Friday, September 23, 2016

Jürgen Moltmann's Man: Summary : Author's Preface & Chapter 1

Author's Preface

Moltmann begins his book Man with a statement of intent. He means to "portray what it is to be human." But what is man? "Nothing less is meant by the key-word `man'," he writes, "than the public history of men's questioning and seeking, of their failures and humiliations."

But when do we start asking such questions? Where are the answers found, and how can they be evaluated? How can he hope to even begin such a task, especially since there is not place of objectivity since he himself is a man? Such presumption, he continues, is worth it because he, "sees in God the worth of the question-able being which we all are, and therefore sees theology as providing the theme for anthropology."[1]

Moltmann says that it is important to "explore ways for man to become man," because humanity itself is changed by its coming into self-knowledge. [2] There is a value, he says, in the questioning; this against temptations to skepticism. The questioning relationship between God and man, a relationship of such closeness that, "a book about `Man' will inevitably slip into being a book about God," means skeptical limitations are undone. It "makes much open to question which we regard as unquestionable and obvious, and much else again full of hope which we regard as hopeless.[3]

Chapter 1: What is man?

Who are we? Where do I stand myself?

The question “Who am I?” arises from every encounter a human being has with the exterior world, and indeed, from even his own consciousness. He must ask the question, for he must live, yet there is no ‘getting behind’ the self for proper observation. The answer dwells, then, in hypothetical infinity. Yet, if it wasn’t so, then the self would die, for “as we experience being human, we experience it as a question, as freedom and as openness.” Being human, then, “is an experiment in which we ourselves are taking part and are at risk.”(2) Observation will give no answer. At the same time, there can be no direct encounter. The solution cannot be sought through a total unveiling of the mystery of who we are. Rather, it exists upon a balance between mystery and revelation; “between the fundamental self-questioning of man and the answer by means of which he takes control of himself.”(3) The self is a limit and an openness, both of which must be respected.

This is true socially, politically, historically as well as individually.[4] Historical answers, especially when they are temporally successful, offer both a useful basis for social life and openness toward future fulfillment. Even in this context, however, no real answer to the question “Who am I?” can find a solution. Yet, there is an avenue available through comparison with others.

A. The question arises from the comparison of man with the animals

Biological anthropology begins when the question “Who am I?” is sought by comparison of human beings with animal life.  Such a comparison leads to one certain result: human beings are strangers in the world.[5] Unlike the environmental and instinctive ‘fit’ animals display, human beings are a species displaced upon the globe.  “His task,” writes Moltmann, “is to find what his nature is.”(5)  Education is how human beings live in their environment, and that is the source of imagination, creativity, culture and, above all, language.  “He is in a very real sense both a creator and the creation of his language.  He catches in the net of language a world which is open to him and overflowing with stimuli.”(7)[6]  Through reason, and through action, human beings set themselves apart from the animal world for freedom.[7]  Still, the question is not exhausted, but moves on to other comparisons.

B. The question arises from the comparison of men with other men

Cultural anthropology begins when the question “Who am I?” is sought by comparison of human beings with one another in the context of families, tribes, and nations.  Moltmann contrasts two historical strategies in which human beings have sought to live together.

The first strategy is derived from the belief in common innate ideas of the reason.  This idea, this humanitas - the likeness and unity of all people on the basis of a common nature – contrasts with an anxious ethnocentrism that pits one against another.  Unfortunately, humanitas came to divide people into the educated citizen and the unrefined barbarian; the pantheist and the polytheist.[8]

The second arises from the Judeo-Christian belief in one God, maker and judge of all people.  “The expectation of the coming kingdom of God unites all the individual destinies of men and the histories of the nations into a common world history.”(9)  Though it has taken many centuries to see anything approaching a common history, this strategy for unity has always had one significant advantage: the inclusion of difference underneath the umbrella of future history.  Not homogenous but pluralistic community.

Enlightenment anthropology combined these two strategies and produced the constitutions of modern states.  Such constitutions described human beings not as they were, but, instead presented, “a challenge, and a concrete expression of Utopia.”(10) Their visions of hope and freedom have charmed the whole world, and become dreams not easily forgotten.[9]

There is no doubt that cultures are different and historically conditioned.  Cultural anthropology studies them, then, in the discipline of ethnology.  It can also, however, attempt to advance, to humanize human kind.  This desire, humanitas, is a messianic hope for the fulfillment of humanity’s humanity.  Taken together, “it belongs fundamentally to man’s nature that he both is man [ethnology] and has to be man [humanitas].”(11)[10]

Cultural anthropology’s answer to the question “What is Man?” is culture, defined as the soul’s attempts to understand itself.  Through transitory cultural images which arise from out of an inner, amorphous, “creative germ-cell” and vary across history and geography, humanity “attempts constantly to complete itself.”  This desire, culture, attempts to close up (limit) the openness of biological incompleteness.  To the origin of this openness, this incompleteness, cultural anthropology cannot speak.  The question is not exhausted, but moves on to other comparisons.

