31 August 2005

aerial footage, etc.

WLBT, Channel 3 in Jackson, Mississippi has some footage of the coast available online, which helps me at least get a sense of the extent of the destruction from Katrina.

Scott Cunningham posts a letter on his blog regarding Desire Street and Redeemer PCA in New Orleans.

See also this excerpt from a byFaith email newsletter.

Ongoing New Orleans news video stream is available from WDSU 6.

Since I've never been to Mississippi or New Orleans, it's difficult to try to get my mind wrapped around all of this, but the destruction looks to be horrific. Letters and footage like those above do help to personalize things to some degree.

The ripple effects of Katrina are extending to Philly today, both in terms of the remnants of the storm itself, which arrived here in the very tame form of high humidity and gusts of wind, and in terms of rising gas prices, though I was able to fill the tank for $2.85/gallon. Fortunately, gas prices in the city are always cheaper than the nearby suburbs. Of course, these effects of Katrina are less than nothing in comparison with what the Gulf coast experienced.

See the post below for ways individuals and churches can begin to help.

Gracious God,
through your Son you have taught us
that nothing in life or death
is able to separate us from your love.
Look in mercy on all
to whom great sorrow has come
through hurricane in the Gulf.
Help those who are injured,
support those who are dying.
Strengthen the members
of the emergency services
and all who bring relief and comfort.
Console and protect
those who have lost loved ones.
Give your light in darkness
to all who are near to despair,
assure them that you hold all souls in life;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord.

30 August 2005

katrina relief

There are all kinds of ways that you can help those affected by Hurricane Katrina, from the Red Cross to more local agencies. You might consider looking at the PCA's Disaster Response through it's Mission to North America or the Christian Contractors Association, when it comes to rebuilding.

(update: It seems that the easiest way to make a donation to PCA relief efforts is through Mission to the World. See the Hurricane Katrina "Minuteman Appeal" on their website.)

Suggestions from the PCA-MNA website:

Prayer: For those whose family and friends have died in the storms. For those who are left without homes to return to. For all who will have to rebuild their lives and their homes and recover from their losses. For God’s leading to us, as we look for the best ways to serve and to testify of God’s mercy and grace in these difficult times.

Volunteers: Ron and Judy Haynes will coordinate PCA volunteer efforts. Over time, all types of skills and time commitments will be welcome. Please register on the MNA web site, or send an email to rhaynes@pcanet.org, or call them at 636 299 1424.

Financial Donations: we anticipate great financial needs, both for the expenses of relief operations and for direct assistance to PCA families. Please prayerfully consider making a generous financial contribution. Checks should be made to MNA, designated for Hurricane Relief. You may also donate by credit card on the MNA web site, or by sending your credit card donation information in writing to MNA.

Donations of food, clothes, etc: for now, make these kinds of donations to other organizations who are making appeals for them in your area. If we later seek specific types of donations, we will let you know.

29 August 2005

classes begin

It's a few minutes before 10am, 29 August, and I've already taught my first two sections of classes for this new semester. My schedule is more or less the same as the past several autumns, with two sections of "Moral Choice," two of "Human Person," and two of "First Year Odyssey" or "FYO" a one-credit, semester-long orientation course for freshman.

As usual, the freshman are younger this year than ever, though I'm told this is merely an effect of me getting older. The annual Beloit College list concerning the incoming class, however, comfirms my perception.

I also read today in the online news that "hovering parents" are becoming an increasing problem in American institutions of higher education. Given the cost of a college education these days, however, it isn't surprising that parents are trying to guarantee that they get what they pay for.

I've got to finish up my FYO syllabus before the class meets early this afternoon, so I guess I should go. We should also say a prayer for the folks in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama getting doused and blown by hurricane Katrina.

28 August 2005

pentecost 15

Almighty and ever-living God,
you are the author and giver of all good things.
Graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish us with all goodness,
and of your great mercy keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

27 August 2005

comedy and the christian narrative

I gave a presentation called "Joy Comes in the Morning" during a conference at Baylor University back in April, which I've now put up on my website.

It's not anything particularly original and, after talking to one of the other speakers, I think I also need to further problematize the categories of "comedy" and "tragedy" in light of how the Gospel displaced both as they once functioned in the ancient world. Still, the short presentation might be helpful in some way, though keep in mind that it was intended more as an oral performance than as a written text.

26 August 2005

hammer of god

A kind reader of my blog noticed Hammer of God on my wishlist and sent me his copy. The novel, written by Swedish Lutheran bishop Bo Giertz, is the story of three pastors who, humanly speaking, are failures--caught up into their pride, doubts, ineptitude, shame, and indeed unbelief.

The story of the first pastor, for instance, presents a highly-educated intellectual Lutheran theologian who, nonetheless, disdains orthodoxy and whose grasp of Scripture maintains a critical distance. But then he is unexpectedly called to the bedside of a dying man who is tormented with terrors of conscience in the face of a holy God. The pastor finds himself at a loss for words and it is only through the ministrations of a peasant girl that the dying man receives the comfort of the Gospel, a savior who is stronger than all our sins.

Through experiences such as these, God works in the life of each pastor so that he can at last set aside his own pride and unbelief. It is then that the Spirit works through him to minister Jesus to those in need, even in the midst of the pastor's own continued failings and doubts.

