July 26, 2014
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)
June 14, 2014
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
May 12, 2014
I so love this:
Tullian Tchividjian (Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church) has been under a lot of criticism for not sufficiently warding off antinomianism in his presentation of the gospel. I see Tchividjian as basically a Barthian, not because he is influenced by Barth (he isn’t) but because he reads the Bible without illusions of his own “victorious” life. God bless him. Tchividjian really emphasizes that Christ has done everything, and he is excited about it! He thinks introspection is looking in the wrong direction.
He also dared to challenge the American moralism of his predecessor at Coral Ridge, D. James Kennedy, who spent his waning years using the American founding fathers as his (by far) most frequent sermon illustrations — yes, I’m serious. That’s one more reason to love Tchividjian.
Thielicke begins by lamenting that few people will read widely and step across the “firmly delineated boundaries” separating the theological camps of fundamentalists, liberals, pietists, and so forth. There are “few intellectual and spiritual adventurers” (5). Fifty years later, I can assure you that nothing has changed. Thielicke acknowledges that his own “dogmatic system” is different from Spurgeon’s, but he is hopeful that Spurgeon’s work will bring a “breath of spring air” and “inner quickening” in our denominations. Thielicke is rather gushing in his enthusiasm for Spurgeon:
I can see that fresh and unpolluted water springs forth in Spurgeon’s preaching. This impression is so strong that it is a secondary question by what theology the source is enclosed, or what system of piping is constructed around it. Here Parthians and Medes and Elamites all hear in their own tongues “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:9, 11). This Pentecost miracle relativizes all the theological schools, though we must still take them seriously and are not fanatically to level them down. It is very difficult to convey to readers in advance any true impression of what they may expect in reading The Soul-Winner. I will simply cup my hands for a moment and let a few drops from this ocean run through them. [p. 6]
Thielicke then begins to describe and defend Spurgeon’s style:
The first thing to strike us is the vigor and even the passion of the language. This does not mean that the author is trying to force us. No one should imagine that Spurgeon is just using the loud pedal to try to bring his hearers under the pressure of suggestion or to dominate them psychologically. Our reaction to such a technique would undoubtedly be one of inner resistance. But there is no such resistance. One notes that the emotional element is not deployed here with tactical intentions. It derives from the matter with which Spurgeon deals. He himself has made this admirably clear. If, he says, a man knocks on my door in the middle of the night, wakens me out of sleep, and then tells me in a detached and languid voice that a fire has broken out at the back of my house, I shall probably not take him very seriously, and I may be inclined to pour a jug of water over this disturber of my peace. For when a fire has really broken out, this is so threatening and elemental a matter that we cannot speak of it with detachment and indifference. We are forced to refer to it in urgent and even agitated tones. But the Gospel, too, is exciting, disturbing, even sensational news. To speak of it nonchalantly and languidly is to give the lie to the message with the very tone of one’s voice. In other words, my confession of Christ consists not only in the content of what I say but also in the style or manner in which I say it. [pp. 6-7]
And then Thielicke makes another important observation:
The second point to strike us is that Spurgeon preaches the Gospel, not the Law. He is no Savonarola, lashing the sinners of his day. In this regard it is noteworthy how men generally like to be scolded by a preacher. The great castigators usually have a big following. This is because it gives us pleasure to hear the sins of others mentioned and dramatically corrected with exorcisms. The reason for this very unchristian pleasure, which the great preachers of repentance usually evoke in their hearers, is clear enough. We like to see, not our own sins, but sins of others castigated. …Now Spurgeon can certainly list the sins of his age and of his listeners. But he never does this without first showing how we can be freed from them. He does not recommend moral medicines, which cannot help, and which simply make moral apothecaries rich. He tells us that the sun is shining, and that we must leap into it out of the dark house of our lives. [pp. 7-8]
I love that. “He tells us that the sun is shining.” Thielicke was also appreciative of Billy Graham, as I once blogged: “Billy Graham Among the Theologians.”
April 2, 2014
A couple years ago, I offered some meager reflections on the debates surrounding Mumford & Sons. I sided with the negative critics. I still do, even more now than then. I revisited Jordan Bloom’s article. Their “sincerity” is really what drives me crazy — the need to really “feel” a thought before you express it. This is a plague in our day, and it is why our “art” sucks. You have artists interrogating their emotional landscape, projecting it onto the world, and calling it authentic. It then gets marketed to benighted consumers, eager to identify with the same authenticity and to parade it to their peers. And then there’s the music — as if the Beatles didn’t do enough to destroy American folk music.
In Jordan Bloom’s criticisms, he rightly parallels this phenomenon with the trajectory of church music toward therapeutic kitsch. They’re both cheap, easy, and disposable, which is what the consumer wants — whether in the church or at a concert, as if there is any difference anymore.
If you really want to know what a bearded troubadour of love should sound like, here is one of America’s greatest songwriters:
If you do not find this as “inspiring’ or “uplifting” as a Mumford song, then I should pray for your soul.
