Thursday, December 22, 2011

Science's crisis of faith

MIT physicist and novelist Alan P. Lightman has said too much for the priestly class to let him live. It is too bad, because Lightman can do the math and the metaphor at the same time. We need people like him. We need watchmen who are wide awake. Because if he is correct, the epistemological authority of our sciences could be eroding. Should it give way, public discourse and reason may well collapse, and civilization will be at the mercy of lawlessness.

Some may doubt the existence of a priestly class. First-world nations especially pride themselves in their technological ubiquity, public and private secondary and post-secondary educational opportunities, and free and democratic values. Nevertheless, someone has to commune with gods and communicate their demands to mortals. Someone has to decide what truth is and how it can be known. Someone has to demarcate what fundamental ideas will be allowed to shape the legal and political discourse of a culture.

The question is not whether a priestly class exists--every culture has to decide what it is and what it is not. The question is who makes the decision? Who is in control of the public square? French historian Georges Duby divides medieval society into those that prayed, those that fought, and those that worked. It doesn’t take long to sort out who is in the latter two classes. So who, then s in the former? Who are the priests? Here are a few characteristics that may help answer the question.

One trait that characterizes a priestly class is jargon. Priestly classes always have their own languages. Everyone is familiar with the monastics of the middle ages, chanting the psalms for hours at a time and saying mass at lip-lynching abracadabra speeds because it was in Latin. Medieval Latin was the JavaScript, C++, Python, XML, and Ruby on Rails of its time, invented by and for the priestly class. Today priestly discourse is in abstract mathematics. Consider the following comment by author and social philosopher George Steiner:

Science is becoming inaccessible to us. Who can understand the latest innovations in genetics, astrophysics and biology? Who can explain them to the profane? Knowledge no longer communicates; writers and philosophers in our day are incapable of enabling us to understand science. At the same time, the scope of imagination in science is dazzling. . . . I am concerned by what it means to be literate today. Is it possible to be literate if you do not understand non-linear equations?

Another demonstrable trait of a priestly class is a penchant for isolation and pageantry. Priests live ensconced in their temples and institutions. But when they emerge, they spin myths of fantastic speculation and drama. Priests use the most sophisticated technologies of the day to awe the public and further cement their offices as mouthpieces of the gods and the arbiters of all wisdom. It is the priestly class that brings fire from heaven to earth. (One best not forget that because they've been known to burn, torture, imprison, and silence men, women, children, nations, and peoples to maintain their power.)

There are others traits as well. For example, a priestly class demands sacrifice. It attracts members from and nurtures the future of the political bourgeois, whereas it needs and fears the military. It has an identifiable costume that sets it apart from others. And given enough time, it will undermine its own foundations.

Given these few characteristics, the argument can be made that the West’s priestly class is made up of practicing scientists. Take for example the half-a-lifetime of painful and expensive mathematical hazing it takes to even come abreast of what is current in the field, thus barring we plebians from real understanding. (We understand at the level of myth.) Or consider the role, and cost, of universities. Undergraduate education is a court of the gentiles; masters degrees the court of the women. Gown and mortarboard mark the initiates. And who can argue but the university system of our day, bloated and fat on the blood of the middle-class, regulates status, income, and mate-selection using impenetrable matrices to separate the sheep from the goats.

So then, having identified our priests, we return to our watchman, Dr. Alan P. Lightman. “The history of science,” he says, “can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles.” Humanity has measured the heavens with the span of its calculus and dispelled the old gods of nature and chaos before the daylight of scientific certainty. Reason reigned--until now. Now “this long and appealing trend may be coming to an end.”

Read the second part of this article, Alan Lightman Sounds the Alarm, or read the whole thing as a document.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heraclitus's chiasmus as a philosophical step toward sacrament?

Philosopher Patrick Lee Miller of Duquesne University was interviewed recently on the blog The Immanent Frame on the basis of his recently published book, Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Contiuum, 2011). It is an excellent interview. Miller uncovers layers of possibility in the deep strata of Western foundations where they are torn between the pressures of Heraclitean philosophy and Parminidean metaphysics. And Miller himself is of interest, as his influences are Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. In what follows, I'm going to piece together chunks and bits from the interview—a style that I really hate, but that occasionally works as a kind of personal notebook for later review. Anyone wishing to cite Miller should use the original post. The reason I'm doing this is because Miller is getting at what seems to me to be a natal but real philosophical option for discussing sacrament that departs from the absurdities of Aristotle. So here it is then:

NS: What is at stake in the questions of time and consistency that you’re probing through your inquiries into ancient philosophy?