C. The question arises from the comparison of man with the divine

Religious anthropologies such as those found in theology, metaphysics and poetry arise from religious statements about the fate and destiny of humanity.  “In the presence of the gods man recognizes his own non-divinity, his lowliness, and his earthiness.”(12)  Here, however, the question, “What is man?” takes on a new context.  Here it is understood as a question asked of human beings by God.  It is not a question human beings ask, but one that is posed by the experience of suffering.  People are put into question here like they are in no other sphere.  “Here the question ‘What is man?’ can no longer be answered objectively with reference to his soul, his deficiencies, or his creative power.  It becomes concentrated into the person question, ‘Who am I, my God, before you?’”(14)  Against such mystery, humanity hopes for revelation which is a hope for the answer of the self.  “It is only in the coming of God himself, who endlessly puts this life in question, that the revelation of the secret of man can be hoped for.”(15)[11]  It is the depth of the heart, with its subsequent existential crisis, that begets religious anthropology.  Still, religious anthropology is not specific to Christianity.  To ask about Christian anthropology is to go still further.  For the Christian, the question is still not exhausted.

D. Ecce Homo! Behold the man!

For the Christian, the question, “What is man?  Who am I?” arises not from a comparison with animals, with other men, or even with the numinous, but out of a call, “at the point at which man in his life is charged with something impossible by the call of God.”  “The divine calls, which demands of him a new being, places him at an insuperable distance from himself, and involves him in a change of identity.”(16)  In short, the Bible does not answer the existential question, but gives meaning to existence by opening up the future through the promise of a God who goes with and before.  People ask about limitations, God’s presence offers infinite possibilities.  Jesus Christ is the figure of this new way forward.  Christ is true God and true man, into his future goes all human questioning.  Jesus’ identification with the outcast, with the non-human, makes them human.  His is a humanization of all people.  “In this crucified Jesus men have again and again been able to see themselves in the course of history.”(19)  The crucified Christ unifies all people, because all are the same under the knife-edge of suffering.  “God became man in order out of proud and unfortunate gods to make real men.” (Luther)  “Christian anthropology is an anthropology of the crucified Lord.”(20)  It does not overcome other forms of anthropology, nor is overcome.  It is the challenge for liberation cast up against all form of safe pretence, deceit and deception.  It is the rescue of humanity from man.

[1] Moltmann, then, is not an empiricist.  He agrees with Heidegger’s criticism of objectivity.  The escape from the solipsistic tradition of radical doubt and skepticism began when Descartes attempted to remove all  a priori and replace them with the cogito and ended in Meditation 3 when he made God (logos) foundational for knowledge again.  Kant had the same problem, albeit in a far more sophisticated manner.  After brilliantly codifying his categories, he could never answer the question of how it is possible for one who is subject to the categories to step outside them, to transcend them, in order to describe them?  Heidegger, following Husserl’s phenomenological lead, brushes aside the attempt and regains Plato’s original insight: the philosopher is one who contemplates the relations of the higher forms.  Except, for Heidegger, there is no world of the forms.  Instead, he sets about exploring the existential structures of Da-Sein, which is not the absolute ego vs. the world, I-It, but the transitive self in a field of relatedness.  Furthermore, from the perspective of human beings “thrown” into the world, God is the only non-subjective point, I-Thou.

[2] How is humanity changed?

[3] [Thom] I couldn't help but contrast this with Calvin's Institutes 1.1, in which Calvin says that wisdom consists entirely of two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves. I wonder, though, at Calvin’s sentence, "it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we [human beings] possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone." Moltmann does not reflect such a metaphysic. When Moltmann treats of human being-ness it is examined upon its own bottom and not against the negative spaces of God.  Yet, both men come to the same, hopeful end (God the Creator), as Calvin writes, “Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.” (1.1.1) A final question: Does Moltmann interrogate anthropology to discover God or to discover the quality of life before God? Hopefully, the answers should present themselves as the theologian begins to answer the question, "Why do human beings question their own humanity?"