While the piety of the novel is decidedly Lutheran in its language and shape, it is also full of rich spiritual insight regarding the human condition, the centrality of the Gospel, and the cure of souls. It strikes me in many respects as a kind of Lutheran rendering of Georges Bernanos' classic A Diary of a Country Priest, which stands among my favorite works of Christian fiction.

personal jesus 2

The conversation regarding the language of "a personal relationship with Jesus" has generated some good and helpful discussion. I still don't think that the category of "personal" itself should be problematic and I'm not sure how one would get rid of it. Perhaps the phrase "a personal relationship with Jesus" has become such a piece of jargon that it needs to be shelved for a bit. But I can't imagine doing without the category and language of the "personal" more widely.

I think it's also important to recognize that there's a significant distinction between the "personal" and the "individual," even if that distinction isn't always recognized or maintained. For instance, one sometimes hears people speak in terms of "personally believing" something, when the speaker really means "individually believing" something, a supposedly private belief that isn't part of a larger system of belief and practice that would ever make any demands on anyone else.

In other contexts, however, the "personal" can be distinguished from the "individual" and that distinction is a necessary one to promote, I think, if we are going to retrieve and redeem the notion of the personal, a notion, I submit, that history suggests to be distinctively Christian and rooted in trinitarian theology and the Personhood of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Something can be very "personal," even having the nature of a direct personal encounter with Jesus as the living Lord, without thereby being "individual." If I hear a sermon that is profoundly convicting, then the Spirit himself addresses me through the word of his minister, so that I am brought "face to face" with Jesus Christ and his demands and Gospel. While perhaps intensely personal, that experience is not at all individual since the person of the minister, though not coming between me and Jesus is also not merely incidental to that encounter.

Rick Phillips, in a helpful blog entry, notes rightly that the experience of an adult convert may sometimes involve a strong sense of solitude, a dying to the old man and the old world of which one is part, while wrestling with God and undergoing conversion of heart. I'm sure, in fact, that we all go through such experiences from time to time. I know I have.

Nonetheless, while that experience is extremely personal and can involve a profound phenomenology of solitude, that doesn't make the experience at all "individual." Apart from the word of God ministered through others, the transmission of culturally-founded patterns of experience and interpretation, the rising expectations of a Christian community who are praying for your conversion and spiritual growth, and so on, that experience wouldn't be what it is or perhaps even be recognizable or detectable.

To pray or read Scripture in solitude is itself to take up practices of prayer and a text that have come to us through the Christian community, in a language we have received from others. This ineluctable presence of the "other," even in the most seemingly individual, betokens and manifests the ultimate Otherness of God.

Frankly, I don't know what a truly individual experience would be, for even to experience oneself involves all the ways in we bump up against the world and other people, within which we are reflected back to ourselves, all conducted in language, gestures, symbols, and categories (even within the confines of internal dialogue) that are ultimately gifted to us by others. A truly individual experience would have to be an experience that is less than fully human, that bypasses every structure of culture, language, community, practices, ritual, and so on, until we are left with nothing but empty silence. To then interpret that silence as the presence of God, even that would be to draw implicitly upon the traditions of a community of interpreters.

Thus, while the Christian life for some may seem to begin in an individual solitude, that is not in fact the case, no matter the degree to which one might have felt entirely alone with God. Certainly, as one grows in the faith and comes to recognize and embrace the Christian community (more and more serving others with one's gifts and more and more receiving from others in word and deed), there is also a definite growth in one's apprehension and practice of the irreducible relationality of the Christian faith, the goal of which remains, as Augustine says, "life together in God."

But that growing relationality is not simply a matter of doing more for or receiving more from others, but of an increasing recognition and embrace of how much one's own identity and personhood is wrapped up in the lives of others, that we are most fully human and personal when we most realize and live in our relations opening out towards others: he who wishes to save his life, after all, must lose it.

Part of this process of growing in Christ involves learning to re-narrate our own past from the standpoint of faith, as Augustine so marvelously did in his Confessions. And part of that re-narration involves seeing all the ways in which God's Spirit made Christ present to us even before we realized it: the Bible verse we were forced to memorize as a child, the Scripture stories great aunt Susan told us during summers at her house, encounters with various Christian believers along the way some of whom may have shared the Gospel explicitly and some who simply lived an attractive pattern that dislcosed Jesus, a sermon half-listened to on the radio when we had hit bottom after a night of binge drinking, a college roommate who now has gone off to be a missionary in Paraguay, and so on. Time and again Jesus came to us in that Bible verse, that story, that other person, that sermon, even if we lacked the eyes to see it. More and more we came to be enfolded within the story of God's people, the story of the church, which is also always the story of the living, present Jesus who remains with his people by his Spirit.

And when we find ourselves in seeming solitude, wrestling with God, it is those voices, those events, those Scriptures, that come back to us, often not even to our own recognition, woven together into the fabric of our spiritual struggle and growth. As such, every person's story is utterly unique and personal, but it is never a story of independent individuality. Rather, your personal sotry and my personal story are unique because they are both part of that greater story of the new creation people whom God's is gathering together by his Spirit. And no two characters in that story can have the same exact role, for each of us occupy and act in our own role, time, and place.

Part of our growth in the Christian faith is more and more to die to self, even with regard to our own afflictions, solitude, and the like. We learn, thereby, to see things less in terms of our own aloneness or struggle or even conversion (terribly important as those things may be, existentially and otherwise), and more in terms of all the ways in which God has graciously drawn near to us in Christ, in and through the means he uses to minister to us, even when we weren't aware of it. Thus we come better to apprehend the inevitable and necessary relationality of the Christian faith from its very inception as the site of God's grace, as well as how who we are in Christ is wholly dependent upon our relationship to him in all the ways he is present and makes himself known to us by his Spirit. Through such re-narration, even our lonely afflictions can then be offered up to God in gratitude for the sheer gift that they are, granted to us through all those people and events that God has brought into our story.

