Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year: Some Resolutions Pertaining to Blogging

Could some one tell me what exactly happened to the year 2010?  I feel like it just kinda disappeared.  And at the same time so much happened that it feels like it was an eternity.  A whirlwind conundrum is what I have concluded it is.  Time is an illusion.

So as the year winds down and a new one gears up, I have been thinking a bit about what to do with this blog.  When I started this in undergrad I assumed no one would ever read it.  Later, a few friends told me they occasionally looked at.  That was kinda cool.  Lately more and more people have told me they actually read what gets put up here.  Which is honoring and frightening at the same time.  But I still assumed I had fewer readers than fingers.  Just recently blogger added a new feature- a page view counter that shows the number of hits a site receives.  I was stunned to discover that this blog has nearly fourteen-hundred hits since last May (when blogger started counting)!  But spread out over eight months that amounts to be about six a day, which doesn't seem that significant.  Using my super-power abilities as the manager of this page, I was able to see how many of those hits are in the last month.  Its something close to 350, about a quarter of the total hits, bringing last months' average to about twelve hits a day.  Given that I have put up only five posts in the last month (most of them in the last week), I am assuming that these are not the same twelve people every day.  In other words, this blog's readership has been significantly growing recently.

From my perspective as a writer, that changes how I view this a little bit.  I'm not just spitting out my thoughts in stream of conscious blabber that no one ever looks at anymore.  Nor is it just a few close friends and peers who are studying the same material I am with the same intensity who can and will tell me I'm an idiot when I say something stupid or irresponsible.  Many of the people I have received direct comments about this blog from are not studying theology or philosophy for a living.  Which is most certainly not to say they are not capable of understanding what is written here.  But like every field, the farther you get into it the more jargon you become acquainted with that others outside the "guild" don't readily know.  I am fairly certain I am guilty of using a lot of that jargon here in a way that is probably not helpful to those who are not studying the same things I am studying.  Another frequent comment that I have received is that my posts are really long.  Which is definitely true…. And again, probably not helpful or encouraging to readers.

So one thing that I want to do with the new year is to make this blog a little more reader friendly.  Less jargon and shorter posts are the goals, which probably also means more frequent posts.  Feedback is always welcome to let me know how I'm doing with that. 

One other major goal I have for the new year is to get back into the performance of music.  I have decided that I miss that too much.  I have also been a bit disappointed in the local music scene in New Haven.  Birmingham had a fantastic scene of local artists like Wild Sweet Orange, Justin Cross, Matthew Mayfield, etc.   Primarily in New Haven what I have seen is lots of fantastic classical music, which is great.  But there really doesn't seem to be much for folk/rock/acoustic type music, which is what I really love.  So tentatively I want to try and get back into playing that kind of music and find a few venues in New Haven to play at.  So how does this relate to blogging?  I am toying with the idea of starting a Tumbler account to post song lyrics and recordings for feedback and publicity…  Any thoughts?

The New Perspective on Paul and Theology

A third post on the New Perspective on Paul in as many days… This will probably mark the end of this discussion for a while on this blog, but these thoughts were inspired by another section of the response to my initial post by my friend Nick.  This is not as much a rejoinder to his comments as just continued thinking inspired by his comments, so no quotation here.

The basic thought is this: does the debate about "Justification" that swirls around the NPP necessarily follow from what the NPP says or is it something resulting from other doctrinal debates that the NPP simply interacts with?  My theory is this: the difference between the Reformed "traditional" understanding of Justification and the "NPP" understanding of Justification, particularly as found in NT Wright, has more to do with Wright being of the Anglican tradition, and thus closer to Catholic theology to begin with, than it has to do with something that the NPP actually says.

In its most basic form it seems that the New Perspective is arguing for a reading of Paul's statements about the law in light of the Second Temple understanding of the law as a boundary marker setting apart the Jews as the people of God.  I have argued in the previous two posts that this idea is somewhat present in the Old Testament law itself- the people are to be different from the world around them.  However, it seems to have gained a new level of exclusivity in the Second Temple period, leading to a debate about whether gentile converts to Christianity had to submit to Jewish legal practices. 

In and of itself I think this is as far as the New Perspective has to go.  Theological questions about the meaning of justification or the order of salvation are not themselves issues of Biblical Studies proper and the New Perspective, in its pure form, is part of the discipline of Biblical Studies.  However, inevitably Theology and Biblical Studies are linked and we do move from Paul to our theology and ask these questions.  One criticism that has often been levied against the NPP is that there is no unified NPP understanding of justification or other such theological issues.  However, because such questions necessarily involve a move beyond simply interpreting the text to a theological proposition in which other factors come into play, it may not be possible to have a consensus on such questions.  So the former Church of England Bishop NT Wright, who has a tendency toward a more Catholic theology anyway, takes a much more Catholic sounding reading of Justification from the NPP, arguing that inclusion in Christ leads to a "life lived" on which the basis of final judgment will be made.  In contrast, the very Reformed (though interestingly, now Methodist) James Dunn argues (as best I understand him) that the question of Justification is not an individual doctrine but pertains to the entire community found in Christ (and not exclusively the community found in the Jewish law).

Essentially, the point of this post is fairly simple.  I am arguing that the New Perspective itself does not dictate a particular theology.  The New Perspective is an attempt to read Paul in light of his Second Temple influences, which I have argued also gives a reading with much more continuity to the Old Testament than a "traditional"/dispensational reading of Paul.  Beyond that, as we develop a theology from Paul, there are a variety of other factors that come into play that will shape that theology.  I'm not sure that distinction has been appreciated enough in debates and discussions about the NPP.  Most "Reformed" critics of the New Perspective that I have read immediately attack the theological conclusion of Wright, for instance, without recognizing that his theological conclusion has as much to do with his Anglicanism as it does his understanding of Second Temple Judaism.  In doing so, I think they miss the mark and in effect are not actually dealing with the issues raised by the NPP.  This may be the greatest irony of the debate- a tradition founded on the principle of sola scriptura is more concerned with preserving a particular theology than dealing with issues related to the interpretation of the text.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Responding to an Interlocutor

I have greatly enjoyed this post and first wish to affirm you in your task of trying to correctly understand the reformers. The debate on the NPP touches on many different arenas of scholarship of which historical theology happens to be one of the most affected and rightly so. For when we see that certain themes of what the gospel is (such the gospel being the declaration of Jesus’ Messiahship) was already there in Luther and Calvin, then when we approach NPP proponents the issue of “see what’s wrong with them” dissolves. As a result what we are left with is: What does the Bible have to say on the matter? In other words, such clarity moves us closer to Scripture and reframes the debate. I would love to have more of your thoughts on the similarities of the reformed thinks and the NPP. Also you should read Dr. Bird’s discussion on the matter in his book The Saving Righteousness of God, 67-69.

A good friend of mine, who will possibly be starting his own blog soon (look forward to reading it, Nick), has responded to my thoughts on the NPP.  I have not read a lot of Michael Bird, but the bit that I have read has impressed me, he is a good and very active scholar.  So even though I haven't read The Saving Righteousness of God I'm including Nick's recommendation here for a good scholarly overview of some of these issues.  Nick and I have had many a debate about this topic which I have always enjoyed.  In the spirit of that friendly discourse and of academic dialogue, here are a couple segments of his lengthy (and witty/entertaining/Seinfeld informed) response and some rejoinders:

This brings me to the real issue of the matter and the pivotal objection conservative Evangelicals have against the NPP: How is a righteous God going to save or justify an ungodly and unrighteous person?