[Alan] It does seem that his anthropology starts from below rather than, like Calvin's, from above. But I do wonder if he is fully consistent with his premises. Moltmann makes the crucified Lord the critical criterion for his theology, but it seems in Man the cross is at best a challenge rather than determinative of his conclusions. (Am I correct in assuming that his chapter on the anthropology of the crucified Lord comes last?) [Furthermore, there is a strong resemblance to] Karl Rahner's theological anthropology. For instance, Rahner writes the following about the transcendent structure of knowledge:

"In spite of the finiteness of his system man is always present to himself in his entirety. He can place everything in question. In his openness to everything and anything, whatever can come to expression can be at least a question to him. In the fact that he affirms the possibility of a merely finite horizon of questioning, this possibility is already surpassed, and man shows himself to be a being with an infinite horizon. In the fact that he experiences his finiteness radically, he reaches beyond this finiteness and experiences himself as a transcendent being, as spirit. The infinite horizon of human questioning is experienced as a horizon which recedes further and further the more answers man can discover.” (Foundations, pp 31-32)

[As in Moltmann, t]here is limited openness to everything (the infinite) in how humans constantly question reality to grow in knowledge. Rahner later will assert that the infinite horizon is God, that the structure of transcendental experiences masks the natural revelation of God (p 170) and that philosophical proofs for the existence of God are merely secondary thematizations of a more basic transcendental experience (pp 68-71). I wonder how much of Rahner does Moltmann explicitly cite? And perhaps more interesting is how much of Rahner is hidden in Moltmann's thought?
[4] Cf. JM member Mike Gibson, “The church, then, corresponds to the reality of Christ’s resurrection, whereby the resurrection as the reality of the future, and as the beginning of the resurrection and new creation, means that the church herself is an echo of the resurrection, a community of those living in the beginning of the resurrection of the dead.” draft chapter. “The Redemption of Time in the Church of the Risen Christ” pp. 12ff. available in the /Files section by permission of the author.

[5] Existentialist ideas of “Alienation.”

[6] Culture in general and language in particular are tools used to further the quest for self-realization.

[7] Karl Rahner understands freedom as fundamental power to decide about and actualize the self.

[8] Moltmann describes the Western humanitas tradition as a category of law in the lecture “Who is Man?” In this lecture, he says that the adoption of the idealism of humanitas has led to “humanitistic suicide caused by despair resulting from man’s impossible dream.  And since the bourgeoisie has been the bearer of that ideal humanism for 200 years, we may also talk then of a self-destruction of the bourgeoisie.” Human Identity in Christian Faith Raymond Fred West Memorial Lectures on Immortality (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974): 2, 5.  The two positions, humanitas as gospel-openness and humanitas as law seem at odds, and, as of this note, I’m not sure how to reconcile them.  Some investigation as to whether he treats humanitas in God for a Secular Society would be helpful.

[9] “Bloch's practice of ideological criticism discerns emancipatory utopian dimensions even in ideological products, ferreting out those aspects that might be useful for radical theory and practice.” Douglas Kellner, “Ernst Bloch, Utopia and Ideology Critique,” Illusions [e-zine] accessed February 9, 2004. cf. Kellner and Harry O’Hara, “Utopia and Marxism in Ernst Bloch,” New German Critique 9 (Fall 1976).  Ernst Bloch. The Spirit of Utopia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.  “Since Christian ideology .. always defined what was best in the human social structure, as the embodiment of what the concept of utopia means as the "Kingdom of God" on earth, a recapturing and re-creation of Eden itself as social form, any political ideology that advocates motion toward the "best" necessarily can be, even must be, defined as Christian at some level of its articulation. The classless state of pure democracy in Marxian ideology cannot be distinguished effectively from what anyone else would call the re-creation of the Garden of Eden in purely political and social forms.” Frederick Martin, “Ernst Bloch: ‘The Spirit of Utopia’,” [article on-line] accessed February 9, 2004.

[10] Ethnology as limit; humanitas as openness.

[11] Rahner’s “self-transcending being.”

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

A Note from Class: Getting Past Hard Listening

Several hundred years ago in the West, human beings decided to start over. Some say Nicolaus Copernicus is to blame. Copernicus was the sixteenth-century Polish astronomer who discovered that the earth swings around the sun. When he published his ideas in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), people were shocked! Everything they'd assumed to be fixed and solid now moved--everything. It blew people's minds. It terrified them. But it excited them too. "What else are we mistaken about?" they asked. And they decided to find out.

They thought a lot about how we know things, and they came up with a rule for knowledge: What we know, they said, we know through the senses and the mind.