PLM: If you’ve ever lost someone you loved, or ever deeply regretted something you’ve done, then time is a problem for you. We’ve all longed for the past, whether to be with someone or to be without some deed. Nietzsche expressed this very clearly in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where his hero says that our impotence before “greedy time” makes us resentful of it. To cope with this resentment, we dream of hinterworlds outside of time, eternities that promise to redeem us from its greed. There, everything will be made whole, every beloved will live again. So goes the dream. The sort of rationality pioneered by Parmenides—consistency—makes time impossible, and so when Plato combined it with the philosophical religion of Pythagoreanism, the result was a moralized rejection of time. We can cope with greedy time, for Plato, by seeing it as not only unreal, but evil. Our real life is not here, but there, among the Forms in eternity. If that’s so, however, why not commit suicide and get there immediately? This is a serious problem for Platonism. To avoid its nihilism and affirm our life in this world, we need a way to understand time as fully real. I argue in the book that Heraclitus offers this way.

Time is inconsistent if it is composed of moments. Thanks to the paradoxes of Zeno, Parmenides’ student, Aristotle saw this very clearly. If time is composed of moments, each one must come into being and then pass away. But when? A moment cannot be born in itself, nor can it die in itself, without violating the principle of non-contradiction. Neither can a moment be born or die in another moment, for that, too, would be contradictory. So, the principle of non-contradiction forbids moments, as Aristotle saw, yet it also requires them—a consequence he did not recognize. “The same thing,” he writes, “cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time.” Now, referring to fire’s relation to its fuel, Heraclitus called it “need and satiety.” Consistency demands that we analyze this apparent contradiction by distinguishing the duration of fire’s burning into different times. But no matter how finely we do so—ultimately, to the point of moments without duration—the contradiction persists. And likewise for other temporal processes; fire is just a particularly vivid illustration of the problem.

Although philosophers today overlook it, Hegel thought this problem serious enough to develop a new logic. British Hegelians were thus also worried about it. Bertrand Russell began in this tradition, but later rebelled against it to found analytic philosophy—which would venerate, not coincidentally, a logic without tense.

Parmenides's consistent reason fails to accommodate time, whereas the Heraclitean alternative succeeds. Heraclitus was the ancient alternative to Platonism. Where Platonism, indebted as it is to the Pythagorean devotion to reason as consistency / non-contradiction, sees an unquenchable rivalry between transcendence and immanence, Heraclitus synthesizes the two. He can do this because his understanding of reason included analysis—the separating out of things to understand them—and synthesis—putting things together. Heraclitus thus sublated the antithesis between time and eternity. Paying close attention to time and any process in time, we have to acknowledge that it is contradictory at every moment. There should therefore be a higher-order logic that accounts for the operation of reason whenever it thinks about time or itself. This is what I call chiasmus.

Chiasmus is a way of thinking. Whenever we wish to understand anything as temporal, including ourselves, chiasmus is needed. Using chiasmus we can see the difference in time and feel the summons of eternal unity; eternity is present at every moment of time.

Christianity blends the eternity of Platonism with the temporality of the Hebrew bible. Time can be holy. Think of the liturgical calendar. Augustine wrestles with this in the Confessions in order to make sense of the Incarnation. From antiquity, chiasmus has been used as a symbol for Christ.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Christianity is like baseball

There is an article that has stayed with me for quite a while now. The article is "How Baseball Explains the Nature of Language" by Alva Noë. Noë is a philosopher of perception at UC Berkeley. He is also a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media, and he blogs on NPR's science blog 13:7 Cosmos and Culture, where this article was published.

Now I've been asking methodological questions about theology for over a decade now. What is theology? What makes theology good or bad? Does theology mean anything? Does it have purpose? Is it useful? What is appropriate to it and when could it be said to go off the tracks? Is it a craft or a science? How do you know if you are doing theology versus, say, sociology, psychology, political theory, writing protest songs, or abandoning oneself to phantasie under the illusion of piety? What are its basic moves, its tools, its core principles? How can one define its edges and sort out its territories? Is theology native to confession or imported (or worse) into/onto it?

Nearly all of these sorts of questions are simply assumed by surveys and the literature (though not by Barth who plows right in from the start), and so I've been forced to work backward into the questions, which is my usual and oh-so-efficient method. Nevertheless, I have made slow, imperceptible progress. My hypothesis is that theology is not akin to philosophy or a philosophical system, but resembles more a craft, something that is made by human beings and that also makes them back.

