July 28, 2014

Schleiermacher stamp

German “mediating theology” — or Vermittlungstheologie for the nerds among us — was an important movement in the theology of the 19th century. Given its great diversity, it is probably best to not call it a “movement,” which recalls the same difficulties with labeling dialectical theology as a movement in the following century. Nonetheless, the general context and purported aims do give some unity.

The Vermittlungstheologen were working in the wake of Schleiermacher’s noble project of rethinking Christian dogmatics for the modern man, with his acute awareness of historical contingency and the subjective conditions for knowledge. The “mediating theologians” agreed that we cannot pretend the Enlightenment never happened, and thus they agreed that Schleiermacher was an important figure for the responsible theologian. But they disagreed, with Schleiermacher and with each other, on precisely how the church should navigate her way forward. They sought to mediate between the confessional Protestant theology of the past and the critical philosophy of the present, while also responding to the skepticism of figures like Strauss in biblical studies.

Among the Vermittlungstheologen, probably the greatest name is Isaak Dorner in systematic theology. While this is a Protestant movement by and large, similar happenings can be found in Catholic circles. Johann Adam Möhler at Tübingen and John Henry Newman in England both sought to rearticulate Catholic orthodoxy in the wake of Romanticism and Historicism of the 19th century. Newman’s thesis on the development of doctrine is a perfect example of recognizing historical contingency within doctrinal formulation, and his moral epistemology in Grammar of Assent is a brilliant display of an aesthetic mind grappling with “modern” doubt.


German Roots

This morning I happened to read a few reviews of Annette Aubert’s book, The German Roots of Nineteenth Century American Theology (Oxford, 2013). Aubert argues that the influence of German theology, and Vermittlungstheologie in particular, has been neglected in studies of American theology of the 19th century. She uses Charles Hodge and Emanuel Vogel Gerhart as her test cases, representative of those who expressed their theology in considerable dialogue with German mediating theology. In Hodge’s case, it is a sharply pronounced rejection, whereas Gerhart is favorable, along with his better known colleague at Mercersburg Seminary, Philip Schaff. In regard to Schaff, see my post, “On the Significance of German Theology.”

Here are the reviews, all of which are available free:

James D. Bratt (Calvin College)

Zachary Purvis (Regent’s Park College, Oxford)

Daniel Ritchie (Queen’s University, Belfast)


Lesslie Newbigin accepted the reality of pluralism — without accepting, as Lamin Sanneh expresses it, the “modern historical consciousness” that contextualizes and relativises all religious claims, subsuming them under the all-encompassing category of power. Under the pretense of tolerance, religion loses — as does genuine pluralism.

Lamin Sanneh (Yale Divinity School) provides one of the most incisive accounts that I have read of Newbigin’s work and lifelong project to rethink Christian exclusivity within pluralist societies:

…It is not true that all roads lead to the peak of the same mountain. Some roads are false short cuts, and even if they do not lead over the precipice, they leave people self-centredly entangled. For Christians, the ultimate clue, the rock of ages, is Jesus, the one God chose to honour and to glorify the divine name, and who has gone before them in honour and faithfulness.

Newbigin makes the point with some force that religious pluralism, in the sense of competing truth claims as well as of simple numerical multiplicity, does not exclude claims of absolute uniqueness. Without some sense of objective truth people will become totally imprisoned in subjective relativism. Religion can become relativist only by turning into an ideology, in which case tolerance will become a relative value as mere expedience. There would be no independent basis for it. That is why truth claims are not convertible currency that give people personal advantage; they are not a question of will power, à la Nietzsche: you want in this case a liberating creed, so you produce the sacrosanct truth of the infallibility of revolutionary relativism and smash your way to victory by gutting truth claims, any or all of them. Will power can only produce a wilful world based on power. Its truth claim leaves no room for difference or variety, or for openness and tolerance.

The point about pluralism reducing theology into ideology is really the key to the whole thing. And now my favorite part:

To assume [pluralism] is to settle for a beguiling notion that to concede truth to the other side somehow represents an advance on mutual tolerance when in fact it only triggers an unintended domino effect: the fall of Christian uniqueness would be followed in turn by the fall of all the other claims of uniqueness. Fewer generalisations would be possible until all religions are excluded — a most unsatisfactory state of affairs in which the generalisation of exclusion, not pluralism, would be left ascendant.

[Mission in the 21st Century, eds. Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross; Orbis Books, 2008, pp. 140-141]


Image: Lesslie Newbigin (source)

Here is another photo from my recent vacation to California:

Golden Gate Bridge Kevin

Click to enlarge. We stumbled upon this incredible view of the bridge, away from the tourists.

Thomistic Personalism

July 15, 2014

Are Thomism and Personalism compatible?