So what you know comes from your senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing. (So the next time you're nose is stuffy with a cold, what you're really having is a knowledge problem.) Your senses act as collectors. Your mind picks through what they collect and remembers or discards. Together, they assemble the experiences and facts that live inside your head.

From this, let's say two things:
  1. Their rule for knowledge is handy for most things, yet flawed in a small-but-wildly-unfortunate manner that maybe we'll get into later.
  2. There is far more information constantly sliding by than our senses can ever collect or our minds notice (just ask Harold Edgerton).
So, what would happen if we focused in on one of our senses, say, hearing? And that is exactly where the trouble begins.

Our culture favors speech and action. It can even find listening a waste of time. And so we have never been taught to listen; we don't know how. When was the last time you truly listened to anything--listened until something was deeply asked of you?

Compounding the problem, new things are uncomfortable. We won't know what to do with what we hear. We may feel shut out, if we feel anything at all. Everyone is talking in another language (sometimes quite literally), and we feel excluded. It is uncomfortable.

Here are a few thoughts about uncomfortable listening.

Principle One: Expect Revulsion, but Press On.

Your ear has an age. It can be naive, and it can mature. And people tend to like music that matches the maturity of their ears. Children only eat a few things at a little table; adults enjoy many different dishes on a wider table. Yet, growth is uncomfortable. So expect to feel disoriented and maybe even bored the first time you hear a piece of music that isn't what you're used to. It has happened to me that what I once hated I grew to love. So press on, and don't believe your first impressions.

Principle Two: Passive Exposure

It is a funny thing about the mind, it is so curious that it will listen even when we aren't listening. Use this to your advantage. Play some new music in the background, but pay no attention to it. Let it exist almost out of hearing. And slowly, ever so slowly, it will slip into your mind. You will discover it in your dreams. You will catch yourself humming it. The mind can't ignore it, you see. Your ear will mature into it, and you may have enriched the rest of your life. (This principle works well when learning a new language, by the way.) It takes time, but it works.

Principle Three: Choose Quality Cuts

Let's say you want to know more about jazz. You've heard about it but don't know where to begin. Use that fabulous tool called the Internet, pull up a list of the "ten best" or "five most important." Use those to train your uneducated ear on the best diet that you can find. Don't waste your time randomly listening. The best sets you up for the rest.

Principle Four: Fill in the Blanks

Thanks to the Internet, we can look up information about performers, composers, and individual songs or pieces of music. We can translate foreign words. We can fill in the blanks as we learn something new. Make sure to fill in the blanks.

Principle Five: Music is Always Better Live

If at all possible, expose yourself to live music. Every kind of music--even music that you don't like--is toe-tapping fantastic when performed live by living people. Live music makes for a rich life. Make time for it.

And here is what this is about: this year, aside from our usual (and frankly more important) discussions about the Bible, we are going to listen. Together and privately, we are going to listen to music--to sacred music. And by this I mean music that is connected in some way to the Bible.

Exactly what this means is something I'll explain on Sunday morning. I look forward to seeing you there.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Coming along after MacIntyre's After Virtue

So I just finished Alasdiar MacIntyre's seminal book of ethics After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007; third edition) for the fourth time. Some chapters I have read many times more. I read this book because I kept hearing about it. It showed up in radio interviews, in monographs, in footnotes, and finally, one day, in my hand when I had the funds available to buy it.

Thankfully, MacIntyre's prose is easy to read. Even when he digs into the weeds of a problem, he has a storyteller's gait. Now, he does assume a lot of background reading in ethical thought. A passing knowledge of Immanuel Kant, early-Enlightenment ideological history, and a willingness not to be scared off by Greek letters is helpful. And it probably wouldn't hurt to be familiar with Aristotle's Ethics. Though these many interlocutors don't have to be kin, it helps if they are not strangers. But a beginner should not despair. MacIntyre is engaging and even eloquent. His enthusiasm will get anyone over the more difficult material. So why, then, the multiple reads? And why blog through this book?

It is because After Virtue plays its melody on at least two staves. The surface of his argument is broadly political. It is a book about the history of debates about ethics since the Enlightenment. But it is also a work of religious interrogation. One feels that what's at stake is ecclesial survival. Somehow MacIntrye has written about the doctrine of the church under the very nose of political philosophy.

In order to try and follow MacIntrye's argument, I'm going to try to summarize, restate, and blog my way through. And, to be honest, I'm not sure why. Why this book? I ask. I don't know. There is just something about it that says now is the time to think about these questions. There is something about it that pushes the boundaries of my own project.