So if theology is a craft, then what structures and orders it? What are its tools? I've been around the block long enough to have heard a bit about Ludwig Wittgenstein's language games, and I own a copy of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations. But his work outstrips my abilities--and Noë's article enters the picture at exactly this point, meeting low-brow abilities like mine with exactly the sort of metaphor this citizen of Red Sox Nation can respond to: baseball.

A fundamental of Noë's argument is that context governs meaning. The phrase "home run" is meaningless outside of the context "baseball". Baseball creates a space in which meanings like home run, triple play, our grand slam can come to be and make sense. (Wittgenstein put it like this in the first proposition of the Tractatus: Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist / The world is all that is the case. Think also of Heidegger’s Dasein—that we are thrown (Geworfenheit) into this world. Dasein ist geworfener Entwurf.) But what sort of activity is baseball?

Baseball is based on rules, but it far transcends them. Baseball includes all of these actions—throwing, hitting, catching, how to steal a base, how to bunt—and all of this new grammar—double-play, foul ball, home run. But it also includes a higher-order discussion of how it is best played and what makes for the best team and the best game. “Baseball people are concerned not just with how you play, but with the very question of how one ought to play baseball.” And it also brings with it an ethic: “When you are initiated into the baseball world, you learn to care about such things as stolen bases and pick-off attempts.”

Baseball is a human space. And this space is not just system, but a practice, a game, an activity which by definition is participatory, social, and makes as much as it is made. "To learn baseball," writes Noë, "is to come to be able to see and feel and be motivated in ways that are meaningless to strangers of the game. Baseball is more than a system of rules, it is a practice."

Noë says that there is a class of actions that human beings practice, a class based on rules, but that can’t help but transcends rules. A class that always has both first-order activities (what is done) and second-order activities (how we evaluate what is done). He calls these “baseball-like practices” and practices whose “ontologies are practice relative” and includes in these other social practices such as dance, art, law, speech, and language.

As a philosopher of language, Noë is taking linguistics to task. Linguists, he says, want desperately to be descriptive and evaluate only what is there. But they cannot do that, he maintains, because language is one of those class of actions that cannot be described from the outside. We live inside language; we can’t examine it from some removed and untouchable location. “We are so deeply embedded within and at home in the language world (compare: the baseball world) that we find it difficult to believe in the practice relativity of our convictions and commitments.” And because of that language is not only a first-order practice, like chemistry or geology, which can be comfortably described and dissected, but always and everywhere a second-order practice which can’t help but comment and critique itself.

And so I say that Christianity is a baseball-like practice whose ontology is practice-relative. It is a human practice, and that means a social, a political practice. It is based on rules (law), but those rules create a space of actions and activities and words and meanings and, almost instantly, the second-order discussion of how this should all work called theology. But going deeper than that, it is a revealed religion, which means it is based in language (Word) and, because language is a baseball-like practice, then by definition it must have grammar, it must have ethics, it must have theology.

Coming the long way around, then, Christianity is a practice-specific, a baseball-like ontology that exists along the first-order—its practices (liturgy, public and private)—and the second-order—the ethics generated by and for those practices as well as the metaphysics, the theology that questions the fitness of the whole.

Well, I’ve thrashed around in this for a while. Such thrashing is not Noë’s fault. His article isn’t about Christianity, after all, but an intramural jab at linguistics. There is something lex orandi, lex credenda (the law of prayer is the law of belief) about it. And there is something of Plato’s Paradox of the Meno and previous discussions on this blog about the epochē that are here as well. I’m dissatisfied as this last point I’ve neglected altogether in this description. At any rate, I’d better post.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

To break or to be broken

And so this American experiment and the quality of the Americans it produces comes down to this word "freedom". Do we break upon its surface, or will we be broken? Is it a politic or a pathway? Will I measure out freedom by the span of my arms, or will I measure it by the outstretched arms of Another?

. . . . . . . . . .

Along this same line, consider the following juxtaposition in a quote from a Cardus op-ed piece by Jane Clark:

"Dr. Anthony Esolen, professor of Renaissance Literature at Providence College, says that throughout literature, the word "villain" simply indicates a person who does not respect things as he ought. Villains are brutes, louts, cowards, petty criminals. They do not appreciate and treasure the small, sacred things, but instead tromp through the world like Jack's ugly giant, crushing everything tender and innocent. Small boys smashing butterflies are villains, as are fathers beating their children. They are intentionally ignorant (note the etymological root: ignore) of the right ordering of the world, which requires tenderness and thoughtful care for the small and weak things.

It is helpful to consider villainy alongside its opposite: virtue. Virtue is the habit of paying proper deference, which can include reprimanding evil as we encounter it. In many ways, virtue is synonymous with respect. It seeks the true nature of things and strives to deal with them as they ought to be dealt with."