Again let’s interact with the OT picture here. However, let me first respond to another statement you have made concerning the OT and salvation:

"There is no hypothetical offer of Salvation in the Old Testament. Perfectly obeying the law does not result in salvation. From the perspective of the Old Testament, the law is given to those who already have Salvation! The rescued people of Israel, formed into a covenant as God's chosen people, are given the law to set them apart from the rest of the world, to maintain their status as God's people."

You’re right on the mark concerning the point that salvation was not received through one's obedience to the law (a type of hypothetical view which I firmly reject and would agree with Wright here, and it is quite lovely of you to reject such a view as well), but rather that one could never perfectly obey it. I think you must read how the narratives of the OT are showing you this theology. The point of the Law and Deuteromistic theology was not what one could achieve or who a person was, but rather that one was incapable of doing so. Yes the law along with other ritualistic and ethical markers did set the Jewish people apart, but this was not its main force and purpose. I will say that there is some elements of Deuteromistic history and theology (Deut. 28) that would say do this and be blessed, do this and be clobbered ( kind of a merit theology). However, following Paul's encouragement that we should read the OT in its entire flow we get a much different picture. How does Deuteronomy end? With Moses not getting into the land. How revolting are the last few chapters of Judges? Then we come to the kings. Saul had a lot of promise but how well did he and the nation end up? Yes, David was a man after God’s own heart; however, he comments adultery and murder and thus I wonder what kind of man he would have been like if he wasn’t a man after God’s own heart…right? Then a few centuries later the Davidic dynasty has ended with a puppet king on the throne and the majority of the people in exile. Therefore, what we see from the force and focus of the OT narrative history of Israel is not a history and theology which gives one the impression that if you’re only good enough and faithful then you’ll receive God’s blessings, and sometimes we make it and sometimes we don’t, but rather much closer and accurate to the way Paul reads it: The Law multiplies transgressions and teaches us how much of a dirty rotten bunch of sinners we are, and therefore highlighting how much we are in need of grace.

In other words, the Law shows us who we are in light of who God is, and therefore our only hope of gaining blessing and avoiding cursing is not by our own merit but by the gracious and atoning work of Christ. I feel that if we are to correctly understand what the OT is saying about our inability to please God on our own, then what Christ has done for us on the cross has enabled us to do so. In other words, if there is judgment associated with sinful humanity apart from grace, then there must be some appeasement associated with Christ’s death and resurrection. We must in some way be seen in Christ (See Rom 4-6).

I feel like this is slipping back into the dispensational reading.  If the point of the law is to show us that we can't keep the law, then it seems very difficult to say that keeping the law would not result in salvation, in other words, that a hypothetical offer does exist in the law.  I don't feel like this is a reading of the OT on its own terms, it’s a reading through the lens of a particular reading of Paul (and thus you end up back in Romans in your interpretation of the Torah).

To address two themes of the Torah that are touched on here that might shed some light (or not) on this: 

First, the blessing and cursing language.  We need to keep the logic of the covenant in mind, here.  The covenant starts off with a statement recalling (from the past) God's saving work for the people (their liberation from Egypt).  Then they are given the law which they are to obey as God's Covenant People.  Then they are told that if they obey this law they will be blessed and if not they will be cursed.  The idea is that the obedience of the law pertains to the maintenance of the Covenant, not its creation.  Now with this logic in the background, we can move toward Paul.  Paul, when he speaks about human sinfulness, is generally quoting from the prophets or the Psalms and is thus reflecting the historical "working out" of the covenant that was made in the Torah.  In reality, the people did not keep the covenant, and thus they end up in exile.  And so the prophets and Psalmists make statements like "every one of them is sinful" describing their unfaithfulness and their deserving of the punishment brought on them.  Paul picks up that language to describe the human condition.  But notice, especially in Romans, the logic of Paul's own thought.  He begins by critiquing Gentile idolatry.  Then he critiques the Jews for their own idolatry (coming straight out of the prophets, but applying it to the Hellenism of his own day) and concludes that neither Jew not Gentile is in covenant with God and thus Christ must establish a new Covenant for all humanity.

Second, the idea of "earning" or "deserving" salvation.  There are repeated statements in Deuteronomy that what has been done/is being done for the people is not because they in any way deserve it because they are just a stiff-necked, obstinate people.  Seemingly, that plays right into the "traditional" reading of Paul's reading of the OT.  But it’s a proof text if we stop there because every single one of these statements continues on with "but God made a promise to your ancestors and he is fulfilling it through you."  Which clouds up the traditional reading of Paul's reading a good bit: did the ancestors deserve this?  A straightforward reading of the OT seems to suggest that they did… So were they righteous on their own account?  Well…  Genesis kinda makes it sound that way.  So if we want to uphold the traditional reading of Paul's reading, we start having to do some tricky exegesis of Genesis.  Or, my suggestion, is that we re-read Paul in light of what we read in Genesis and the rest of the Torah, this covenant model I've been outlining, and then I think we have good deal less conflict in our interpretations (but we might have to adjust our Reformed theology a little bit).

I would like to end my comments with a question for you to responsd to or write about in the future: How does God save the ungodly? This of course brings us to the issues related to the NPP and their view on what justification means (is it as you stated that you are in the covenantal people group?) and also their view of imputation. I would greatly enjoy to hear your responses to what I’ve said above, and your answers to the questions that I have asked you. Thank you for all the hard work that went into such a post.

I'm not sure how specific of an answer you are looking for or how specific of one I can give.  But in general terms, my understanding is based on a kind of narrative reading of scripture.  Humanity, meant to image God, to represent God, has in general rejected God's commands and brought a curse upon itself.  I say in general because we have stories like that of Enoch and Noah and Abraham which seem go against the pattern.  Recognizing that a Calvinist can interpret those stories in a way that fits into their schema, I think that goes against the grain of the narrative, so at least for now that tendency needs to be put to the side.

So in general, humanity has rejected God.  God sets out to redeem humanity.  My understanding is that this redemption does not just involve an imputing of grace so that we sinful people are pardoned and able to enter the heavenly court, though I think covering grace probably is part of the picture.  Full redemption, however, is something that I think involves a restoring of us to be people who are in a covenant relationship with God.  In other words, it involves a substantive change or transformation in our own character, in our present lives.  That seems to be the pattern of redemption in the OT- Its not just that Noah is saved from the flood, its that creation is restarted with Noah, a righteous man; the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai doesn't just establish that they worship God, it sets them apart as a people who are different from other people in noticeable ways; the prophets aren't just looking for forgiveness, they want the nation to come back from exile and a just, God-honoring kingdom to be established.  So redemption is a process that affects more than just our status on a divine judicial ledger, its also a process of internal transformation of who we are and how we relate to our world.  I think, which you will probably be in disagreement with, that this transformation has to take a synergistic form, that it is the result of both God working in us and of us cooperating with and reaching out to God.  Ultimately, this leads to my understanding of a very tight bond between faith and obedience, making the two terms almost synonymous (but not quite).