Peter Kreeft (Boston College) delivers an engaging and winsome affirmative answer in his presentation at the Center for Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas:

At one point in the lecture, Kreeft provides ten objections to the synthesis, among which I want to highlight is his response to the first objection (at the 50′ mark):

Objection 1: There is no need for a further synthesis. Thomism is complete.

The reply is that no philosophical system in this world is complete and that Thomism does not claim to be a complete system. It is a system, but it is an open system — not a closed one, like that of modern rationalists. It is essentially a dialogue with all philosophies. That is manifested in the very form of the summa article, which is a systematized dialog, and in the fact that Aquinas almost always answers objections — not by simple denials but by distinctions and tries to affirm and preserve the true aspect of every objection.

Second, Thomism is not incompatible with further synthesis, because Thomism is itself a synthesis: of Plato and Aristotle, of theology and philosophy. In fact, Thomas is history’s greatest synthesizer — rivaled only by Hegel….

There are many gems in this lecture, and I highly recommend it to one and all. By the way, Professor Kreeft’s annotated edition of Pascal’s Pensées — Christianity for Modern Pagans – was one of the most formative books I read as an undergraduate student.

With the vacation last week and several commitments over the next few weeks, the blogging here will continue to be slow — probably until August. In the meantime, I may pass along the occasional article of interest, like so:

“What Killed the Romantic Comedy?” by Rachel Lu (University of St. Thomas)

Back from California!

July 9, 2014

So, I have been away for the past week on a family vacation to Northern California — my brother, myself, and the parents. It was the first time I have ever been to the west coast. We started with Yosemite National Park, then the wine country (Sonoma Valley), and then San Francisco. The temperature change was ridiculous! The weather was in the 100’s in Yosemite, then the 80’s in Sonoma, and then 50’s/low-60’s in San Francisco! The wind chill was in the forties! It’s July! My brother quoted Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” As beautiful as San Francisco is, I am far too acclimated to weather in Dixie to ever live in SF, unless I could acquire one of the endless number of gorgeous houses that line every street. There is a reason why SF is the most expensive city in America.

In San Francisco, we went through Haight-Ashbury. I was a bit disappointed. I wore my General Lee t-shirt (Dukes of Hazzard), and I didn’t receive even a mild rebuke! Seriously, I expect more gusto from the liberals on Haight Street. Oh well. They did have a huge rainbow flag waving.

Here are some of my pictures (click to enlarge):

Yosemite. Huge rocks are everywhere!

Yosemite, near lower falls. Huge rocks are everywhere!

Trees growing out of rocks!

Olmsted Point in Yosemite. Trees growing out of rocks!

Tunnel View in Yosemite. Half Dome is the farthest. El Capitan is on the left -- the largest rock face in the world.

Tunnel View in Yosemite. Half Dome is the farthest. El Capitan is on the left — the largest rock face in the world.

Glacier Point. Half Dome is on the right.

Glacier Point. Half Dome is on the right.

My brother next to a Giant Sequoia tree-- the largest living organism in the world!

My brother next to a Giant Sequoia tree– the largest living organism in the world!

Yosemite Chapel. Erected in 1879 by the California State Sunday School Association. It is still operating as a nondenom evangelical church, with tracts quoting John 3:16 and asking, "What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be."

Yosemite Chapel. Erected in 1879 by the California State Sunday School Association. It is still operating as a nondenom evangelical church, with tracts quoting John 3:16 and asking, “What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be.”

Franciscan Mission in Sonoma. Founded in 1823 -- the northernmost Franciscan mission.

Franciscan Mission in Sonoma. Founded in 1823 — the northernmost Franciscan mission.

Random street in San Francisco. Nearly every house is like this!

Random street in San Francisco. Nearly every house is like this!

Golden Gate Bridge. The fog never lifted.

Golden Gate Bridge. The fog never lifted.

Another random street.

Another random street.

Old Saint Mary's Church in Chinatown. The only structure to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Old Saint Mary’s Church in Chinatown. The only structure to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Outside of a coffee shop. St. Ignatius Catholic Church is in the background.

Outside of a coffee shop. St. Ignatius Catholic Church is in the background.


In the previous post, I provided my lesson on Feuerbach and Nietzsche, taken from my Sunday school series on modernism and postmodernism. Here is the lesson on Michel Foucault, the widely influential French critical theorist:

Class 11: Foucault

Even though philosophy departments have moved in other directions (even back to both classical and modern metaphysics), Foucault is still alive and well within the various “studies” departments: cultural studies, women’s studies, religious studies, queer studies, pick-your-identity studies, and so on. Most importantly, echoes of Foucault can be heard across wide swaths of our culture today, with the millennials proving to be a highly receptive audience.