The Christian faith is, then, a deeply personal faith, yet also fully inter-personal, since the personal and the communal are not in competition (in the way that the individual and the collective might be), but are the necessary conditions for one another. And what else would we expect, for our faith is one that confesses the world to be a creation of what Maximus the Confessor called "the eternal circle of love" between Father, Son, and Spirit.

25 August 2005

mccarraher on the enchantments of mammon

Driving home the other day I passed a billboard in a bus stop picturing a close up of greens and vegetable bits nearly bursting from a bowl. The copy read, "My salad bowl runneth over." I don't remember which purveyor of salads was doing the advertising, but I found the invocation of Psalm 23 intriguing, suggesting a kind of quasi-sacramentality to the purchasing of a fast-food salad.

In a recent issue of Modern Theology (21:3 July 2005: 429-461) Eugene McCarraher of Villanova University examines, among other phenomena, this kind of religious language in the context of marketing, corporations, and, most generally, "capitalism." One should be clear from the start that "capitalism" here doesn't mean simply a system of free exchange in a marketplace, but the particular manner in which those exchanges within the contemporary west function to encode, circulate, and reproduce a certain set of modernist cultural patterns and values.

McCarraher starts out by recounting the Enlightenment narrative he wishes to challenge, the story that begins, "Once upon a time...the earth was an enchanted place..." and then goes on to explain how "Protestantism, science, bureaucracy, and capitalism" have disenchanted the mystery of a universe once full of pulsing vitality and spiritual forces, relegating all of that to the realm of "superstition, ignorance, and fantasy" (429). This story has come down to us in various forms, from the pens of theorists ranging from Karl Marx to Max Weber and beyond.

What McCarraher wants to do, however, is to challenge this way of telling the story and instead to provide what he calls "a theological history of capitalism." On such an account it turns out that the history of the modern, including the emergence of distinctively capitalist forms of life, is not the narrative of disenchantment that Weber weaves (and there are ambiguities here in Weber's own account). Rather, it is the story of the construction of a secular parody of the sacramental, ritual, and liturgical life of the ecclesial community.

One way of beginning to construct this challenge, McCarraher suggests, is to recognize that within a creational ontology the sacramental is the not the antithesis of the material, but quite the opposite. If creation is a divine gift, the world is inherently good, a site of God-given abundance flowing from the creator God as transcendent plenitude. This abundance undergirds a basic creational sacramentality in which the material world manifests the divine in whom it participates as its source and sustenance.

The grounding of the corporeal creation in the infinite depths of God as creator, far from attenuating the materiality of the world, instead provides the only ground upon which materiality can truly be apprehended in its reality and fullness in light of God (as the horizon is only visible in seeing beyond it). Theologically speaking, then, one of the problems with capitalist critics such as Marx is not that his ontology "is 'too materialist' but rather that it is not materialist enough" (432). A Christian critique of capitalist culture, then, McCarraher urges, would not be content to "demystify" the material conditions under which capitalist ideology emerges, but would provide a sacramental and ecclesial critique.

In the remainder of his essay, McCarraher turns to a number of secular theorists, begining by recounting Weber's "tale of disenchantment," noting along the way that the tale is not so simple as it first appears or in the form it is typically retold. On the contrary, McCarraher notes how, despite Weber's claims for modern disenchantment of the material world, he nonetheless maintains that "'many old gods ascend from their graves' to become to the laws of nature or the market" (435). Moreover, some latter day Weberians even suggest that the "perpetually unsatisfied desire of consumerism" is a residuum of premodern enchantment, perhaps even a sort of "contemplative mysticism of commodity culture" (435).

More problematic in Weber's tale of disenchantment, perhaps, is his assumption that "social forces" somehow explain "religion," an assumption that John Milbank has trenchantly exposed as reducing the sacred to the terms of the secular. Moreover, the "rationality" of modern secularism cannot be secured against the "irrationality" of premodern enchantment once we realize that "rationality" itself cannot be meaningfully discussed apart from traditioned communities. Thus "the lines between the 'enchanted' and the 'disenchanted' are not as distinct and inviolable" as Weber might suggest (436).

From Weber, McCarraher turns to Marx and his version of the modernist tale of disenchantment. His focus here is upon Marx's account of "commodity fetishism" and how, despite his story of disenchantment, such fetishism nonetheless still functions paradoxically in a sacramental (and even eschatological) fashion within Marxist theory. McCarraher draws attention to Slavoj Žižek and Timothy Bewes, who both work within Marxian categories but recognize that Marx's theory deploys religious categories and that, indeed, as Bewes suggests, Christian eschatology is "structurally analogous to the Marxist promise of revolution," even if revolution remains confined to an immanent plane (440). And McCarraher especially highlights the work of Walter Benjamin who, in the tradition of critical theory, most fully deploys theological categories, for instance, interpreting urban commercial culture in terms of "pilgrimage" and "temples" to consumption (441).

McCarraher continues with a brief detour through psychoanalytic theories, particularly that of Joel Kovel, who focuses on the transformation of the psyche and its desires, so that commodities can mediate the god-like presence and power of capital. After this brief detour, however, McCarraher turns in earnest to his more positive account in which "sacramentality endows both the material world and the labor of creativity with religious import" (446). As such, "material objects and human poesis," in Milbank's words, "open up our awareness of the sacred" so that labor in its intrinsic form (apart from the distorting effects of sin) is "always a form of play" that, even now, under the conditions of redemption, liturgically anticipates "the final consummation and redemption of human destiny" (446).