I'm intentionally avoiding using the term "justification."  That term I think relates to a legal metaphor for this process of which other metaphors also exist in the New Testament.  Each of these metaphors is helpful, but I want to resist the urge to exalt one over all the others (though if pressed, I do rather like the Christus Victor motif).  I'm also resisting the idea of an "order of salvation" which is so loved in the Reformed Tradition.  I think that system develops from a canon within the canon reading of Paul, which you might gather that I would be very resistant to.  I think Paul is helpful, but only if we understand him in light of the stuff that comes before him, not the other way around.  Starting from Paul and creating a somewhat artificial system that we then squeeze the rest of the Bible into is, in my view, very bad exegesis.  So for both of those reasons I'm not sure I'm really answering the question on the terms you want an answer, but that's what I got.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Old Testament and the New Perspective on Paul

I ducked out of New Haven just in time!  Left last Thursday for Tennessee to visit the family.  Today the Northeast has been slammed with a blizzard, apparently they are getting a foot to a foot and half of snow in costal Connecticut.  Which will probably still be on the ground when I make it back up there Friday.  But still… I am rather glad to be where I am right now…  We got snow in the south as well, but when we get snow its like a light dusting that lasts for three hours and still manages to shut down entire states… I'm not looking forward to walking to class or to work in a foot of snow come January or February!

While here in TN for Christmas I have been thinking a bit about a topic I haven't really touched in a while- the New Perspective on Paul.  I was very intrigued by this school of thought in undergrad, but honestly after initially studying it and deciding it seemed to make more sense of Paul than most other interpretations I'd read, I didn't really do much with it.  I am far more interested in studying the Old Testament than Paul, and so after an initial fling I kinda moved on from studying this issue critically and did other things.  But lately I've been thinking about it more again.  I had a conversation with a good friend the other day in which I tried, probably not very clearly, to explain the NPP.  Then I just recently read a bunch of blog posts by some New Testament scholars who were at the ETS conference in which Wright and Schreiner went head to head on this issue.  Apparently (I wish I had been there, I need to go find a recording or a transcript of this) Wright made some comment that they took as a concession to Schreiner on the issue of Justification.  I love (in the most drippingly sarcastic way possible) how so many Evangelical theologians just assume that they have all of theology figured out; many of the posts took the form of smugly congratulating Wright on his seeing the light and correcting prior statements… Then today I heard a sermon that I think perfectly encapsulated some of the difficulties of the "popular"  Reformed position that motivate a lot of my reasons for being interested in the NPP.

So here is a basic argument for why I think the NPP is a preferable interpretation of Paul.  Two disclaimers before we go any farther.  First, I am dealing primarily with what I understand as the "popular" interpretation of Paul in Reformed, Evangelical circles where the NPP is being met with the most hostility.  Many scholars in the Reformed tradition would not face some of the issues I am raising, but I am not nearly ambitious enough right now to take them on in all the nuances of their ivory towers.  So we are keeping this post on the popular level.  Second, I am not making a traditional presentation of the NPP, which centers on interpreting Paul in a first century context in light of what we know of Second Temple Judaism.  Fascinating as all of that is, I don't know enough about it to deal with it in any sort of rigorous way.  But I have spent a good amount of time studying the Old Testament, and so what I am arguing for is a reading of Paul from the perspective of the Old Testament.

The typical "popular" interpretation of Paul in Evangelical circles reflects a particular way of systematizing the Reformers.  Reformers like Luther and Calvin were responding to particular abuses in Catholic theology such as the selling of indulgences and the excessive homage to relics which were really in many ways political ploys by the Medieval Church.  Convince the people that they can only reach heaven by doing certain works that are only available through the Church and you suddenly have quite a bit of political power over the populace.  In contrast, Luther and Calvin want to emphasize the role of Faith over Works- jumping through the hoops laid out by the Catholic Church was not the road to Salvation, the road to Salvation was found in Christ alone, and was accessed through your faith in Christ, not any particular action or ceremony performed by the clergy or yourself.  Now its important to note that none of the major Reformers took this to mean that we should do away with all the ceremonies of the Church.  Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all still baptized infants. They all offered Mass to their congregations.  They just wanted to do so in a way that emphasized that the action of being baptized or of receiving communion did not itself grant you salvation.  Your faith was what led you to God, the actions you took as part of that faith were just acts if not accompanied by such faith.

I can't speak much for the development of Lutheran thought since the Reformation, but I have spent a good amount of time studying the development of the Reformed tradition that followed from Calvin.  In that tradition a particular emphasis on systematizing doctrine has been present for a long time that has led to a number of splits- for instance, the divide between Calvinists and Arminians and Wesleyans.  Particularly in Evangelical Circles there has developed a theology known as Dispensationalism.  Dispensationalism in many ways pits the New Testament against the Old Testament.  It takes a rhetorical move of Martin Luther and turns it into a systematic understanding of the relationship between the two parts of the Bible.  In this understanding, the Old Testament really does offer the possibility of Salvation to anyone who can keep the whole law.  However, as Paul kindly informs us, this is not possible because we are all sinners.  Therefore, we are in need of a savior who has kept the whole law perfectly and therefore nullified it.  Now our salvation is not dependent on the keeping of the law, it is dependent on our faith in Christ who has kept it for us.  This plays nicely into the substitutionary model of the atonement and an imputed model of grace, both of which are very important to Calvinist doctrines of salvation.  So in Evangelical Reformed theology, even among those that explicitly deny being dispensational, we can see a heavy influence of dispensational thinking on the understanding of how the Old Testament and New interact and relate to one another.  Thus, the ideas of faith and works are radically opposed to one another. 

We can immediately pose a question: where do works fit into this schema? 

The Reformers would, as far as I understand them, all want to say that out of our faith grows a desire to do good works of worship and service to God.  This was a natural result of faith they would say, and its absence pointed to an absence of faith.  Under the influence of dispensational thought in Evangelical circles this becomes a bit more murky.  The Old Testament law and prophets have generally been almost completely disregarded in a way that to me seems dangerously close to the ancient heresy of Marcion.  Sure, Jesus restates the law in the commandments to love God and neighbor.  But far too often in Evangelical circles there has been a tendency to interpret "love" of God and neighbor in a way that rings of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism- the best way to love someone is to convert them so as to save their soul, their body being completely disregarded, and turn them to worshipping God through going to Church, the ultimate expression of love toward God (never mind Jesus' own statements about God desiring service more than ritual).  This very shallow understanding of what love means, this utter disregard for the Old Testament, has been the source of a lot of my frustration growing up in and studying in Evangelical circles (though thankfully I don't think anyone on faculty at the Evangelical college I graduated from would have argued for either of these things).  It also, I think, creates some serious difficulties for the popular understanding of Paul.  If Paul is really pitting faith against works, then where do works fit in at all?  Once we read on from Romans 3 to Romans 6, where Paul says we should not continue in sin, we should not continue to break the law, what do we do?  The tendency has been towards a tedious legalism with the repeated, conflicting emphasis: Christians don't do these certain things.  Likewise, we are sinners who in fact do these things and need grace because we can't not do them on our own.  I remember reading something by John Piper about movies in which he explained why he doesn't watch a good many moves.  His claim was that it was because he was weak and sinful and didn't want to expose himself to temptation.  Yet that same weak sinfulness is why he is dependent on God and not himself for salvation.  This is not a formal contradiction of doctrine.  But practically, I think this results in a feeling of being caught hanging over a precipice with your feet on one ledge and your hands on another and not being sure which ledge to jump for.