I did not record any audio for the lessons, so you do not have my running commentary. But, I think the slides are sufficient and hopefully of interest. This was one of the shorter lessons (in terms of the number of slides), because I spent extra time carefully explaining the technical terms in use and offering my criticisms at the end.


Image: Michel Foucault (source)


This past spring, I did a 12-week Sunday school series on modern and postmodern philosophy. Borrowing from Jacques Barzun, I entitled the class, “From Dawn to Decadence: An Introduction to Modernism and Postmodernism.” Clearly, we like to challenge our church members to new heights of astuteness. As Presbyterians, they accepted the challenge!

I presented the last 400 years of intellectual and cultural development as a continuous narrative. Beginning with early Deism, we looked at the chief works of figures like Locke, Descartes, Rousseau, et alia, and then the transition to the mature Enlightenment with Hume’s skepticism and Kant’s response. With Hegel, we have a significant new departure by way of a historicized metaphysics, which naturally led into the Left Hegelians and 19th century atheism. Subsequently, in week 9, we finally came to Feuerbach and Nietzsche. Here is the presentation for download:

Class 9: Feuerbach and Nietzsche

In the final weeks of the class, we looked at existentialism (Sartre, Camus) and finally postmodernism (using Foucault primarily, but also Serene Jones as representative of feminist “gender constructivism”). Perhaps surprisingly, I received really good feedback from church members, in what ended-up being a fairly large Sunday school class.


Image: Ludwig Feuerbach (source)

What did the PCUSA do?

June 19, 2014


Leave it to the Presbyterians to make matters confusing.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been meeting this week in Detroit. This afternoon was the fated series of votes on amending the Book of Order to allow for the “marriage” of homosexual couples. I watched the whole thing, and this is what happened.

The first proposal was for a two-year study committee, which was voted down. Everyone wanted to move on with the the two significant proposals:

(1) Issue an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) for the Book of Order, which would retain the current definition of marriage in the BOO while allowing for the discretion of individual ministers to decide whether or not to perform same-sex marriages. It passed. This, of course, results in an AI that is in contradiction to the BOO, as some delegates rightly complained. Nonetheless, it passed. An AI does not require the approval of the presbyteries.

(2) Amend the BOO to redefine marriage as between “two persons.” This also passed, which would make the aforementioned AI meaningless. The difference is that an amendment to the BOO requires the approval of the presbyteries. This will happen over the course of the next several months. I assume that the presbyteries will approve the amendment. Interestingly, there was a motion to amend the amendment by adding that marriage is “traditionally defined as man and woman,” which was approved. But this was just a gesture to the conservatives, so that the BOO will effectively have two definitions of marriage: (1) two persons, or (2) specifically man and woman.

The AI was smart politicking by the liberals. If the amendment does not pass by the presbyteries, they will still have the AI. And in the meantime — until all the presbyteries have voted — the AI is in force. So, gay marriage passed at this year’s GA.

As was to be expected, the evangelical voice at this year’s GA was noticeably weak — very weak. Since the last GA in 2012, the PCUSA has seen 300 or so churches leave for evangelical denominations. My church, Westminster in Charlotte, is among those who joined ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. The evangelicals who have remained (for now) are exhausted. They gave up before this GA even started, and I cannot blame them. The course is fixed for the PCUSA. They will join the UCC, mainline Lutherans, and Episcopalians. Good luck with that.

Oh, and at the “ecumenical worship service” yesterday morning, Katharine Jefferts Schori (the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church and super-liberal radical feminist, with a penchant for suing departing congregations) was presiding at the service. The decision to have Schori preside was effectively a middle finger to the evangelicals.

At this service, they also prayed the “world religions” prayer, celebrating the “diverse faith” around the world — Muslims, Buddhists, and spiritual seekers of all sorts.



This is what “tolerance” looks like:

“Colleges and Evangelicals Collide on Bias Policy” (Michael Paulson, New York Times, June 9, 2014)

Well, when truth claims are reduced to culturally-conditioned “norms,” which are then reduced to power plays and “rituals of truth” (Foucault) — then we really shouldn’t be surprised when postmodern liberalism is consistent. It is not about reason, much less tolerance in any meaningful sense. It’s about reconstituting, as they would say, the cultural conditions from which “truth” arrives in human consciousness and receives its legitimacy. Power is all that really matters.

With the massive 23-campus Cal State pursuing the same course of action, in addition to half a dozen other colleges where evangelical associations have lost their official status, it looks like an “evangelical underground” is emerging in our secular academies. On the upside, a little discomfort and loss of privilege will probably do us some good.


Image: Bowdoin College, Hubbard Hall, Spring 2012


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