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A word about the historical-critical method

R R. Reno made this comment in the June/July issue of First Things. Printing it here is a public admission of personal doubt--perhaps just a small one, a question, a confusion, or perhaps not--concerning the interpretive method of my schooling, namely this historical-critical (grammatical) one. Reno says,

For more than two centuries, the tradition of historical-critical study of the Bible has sought authoritative readings of the Bible that distill key normative theological concepts out of many studies of particular strata of the biblical text and it's history. Because of the mathematics of conditional probability, these efforts cannot succeed. Historical judgments about discrete portions of texts and slices of ancient Israelite history can discipline and enrich our larger-scale, traditional interpretations of the Bible. But the techniques of modern historical analysis that provide critical insight lack the creative, synthetic power to generate canonical readings. (7)

I am not an expert in hermeneutics or in the interpretive tradition, but I have had a little schooling. I know enough to know that Neoplatonism and the four-senses tradition were put aside, when Enlightenment science picked humanity from the navel of the cosmos. History replaced metaphysics. And method overcame genius, pragmatic wisdom, or contemplative and mystical insights. German criticisms sometimes hilariously gave us the historical-critical method and conservative scholarship wiped out the critical part and replaced it with the word "grammatical"--as much a political as academic move. It has held an easy peace in the burned over landscape of dead trees and souls that remain after the total war between fundamentalists and modernists, a war presided over by the janus god Modernity. This peace has held for nearly half a century, but, today, that peace is slipping. There is R. R. Reno's observation, above, but the sensibility behind it can be observed in growing calls for theological exegesis. I should observe that R. R. Reno is general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.

Where I am concerned, I have long wondered how to make the "well, if you understand the historical situation" results of exegesis and the well-worn "Bible says" truisms stand together. Paper after paper and commentary after commentary discover new readings based on historical and grammatical science--findings that are shared in the classroom and discussed at conferences but rarely--at this point--make it into pulpits and sunday school curricula. These finding are not hostile to the text, as were the assaults of the Tuebingen school, but they are different, nevertheless. And, slowly but surely, they will collectively reshape confession.

I am mostly glad. Perhaps we are seeing the fruit of the Reformation--the gospel message restored to the church after so much cultural accretion. But if these results are based in history alone, if these results are arrived at by a method born of science, then how can they be completely trusted as dependable by the church of Jesus? This method removes the Bible from the churches. It is the Bible of the schoolmen--no matter how devout. Can this Bible be trusted? Does God call ministers without first making them historians? To ask such questions sounds like American anti-intellectualism. It is not. Mine is a question about the role of the Spirit and a growing certainty that Jesus's reign should extend even to method.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Get a Sensei Q&A

The following is a Q&A I put together for some friends recently as part of a longer discussion on personal theological development. I had made the point that one of the things you must do is to choose a sensei to guide your development, and followed it up with this Q&A.

Q: I have no idea where to begin.
A: Ask someone who can give you guidance and, chances are, you have a book on your shelf now. Learn to glance over foot/endnotes and bibliographies. Do not lose sight of your question. Senseis are asking their own questions. They may overlap with yours, and sometimes yours is swallowed up into theirs, but, eventually and in the end, it is always your question.

Q: What if I choose a sensei I cannot understand?
A: This is not uncommon. To some degree, the best senseis are bewildering and frustrating long before they become enlightening. Nevertheless, if you are really in over your head, know your limits and choose a lesser light or a book or article or video or talk guided toward a popular audience. Sometimes senseis are intentionally obtuse for various reasons. An example is the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who teaches at the U of Notre Dame. Plantinga started his career by intentionally skewing as difficult as possible. He would give talks that no one would understand . . . and he did that for years. Eventually he earned the fearful respect of the philosophical community. And only after that did he begin to speak understandably.

A quick word about vocabulary. Runners have their time. Stocks have their performance against the market. Ideas have vocabulary. You know you are making progress when your vocabulary grows. If what you are reading etc. never challenges your vocabulary, then you are not in the presence of a sensei. Also, there are times you just skip the vocabulary. You can’t know everything. You are the one asking the question, after all, and they serve your ends, not the other way around.