In dealing with these issues I think the New Perspective offers a far better understanding of Paul that also reads from the direction of the Old Testament toward the New.  The starting point, which, interestingly, has been clearly argued for by Walt Kaiser, a very respected, Evangelical scholar of the Old Testament who as far as I know would not claim to be a proponent of the NPP, is that there is no hypothetical offer of Salvation in the Old Testament.  Perfectly obeying the law does not result in salvation.  From the perspective of the Old Testament, the law is given to those who already have Salvation!  The rescued people of Israel, formed into a covenant as God's chosen people, are given the law to set them apart from the rest of the world, to maintain their status as God's people.  In contrast with the "popular" Reformed reading, having been influenced by Dispensational theology, which reads the Old Testament as in opposition to the New, the New Perspective maintains this reading of the Old Testament on its own terms and argues that Paul's issue is not with the idea that you earn your Salvation via doing the law but with the idea that the only people who have Salvation are the ones set apart by the law- the Jews.  Instead, through Jesus Christ the path to Justification has been opened to all who participate in Christ by faithfully serving Him through the New Covenant that he has formed.  Following the logic of the Old Testament, the people of God are still a people that are marked as different, but the mark is not participation in the particular rituals of the Old Testament- Sabbath keeping, Circumcision, Kosher food laws, etc- but the faithful continuation of the mission of Christ through the life of the Church. 

It is important to keep in mind the logic of the Old Testament covenant when considering the Pauline concept of salvation and the law.  Paul is certainly not saying that we earn our salvation by doing the law or by doing any good works.  Paul is addressing those who are recipients of salvation, who through their baptism are already included in the community of Christ.  His argument is that these people do not now need to take on the stipulations of the Jewish law.  They are already part of God's community.  Instead, they need to embody the covenant Jesus had established, to obey in the same way that Israel was instructed to obey at Sinai.  They were already out of Egypt, they were already circumcised members of the covenant community.  Then they received the law which they were instructed to obey, not to merit their position but to mark their position as set apart from those outside the community.  Paul envisions a similar logic for the Church, but centered on the person of Christ and not on the Old Testament covenant.

I think this NPP reading makes better sense of the continuity between the Old Testament and the New.  I also think it makes better sense of the role works play in the life of a Christian.  It is not that they are required to become a Christian.  But they are required to be a faithful Christian fulfilling the calling of Christ.  In that sense I don't think what the NPP is doing is any different from what the Reformers wanted to argue for, but it states it more clearly by distancing itself from a view of the law too influenced by dispensational developments in Reformed theology.  Rather than seeing faith and works in opposition to one another, the NPP wants to see them as in cooperation with one another in the same way as the they were in the logic of the Old Testament:  Faith in God for what God has already done leads to obedience of the commands God gives to us.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!!

"The people walking in darkness
   have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
   a light has dawned."
                                   - Isaiah 9:2 (NIV)
10 “Hear the word of the LORD, you nations;
   proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
   and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
11 For the LORD will deliver Jacob
   and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
12 They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
   they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD—
the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,
   the young of the flocks and herds.
They will be like a well-watered garden,
   and they will sorrow no more.
13 Then young women will dance and be glad,
   young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
   I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

                                  - Jeremiah 31:10-13 (NIV)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dabbling in Political Philosophy...

Just finished my first semester at Yale Divinity School!  As exhausting as it was, I am apparently a glutton for punishment on three counts:  first, I am signed up for five more semesters.  Second, next semester I am planning to take an incredible looking class called History and Methods of Old Testament Interpretation which will involve reading Hebrew, which I do nominally, meaning over the break I need to do some serious brushing up on said nominal skills…  Third, the other project I have for myself this break is reading through an anthology of Continental Philosophy, a subject that has interested me for a long time but that I have not taken the time to really intently study before now.  That last point is tangentially related to this post…  In reading a short little essay by Friedrich Holderlin I came upon a passage that I think helps work through some musings I have had lately on political philosophy.

So right up front I need to say here that I am not a political philosopher. Which is not to say that I am totally ignorant of political philosophy, I have read a decent amount of Locke and Mill and Rousseau and a smattering of other documents.  I have spent a lot of time studying the related field of economic philosophy and a decent amount of time looking at actual government structures around the world.  But all that gives me is a limited knowledge of the classical political liberalism which got the US started and a somewhat cynical view of how that has played out since then.  So I am admitting now that I am almost completely ignorant of developments in political philosophy proper since the framing of the Constitution.  So take these comments for what they are worth, which may not be much at all.

However, in my limited knowledge, I am deeply suspicious of the social contract theory behind classical political liberalism.  The idea of the nation as a collection of individuals who voluntarily form themselves into a political entity seems to me inescapably destined toward political instability. The voluntary creation of a social contract assumes the existence of common interests between the members who form this contract.  The persistence of that contract seems dependent on the continued existence of those interests, a situation that cannot be guaranteed when the contract is formed.  Thus, inherent in the idea of this contract is the logic of the Declaration of Independence- that when this condition- the promotion of shared interests- is no longer met the contract can be dissolved and a new one formed.  This idea seems incredibly problematic- first, what government will willingly be dissolved to form other governments?  This can only happen through some sort of revolution, and revolutions are usually bloody, horrifying affairs.  Second, there is a persistent question at least in my reading of any social contract theory: what constitutes an interest that warrants separation?  For the American colonies it was decidedly economic.  For many states it has been ethnic or religious.  For some it has just been the principle of self-determination, a conspicuously Western, Liberal principle.  At any rate, that decision likewise seems to be one that is bound to change with time, and then what?  Another revolution?  We are quickly here creating a world where more and more revolutions produce more and more small states that can barely stand on their own.  To me it seems that social contract theory pushes us farther and farther and farther in the direction of anarchy.

 More or less this is what seemed to happen in American history under the Articles of Confederation.  The resulting instability was nearly paralyzing for the young nation, and so a new Constitution was formed that actually gave the state some teeth.  In doing so, it began a necessary shift away from the idea of a social contract.  That move was complete the second that President Lincoln declared the Southern States in rebellion and in need of being put down.  The logic of the Declaration of Independence had, at that point, been effectively discarded.

Now, I am inclined to say that Lincoln was right to discard this logic.  If the voluntary union can be dissolved whenever members feel as though their interests are not being met then the Union was a hoax that would soon be uncovered, and my counter-factual suggestion is that there would be no United States today.  Some might argue that would be for the better.  I am inclined to think that at least for those living in the present day United States it is far, far better to have a strong, effective central government in place than whatever alternative might exist.    But the question that exists for those in the Modern, Liberal West is how a state can function, or even come into existence, without this idea of a social contract?

My suggestion is based on the Greek word from which we get the term "monarchy."  In Greek, this is a combination of "mono"- meaning "one"- and "arche"- meaning "source."  In theological terms, this was used in earlier Trinitarian debates to refer to the Monarchy of the Father- the Father as the "one source" of the Godhead, the idea being there is not in the Trinity some "fourth thing" called "divine essence" which the three persons participate in, but the divine essence has its source in the person of the Father and the other two persons are generated from this source.  I think this idea can carry over into political philosophy- a state is not brought into existence by a social contract that might meet the needs of its members at the time of its conception but be worthless ten years later (a situation France seems to regularly grapple with…).  A state exists because of a sense of shared identity between people- it stems from a common or single source of identity which unites them.  That identity is then attached to some institution or document which "defines" the nation and its continued existence.  In Britain, this takes the literal form of a monarchy.  In America, I would content, this has taken the form of the Constitution.  It is around the Constitution that the people of America form their identity and it is to the Constitution that all the various sides appeal whenever a major dispute arises in American political discourse. 