In constructing this more positive account McCarraher obviously is drawing upon the insights of "radical orthodoxy" as exposited by Milbank and Pickstock (among others). Nevertheless he notes some points of divergence from their perspectives. In particular, McCarraher gestures toward Eric Gill and Simone Weil who try to envision how a more Christian liturgical notion of labor would transform persons, workplaces, commodities, and markets, as well as to understand how, for instance, consumerism breeds a kind of cynical contempt for commodities apart from a real love and enjoyment of materiality.

McCarraher's main criticism of radical orthodoxy, however, lies in its failure to sufficiently challenge "the secularist theory of secularization" that still continues to "structure their accounts of capitalism and political economy" (449). Thus, instead of seeing the modern as the "refusal of liturgy" (as Pickstock suggests), we might see it as a "parasitical and perverse reformulation of liturgy" (450). As such capitalist culture can be perceived as "religious," even perhaps "a form of enchantment, an ensemble of rituals, symbols, moral codes, and iconography" (449). Thus, McCarraher points in the direction of William Cavanaugh's presentation of the modern as a "simulacrum, a false copy, of the Body of Christ" with "an alternative soteriology to that of the Church" (450).

In the remainder of his essay McCarraher provides a nicely detailed "sketch of enchantment in American economic culture" (450). While only a sketch, it begins to demonstrate McCarraher's thesis that modern culture represents a "repression or displacement of sacrament" so that the sacramental and liturgical re-emerges "in a different but malignant form" in which redemptive hopes are redirecteed towards the market, nation-state, and consumer culture. As such, the "love of accumulation" can be unveiled as "a corrupted love of God" (450).

While I may not entirely share McCarraher's perspective on these matters (e.g., I'm not sure I'd want to embrace the description of "Augustinian socialist" that he adopts), I do nonetheless find his analysis helpful in several respects.

First, it gives us some direction with regard to how we might proceed with cultural critique from the standpoint of the Gospel, understanding that task in theological terms and seeing cultural values as misplaced parodies of what the church is supposed to be. (As an example here, one might point to Michael J. Pahls's brief but helpful essay "A Different Kind of Consumerism;" also available in PDF.) We need, therefore, to think and analyze even the secular in terms of church, liturgy, word, and sacrament, as McCarraher models along with Pickstock, Cavanaugh, and others.

But we might also extend McCarraher's methodology, drawing particularly upon the Reformed tradition, which has something important to offer here with its extended meditation on the category of "covenant." The concept of covenant implies an ultimate commitment of trust and obedience toward the covenant Sovereign, a form of organization, particular practices and activities, the exchange of signs, as well as the promise of blessing and fulfillment--a pattern we see expounded throughout Scripture in the various covenantal administrations God establishes with his people. "Covenant" is the context in which church, liturgy, word, and sacrament function.

In this light, however, secular parodies can be analyzed in terms of "idolatry" by which unbelief and disobedience pledge themselves to false covenant lords, exchanging the gracious and forgiving God of the covenant for a idol of our own making. Like the true God, these idols function covenantally: making demands, promising blessing, and embodying all of this in patterns of expected practice and ritual. Thus, cultural critique can take the form of unmasking false and idolatrous images of God, uncovering their empty promises and unrealistic demands, and unlearning the patterns by which they have bound us.

Second, at least in this essay, McCarraher is modest about what the Christian alternative might look like. If our cultural analysis must remain theological (though, of course, carefully and critically drawing upon a wide array of analytic resources, not least from the social sciences), then the alternative culture we offer must also be theological. That is to say, cultural and political change is not first and foremost a matter of meeting the culture on its own terms or engaging in politics using the tools of politicians, but rather it is a matter of recognizing that the church, when we are faithful, itself offers a comprehensive alternative polis.

But this must embody a certain modesty. We are not called to envision what that alternative will ultimately look like (and to do so likely bespeaks an over-realized eschatology), but to be faithful in the situations to which God has presently called us, trusting his Spirit to bring about the future that he envisions for his people. "Being the church," with this kind of self-understanding, is the most culturally transformative action we can take, while nonetheless maintaining the importance of the church's distinction from the world, for the sake of the world, in mission.

Finally, McCarraher's analysis alerts us to the ways in which we sometimes too easily accept the assumptions of secular analysis, whether Weberian, Marxian, psychoanalytic, or otherwise. In this regard, while David Wells's No Place for Truth is an extremely helpful analysis of the shape of contemporary (for lack of a better word) "evangelicalism," in some respects it relies too easily and uncritically upon a quasi-Weberian approach to modernization, allowing the traditional piety of evangelicalism (perhaps in Wells's own congregationalist form) to occlude the sacramental and liturgical parodies offered by modernity. As such, Wells arguably remains unintentionally complicit in the very patterns of modernization that he criticizes, allowing the secular to enter into his very mode of analysis.

While Wells's analysis and recommendations are indeed quite useful in a contemporary recovery of the properly theological, apart from a greater attention to the kinds of sacramental and liturgical analysis that McCarraher offers, one is left to wonder if analyses and programs like that of Wells might tend to re-inscribe the very patterns of modernity that they seek to resist. My intention here is not to pick on Wells, but simply to use his important work as an illustration of the kinds of problems into which we all too easily fall.

The question we are left with, in the end, is the question of our own local practices as the church. I think here of Glenn Lucke's recent piece "What's the Price Tag on Your Integrity" in its challenge to a very specific question of economic ethics (or the brief set of related questions he raises in "Following Jesus in a Materialistic World"). Of course, wider theoretical outlooks are needed as well, especially when conjoined with specific actions (as with the Acton Institute's notion of "economic personalism").