1. The Post-Apocalyptic Beginning

MacIntyre begins with: "Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe." Imagine that all knowledge and culture are consumed and scattered to destruction. And now imagine that, perhaps hundreds of years later, as human beings finally survive and regroup, people begin digging up the forgotten past. Much like the Renaissance discovery of the ancients, bits and pieces that survived would be assembled and examined. And they would be stitched together, though without understanding: pieces of textbooks, notes from experiments, instruments and tables and articles and machines. All of it would be pushed together in order to make sense of it. And so a new science would be born. But not one that understands the old. It may reference it, use its terms or formulas, but everything is inconsistent and bespoke. That, he says, is the state of ethics today.

There was a catastrophe, which he will later say is the Enlightenment project, and ethics was destroyed. Contemporary systems cobble together bits from the past. Their inconsistencies mean they will eventually fail. "We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expression. But we have . . . lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality." (2)

The reason we don't see this moral catastrophe is time. None of us were alive in earlier ages that enjoyed a shared, moral language. We don't know anything but simulacra. And the tools that we use to think with, the tools of science, were invented by the makers of the simulacra. They are not fit to know and describe better alternatives. MacIntyre knows that proving there was such a catastrophe and offering a way of overcoming it is a large order. And "if it is true, we are all already in a state so disastrous that there are no large remedies for it." Nevertheless, he urges his reader to eschew pessimism "in order to survive in these hard times." (5)


In chapters to come, MacIntyre will offer some proof of the catastrophe--like the heat maps of background radiation leftover from the Big Bang. He will also demonstrate the fragility of the dressings that  supposedly bind our private and public morals.

And here is the second reading. The first reading is to follow him into the examining room of public ethical philosophy. The second, however, is to see his subject not as secular but as sacred. For I find his words most potent there. Something has gone very, very wrong in the church--in all of her parts. There is something that is deeply disjointed and cracked. We are in a state so disastrous that there are no large remedies for it. And I ask myself how are we to survive in these hard times.

Please note that all footnotes are from the paperback third edition of his book. And, also, that his tendency to split sentences and omit commas from introductory phrases is everywhere.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Note from Class: Baptism's Old Testament backgrounds

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who by understanding made the heavens,
to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
and made Israel pass through the midst of it;

it is he who rescued us from all our foes,
he who gives food to all,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
(Psalm 136 ESV)

Over the last several weeks, we have been diving deep into the Old Testament background of baptism. We started knee-deep in the muddy water of the Jordan River with John the Baptist, and, diving down as far down as we could, we felt the squishy, dark silt of creation at the bottom.

Do you recall the symbols we looked at?

  • The black water of chaos
  • The authoritative word of God
  • The birdlike (dove-like) wind-wings of the Spirit blowing back the waters, making order from chaos
  • The dry land appearing
  • A change from one thing to another

Moving forward through the great story of the Bible, we found those symbols again and again. We found them in Noah's ark. We found them in the Exodus of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, and we saw them again as Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land God promised.

Israel became a people when the crossed those waters: the Red Sea and the Jordan. They left Egypt terrified as escaped slaves, but they walked onto the opposite bank of the Jordan River a unified, hopeful people.

John's baptism was a call to redo that. John was saying "Come to the Jordan again. Go into the water confessing your sins and come out of the water true Israelites again."

"But after me," said John,"is one more powerful than I who will baptize you with the Spirit and with fire." Just as Israel crossed the Red Sea from Egypt into the wilderness and then crossed the Jordan from the wilderness into the promised land, so there were two crossings to make: John's, "a baptism of repentance," and Jesus's, "a baptism of the Spirit." One leap on two legs.

Three of the gospels record Jesus's baptism.

"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11 ESV)

All of our symbols are there, even the dry land. Theologians for hundreds of years have equated the body of Jesus with the emergence of the dry land of a new creation.

For you see, what we are talking about is creation: the creation of the earth; a second creation with Noah; a re-creation of a royal people from base slavery; and, through Jesus's life, death, and resurrection, a new creation. "According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13 ESV).

Baptism = creation. To go into the water is to go back into chaos and death. To come out is to be created anew (resurrection).

Baptism is an act of God accomplished in the power-working of the Spirit according to his word.

So consider your baptisms, friends. You have gone into the water. And, with Christ, in the power of the Spirit, you have come out. You were slaves to sin and to the powers of this age. But now you are delivered onto the dry land of the promised land, you are citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Listen in on the apostle Paul as he talks about this with the Christian community of the Roman town of Colossae:

"Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all." (Colossians 3:5-11 ESV)

And finally, I quote the German reformer Martin Luther, "A Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued."