Now, the liberal, Western criticism of this model of national identity as I have sketched it is that there is no need for the highly valued freedoms of a Western Democracy.  We can share in a common identity without having freedom of religion or of the press or even the right to vote.  For most of history this was likely the case, in fact.  Yet we inherently want to say that these freedoms are good.  In my own writings I have struggled with a bit of tension on this point.  In an earlier post I have said that true freedom is not freedom to choose whatever we want to do but responsibility for the kind of person that we are and the kind of society we create, a freedom that cannot be denied by any political or economic system.  Yet, I say in that same post that many of the freedoms of choice we enjoy in the West are good things.  How do I make sense of this?  Here is where Holderlin comes in.  Holderlin is exploring the idea of consciousness, and as he draws to his conclusion, he makes a very interesting statement: 
"how is self-consciousness possible? In opposing myself to myself, separating myself from myself, yet in recognizing myself as the same in the opposed regardless of this separation."
We recognize ourselves by separating ourselves from ourselves, as it were, to critically examine ourselves.  To move beyond what Holderlin says, though he may not have any disagreement with the direction we are going, we could say that this self-examination, this separation from ourselves to examine ourselves, is how we approach moral improvement.  And it is in that idea that I think we find a role for the freedoms we are concerned with in the West.  Freedom of speech or of the press or the freedom to vote in a free election is not so much an outgrowth of a social contract as it is of the people who identify themselves as a nation separating themselves from that identity to critically evaluate it and by so doing push it toward moral improvement.  A nation who lacks these freedoms is not lacking a basis for its state-hood so much as it is denying itself a mechanism for self-improvement.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why We Need Both Liberals and Conservatives in the Church

Lately, I've been reflecting a bit on a kinda ironic turning of the tables.  When I was at Southeastern, I found that generally I was one of the more liberal-minded students.  Now that I am at Yale, I am discovering that I am among the more conservative students here, which is a bit of an odd role for me.  What I am realizing, however, is that the Church needs people from both sides of that divide.  Here are two reasons, I think:

  1. For the sake of maintaining an effective Christian witness, we need "progressives."  I think it is very true that the Church has to change as the times change.  We have to deal with the changing, fluid reality of the society in which we live.  To do that we need people who are raising the problems our society faces within the walls of the Church, forcing the Church to rethink its stances and reengage the world.  For the Church to maintain a "prophetic witness" this has to occur.

  1. For the sake of maintaining Christian identity, we need conservatives.  As significant as the progressive agenda is for the life of the Church in a changing society, progressives have a tendency, I think, to loose sight of where they have been for the vision of where they want to go.  That can be dangerous.  We need to address the problems of our day.  But we need to address them as Christians, not invent a new "church" that doubles as a solution for the political issues we face.  There is a particular identity that we take part in as Christians, and to loose that identity to any agenda is not something to be taken lightly.  Conservatives are more focused on maintaining that identity (sometimes too focused on that), and so they can act as an anchor to more progressive minded individuals to prevent that identity being lost to whatever cause is being championed.

Essentially what I'm saying amounts to a claim that Christian thinking about any issue should come from a dialogue, a holding in tension of various viewpoints, in order to arrive at some sort of consensus.  Historically I think this is how the Church has thought about a variety of issues, and generally it has been the case that extremes at both ends of the spectrum have been rejected in exchange for a more moderate (and often more open ended) conclusion.  I'm also claiming that to maintain this sort of dialogue, unity is an extremely important goal (and I realize, writing that as a Protestant, that we have some serious work to do on that front).  What bothers me more and more in the "progressive" circles in which I now find myself is that dialogue is often seen as worthless and irrelevant.  "It's our way or the highway" seems to be the order of the day, and then ironically any claim to disagree is seen as bigotry and narrow-mindedness.  My contention is that dialogue is important for our own self-understanding as well as for progress to be made in the Church.  Thinking about our society as a whole, it wasn't until segregation was ended and the two sides were forced to mingle with one another that real progress was made on the issue of racism in this country.  I think analogously, if an agenda is pressed to the point that it forces a division, there will be no progress made.  The arguments for each side will become more entrenched and without any counterbalance the rhetoric more politically charged and the hope of a solution less and less realistic.  Unity is something that we as Christians need to strive for, unity in spite of disagreement, so that we can sharpen and encourage one another to be more and more effective in our distinctively Christian witness to the world.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Freedom vs. Autonomy

Coming back to a well worn topic.  But just recently read a discussion by Rahner on this issue and so have been thinking about it a bit more.  Also, paper that I wrote for a conference last year on free-will is about to be published in a journal put out by Yale!  So musing again on the issue of free-will:

Freedom needs to be contrasted from brute autonomy.  Typically, especially when the idea of free-will is being critiqued, this distinction is collapsed, which I think is an illegitimate, straw-man argument.  Brute autonomy is the supposed "ability to do otherwise," the claim that at any particular junction, any point where we have to make a decision, we can actually choose either option that seems to be available to us.  The critic of free-will argues that such an ability, such a "contra-causal freedom," results in the denial of all influences and collapses into a kind of nihilism in which the world is a fantasy of our own making.  The critique is, I think, a good one.  But I don't think it addresses true freedom.

Karl Rahner makes a very helpful distinction between the transcendent essence of our being and the categorical accidents of history in which our being is situated.  Rahner is operating within a Kantian framework- there is a difference between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it.  The real realm of reality is transcendent to us because we are perpetually subjective beings- we always see things from our own first person perspective which means that we have no way of objectively knowing how things actually are beyond ourselves.  Our essential being falls into this category, Rahner argues.  Our lives as we perceive them are categorical- they exist in a particular historical situation and are mediated through particular actions which we perceive from our subjective,  first person, perspective.  But this perspective is not who we actually are.  Who we actually are, what makes up our essential being, is transcendent.

The ins-and-outs of the metaphysics of that claim are not particularly important to the point that I want to make.  Rahner may or may not be right about his metaphysical musings, I'm not going to hazard a guess on that right now.  However, what I think he does accomplish is a very interesting distinction in terms of how we can view freedom.  Freedom, Rahner wants to argue, and I want to agree, is the ability to mold who we are in our essence and thus to be responsible for who we are in the deepest part of our being.  This has, actually, very little to do with the individual actions that make up our life.  Many of those actions are not "free" in the sense of autonomy.  In fact, what Rahner is arguing is very similar to Robert Kane's model of Libertarian freedom in which our freedom comes out in a few "self-forming actions" in which the course of our lives hits a significant cross road and we must make a decision that will shape many future decisions, in effect a decision about the kind of person we will be or the kind of life we will live.  This is, more or less, what I think Rahner is getting at (and it is a distinction that I think can stand apart from his metaphysical claims about the person).  It is not that we are completely without influence in the decisions that we make, it is not that our actions are marked by a kind of "contra-causal freedom" but that our essence, what makes us who we are, is something that we are ultimately responsible for.  Freedom, then, is most basically equated with responsibility for one's self.