Whatever the case, we can ask ourselves (and I mean "ask" here as part of a wider conversation among believers) what it means to make choices as Christians--not only as individuals or even as families, but also as those who together live out the Christian story, who follow by faith in the steps of Jesus, who have exchanged our old identities for a new baptismal one, and who live as a new creation people, sharing together in eucharistic gratitude.

24 August 2005

personal jesus

personal jesus

Common Grounds Online (CGO) points to a thought- provoking post by the Jollyblogger (David Wayne, pastor of Glen Burnie PCA) regarding the evangelical notion of "a personal relationship with Jesus," criticizing it for its often individualistic and gnosticizing tendencies. David's thoughts prodded me to post a comment on CGO, which I repost here in a slightly revised form:

My own inclination is to work with the language with which people are already familiar. So I'm not eager to ditch the language of a "personal relationship with Jesus." It does capture something important about the Christian faith and the hope of the Gospel, through which we have peace with God and experience his love, all of this "in Christ Jesus."

While I don't wish to jettison the language, I do like to point out to people how their other relationships in fact work. Relationships involve mutuality, trust, reciprocity, and communication. And all these things normally and effectively occur within the context of shared stories, common traditions, larger bonds of family and friendship, as well as through the exchange of words, signs, and tokens of our love and affection.

It would be an odd thing to say that I have a close personal relationship with someone who doesn't reciprocate, with whom there is no shared history, or when there is no listening, no receiving of hugs or handshakes, no sitting together in contentment. That's not a personal relationship, at least not in the sense intended here, and to insist that it is, turns it into a kind of unrequited infatuation, a pathetic shadow of what a relationship can be.

If, however, all of these means of reciprocity, communication, and so on are part and parcel of what it means to have a personal relationship, then that must also be true of our relationship with God in Christ. We probably all recognize that the Spirit brings the words of Jesus to us through the Scriptures, but, at least in the Reformed tradition, the emphasis has always been on the reading and preaching of the Word as the means by which the Spirit makes Jesus present to us in an encounter with our living Lord. That is to say, Jesus is personally present through the Word as that is taken up by the Spirit upon the lips of those fellow-Christians he sends to minister to us.

This perspective can be extended by analogy to all the other biblically-rooted words and stories that together constitute the texture and fabric of our relation with Christ: the encouragement and rebuke of our brothers and sisters, the pastor's word of absolution, the common prayers of the saints, the tangible words of baptism and eucharist spoken to us in water and bread and wine. From here we can add the fellowship of believers as those who embody the love of Jesus in their deeds, words made flesh: making a dinner for the family with a newborn, sitting beside the sleeping person in hospital, visiting those who are shut-in, providing library books to children, rocking toddlers to sleep in the nursery, and so on, all in the name of Christ.

So, if the Gospel offers "a personal relationship with Jesus" unto our faith, then, it seems to me, this relationship must be grounded in all the ways by which we relate to one another as God's church--a church gathered and united by his Spirit around his word and sacraments as Christ's very own Body. Moreover, it is a relationship that includes all the love, service, and solidarity that overflows from the identity of the church in Christ.

If I want to hear Jesus, I receive his word to me from the mouth of his ministers and on the lips of other believers. If I want to be part of Jesus' story, I trust what he's done for me and enter into his story through the baptism I share with him among his baptized people. If I want to eat with Jesus, I sit with others and partake at his eucharistic table and the table of those who are poor in body and spirit. If I want to touch and be touched by Jesus, I reach out to the least of his brothers who are in need and I humbly receive the service of others he sends to me. Jesus is immediately available to us in all these ways the Spirit has appointed.

At any rate, I think that rightly understood "a personal relationship with Jesus" is the opposite of gnostic. Instead it is something tangibly manifest in the Body of Christ, but only known as such to the eyes of faith.

That being said, I do think David's point is sound with regard to what such a "personal relationship" has actually become for many Christians, under the shaping influences of modern individualism, pragmatism, subjectivism, and the like. In many respects, such an evangelical spirituality of existential interiority, tinged with moralism, when taken to an extreme, has a lot in common not only with gnosticism, but also with liberalism. I'm all for the cultivation of the interior life and spirituality, but only when grounded in a faith that trusts the externum verbum of the Gospel, made present to us in the ecclesial Body.

I do hope, however, that a renewed sense of the church as Christ's visible Body would do a lot to correct the imbalance. As such, God's people are marked out by shared stories and practices, both of which ground its missional role, empowered by the Spirit through the Gospel to serve one another and minister to the wider world. And it is in this that a personal Jesus is found.

23 August 2005

summer's end

Summer doesn't actually end, of course, for almost another month, but psychologically it ended today for me as I've spent the better part of the day in my office on campus updating syllabus, preparing for autumn classes, making sure the textbooks are in the bookstore, and so on. I never seem to accomplish as much over the summer as I had hoped and each year the summer seems to slip away more quickly.

I've also not heard back from colleagues regarding a number of different tasks, committees, and events that are planned for this semester, including whether or not I'll be an advisor for a group of incoming freshmen. So I've been busily sending off emails to the appropriate folks trying to find out the extent of my responsibilities beyond simply teaching.

I was cleaning out some files today as well, while preparing for the semester, and ran across a paper I'd written expresiing a philosophy of pastoral counseling, which connects in some ways with my advising role and general role as a professor. I'd written the paper as a result of the fact that, for a few years, I was working on a masters degree in theology here at La Salle, mostly just for the fun of it. But then a full-time faculty position opened up and we had Claire and the degree got sidetracked. As part of that program, however, I took a class in pastoral counseling and the paper had emerged from that.