Q: I’m afraid of finding a sensei. After all, I don’t know enough to judge whether they are orthodox or not. What if they lead me into bad ideas? (or the variant, “My tradition hates this person and has taught me to avoid them for the sake of keeping my salvation.”)
A: This is quite right. You should be afraid. The best senseis think so far ahead of you that you have agreed to their assumptions long before you are ever aware they have made any. And often your frustration with them and the bewilderment you are feeling is only proof that you are a novice and undeveloped in a topic (goodbye pride!). Most are not like that. But a strategy of beginning with a sensei who is anathema to your tradition has its merits. Again, a personal example, I am reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics right now, and already the line between what I think and what he thinks has blurred beyond the point of knowing for sure which is which. But I’ve spent a long time preparing for this, so I’m not wholly afraid of never coming out on the other side.

Q: Why take this trouble?
A: I apologize if this sounds like some kind of occult art. It isn’t. It flows quite naturally from asking your question. If it is a question you really care about, then you want to hear an answer. If you don’t care enough to follow through, then I might ask if you are really asking your question at all. You should go back and ask why you are afraid of your question. Maybe you have never really asked a question before in your life. Just because someone can use a question mark at the end of a sentence doesn’t mean they can ask a question. Positively, though, there are moments where things fall together. There are moments where what was impenetrable before this time falls open as easily as a storybook tale. There are moments where you see past your assumptions, the bedrock cracks, and you see you were standing on something more connected than before. There is nothing like that experience. It is so affirming, so empowering, so humbling, and so exciting.

Q: I’m not a reader / I don’t really like academic stuff.
A: These are really two questions, but they are so close that I’ll address them together. Some people are not readers. There are learning styles. Thankfully, in our day, there are videos and MP3s, and sometimes you can go meet a sensei. Nevertheless, here’s the truth: leaders read. Our culture still exalts reading as the primary vehicle of intellectual exploration and growth. Often you will find that a sensei has long-form and short-form pieces. I’ve often wondered, for example, why people don’t read sermons. There are usually books of, say, Wesley’s sermons or von Balthasar or Bonhoeffer or St. Gregory of Naziansus or Van Til or Hauerwas or Barth or Augustine etc. People also write journal articles. These short-form pieces are often better ways of getting at an idea than the long-form books (which often contain unnecessary linguistic, citational, or other forms of what amounts to showing off).

As for not really liking academic stuff. I totally get that. We Westerners have so exalted the university system that it has become its own nation of priests and Levites. And, theology too has been unnaturally split between “church theology” and “academic theology” so that pastors are now taught counseling techniques while biblical and scholarly languages and the philosophical challenges of our traditions and our age are left as the inconsequential playthings of egg headed ivory-tower brainy types.

That is a complete and utter lie. Doesn’t every Christian have the Holy Spirit? And if so, isn’t that Christian beloved of the father and enveloped in the life of the Trinity? That is the very foundation of theology, is it not? One’s question(s), then, are the real beginning of theology for you, and this is spiritual discipline, not the accumulation of an academic degree or indulging in a proclivity for libraries.

Stop thinking of books and such as academic stuff. Some is. You can ignore that stuff, but don’t ignore what speaks to your question. That isn’t academic, it is about you. And, where it speaks to your question, it is the most relevant and practical dialogue on the planet.

Q: Is there any other way of dividing up senseis?
A: Yes. Do it not just by subject but historically. Every Christian, IMHO, should know three things. (a) the Bible (b) the creeds (by which is a meant having some clue of basic dogma) (c) church history. If you know nothing about church history, then you should get yourself an accessible survey like Church History in Plain Language or Gonzales’s accessible surveys and learn the story of the family. Do a little genealogy. We are all the newest members of the church triumphant spread out over time and space.

Q: How long should I stay with a sensei?
A: Until that sensei has taught you his or her five-point exploding heart technique. Sensei’s are normally classified by one or more signature moves. The more important the sensei, the greater the number of signature moves. But the real mastery comes when the many collapses into the one, and you can see the unity of intent that makes your sensei unique. When that happens, you can anticipate their moves and choreograph their catalog. Your own unity will strengthen and you will know that it is time to seek a new sensei. With practice, you will be able to sense the unifying force underneath senseis you have only just met, and you will see that it is the quality of that unity which separates skilled warriors from the heroes of legend. (Please note that this question presumes your faithfulness to your own question. Not that you can’t learn from anyone. You can. But few of us have the luxury of time or patience to learn at the feet of someone whose teachings do not speak to our needs.)

I’m sorry this went too long. And perhaps I have been too extreme or unnecessary. Perhaps, too, a caveat should be made that says that none of this is necessary for salvation or for an admirable life of witness, service, and devotion. But, in saying that, please don’t think I’m saying that it is okay to shirk responsibility. As the quotes says, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” And again, “The mind, once expanded, never returns again to its original shape.” (That latter one is a pilgrim’s prayer and a good saying against hard times.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Church Dogmatics 1.1.3 Preaching as "the audible sacrament"

This section was a complete challenge to me. Barth not only discusses preaching, but he discusses why preaching exists, how it is arrived at by an ecclesiology that is itself immersed (baptized) in revelation.