March 15, 2014
Simone Weil made a distinction between affliction (malheur) and simple suffering. Affliction is “a laceration of the soul” that endures, not a transitory moment of pain. There is a deep hopelessness for the afflicted. Their humanity has been forced into “thingness,” and there is no going back — at least not apart from a grace that pierces through this bondage or necessity (force). Weil explains this fundamental insight that permeates her theology:
In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. …Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. [Waiting for God, p. 67]
Weil’s remarkable skill is how she discerns the “imaginary” adjustments of our minds to deflect our attention away from affliction and the affliction of others. And in our own day, I would point toward an abundance of preachers and their followers as especially enthusiastic about making these “adjustments.” This is deeply ingrained in our churches. On this point, I offer you this perfect anecdote from Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God:
My roommate for two years at a Christian college was a German named Reiner. Returning to Germany after graduation, Reiner taught at a camp for the disabled where, relying on college notes, he gave a stirring speech on the Victorious Christian Life. “Regardless of the wheelchair you are sitting in, you can have victory, a full life. God lives within you!” he told his audience of paraplegics, cerebral palsy patients, and the mentally challenged. He found it disconcerting to address people with poor muscle control. Their heads wobbled, they slumped in their chairs, they drooled.
The campers found listening to Reiner equally disconcerting. Some of them went to Gerta, director of the camp, and complained that they could not make sense of what he was saying. “Well then, tell him!” said Gerta.
One brave woman screwed up her courage and confronted Reiner. “It’s like you’re talking about the sun, and we’re in a dark room with no windows,” she said. “We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, about the flowers outside, about overcoming and victory. These things don’t apply to us in our lives.”
My friend Reiner was crushed. To him, the message seemed so clear. He was quoting directly from Paul’s epistles, was he not? His pride wounded, he thought about coming at them with a kind of spiritual bludgeon: There’s something wrong with you people. You need to grow in the Lord. You need to triumph over adversity.
Instead, after a night of prayer, Reiner returned with a different message: “I don’t know what to say,” he told them the next morning. “I’m confused. Without the message of victory, I don’t know what to say.” He stayed silent and hung his head.
The woman who had confronted him finally spoke up from the room full of disabled people. “Now we understand you,” she said. “Now we are ready to listen.”
March 13, 2014
Since I often enjoy Darryl Hart’s writings, even if not always in full agreement, it is about time that I post something from him. Here are some thoughts worth pondering, related to my own criticisms of “worldview” on this blog:
…Christian “conservatives” insist that philosophy precedes religion, which of course is remarkably ironic since these believers (both Reformed and Roman Catholic) are arguing for the ultimacy of faith. But to do so they use philosophical arguments about incoherence, epistemological foundations, and moral consistency that wind up making human reason, not faith or Scripture or tradition or Christ, the answer to life’s most difficult questions. Mind you, the question, “how am I right with God?” is hardly the same level of difficulty as “how do I know?” or “how do I become virtuous?” …
[There is a] great affinity that neo-Calvinism and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism have in privileging philosophy. Both of those traditions grew up spooked by the French Revolution and carved up the universe between theism and atheism, both fought the Enlightenment with Christian philosophy or w-w, and both left a legacy of antithesis — intellectual, cultural, political. If a gateway drug for Protestant converts to Rome (the anti-revolutionary anti-modern one) exists, it could be neo-Calvinism with its bending the knee to philosophy.
Hart has done a significant amount of work demonstrating that worldview-ism is what happens when pietism supplants Reformed theology proper. Where I disagree with Hart, and his kith at Westminster California, is their too uncritical identification with scholastic Protestantism. The subjective ills which they identify in pietism can also be detected in scholastic moves to “secure” theological foundations.
March 8, 2014
John Webster (St. Andrews) published The Domain of the Word a little over a year ago, and it has recently been released in paperback for the financially disadvantaged among us. It is the exciting culmination of Webster’s labor within the doctrine of Scripture, with prior installments including Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch and Word and Church.
Paul Dafydd Jones (Virginia) has written a review for the most recent issue of Modern Theology (30:1), and I thought it was worth posting here. Presumably I am not allowed to post the entire review, but here is a good size excerpt:
It is the virtue of studiousness, above all else, that The Domain of the Word seeks to commend. The cumulative effect of the assembled essays is akin to an instructional performance: a protracted attempt to remind scholars, and the church at large, that God provides a distinctive “space” in which scripture should be read and explored, and the rational capacities of the Christian can be put to work. This provision of space is, of course, an act of grace. To play on Webster’s own combination of figures: the Word’s domain is a divine address, spoken by the risen Christ and distributed by his Spirit, that activates and guides the response of those whom it locates and encloses; a temporal iteration of God’s own immensity, such that the historical body of Christ becomes a vocal witness to God’s creative, reconciliatory, and redemptive work. Negatively, the scholar qua exegete is hereby afforded the opportunity to move past an anti-theological naturalism that,Webster believes, frequently compromises the field of biblical studies. Positively, the scholar qua exegete is enabled to do what she should have been doing all along: offering a faithful response to the scriptural witness that honors God through the exercise of redeemed intelligence. Given the “unified saving action and presence of Word and Spirit, reason’s vocation is retrieved from the ruins: its sterile attempt at self-direction is set aside; its dynamism annexed to God’s self-manifesting presence; it regains its function in the ordered friendship between God and creatures” (p. 122).