The class was actually quite useful, though the professor and I certainly did not see eye-to-eye on a whole range of issues, differences that were particularly profound with regard to biblical terminology refering to God as "Father" and "Son" and so on. Nevertheless, in my nine years of university teaching I've had quite a few students come to me with spiritual, moral, and emotional questions and difficulties. This kind of interaction with students, from what other colleagues tell me, isn't that uncommon, at least for certain professors who strike students as sympathetic or accessible.

Sometimes it's a matter of the professor referring the student to the counseling center on campus or simply listening. But on other occasions the student chose to open up to that particular professor and really expects to be listened to and advised and counseled. This role wasn't part of what I had imagined when I first began teaching and it took some getting used to, since I've always felt completely out of my depth in these kinds of situations, especially given the profoundly distressing and complex nature of some of the problems students face.

In any case, talking with others who face similar situations whether as pastors, counselors, religious brothers or sisters, teachers, spiritual directors, and so on, in the context of a counseling class, was tremendously encouraging and helpful. This was particularly the case since the setting was openly faith-based and Christian (and the fellow students were considerably more orthodox on the whole than the professor).

One of the great things about teaching at a Catholic university is that the environment is one in which I am free to talk openly about the Gospel and my own Christian faith (even as a Protestant!) and yet, unlike many conservative Christian colleges, the school attracts a range of students from a variety of religious (or irreligious) backgrounds, who are under little compulsion to put on a show of piety. And one of the contexts in which I can communicate most effectively to students regarding the hope of the Gospel and the impact that Jesus can have on their lives is in the context of students who want to talk one-on-one and who are open to hearing something that can bring change to their lives.

In any case, enough rambling. I must get back to preparations for the semester. Perhaps I'll post some of that "philosophy of pastoral counseling" paper later if I think it still makes any sense after re-reading it.

aar/sbl 2005 annual meeting

As some folks are likely aware, the Annual Meeting of the AAR/SBL (American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature) will be held in Philadelphia this year, November 19-22. I'm not sure whether or not I'll attend, since it's difficult to justify the expense ($125 + membership renewal), which would wipe out a large chunk of my departmental conference cash. There's also the ETS Annual Meeting in Valley Forge on November 16-18, 2005.

Nevertheless, since Philly is home, I will be around and would love to get together with folks for fellowship and conversation over breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, or whatever works. Saturday and Sunday are particularly flexible, though weekday afternoons/evenings are open too. If you're new to Philly, I'd be happy to show you around a bit or point you to some good restaurants or attractions.

Leave a comment or email me.

21 August 2005

pentecost 14

Almighty God,
you have taught us
that without love
all our doings are worth nothing.
Send your Holy Spirit,
and pour into our heart
that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

20 August 2005

epistle of davenant

Sometime in the 1620s or 30s, John Davenant, the Calvinistic divine and then Bishop of Salisbury, wrote a long Latin letter to his friend and former colleague Samuel Ward of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. I've recently completed an English translation of that letter and have put it up on my website.

The letter concerned two main matters: In the first half of the letter, he discusses, against the backdrop of the Synod of Dort, precisely what is and what is not at stake in the controversy over the perseverance and apostasy of the saints. In the second half, his emphasis is upon providing a postive account of the effect of baptism for infants, focused upon the remission of the guilt of original sin as constituting infant baptismal regeneration, justification, sanctification, and adoption.

Davenant's entire letter is largely aimed against the argument designed to refute the perseverance of the saints from the evident fact that not all baptized infants grow up to be adult believers. Such an argument presupposes that all baptized infants receive "salvation" in some sense in baptism (consisting in the remission of the guilt of original sin), a presupposition with which Davenant would agree, along with Roman Catholics and the bulk of Protestants divines, not only among Lutherans and Anglicans, but also a significant number of Reformed (Beza, Forbes, Pareus, Hooker, Whitaker, Ward, Bedford, Le Blanc, Jurieu, etc.).

If such infants, having received salvation, grow up to become unbelievers and are damned, then that would seem to support the contention that true apostasy actually occurs. Davenant's strategy is to argue that the question of perseverance and apostasy concerns only those who receive salvation through some kind of communication of inherent grace by which they come to actual faith--a subjective change in the believer. Since infants are not capable of actual faith, Davenant argues that their experience of salvation cannot be taken as univocal with that of adult believers and thus cannot be used in an argument for the reality of apostasy of the saints.

While I don't agree with every aspect of Davenant's argument, the letter bears witness not only to the diversity of opinion on questions such as infant baptism within 17th century Reformed divinity, but also the theological depth and finesse with which such issues were discussed, as well as the commitment to Reformed and Protestant catholicity the argument embodies. Moreover, the argument is, to my mind, intrinsically interesting. As such I hope it proves of some use.

cooking log

Since Laurel and I got married, I've done most of the cooking. This began in part because I enjoy cooking, but also because when we were first married, Laurel was working a nine-to-five job, while I often got home around 3pm. Thus I was in a position to have dinner ready by the time she'd get home around 6pm. Now I keep cooking for the fun of it and as a creative outlet.

Over the years I've tried a lot of different recipes from a variety of different kinds of cuisine: Greek, Indian, Thai, Chinese, French, and so on. Several friends have encouraged me to keep some kind of log, mostly as a way of recording what I've tried, what worked and what didn't work, changes and variations I've made to recipes, recipes I've been handed down, and so on. For some reason, the idea of blogging all of this never occurred to me and the idea of writing it down by hand seemed tedious.