Remember your baptism, friends. Remember your baptism. "For his steadfast love endures forever."

I can't believe I forgot this, but it is so important!


Creation is a plural thing. The Israelites walked as a people into the promised land. We are baptized into the body of Christ, that is, into the church--a community. (The root word "church" is the Greek word for a community of people, εκκλησια.)

This is why baptism has throughout church history been the sign (sacrament) that joined people to the church.

Justin Martyr, a church father who lived in Judea in AD 100-165, described baptism in the early church:

"Those who believe what we teach is true and who give assurance of their ability to live according to that teaching are taught to ask God’s forgiveness for their sins by prayer and fasting, and we pray and fast with them. We then lead them to a place where there is water and they are reborn in the same way as we were reborn; that is to say, they are washed in the water in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the whole universe, of our Savior Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit."

Baptism creates community: it restores the one baptized to fellowship with the community of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it joins the one baptized to fellowship with the community of the church, the people of God.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

A Note From Class: We Are Made in the Image of the God Who Speaks

Dear friends,

Thinking about language has left us in quite the pickle.

We know that language is messy. It struggles to describe human experiences and ideas. It is unfit to describe God. How, then can we talk about or to God? Can we trust anyone who says that they speak for God? And does using language about God make us idolators?

It seems like we've tied ourselves up in a Gordian knot. We are locked in a large and lonely room. (Or a very small and private room if we think of the room of our minds, the movie between our ears.)

Let me pause here for a moment.

I can't exaggerate how true it is that this large and lonely room is the situation of our world. Western civilization, our civilization, has been locked inside for hundreds of years. I'm not exaggerating or being dramatic.

You see, it denies everything that cannot be measured. With a ruler in one hand and a calculator in the other, it judges everything. And so, after judging so much for so long, it is now unwilling to know anything. Our best scientists are on record today admitting that we could be living in computer simulation for all we know. We may not even exist! How depressing. How meaningless. And it affects everything. As scripture says

"For although [human beings] knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles." (Romans 1:21-23 NIV)

In case you missed it, that last part means that human beings traded knowing God for the worship of idols that they make.

But, I am not here to write about that. I'm here to write about our rescue. Because, you see, God does not leave us in the lonely room.

You see, our God is our creator. God made everything. What this means is that he made the universe and its laws and its times. He also made human beings. He made them to live in it, to govern it, and to worship him as his representatives to everything else it.

And how did he make it all? The scriptures tell us that God spoke it into being. Now don't think of God using a human language, like Hebrew or French or Spanish. The language is poetic. What it is getting at is that there is a deep reason, a wisdom, underneath everything, and that human beings are made as part of that wisdom and made to know that wisdom.

Isn't it weird that two-legged mammals on a little, blue planet developed mathematics and logic that allows them to understand how atoms and subatomic particles, black holes and distant galaxies work? We don't just wander confused around our neighborhoods. Instead, we developed a fantastic tool to study our universe. It is called science. And it really works!

How do we do that? How can our brain make sense of distant planets and galaxies?

It can because we are made in the image of God, in Latin the imago Dei /ee-MAH-go DAY-ee/. And so the reason and logic and wisdom of the creator that knits our universe together is something we can understand because we're part of it all--and that includes language. Our God is a speaking God. And so, human beings, made in his image, may speak with confidence. God put language into the world and called it good (Gen 2:20).

So using language about God or with God does not make us idolators: that is what language is for! Indeed, using language to pray and worship God is its highest and truest use. When we do that, we're doing what we, of all that is made, are created to do (Psalm 150). Not only can we use language, we are made and commanded to do so. Human beings were made to be priests of creation speaking praise on behalf of all things--from stars to mollusks to amoeba to rocks and trees and vines--and displaying to all as well what our God is like, calling all creation to its proper worship.

There's more to say here, but until next time: "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!"

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Rambling Toward a Dogma of Forgetting

"In the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important a function as recollecting." ~ William James

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” ~ Milan Kundera

"As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103.12)

We tend to automatically think of God's omniscience, but what if forgetting is as important to consider under the doctrine of God?

What if the Spirit's ordering of creation is simultaneously an act of ordering chaos and forgetting it?

If being is remembering, then is non-being forgetting? Do righteousness and unrighteousness forget in the same way? Is forgetting analogous to non-being? Is what is forgotten no more, or simply an inactive memory? If the former, then how can we do history, either our culture's or our own? What is our moral relationship to history?

What if forgetting is as important a spiritual discipline as is remembering? Is forgetting a practice of holiness? Do we image God in forgetting? And in wielding forgetfulness, are we turning nonbeing away from its sinful nothingness and redeeming it into a holy thing?