The essays that comprise part one of this collection consider scripture’s role in the divine economy. Two treat of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, and give ample evidence of Webster’s renowned interpretative skills. The others are impressively programmatic. In “The domain of the Word,” Webster traces the shape of the Triune God’s self-communicative acts, identifying the canonical texts as discursive media that Christ commissions to speak on his behalf—the goal being a bibliology that integrates claims about providence, inspiration, and sanctification, and makes clear why and how scripture functions as “an instrument in the fellowship between the revelatory Word and its addressees” (p. 24). With “Resurrection and Scripture” and “Illumination,” Webster adds more detail. The Bible’s authoritative status is a function of it being the “creaturely auxiliary” (p. 38) that the risen Christ employs to make himself and his saving work known. Indeed, precisely because Christ is risen, all times and places are present to and for him, and all times and places are poised to receive the saving light that Christ communicates through the creaturely prism of scripture. The result, if God so wills, is the event of illumination: persons and communities who are corrected, re-formed, and “lit up” to enjoy ordered fellowship with God.
The essays in part two fall under the heading of “theological reason.” Generally, they show Webster’s longstanding interest in moral ontology—that is, an expansive account of the way that human beings can act, before God, in obedience and freedom— connecting with his more recent studies of scripture. In “Biblical reasoning,” Webster argues that exegesis succeeds insofar as it locates itself and scripture within God’s reconciling economy; in “Principles of systematic theology,” theological reflection is conceived as the reproduction of God’s antecedent self-knowing, mediated through God’s hallowing of creaturely media and sustained, despite the ongoing fact of sin, by God’s regenerative grace. In “Theology and the peace of the church” and “Regina artium: Theology and the humanities,” Webster develops his insights with reference to the church and modern university. In terms of the church,Webster insists that theological discourse make manifest the peace that God has established between sinners and himself. Precisely because “peace is the metaphysically basic and enduring condition of the church of Jesus Christ” (p. 159), theology should view conflict in general and intellectual dispute in particular as unseemly; only when there is a well-formed “passion for gospel truth” (p. 167) may controversy be joined. In terms of the university, Webster protests the tendency to construe theology as one more humanistic field of study. This amounts to a defection of reason—a perverse reluctance, on the part of Christian scholars, to inhabit and participate in the divine economy. Webster advances an alternative perspective by way of Bonaventure and Augustine: one that perceives “the encompassing context” (p. 191) of all intellectual labor, refuses an overdrawn distinction of “sacred” and “secular,” and affirms the theologian’s Spirit-led capacity to draw selectively on “the disarray of the arts of intelligence” (p. 190).
I have no hesitation in declaring The Domain of the Word an important, insightful, and often brilliant work. Of especial value is Webster’s willingness to articulate a consistently positive theological perspective—that is, his determination to promote a style of reflection that engages the complexities of a late modern context only occasionally, given the more urgent task of describing scripture’s role in the divine economy and, complementarily, providing an account of God’s invigoration of human intelligence. This does not mean that Webster’s ad hoc appraisals of the modern period as largely inimical to sound thinking about scripture and exegesis ought to go unquestioned. I myself favor a more mixed judgment—one that balances critique with an acclamation of the benefits that accompany an expansion of learning, democratic processes of inquiry, and a criticism of certain “traditional” mores. Yet the point still holds. Webster’s account of God’s gracious activity is such that one need not (and ought not) spend time bemoaning the temper of the times. One can simply get on with the more interesting business of doing theology.
“Doing theology”—but in conversation with whom? The Domain of the Word is particularly interesting on this front. Webster’s fascination with the work of Eberhard Jüngel, prominent in the early part of his career, is now in firmly in abeyance. His interest in Karl Barth continues, but is overarched by a strong commitment to “patristic and medieval authors and . . . their heirs in post-Reformation scholastic theology” (p. ix). What does this shift in conversation-partners portend? Webster’s critical asides about the modern condition notwithstanding, there is little point in framing an answer in terms of the binary of modernity = bad/pre-modernity = good. For once that is in play, sound judgments are hard to come by: sweeping historiographical claims bulk so large that dogmatic arguments easily become peripheral. More important here is Webster’s prefatory admission that an account of “God’s infinitely deep, fully realized life” (p. ix), developed in conversation with patristic, medieval, and scholastic authors, has become fundamental to his thinking. …
Jones continues with some modest criticisms/questions about whether the limitations of the finite and sinful creature are lost in Webster’s account, which would obviously be a question hailing from the biblical studies crowd as well. As you can see, it is an excellent review. I especially like his recognition of Webster’s current dialog partners in the church’s history. A fine example of his scholastic ressourcement can be found in his “Trinity and Creation” article from IJST 12:1 (Jan 2010), which pertains in part to the proper ordering of Trinity and incarnation, a heated debate in systematics for over a decade now.
You can also read Ashish Varma’s review of Domain from the Wheaton bloggers.