Preaching has always been a given from my youth. We read the Bible. We talk to others about what we’ve read or hear from them what they’ve read. Preaching is this same thing but broadcast out with greater authority due to the calling of the preacher and the deference of the community of hearers.

Yet, this isn’t a preaching supported by dogmatics, rather sociology or cultural anthropology. This is an emotional or intellectual appeal. Not that the preachers from my youth have not been sincere men. Not that they did not understand their own ministries dogmatically--they may have and probably did. No, I mean my understanding was largely a shallow one.

Later Reformed theology taught me to respect the Word preached, but the dogmatic apparatus was still missing.

Now I completely see the oversight; “in this dogmatics preaching is not only assigned less importance, but virtually no importance at all“ (65)! And without the confessional apparatus, how can one truly address oneself to or urge the church on to attend to proclamation? How can one understand what should be preached and why? “Proclamation along these lines can only end with its dissolution. Proclamation as self-exposition (read, oh twenty-first century, the term “authentic” or “authenticity”) must in the long run turn out to be a superfluous and impossible undertaking” (64). Indeed, without preaching the church is either the mystery of performance or a center of social justice practiced by human beings “alone in and with (the) world” (Ibid).

And now I am left to wonder about proclamation as a sacrament. “The Word is the audible sacrament and the sacrament, the visible Word” (71). I may be instructed by preaching, but do I receive grace in the hearing--a grace that allows for the “hearing of the promise” and for “obedience to it” (67)? So is grace available--I speak as if it is a substance--as a punctiliar judgment once-for-all applied or is it an ever flowing stream “whose waters make glad”?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Church Dogmatics pp 25-44: the Church Emerging

Here are a few disconnected thoughts puffed and wheezed at the summit of the slight but sheer face of Barth’s prolegomena.

Having established his presuppositions in the previous section, Barth fixes the task before him, namely to overcome Modernity (Pietism) and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism in favor of a (miraculous) Evangelische Theologie. The whole forms a scholastic Quodlibet. It is dialectical and masculine. We feel the direct, interested squint of the sportsman. The leaning in and warming to an argument from one who likes nothing better. “If this faith falls” he says, by which we may understand the two forms of faith aforementioned, “so does this interpretation of faith, so too the presupposition of an anthropological prius of faith, and so finally the possibility of prolegomena of this kind” (39)

Barth’s agenda follows in the footsteps of the Reformers by emphasizing the fallenness of humanity and the unmerited grace of God. First, he puts the error in both of these dogmatic emphases at the feet of any definition of faith which finds traction in humanity, in “human possibility” (38). That, he says, cannot be, recalling the doctrine of human depravity. Similarly, the correct definition is one that centers itself not on human possibility or decision, but only (sola) on the free (gratia) revelation of the triune God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Barth’s attitude toward Reformation emphases does not cease there, however. As I’ve said before, he seems to take up Reformation emphases without fear and explore them, twentieth-century feet soldiering about in sixteenth-century boots. The result is a Christologic prolegomena out of which an ecclesiology emerges. Let me just throw this against the wall.

Sacraments: “In, with and under the human question, dogmatics speaks of the divine answer” (12). Barth’s discussion of the necessity of faith for dogmatic work is working with the same tools as form the doctrine that the efficacy of the sacrament is not bound by the worthiness of the priest who administers: “The time has come to go back with a new understanding to pre-Pietist doctrine of the theological habitus in virtue of which the theologian is what he is by the grace of God quite irrespective his greater or lesser likeness to [Kierkegaard’s existential awareness]” (20). Note especially Barth’s trouble with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation whereby “that which is beyond all human possibilities changes at once into that which is enclosed within the reality of the Church . . . Roman Catholic faith believe this transformation (emphasis mine). . . . It affirms an analogia entis . . . the possibility of applying the secular ‘There is’ to God” (41). This hints at a much more existential sacramental theology perhaps to come.

Community: "The results of earlier dogmatic work, and indeed our own results, are basically no more than signs of its [truth’s] coming. They are simply the results of human effort. As such they are a help to, but also the object of, fresh human effort. . . . Our dogmatic labors can and should be guided by results which are venerable because they are attained in the common knowledge of the Church at a specific time. Such results may be seen in the dogmas enshrined in the creeds. (15)” “To be in the Church . . . is to be called with others by Jesus Christ. To act in the Church is to act in obedience to this call. This obedience to the call of Christ is faith” (13).

