was insulted, accosted, annoyed, even disgusted. Had I not already been a Christian, I would have been outraged and wholly turned off by this absurd instance of fanatical proselytizing. In short, this was not Christian evangelism -- that is, witness to the gospel, the evangel. It was anti-gospel; or put differently, it was testimony to "another gospel" (Galatians 1:8), evangelization on behalf of an impersonal, intrusive, unloving, hyper-propositional, non-ecclesial, individualized, utterly self-serving "gospel." Not the good news of the crucified and risen Messiah of Israel, but the bad news of some other lord -- in this case, from what I could tell, the instant gratification of one of the many American McDeities on offer from fundamentalism's pantheon.

It should be clear that I am entirely uninterested in whether this man has ever found success in getting some poor victim to read the magic prayer at the end of his tract; equally so in whether any such convert has emerged from that haze into full-bodied Christian faith. My contention, rather, is twofold. Not only should we be willing to judge, and actually judge, this man's efforts faulty and unfaithful; the fact that he is "preaching Christ" is worse, rather than better, for the cause of God's mission in the world. It is a matter, not for joy, but for lament.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Garrett Horder

I meant to post this yesterday -- you know, on Sunday -- but wasn't able to get to it. So here's some belated sabbath poetry on a Monday evening. We sang this hymn at church, and the lyrics were strikingly profound. My favorite image: Jesus kneeling to pray in Galilee, "sharing with [God] / the silence of eternity / interpreted by love" -- incredible! Enjoy.

- - - - - - -

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind

By Garrett Horder (adapted from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier)

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wolfhart Pannenberg on Whether God's Glory is the Reason God Created the World

"In the older Protestant dogmatics the idea of a direct self-reference of the divine action whereby God is its final goal was adopted in the form of the statement that the glory of God and its recognition and praising by creatures is the goal of creation. In the discussions it is not always clear whether this is the goal of the act of creation or of the resultant creaturely reality. Undoubtedly the biblical testimonies tell us that it is the destiny of creatures to praise and honor God and to extol his glory. Herein the existence of creatures, and especially of human creatures, reaches its fulfillment (Rev. 19:1ff), for thus they participate in the Son's glorifying of the Father (John 17:4). Thus it is our human destiny and the goal of our existence to glorify God by our lives. Our sin is our withholding from God the honor that is due him as Creator (Rom. 1:21). Nevertheless, it is rather a different thing to maintain that the basis of God's resolve to create the world was that thereby he might glorify himself. Certainly the work that God created redounds to his glory. We may say this at any rate in the light of the eschatological consummation of the world and in believing anticipation of this future of God, which will resolve all doubts concerning theodicy. Every creature should confess, then, that the world was made for God's glory.

"Nevertheless, the creature was not created in order that God should receive glory from it. God does not need this, for he is already God in himself from all eternity. He does not need to become God through his action or much less become sure of his deity in the mirror of creaturely praise. A God who first and last sought his own glory in his action would be a model for the attitude that in us constitutes the perversion of sin in the form of self-seeking (amor sui). As the activation and expression of his free love, God's creative action is oriented wholly to creatures. They are both the object and the goal of creation. Herein is his glory as Creator, the glory of the Father, who is glorified by the Son and by the Spirit in creatures."

--Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology: Volume 2, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994 [1991]), 56-57

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

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

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.