Two implications from what we have said thus far:

First, a clever compatibalist will try to come back at this point and say "that is exactly what we think!"  They would argue that responsibility for ourselves, the freedom that I am describing, does not require any "alternative possibilities" to ever exist- that we can maintain this kind of freedom while also maintaining that God has ordained (or determined) every event that will ever happen.  Two responses have to be made.  One is that I don't think compatibalism works on a strictly philosophical level.  That will have to be saved for another post, but essentially I think compatibalism faces a dilemma of either ultimately denying personal responsibility (because God will determine our essential selves, not us) or with reducing our essential selves to a meaningless, epiphenomenal existence.  The second response is what the main thrust of my paper is about, which is that I do not believe we can be rational without alternative possibilities.  Most people, I think, would agree that rationality is a pretty essential part of how we determine who we are and in how we understand the world in general.  Eliminating rationality, I think, results in an absurdity that makes any sort of determinism invalid.

Second, and the real point that I want to make in this post, is that this freedom is not a "goal" to be obtained but an essential fact of our being.  We are responsible for the kinds of persons we are.  This cannot be denied by any political or economic system.  No external force can eradicate this essential freedom.  The Modern, Western project of establishing "free" political or economic systems, then, is not so much based on establishing freedom, which already exists, as in establishing brute autonomy which I would argue is in many senses neither possible nor necessary.  The history of "free" and "Modern" Western societies is marred by a great many tragedies- racism and genocide stand out prominently among them- which act as explicit denials of the brute autonomy on which these societies are supposedly founded.  The impact of making these societies "free" is to say that the responsibility for the character of these societies lies explicitly on all the members of the society and not merely on a few.  Yet I would argue that this description exists inherently in the society because the people who make it up already posses that freedom regardless of how oppressive or "coercive" their political environment is (and, ironically,  whenever the character of the society changes for the good, it is usually the result of a few people taking responsibility for changing their society and not a society wide change in attitude).  Now am I attempting to justify a communist/authoritarian dictatorship through this comment?  Certainly not.  What I am saying, however, is that what makes a healthy society is not the explicit creation of freedom in the sense of brute autonomy.  What makes a healthy society is when the inherent freedom that people already posses is used constructively to build a better society for others.  Freedom is not the goal, it is the presupposition which enables other goals to be set and accomplished.  And that presupposition exists in any and every situation around the world- it is inherent in being a person.  This also means that inherent in being a person is responsibility for what kind of person we become and what kind of society we create.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pharisee-ism and Christian Dialogue: A Caution

A few mornings ago I was one of the designated readers for the Morning Prayer Service at the Berkeley Center here at Yale.  My reading was taken from Luke's recounting of Jesus pronouncing "woes" on the Pharisees of his day for their legalistic behavior which produced in them an overblown sense of self-worth.  Now I'm setting aside the issue of how the Pharisees are portrayed in the Biblical text, which is undoubtedly with a fair amount of bias, to merely reflect on the principle of Christian practice which has emerged from that portrayal.  The idea of "Pharisee-ism" in Christianity is any activity or view or stance or attitude which produces in the person who partakes in it a sense of "moral superiority."  We have to be a bit careful here- I'm not saying that we disregard moral progress and forget all about how we live our lives morally.  That said, Christianity has always attempted to take a path of humility- remove the plank in your eye before you attempt to remove the speck in your neighbors, judge not lest you be judged.  As someone at Berkeley summed it up this morning, Pharisee-ism is "any sort of viewing yourself as better than others" in regards to morality.

Now typically, this gets used to criticize people of a more conservative persuasion, often with a good bit of justification.  They are viewed, often rightly, as old fashioned and as arrogantly (or perhaps "colonially") upholding a moral code that simply does not have any bearing anymore.  Or so the argument goes from those who claim to be more "inclusive."  Recently I have come to a very ironic realization, which is that the "inclusive" side of this debate is every bit as guilty of the same sin.  After sitting in several services centered around a "journey" motif in which the leaders of the service no longer viewed themselves as on the journey but as having already arrived, after hearing quite a few conversations in which those who claim to be more "inclusive" explicitly denied fellowship to those of a more "conservative" view, I have come to the conclusion that neither side is exempt from the Pharisaic sin of exclusivity (though, ironically, the ones normally bashed for this are actually more honest in admitting their exclusivity and not masking it by "inclusive" rhetoric).  Which reinforces my typical assumption that most of the debates that rock our churches are not really debates at all but political shouting matches...

What I am saying here is not an attempt to take sides on any issue.  This is merely a caution to those who would argue that the greatest of sins is to exclude that quite often that is the very thing they do with their rhetoric.  I have been very shaped in this regard by the writings of one of my professors, Miroslav Volf, who in his book Exclusion and Embrace states what I think is a frequently forgotten, and for that reason extremely profound, statement (which I am paraphrasing):  There is no human conflict in which one side is completely innocent and another completely guilty.  In any and every conflict that divides us both sides have contributed to the problem, both sides bear some of the guilt.  Part of what is needed for restoration is for this statement to lead to an attitude of humility by both sides so that actual dialogue can occur and not persistent exclusion, even by those who claim to "include."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On Christian Dialogue

A friend just recounted to me the details of a very difficult, painful conversation over a very divisive issue in the Christian community.  Won't go into any specifics, but after reflecting I want to expound on two principles I think are necessary for healthy Christian dialogue or discussion of any of the issues that divide us.

First is a willingness to stand by one another and stick with the community even when we disagree.  My Catholic roommate has a few significant issues with the Vatican, but has repeatedly said "I don't come to the Church to have my social problems solved."  Likewise, a friend of mine on the conservative side of the issues dividing the Episcopal church said to me something like "I love this tradition.  Right now, I think our denomination is crazy.  But I love this tradition and I'm not leaving it."  Even though we are divided by a great many things we should strive to continue to stand by one another.  Our first reaction to disagreement should not be to separate or cut off contact with another group but to acknowledge the difference and continue talking.

Second is a recognition of what might be termed a "Paradigm of the Cross."  Both of my roommates are freaking out right now.  One just yelled "Emergency!"  The other thinks I'm finally seeing the light.  I'm appropriating a term that has been thrown around in our house a good bit.  I'm fairly certain the meaning I'm about to apply to it will not be the same as the meaning that has been presupposed in those discussions, though there is a certain similar starting point.  If the cross makes any demands on us, I think it demands that we have a willingness to lay aside any part of us for what God is doing with us.  This does not mean we will always actually have to lay aside anything, but I think at the very least the cross demands the willingness to do so.  Many, many of the discussions that divide Christians today are deeply personal to many people.  As I understand our faith, I understand it to be one that seeks to guide us to truth that transcends our own personal concerns.  As emotionally entrenched as we may be in a given issue, the quest for truth, I think, demands that we are willing to put aside that part of us for the sake of dialogue, and further that we have a willingness to admit that we just might be wrong and that even our most personally cherished beliefs and opinions may have to be changed or replaced with new ones, that deeply significant parts of our lives may have to be given up if God so demands it of us.  Until both sides of the discussion can come to the table with that sort of an attitude, I'm not sure how much dialogue will ever take place through the shouting of political slogans motivated by an arrogant assumption by both sides that they most definitely are the ones in the right.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Where I Am Now, Part 2

So here is basically the conclusion I tried to reach before:

The authority of our faith and theology is not found in any revelation but in God himself.  We know God through revelation, but the shape of that revelation is not nearly as cut and dry as the Evangelical mindset wants it to be and cannot be equated merely with Scripture.  Scripture comes to us through the Church and is interpreted within the body of the Church alongside the tradition of beliefs not found in scripture.  To make sense of this sometimes confusing muddle we have to, I believe, start from the most basic, central part of our belief structures.  This, I think, is found in the Orthodoxy expressed in the Creeds.  This Orthodoxy then sets the parameters within which the rest of our theology can grow and develop, but it does not dictate theology.  In fact, I think it intentionally, allows for diversity.

Just as clarification, this is not to say that scripture is not important to our theology.  It is certainly very, very important.  But it cannot be the ultimate foundation because before we can use scripture we have to know what scripture is, and the essential point I'm trying to make is that this is not self-evident and therefore there must be some core, some foundation, that is prior to scripture and through which we interpret scripture.  And that prior foundation is the orthodoxy of the creeds. 

From this orthodoxy stems, I believe, two poles around which our theology is built- the pole of scripture and the pole of tradition.  The point of their being two poles is not to say that one overrides the other or that on some issues we follow one and on some the other.  The point, I think, is that through the processes of reason and experience we attempt to find the best harmony of scripture and the oldest, most widely attested (notice the importance of both of these tests, Apostolicity and Catholicity we might say) traditions to formulate an understanding of who we are as God's people in this world.  This process happens through  a cycle that involves both poles.  It will always be true that we read scripture in light of our traditions.  It should likewise be true that our traditions are informed and shaped by scripture.  It’s the combination of the flowing of influence back and forth, shaped by our reasoning and experience, that gives rise to our theological beliefs.

So from all of that, going to sketch out a very basic framework of where I am in terms of theology at this point in the journey:

The narrative of scripture is a narrative of redemption.  I think that word is much better than "salvation" because of the way the latter term is understood in popular discussions.  The narrative of scripture does not lay out a one-time solution to sin, a "say this prayer and get into heaven" kind of message.  Its not so much about conversion, I don't think, as about participation in what God is doing.  And what God is doing is working in and through the history of fallen, broken, sinful humanity to restore God's creation to the state of completed, perfect rest in which it was meant to exist.  The call to make disciples is not a call to fill our churches with converts but to call others to join in the work that God has given the Church- the work of living as though in the Kingdom in the midst of a world that is still opposed to the kingdom, a task we will continue until Christ returns, the enemy is completely vanquished, and the Kingdom is fully established.

This is the vision the church is meant to live out, I believe.  When we ask what that exactly looks like logistically we get little help from the New Testament, though.  We know that the practice of the church was to gather together, that some in those gatherings spoke as teachers, that they sang and prayed together and that they shared in a meal and cared for one another's needs.  We get a few hints about organization- there were some sort of elders who had a major leadership role, some sort of pastoral shepherding role, deacons who served the needs of the congregation, and beyond that we don't know much.

It happens, however, that early church traditions cohere very nicely with the picture of the New Testament and fill in that picture quite a bit.  Very, very early and almost universally the Episcopal form of church government develops.  Along side it is the practice of infant baptism as a rite of initiation for children of Christians.  The regular celebration of Eucharist as a "feast of thanksgiving" for Christ's death and resurrection and the saying of liturgical prayers based on the Lord's prayer are likewise an early and widely attested part of the church's practice.

So far everything I have said would, I think, fit very nicely within a Roman Catholic framework.  My Catholic roommate thinks that is wonderful, my Baptist roommate thinks me a traitor (not really, but I am officially the unfaithful Protestant)…  Unfortunately for the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), there are a couple of fairly significant issues for me that prevent me from going all the way to Catholicism.  Some of these include how we understand the sacraments (I'm not sure I buy into the idea that baptism actually forgives sins or that I can agree with transubstantiation).  But chief among these is the issue of Roman supremacy.  One of the reasons for the split between Eastern and Western Christianity is that in the West, Rome gains authority as the supreme Bishopric, while in the East, there is a concept of Equality of Bishops.  Honestly, I find a much more compelling case for the equality of bishops than for the supremacy of Rome and also am of the belief that equality of bishops can serve as a great safe-guard against the kind of corruption that emerged in the medieval Catholic Church and prompted the Reformation.

One of the things I have been challenged on both in thinking through theology on my own and in conversations since I have arrived here in New Haven is how to justify my existence as a Protestant, as someone who claims to be Orthodox while remaining part of a separatist group from the standpoint of the two Christian traditions that can claim a history stretching back to the Apostles themselves.  I certainly believe that reformation needed to happen in the Western Church.  However, I sincerely wish that it could have happened without schism in the Church.  The unfortunate fact of history is that the split did happen and that it can't be undone at this point.  I am deeply encouraged by the ecumenical movement, but I am not convinced that it will ever result in actual union.  What I do think can be accomplished by the ecumenical movement, however, is a new understanding of the Equality of Bishops in which Orthodoxy becomes the focus of our union and not shared episcopacy.  So for the moment I situate myself somewhere in the Anglican tradition and continue to pursue a better understanding of the Orthodoxy I think defines the entire Christian tradition.

Monday, September 27, 2010

An Incarnational Response to Pacifism

I had a physics teacher in high school who used to call people out by saying "I won't say any names, but his initials are Alex Marshall."  I actually enjoyed that class, more than I can say for most other classes in high school and definitely more than I can say for any other science course I have ever taken (there is a reason I'm in a philosophical field).  Well all that to say, I have a roommate, and I won't say any names but his initials are… just kidding!  If you know my roommates, this won't take long to figure out.  So we all genuinely get along, but also have some drastic differences in opinion on a couple of issues, one being the issue of pacificism, or more generally a Christian response to culture.  My roommate's conception of pacificism is a bit more radical than most I have encountered before- typically I think of pacificism as merely being opposition to warfare, maybe more broadly to physical violence.  However, I think my roommate has a consistent argument when he claims that opposing violence will lead us to have to disengage from many aspects of our culture (especially the government) which condone or participate in violence.  He also associates violence with non-physical actions- any sort of coercion can be violent, including verbal coercion or attempts at such.

Now, my most basic opposition to pacificism is that I think it does not do justice to the complexity of life.  The pacifist wants to argue that black-and-white distinctions between moral and immoral violence cannot be maintained.  I'm fine with that.  I'm fine, even supportive, of the idea that we can critique the typical oppressor-oppressed schema for understanding and justifying violence as too simple and not taking into account the real complexities of human nature.  But we can't then turn right around and make the same move by making a black-and-white schema in which all violence is immoral and non-violence not.  The point of the post-modern deconstruction of oppressor-oppressed systems is not to replace the system with another equally over-simplified description of reality (or at least, it shouldn't be).  If we are going to acknowledge the complexity of life, we have to acknowledge it on both sides of the issue, both the violent and the non-violent as well as the oppressor and the oppressed.