Spiritual Disciplines. Prayer as “the attitude without which there can be no dogmatic work” (23). “We do not speak of true prayer if we say ‘must’ instead of ‘can’. According to Romans 8.26ff., the way from ‘can’ to ‘must’ is wrapped in the mystery at the gates of which we here stand” (23-24). Penitence. “Dogmatics must always be undertaken as an act of penitence and obedience” (22). Confession. “There can be success in this work . . . on the basis of divine correspondence to this human attitude: ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’” (24).

The Great Commission. This is the substance of preaching, the need to test what one preaches, and a warning against apologetics which gives unbelief an ontological hold on the argument that it neither deserves nor has.

Election underlies the entire enterprise. Election is the event. The free work of God. To bind God’s freedom is to bind his election. (And what affect will this have on Barth’s doctrine of baptism?)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Church Dogmatics 1.1.2

You say what you are. That’s what Barth is getting at in this section. Perhaps “are” is the wrong term, as it presupposes a metaphysic of being (and the personal jury is still out as to whether Barth’s is a metaphysics of ontology). Nevertheless, Barth’s doctrine of revelation--what you say--is dictated by what you are. Say, then, that you are God, then Truth is what you are. So what you say of yourself, what you reveal of yourself, is Truth. Say, then, that you are a human being. Limited. A created thing. A creature. Your “saying” is also limited and created, encompassing at best only a world of created things.

But when the Church becomes--when it is elected in God’s providence for faith in the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, then it confesses what it knows to be there, but with created lips. And so Truth erupts eschatologically into the world through its confession--a confession it is given, not one it has appropriated, a confession born of seeking not of obtaining. “It does not have to begin by finding or inventing the standard by which it measures [what is true]. It sees and recognizes that this is given within the Church. It is given in its own peculiar way, as Jesus Christ is given, as God in His revelation gives Himself to faith. But it is given” (12).

There are two levels of knowledge, even as they are two levels of what can be expressed. Because it is Jesus who speaks, and because Jesus is the incarnate Son, and because the Son enjoys the pure agape of trinitarian fellowship with the Father, then his word can be trusted. His word, he himself, is an analogia fidei (τὴν ἀναλογίαν τῆς πίστεως) which is a true canon. “He is the truth, not merely in Himself, but also for us as we know Him solely by faith in Jesus Christ” (12).

The one level is a level of perfect comprehension and speech--a “charismatic theology from within” whose characteristic theologian in Paul. The other is steps out after, asking and fumbling according to the ontology of those who ask. “As the Church accepts from Scripture, and with divine authority from Scripture alone, the attestation of its own being as the measure of its utterance . . . (16 emphasis mine). This is a “theology from without” whose characteristic theologians are the second-century apologists. “It alone creates fellowship and can be ecclesiastical and scientific” (22). Nevertheless, it is “always undertaken as an act of penitent obedience” and its chief method is prayer born of faith that the Spirit “will guide you into all truth” (Jn. 16.13 ESV). It believes that “in, with and under the human question [note the inference to Luther’s doctrine of the Eucharistic presence] dogmatics speaks of the divine answer” (12).

I should note, as well, that this two-layered matrix of speech, the Truth and the questions that point to the truth, is very reminiscent of the scholastic argument that the efficacy of the sacrament was not bound to the piety of the officiant, or lack of it.

I like that Barth is not content to set out on beaten paths. He goes to foundations and comes back with a doctrine of revelation that I’ve heard lampooned and spoken against my whole life. Barth’s theology can make a dead dog into divine revelation. He denigrates the scriptures, they say, and dissolves revelation into subjectivity.

Most of these criticisms and the critics that wield them have not read Barth, or, if they have read him, have not attempted to understand him--at least that is my governing hypothesis. I do not think he denigrates church history, the creeds, or the scriptures. They are, in fact, the matrix upon which his Dogmatics is built. So the truth of the matter is more subtle.

I have the feeling Barth is not out to change the accident but the substance of theological activity in the world. And I have a feeling he is wresting the podium from the hands of confident rhetoricians and reminding everyone, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great” (Prv. 25.6 ESV). The self-revealing of the Triune God is a power beyond the epistemological dictates of scientific reductionism, and He is coming into the world.

And I wonder if Barth is reading Calvin better than Calvin has been read in a very long time. I wonder if Barth is breathing the spirit/Spirit of the Reformers and grasping the true sense of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, the church reformed and always reforming, and therefore calling subsequent comfortable Protestant-scholasticism what it is.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Church Dogmatics 1.1.1

Why does Barth care about science? Right away, with this obsession with science, we twenty-first century readers realize we’ve crossed over into a different way of things. Einstein yet lives. Science has shoved the epistemology of the West under the iron lid of its own method. What concord should Jerusalem have with Athens? Why does Barth care about science?