What if forgetting reminds all things that they are mortal and created? Forgetting as memento mori.

Does love forget all things?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Note From Class: Pilgrimage to Parnassus

Dear Friends,

In Green Hills there is a bookstore named Parnassus Books. You should visit it some time. Each book is hand-chosen by the store owners, and they invite authors to come and read aloud from their books. Parnassus has style.

Parnassus also has several owners. One of them acts as store spokesperson, the nerdy-famous author Anne Patchette.

Patchette wasn't always well known or successful. "My first stories and novels," she said, "were no more capable of supporting me than my dog." But success did eventually find her. And it is a good thing, because it is near impossible to start a bookstore (or any other business) without money.

As spokesperson, Patchette does interviews about her work and the bookstore. And, being a writer, she is often asked about writing. Here is something she said about writing a novel:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. . . . This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

This is a bold confession! Here is Anne Patchette, successful writer, disappointed with words. As she said, for all their usefulness, words can't communicate the "piercing color" of imagination. Words pin ideas to a page. They "run over a butterfly with an SUV." It sounds painful.

So why do writers do this? How can they bear seeing their beautiful ideas killed dead by words over and over again? Why do they do it?

I mention Patchette's writer’s frustration to recall again our trouble with words. We must use them, but they are only tools. And though a beautiful tool—for language is beautiful—they are no match for the real. But they are all we have.

In my last post, I talked about how this poses a problem for god talk. If Patchette can’t trust language not to kill her imagination, how can we use language to talk about God? If God is "of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature" like Patchette's imagination, then isn’t it wrongheaded to do god talk at all? Wouldn’t we be running over a butterfly with an SUV? And what about people who do this for a living? Are they butterfly murderers every one?

Let me ask one more question--a new question: Is it morally wrong to use words to talk about God? I mean, there is a word for taking a tool and setting it up between you and God. That word is idolatry.

Do we use words like some use gold or stone or wood and make a god out of them and pray to that god?

Yikes! god talk may be not only silly but dangerous!

Idolatry is a big topic in the Bible. Read it and you run into idolatry a lot. For example, right at the beginning of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself an idol." (Exodus 20:4).

Or, (and this is one of my favorites) we hear the prophet Isaiah /eye-ZAY-uh/ openly making fun of idolaters. Put on your best "I'm making fun of you" voice and read this:

The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses.

He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine.

He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak.

Some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.

Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”

From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”

No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?" (Isaiah 44:13-19)

Isaiah's sarcasm always makes me laugh—though I doubt his hearers thought he was funny.

Yet are we them? Instead of wood, do we build gods of words? Do we make a god out of our ideas of what God should be like? Do we project our ideas onto the clouds and "bow down”?

I think we certainly can do that. Yes, we human beings can make idols of anything, including from the ideas in our heads. As the Swiss pastor John Calvin said, "The human heart is an idol factory."

So what are we to do, we creatures of words? Can we talk of God or to God? Should we? Can we pray and be sure we are praying not to our imagination-god but to the living One? Can we pray "Our Father"?

I'm afraid we've worked ourselves into a tiny, dark box with no holes here, all alone with ourselves.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Why I Like the Filioque

I like the filioque. There is no question that it is a sixth-century addition to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. (It was officially adopted by the church of Rome in the eleventh century.) Nor do I dispute its tragic contribution to the Great Schism between East and West. Nevertheless, I think it better reflects scripture. I think it serves as an important soteriological stopgap against mystical efforts to obtain salvation through private, pneumatic theosis. And I think that it tilts the creed in the direction of soteriology and away from a kind of pure metaphysics. In other words, the creed is a statement about God's saving plan, not a blueprint of his godself. It's trinitarian structure is economic rather than immanent. The creed is not a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross. I'll explain these briefly in greater detail.

First, I like the filioque because it better reflects scripture. I say better because I am comparing to the admittedly older version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which said simply of the Spirit that he proceeds from the Father (τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον). Luke-Acts teaches that the Spirit could not indwell the church until the risen Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father and is glorified. Pentecost is a royal announcement and a Joel-invoking outpouring of Spirit new-creation power upon all flesh until he comes. It is the risen Son that pours the Spirit out upon his people. And the Spirit that he pours out is not its own but mediates the Son; Paul goes so far as to call the Spirit the Spirit of Christ (πνεῦμα Χριστοῦ).