Tonight, however, while sitting in a meeting with said roommate listening to a speaker a more directly theological argument occurred to me.  I think the incarnation itself provides reasons for questioning pacifism (directly challenging the idea that the incarnation provides justification for pacifism here).  Two arguments derived from the incarnation that make pacifism seem untenable to me:
  1. The incarnation is historically conditioned.  By this we mean Christ came to a particular time and place within a particular culture and that he actively engaged all levels of that culture.  If we are to follow the example of Christ it would seem that we are required, therefore, to engage our particular culture in our particular time at all levels of our culture.  This means being actively involved in even the areas of our culture that would normally stand in direct opposition to many of our views.  If pacifism requires that we disengage from the political sphere because the government supports violence, then I would argue pacifism prevents us from being able to follow the example of Christ and be "incarnational" ourselves.
  2. The way in which Christ engages the culture he is part of is anything but peaceful.  His speech and arguments are extremely confrontational- he definitely rocks the boat.  On one occasion that we have record of he even resorts to physical "violence," overturning the tables in the temple and driving out money changers there using a whip.  Eventually this leads to his being crucified.  I have argued elsewhere that at least in Matthew's account (and I think the case could probably be made in other gospels, I have just only taken the time to make it in regard to Matthew) the crucifixion and resurrection narrative contains the idea of a military victory over his enemies (the religious leaders he has been opposing).  That Jesus does not engage in direct military violence against the Roman authority does not mean that his confrontation of his society is not in some sense violent towards those he does oppose (which, by the way, seems consistent with the Old Testament statements about God's actions towards his enemies and the prophecies of the book of Revelation and even some statements of Paul).  Essentially, I am arguing that Jesus seems to engage in an ethic with two sides to it- one side being the non-retaliatory side which pacifism jumps on, the second being the directly confrontational side in which he interacts with his culture on all levels and challenges it deeply as he does so.  Only following one side of this ethic requires us to fall short of the call the incarnation places on us.  It also goes back to the above point about painting too simple a picture of life.

Now I say all these things with some major caveats.  It is extremely difficult to enter into a conversation like this without sounding as though I support physical violence as a normal mode of operation for Christians.  I certainly do not.  Its nearly impossible to enter in a conversation like this without political overtones coming into play.  So for the record, I have no intention of condoning the war the United States is currently engaged in with these comments.  This is not about particulars, its about the general idea of violence vs. non-violence.  What I want to argue is that this issue, like many others, is not one that can be laid out in black-and-white absolutes.  We are called to engage our culture in a redemptive, and therefore often confrontational, way.  What exactly that looks like in every instance it is impossible to know.  Therefore, it is impossible to make exacting claims about what is or is not acceptable as part of that process.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Where I Am Now, Part 1

So I'm beginning to get moved in and settled in New Haven. The city is quite lovely. Semester at Yale is starting to take shape. Meeting new people, learning a few of their names…

On the more heavy side, doing a decent amount of reflecting on where I am and what I'm doing here. This is partly prompted by the other ever looming question- what tradition are you from. To which, it turns out, I do not have a good answer (and have taken on the label one of my profs gave himself- a walking ecumenical train wreck), instead I have a bit of a story. Which I have been obliged to tell far too many times the last few weeks and the retelling has forced me to think through the story and try to make a little sense of it.

So basically, the story runs like this: I grew up in a non-denominational but essentially Baptist church in Memphis, TN. When I went to college I started to question some of the assumptions of that background and began exploring the Anglican tradition. Then got hired to work as the Youth Director for a Methodist church for a year, then moved to Yale. Now back to exploring Anglicanism and doing an Anglican Studies program, but certainly not formally part of any Anglican/Episcopal Church.

But of course, that is a really, really boring, watered down, insufficient story. And given my record of writing very long blog posts, that ends this post far, far too quickly. So now to try and give some shape to "the rest of the story…"

The environment that I grew up in was very much evangelical. I would not say Fundamentalist. I think and hope that they would be just as appalled as I am by Terry Jones threatening to burn the Koran, for instance. But they were certainly conservative by anyone more moderate than Pat Robertson's standards. And by that I mean that the Bible was held as entirely authoritative for the Church. They acknowledged that there were different interpretations. In fact I remember many lively discussions in our youth group about differing views on Calvinist and Arminian theology or the ever-controversial issue of evolution and Genesis 1. The Church didn't try to dictate views, at least when I was there, something for which I am very glad. But the general rule that they lived by was that the starting point for every endeavor (not just theological ones, either) had to be scripture. That was the authority. Which put us more or less in line with the majority of the Southern Baptist Churches in our area.

Growing up there were always two things about that broader "Southern Baptist Culture" in which we might be included that intrigued and perhaps bothered me. One was the issue of women in ministry. I knew the consensus in the culture I was a part of was opposed to women pastors. I never understood why. The other issue was apologetics- defending my faith against all the "attacks" from "out there," especially the ones that claimed the Bible was not true or was not authoritative.

When I went to college my interest in those two issues led me to realize some very significant problems existed for this nice little world of thought I had grown up in. The first was that the "liberal" position of allowing women pastors was just as scripturally defensible as the Southern Baptist view. Enough said, I more or less switched camps over night. Which doesn't really seem significant, but it was in terms of opening me up to exploring ideas and traditions outside of my own. The second was that there are a whole host of problems for the idea of holding scripture as an absolute authority in the way my background did. The most pressing one in my mind was the issue of canon. The arguments I had heard growing up for the Protestant canon being the "original" canon were completely dismantled by my (Protestant) professors who openly and honestly admitted that the question of defining the canon was an open one until Luther at which time we didn't get a single unified definition but three. With that came the realization that appealing to scripture is essentially appealing to tradition, that evil, manipulative, Catholic force that I was raised to disregard. Another pressing problem for me was interpretation- it can't be done while maintaining that you are still holding scripture alone as your basis of authority. This is further evidenced by the vast differences in interpretations of scripture that exist among various Protestant (and broader Christian) traditions.

Ultimately these realizations forced me to dethrone scripture as it were and instead seek a new basic source of authority. At first glance it might seem as though tradition would be a great alternative. Except that many of the same difficulties emerge here. We have conflicting traditions on a good many issues. And we have conflicting interpretations of those issues. Witness the divide of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions- both claiming a heritage that goes right back to the Apostles and both vastly different on many issues. So tradition alone will not work either as a basis of authority.

Here is where Karl Barth gives me the first steps towards a solution. Ultimately, I think that the authority has to be in God himself. The problem that arises, however, is that I don't have a direct, on-demand line to God, and I don't think anyone does (with the possible exception of Moses, he seems to have God's ear whenever he wants it). That is not to say we have not experienced God, that God does not speak to us. I certainly believe God does. But I also think that God does so as God wishes, not necessarily as we wish (though certainly sometimes they coincide). Any attempt to say that God is always, guaranteed to speak a certain way is, I believe, automatically invalid.

So we are left with our direct experiences of God, a scripture that reflects the direct experience of God by others, and a tradition that attempts to understand all of this. And yet we still have no consistent, universally accepted theology. Except, I think, we do. In my studies of early Christianity it seems to me that despite all the diversity and all the arguing, a synthesis was reached and something was agreed upon. And that formed the basic statement of Orthodoxy that gets found in the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed (but its important to note is not original to those creeds, all these ideas exist much earlier). For me right now, that I think is enough. We can have disagreements beyond the essentials that are laid out there, but so long as we hold to the trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection, and the universal familial relationship of the Church existing among all others who hold to that basic Orthodoxy then I think the disagreements in interpreting scriptures and traditions are ok. And I'll talk more about how I think that synthesis plays out in the Church in another post.

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