But now I'd decided to blog it. This is primarily for my own personal use and record-keeping, but there's nothing particularly private about it, so committing the information to a public blog seems worthwhile and might be of some use to someone else on occasion.

Thus: cooking log.

19 August 2005

hart on "evangelicalism"

The pundits have told us repeatedly that the victory of George W. Bush in the 2004 election was due, in large part, to the priorities of "values voters," in particular Bush's ability to garner 78% of the vote among white "evangelicals." Thus, in the ongoing analysis, we've been informed again and again about the beliefs and habits of American "evangelicals," what issues are important to them, how the Democrats have failed to reach out to them, and so on. "Evangelicalism," it seems, is a force in American life that must be reckoned with.

But is it really? What if it's all a mistake? What if, indeed, there is no such thing as "evangelicalism"?

The contention that evangelicalism doesn't exist is, in fact, the main one of Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham (BakerAcademic, 2004) by Daryl G. Hart, a book I picked up several weeks ago, which had been recommended to me by a friend who wondered what I'd think of Hart's argument. Prior to his current position, Daryl Hart taught church history at two conservative Reformed seminaries (the two Westminsters, in Philadelphia and California) and so brings the perspective and tools of a historian to the question of the identity of that thing we call "evangelicalism."

In many respects, Deconstructing Evangelicalism is a continued, deepened, and more popular treatment of some of the issues that Hart raised in his earlier work, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). In that book Hart argued that contemporary evangelicalism has its roots late 19th century trends that valorized the experience of a populist, individualized interiority as the core of Christian expression. In doing so, he argued, evangelicalism succeeded in undercutting its own commitment to historic orthodoxy by displacing the norms of church government, the ordered ministry of word and sacrament, and confessional articulation--the very means by which a orthodox faith was once preserved and passed along to succeeding generations.

But Hart's argument in Deconstructing Evangelicalism also shifts from that of his earlier book, now arguing that the term "evangelicalism," as we have come to use it since the middle of the 20th century, is a recent construction that ends up masking the reality it is supposed to describe and, in fact, fails to refer to any substantive reality at all. The point of the book, then, is to demonstrate the inadequacy of all this talk of "evangelicalism" in order that the chimera it represents might dissolve away.

Once upon a time, "evangelical" simply referred to those churches that descended from the magisterial Reformers and thus were Protestant rather than Roman Catholic or Unitarian-Universalist. In the 19th century, all Protestants, from German Lutherans to southern Baptists, were "evangelical" whether they worshipped liturgically, worked for the cause of abolition, or were ministered to by circuit riders. This is how the term is still used in many parts of Europe where, for instance, the German word "Evangelische" refers simply to the mainline Protestant churches, particularly Lutherans.

Even in the early 20th century, as the modernist- fundamentalist controversy was gearing up, the advocates of liberalism and the Social Gospel still embraced the term "evangelical" with reference to themselves. But then, in the wake of that controversy, things changed. Part of Hart's purpose in his book is to tell that story, to give a sort of genealogical critique of contemporary evangelicalism.

Hart's argument falls into two main sections, each containing three chapters, one section entitled "The Making of Evangelicalism" and the other "The Unmaking of Evangelicalism." In the first section Hart describes how the architects of (neo-)evangelicalism "built the evangelical edifice and how academics have maintained the facade of the building" until "evangelicalism" has become a major area of study, social analysis, polling, and so on (28). In the second section Hart examines how evangelicalism as a religious movement has failed to establish any cohesive identity and how, in its anti-traditionalism, evangelicalism has (not surprisingly) failed to construct any kind of sustainable identity.

The opening chapter surveys the emergence of "evangelicalism" as an object of study within (even the secular) academy over the past 25 years. Literature on the topic has been, in fact, a burgeoning industry, often providing many helpful insights into "trends and developments in American Christianity" (56). But the result was shelves of books studying an object that simply did not exist as an object of study 40 years ago, even though many of the studies trace the supposed phenomenon of "evangelicalism" back to the early days of the American experiment, even to the Puritans.

Hart notes, moreover, that it is no accident that this study of "evangelicalism" emerged at the same time that "the study of American Christianity shifted from church history to religious history," a shift from the study of the church, with its structures and patterns, to a study of individual religious experience and belief (58). Thus, the emergence of scholarship concerning "evangelicalism" was a reflex of the academy's "rejection of Protestant hegemony" in favor of a historiography that favored outsiders, diversity, and the marginal (59). It also came along with a shift in the study of history away from official structures, formal organs, and publications over to a social history that celebrated ordinary life--a perfect fit with the individualistic, egalitarian, and pragmatic character of evangelical piety.

In the next two chapters, Hart continues in a similar vein, turning to the social scientific study of religion in relation to the emergence of "evangelicalism." Evangelical leaders had attempted to position themselves as the rightful heirs of historic Protestantism, over against the mainline churches. And they did this despite the lack of any formal structures binding evangelicals together, while holding to only the barest of shared doctrinal content and all the time minimizing the kinds of patterns that once marked out and reproduced confessional Protestantism.

Nonetheless, academic social science came to the rescue, Hart goes on to suggest. Through polling data and other statistical methods, combining various forms of self-identification with voting patterns, distinctive beliefs, and so on, social science was able to provide the identity and continuity for evangelicalism that it otherwise lacked. Through these means, Hart contends, social scientists were able to provide seemingly hard data in order to "establish that born-again Protestants were the rightful heirs to Protestant orthodoxy" (83). The problem, of course, is that polling data is notoriously good at constructing the object it is purporting to report upon, particularly in areas as complex and varied as religious identity, faith commitment, and church life. As Hart notes, "Sound-bite questions end up breaking down profound religious truths into bite-sized portions to which those surveyed may respond positively with little reflection or conviction" (106).