Second, I think that the filioque closes the door on a second door of salvation, namely the mystical pursuit of theosis by means of the Spirit alone. If the Spirit proceeds to the church from the Father alone, then there is an avenue to the Father apart from the redemptive work of the Son. As I read it, the Spirit is always working through the Son toward theosis with the Father. And to say that one can work without the other is to tip the scales into either modalism or tri-theism. Moreover, Neo-Platonic contemplation has been part of the tradition of the church since Origen wrote in Alexandria. We still have Mount Athos today. We still have the pneumatic-centrist fervor of pentecostalism, and the "still, small voice" private revelation of American evangelicalism. So lest we give ground to an old temptation, I appreciate the stopgap that the filioque affords.

And third, I think the filioque reminds us that revelation is soteriological not metaphysics. As I said, the creeds are not theologies of glory but theologies of the cross. It is not ours to climb up and behold the naked God. The addition of the filioque to the creed, to my mind, is a necessary soteriological correction. But, then again, I like my christology at the center. And this leads to my last point.

My last point is about Trinitarian theology itself. My understanding is that one of the most important ways of differentiating the persons of the Trinity is by their origins. The Father is uncreate. The Son is eternally begotten. The Spirit is eternally aspirated from the Father. The Son and the Spirit eternally proceed from the Father, but not in the same way.

Therefore, if we remove the filioque, aren't we muddying the waters? If we remove it from the creed, then no differentiation is made about origin. (This is assuming the creed is a metaphysical statement, even though as I said, I don't see it that way.) The loss of clarity is at least unhelpful. Why would we want to do that? Indeed, why not amend the creed again to be more specific about origins?

I'm not a fan off innovation, or of keeping theology modern for modernity's sake. Nevertheless, for these few reasons, I like what the filioque is doing. Let's not be too hasty to throw it out.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thoreau's Prophetic Myopia

A recent article by Kathryn Shulz in the New Yorker, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia" has some great things to say about self-styled prophets and prophecy. I quote the following:

"One may reach good ends by bad means, and Thoreau did. ‘Not a particle of respect had he to the opinions of any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself,’ Emerson wrote of Thoreau. He meant it as praise, but the trouble with that position—and the deepest of all the troubles disturbing the waters of ‘Walden’—is that it assumes that Thoreau had some better way of discerning the truth than other people did.

"Thoreau, for one, did assume that. Like his fellow-transcendentalists, he was suspicious of tradition and institutions, and regarded personal intuition and direct revelation as superior foundations for both spiritual and secular beliefs. Unlike his fellow-transcendentalists, he also regarded his own particular intuitions and revelations as superior to those of other people. ‘Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men,’ he wrote in ‘Walden,’ ‘it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.’

"Claiming special guidance by the gods is the posture of the prophet: of one who believes himself in possession of revealed truth and therefore entitled—even obliged—to enlighten others. Thoreau, comfortable with that posture, sneered at those who were not. (‘They don’t want to have any prophets born into their families—damn them!’) But prophecy makes for poor political philosophy, for at least two reasons.

"The first concerns the problem of fallibility. [Here Schulz addresses Civil Disobedience and the claim of conscience. But what if society is right and one’s conscience is wrong? How can you decide between them? This requires some standard of governance beyond private conscience.] It is the point of democracy to adjudicate among such conflicting claims through some means other than fiat or force, but Thoreau was not interested in that process.

"Nor was he interested in subjecting his claims to logical scrutiny. And this is the second problem with basing one’s beliefs on personal intuition and direct revelation: it justifies the substitution of anecdote and authority for evidence and reason. The result, in ‘Walden,’ is an unnavigable thicket of contradiction and caprice. . . . To reject all certainties but one’s own is the behavior of a zealot; to issue contradictory decrees based on private whim is that of a despot. . . . [Thoreau is a man whose spirit resembles no one but] Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, elitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. . . . [‘Walden’ is] a book about how to live that says next to nothing about how to live with other people."

Monday, October 12, 2015

Poland's Cardinal Wyszyński on [Savage] Capitalism

"A new religion: money and wealth. Its dogmas: unlimited economic freedom, free competition, the division of capital and labor, its mercenaries are the laws of supply and demand and price mechanisms. Its morality: the lack of any moral superiority of human capital and labor or good production. Profits are its only good deeds. Its altars: a great plant, machinery, tools, cartels, syndicates, banks, where greed is satisfied by the price of human life. The final goal: blessed be the rich. Be rich at all costs, whoever can, and as soon as they can! This is the god of this world, a hurried capitalism. From now on all the world will encounter will be associated with that system because ‘abyss calls to abyss.'" ~ Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński