June 30, 2009
As I observe the mainline Protestant churches, as represented by the statements of her leaders and committees, the word that repeatedly comes back to me is: lame. In fact, I think this is the key to understanding the decline of the mainline, and it is certainly applicable to many individual churches outside of the mainline. The mainline denominations are each losing tens of thousands every year, in net loss membership, and the reason is not simply cultural capitulation or any particular doctrinal or moral failing.
Rather, the mainline is disappearing because she is paralyzed by a decidedly aggressive weakness. This is characterized by a perpetual posing of questions and a dialogue wherein more questions are sought — and answered by even more questions. This question-mongering, of course, is often just a guise for commitment to a heterodox position, and liberal polity would not have been so successful if it were not for this tactic. No one wants to be seen as lacking an inquiring mind, with “inquiry” understood as methodological doubt, so the conservative contingent slowly but surely accepts this Cartesian modus operandi.
The result is that even the person committed to the revising of doctrinal standards is himself not able to articulate his beliefs with any force. This reminds me of a professor, a devout student of Foucault, explaining to our class, with regret, that Foucault’s consistent application of a will-to-power ethic undermines his own advocacy for norming the marginalized. The professor was thus drawn to an appropriation of modernist rationalism in order to solidify her own arguments for homosexual, transgender, and feminist acceptance. For her, the advances of postmodernism are, rightly, an extension of the modernist project, with its confident ability to ground and secure an ethic wholly within human desires and fulfillment. The mainline churches, however, are stuck in a haze of ineptitude. Lacking confidence in her moral charge, one almost wishes that an aggressive Nietzschean polemics would energize the ranks.
Instead, the mainline is dominated by compromise, not confidence. She values the “plurality of voices” and devalues the authoritative Word. This God and his Will — his Law and Word — is unknown or, at best, is a hidden noumenon slowly grasped in the aesthetic experiences of our fulfillment. The endless questioning is an attempt to undermine the surety of the conservative opposition, because there is nothing so malleable and tempted as our experiences, especially our interpretations of our experiences.
This is clearly exhibited in the blog of the current moderator of the PCUSA (mainline Presbyterians), including his most recent post on the declining membership of the PCUSA and in his posts on homosexuality. It is also seen on the website of his church. There is a premium placed on “thinking,” often tethered to experience or feeling. Words like “connectionalism” (yes, “connectionalism”!) are used, and phrases like “living the Trinity” are popular (of course, I always thought God was living the Trinity). Contrasted with the average PCA or SBC blog or church homepage, you are struck by the lack of assertiveness of God’s glory, God’s holiness, or Christ’s sacrifice. Evangelicals are not always at their best, but it cannot be said that they are characterized by an unwillingness to put Scripture, and the God of Scripture, front and center. The certainty of faith exists here, not demoted to inquiry.
Here are three closing thoughts:
1. It should go without saying that there is a fundamentalist over-reaction that silences without argument, thus demonstrating its own lack of confidence.
2. A theology and a church life built on the Word spoken and the Word received does not look to herself, where weakness, doubt, and incompetence reign.
3. The result (of #2) is that a heroic call to faith and obedience are better secured, and it is this call that energizes youth, not the lame “connectionalism” of the mainline.
June 26, 2009
Here are some books that I have recently read:
The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry Into the Old Testament (IVP Academic, 2008) by Sandra Richter (Asbury Theological Seminary). This is the perfect introduction to the OT and a joy to read. Dr. Richter is a gifted teacher, judging from this book, and knows well that learning comes by aids, examples, and repetition. She aptly combines the historical narrative approach (Wright) with a classical covenantal framework (Kline), balancing each other’s potential excesses.
A Brief Introduction to Karl Rahner (Herder & Herder, 2007) by Karen Kilby (Nottingham). If we can make “introductions” into a genre of its own, then this is the best introduction that I have ever read. I tried reading Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith as an undergraduate, but it was incomprehensible and tedious (I’m sure it still is). Then I came across his Theological Investigations essays, which are far more accessible and instructive, on a wide range of topics. Kilby is the perfect guide to the major themes across his work and the unifying principles (especially universal grace) which aren’t always worked-out in a fully consistent way and are open to some important criticisms, which she explains. Still, I came away from the book with the great appreciation that Rahner did what he did, even if it is so that we can go beyond him with a more careful articulation than we would have otherwise. Also, of particular note is Kilby’s excellent presentation of Rahner’s sacramentology, which is a definite step beyond Thomas and Trent, in my opinion. It certainly would have made the Reformation a little easier going!
Mary: The Complete Resource (Oxford, 2007) by Sarah Jane Boss, editor. I love the boldness of the subtitle: the complete resource. This is a very handy and informative guide to the history, theology, and culture of the cult of Mary. It is a collection of essays on, e.g., Mary in the NT, Mary in the early fathers, and more specialized essays, such as Francesca Murphy’s essay on von Balthasar’s Marian ecclesiology. The historical surveys are fair and unbiased, and the theological treatments (including a reproduction of Rahner’s essay on the Immaculate Conception) are of a high quality, representing the more worthwhile Catholic work on Mary (unless you think Alphonsus Liguori is the way to go!). The book is very expensive, but I got it for cheap at a used bookstore.
Protestant Thought Before Kant (Harper & Row, 1962) by A. C. McGiffert, with a preface by Jaroslav Pelikan. This is a classic in historical theology, written in the early 20th century. McGiffert was a student of Harnack, to whom he dedicates the book; thus, you can expect a careful attention to historical contingency, while not afraid to make broad claims and interesting conjectures. His viewpoint is largely materialistic and historicist, which actually makes the work more interesting and important, insofar as it clearly exhibits the medieval context of the Reformers and their concerns, something taken for granted today but not in McGiffert’s day. The transition to the Enlightenment is a departure from the Reformers and their standing in patristic and medieval Christendom. This transition is where McGiffert is at his best, and the book is well worth getting for this alone. However, his reading of Luther, especially on Law and Grace, is pitiful and simply wrong (faulting Luther for stark contradictions and antinomianism).
Engagement With God: The Drama of Christian Discipleship (Ignatius, 2008) by Hans Urs von Balthasar. Nothing by von B is “bad.” If I could have written this essay then I would be quite proud of myself. But, I have to say that this was the least interesting thing I’ve read by him. In fact, I can’t even remember any particularly noteworthy points, except stuff that you can find in more detail and better form in his trilogy. Maybe I just need to read it again. It is supposed to be a condensed presentation of his Theological Dramatics (Theo-Drama, 5 volumes), just as Love Alone is Credible is a short presentation of his Theological Aesthetics (The Glory of the Lord, 7 volumes), but the latter book is a far superior work…and I still don’t understand his Theo-Drama (from what I read in Dr. Murphy’s seminar).
Foundations of Dogmatics (Eerdmans, 1981 [volume 1], 1983 [volume 2]) by Otto Weber. I’m still working through the first volume, and I’m highly impressed. So far, he is making a lot of the same points, on method and prolegomena, as found in volume one of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. That, of course, is a good thing.
Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 1992) by Karl Barth. These are Barth’s lectures delivered in America soon after his retirement in 1962. This book is usually recommended along with Dogmatics in Outline and Credo as good smaller introductory works to Barth’s corpus. I would read Evangelical Theology first. Credo is a bit too difficult for the novice, and Dogmatics in Outline doesn’t quite convey the importance of what Barth’s project is doing. ET, however, has more of Barth explicitly telling the reader what he is doing, why he is doing it, and why you should do it too. You will be a poorer theologian for not having read Barth, and this book will give you a sense of why.
In lieu of reading novels, I watch a lot of movies. You cannot go wrong with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.
June 18, 2009
June 10, 2009
“Let us summarize our disagreement [with Aristotle]. We are bothered, at the outset, with his insistence on logic. He thinks the syllogism a description of man’s way of reasoning, whereas it merely describes man’s way of dressing up his reasoning for the persuasion of another mind; he supposes that thought begins with premisses and seeks their conclusions, when actually thought begins with hypothetical conclusions and seeks their justifying premisses, — and seeks them best by the observation of particular events under the controlled and isolated conditions of experiment. Yet how foolish we should be to forget that two thousand years have changed merely the incidentals of Aristotle’s logic, that Occam and Bacon and Whewell and Mill and a hundred others have but found spots in his sun, and that Aristotle’s creation of this new discipline of thought, and his firm establishment of its essential lines, remain among the lasting achievements of the human mind.” (Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, 2nd edition, p. 90)
“Aristotle’s ethics is a branch of his logic: the ideal life is like a proper syllogism. He gives us a handbook of propriety rather than a stimulus to improvement. An ancient critic spoke of him as ‘moderate to excess.’ An extremist might call the Ethics the champion collection of platitudes in all literature; and an Anglophobe would be consoled with the thought that Englishmen in their youth had done advance penance for the imperialistic sins of their adult years, since both at Cambridge and at Oxford they had been compelled to read every word of the Nicomachean Ethics. We long to mingle fresh green Leaves of Grass with these drier pages, to add Whitman’s exhilarating justification of sense joy to Aristotle’s exaltation of a purely intellectual happiness. We wonder if this Aristotelian ideal of immoderate moderation has had anything to do with the colorless virtue, the starched perfection, the expressionless good form, of the British aristocracy.” (ibid., p. 91)
I’m really liking this Will Durant fellow.
June 10, 2009
I’ve been on vacation — Pawleys Island, SC, north of Charleston — and now I’ll get back to propagating things I like, also known as blogging.