Earlier today, I commented on Daniel Owen’s blog Beginning Barth that it seems to me as if “Barth is offering theology on the altar of post-enlightenment scientism.” But having read the whole of this section, I do not think this is the case. Barth does flirt with science, but the word and thing are not identical to what is commonly understood. Theology can be called a science in that it has internal consistency that is defined according to its object. But it cannot be called a science if it must submit to “the idea of unity, the possibility of myth, and the humanistic relevance of Christianity” (Arthur Titius, Berlin 1932. Note Barth's attentiveness to the scientific pronouncements of his day).

What emerges is a taking up of the term “science” as an act of solidarity, an act done from forgiveness and for evangelical hope (or judgment). That which is not assumed cannot be atoned for, and theology extends an invitation to every other science, saying, “come and be assumed.” Theology is no different from them. It also is a flawed, human discipline. And it is weaker than they, for rather than being fixed solidly in this age, theology hovers in gossamer fragility between the times. “It cannot think of itself as a link in an ordered cosmos, but only as a stop-gap in a disordered cosmos.” There is a signpost here pointing decades forward to Jürgen Moltmann’s assertion that eschatology is the only foundation of dogmatics. And there is also a statement made about the possibility of natural theology. It is possible, if I understand Barth, but it is improbable. “Might it not be that Jer. 31.34 is in process of fulfilment? . . . There might be such a thing as philosophia christiana.” “Now if God be wisdom (sapientia Deus est), as truth and scripture testify, then a true philosopher is a lover of God” (Augustine. De Civitas Dei Chap 8 Sect 1).

The difference between those sciences and this theological one (Augustine’s de divinitate ratio sive sermo), is the central principle. Those other sciences judge “the utterance of the Church about God in accordance with alien principles” whereas theology has its own principle: Jesus Christ, the “basis, goal and content” of the Church.

Barth’s treatment of Christ the Center is amazingly apophatic. Biblical theology (Does Christian utterance derive from Him?), practical theology (Does it lead to Him?), and dogmatic theology (Is it conformable to Him?) are three circles overlapping in a venn diagram from whose center one respectfully turns “it is well neither to affirm nor to construct a systematic center”. The threefold pattern of theological disciplines, its questions, and the three-fold adjectives he uses of Christ (basis, goal and content), loosely correspond and together beat the tempo of a trinitarian schema to come. The apophatic Christology of a center that is “neither affirmed nor constructed” and the apophatic nature of the one ousia at the center of three hypostasis. This is poetic metre. Aesthetically pleasing, yes, but is this a truly necessary trinity? Did Barth begin with science and end with . . . worship?

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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Preparing to Read Karl Barth

So it seems that I and a dozen or so other bloggers have answered J. R. Daniel Kirk's invitation to read through Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (CD). And you would think that, having written lengthy reviews on several "how to read Barth"-style books, and having read a bit of Barth over the years myself, that this would be an enthusiastic undertaking. Nevertheless, I'm terrified.

Blogging takes time. Thus the long falling off since Caleb was born. Two kids don't translate into T-I-M-E. Can I find time enough to write again and stay with it?

Interpreting Barth correctly is a kind of cottage industry among Barthians. Will I understand him? Will I miss some fundamental foundation and read a thousand pages in the wrong direction? And, in so doing, will I embarrass myself?

Barth himself was not kindly received by thinkers from the traditions of my youth, namely Southern fundamentalism and conservative Reformed. Based on their reading, Barth is the quickest way to undermine every sure plank of doctrine. His is the hand to topple unwary young minds into the slough of liberal despond.

And then there is the simple difference in time. The first volume of the CD was written in German in Switzerland in the 1930s. That means that Barth's interlocutors, his enemies, his politics and, indeed, his language require interpretation beyond bare cogitation.

In the face of these difficulties, the presence of a community of, at this writing, strangers comes as great comfort. I have no doubt that they will educate me more than I them. It feels right to be climbing in to the CD in the presence of a congregation (ekklaesia).

Finally, something Ezra Pound said in his book The ABCs of Reading stays with me. Pound said that a student should study masters. "It is my firm conviction," he said, "that a man can learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many."

Barth himself is, undoubtedly, a master. And with him comes a community of masters; indexed citations cluster around Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, Calvin, Schleiermacher, and, most prevalently, Luther. Who can hang back in such a company? And so, friends, let us begin!


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