In the second section of his book, Hart begins by noting how "evangelicalism" has a center of gravity that is not focused upon the church, with its ministry, doctrine, preaching, sacraments, and catechesis, but upon parachurch organizations and charismatic personalities. But such a center of gravity requires very little from its adherents and, as Hart suggests, tends "toward abstraction rather the concrete forms of give-and-take involved in congregational and denominational life" (125). The result is something ephemeral, lacking any discernable boundaries, and often shallow.

It's not that "evangelicalism" is devoid of any doctrinal content, of course. As Hart notes, there are some "fundamentals" passed along from an earlier phase of its emergence. In the end, however, the bottom line is, as Hart's fifth chapter's title puts it, "No Creed but the Bible's Inerrancy." His point is not that inerrancy is mistaken, but that, apart from a larger body of dogmatic theology, it provides no real basis for a cohesive identity or intellectual formation. Indeed, as Hart notes, "the doctrine that was supposed to distinguish conservative from liberal Protestants and would prevent...theological slippage" turned out not only to be "insufficient for an evangelical scholarly initiative," but also "turned out to be divisive" itself among those who identified as evangelicals (151).

Hart finishes out the second section of his book with a discussion of evangelical worship practices, noting the odd phenomenon of "evangelicalism" maintaining a kind of political and cultural conservativism--a conservativism that sets itself over against the varied liberalisms of mainline Protestantism--but nevertheless is itself undeniably liberal at the very heart of what it is to be the church: the worship of God. As Hart puts it, there is an "inability of born-again Protestants to see the inconsistency of standing for religious values that transcend time and place while packaging those truths in forms that are singularly disposable" (174). Or, to put it another way, how it is possible for evangelicalism to construct a stable, coherent, and ongoing identity for itself when those patterns that are best able to "unite believers across generations and cultures" are routinely set aside?

Hart concludes with a final chapter tying these various threads of argument together. Whatever "evangelicalism" might suppose itself to be, it's not clear there is any reality there. It certainly isn't a "tradition" in any normal sense of the term. It might be construed as a "coalition," but, if so, it is one with ever-changing constituencies, alliances, and leadership, with no real cohesive identity over time. The chapter ends by asking the question, "what would happen if Americans decided to give up the label" of "evangelical," to admit that it doesn't actually exist (187)?

Hart envisions largely salutary results. Perhaps, by no longer identifying with a nebulous collective identity, believers would be "encouraged...to recognize all the ways in which the local church...ministers to them and provides the real stuff of a Christian identity" (188). Perhaps "the search for minimal affirmations and warm sentiments" might give way to a greater appreciation for the fullness and richness of biblical teaching as that can emerge within a coherent, historic tradition (189).

So, what is one to make of Hart's extended argument?

As far as I can see, it is historically unassailable. My summary above does almost nothing to communicate the texture and wealth of historical detail that Hart weaves together, detail which is well worth reading the book. The contentious bit is how one interprets that history, whether or not it does incidate that "evangelicalism" is a mere ephemera, a facade constructed by cadre of evangelical leaders, historians, social scientists, and pollsters. It does seem to me, however, that much of Hart's account is fairly compelling.

But this doesn't mean that there are no question one can raise concerning Hart's argument.

First, my philosophical side wants to raise questions about the ontology of social objects, such as "evangelicalism," before we make the determination of whether or not it "exists." After all, is it really the case that ephemeral objects don't exist, objects where the main continuities over time are change, shifting coalitions, superficial appearances of similarity, and so on?

But I suppose asking such an abstract question is, in many respect, to miss Hart's point. For his argument to succeed, all that's necessary is that whatever evangelicalism might be, it is not what its proponents, expositors, and defenders have taken it to be--a mass religious movement constituting a definite tradition, carrying forward the mantle of historic Protestantism. Moreover, Hart does succeed in demonstrating both the sheer difficulty of solidly identifying "evangelicalism" and how the identity it does maintain is much more a matter of marketing and politics, of personalities and polling than it is anything churchly or theological.

Second, Hart's argument sometimes seems to suppose a too facile opposition between various kinds of Christian piety and practice. As Donald Bloesch points out in his review of Hart's book in The Christian Century (May 31, 2005), "Hart is especially critical of pietism, which he accuses of reducing faith to religious experience. Yet he does not see that formalism and ceremonialism can be as grave a threat to faith as pietism." Or, to put it more succinctly, "There is no inherent conflict between structure and ecstasy."

Bloesch is correct, I think, in many respects. Certainly a ritual spirituality devoid of any true faith and piety is a perpetual danger (as much as any) and, moreover, there is nothing about true biblical piety that is in the least tension with structure, tradition, and inherited practices. But Bloesch also seems to miss the point of Hart's argument, which is not directed against "piety" per se or Christian spiritual experience, but against "pietism" as that has emerged within American Christianity, with its embodiment of peculiarly American values of individualism, egalitarianism, pragmatism, and anti-traditionalism.

From the standpoint of this kind of spirituality, the big dangers will always appear to be formalism, externalism, and ceremonialism, especially tied as they are in the popular conservative Christian imagination with theological liberalism. Inasmuch as conservative American Christianity has taken up the patterns and values of such pietism, it does engage in a sort of myopia or distorted vision that tends in an unchurchly direction, undermining (if not inimical to) the kinds of traditional means of preserving and inculcating the faith, which Hart at one point delineates in terms of "birth, baptism, catechism, and worship" (82). If this is so, then "evangelicalism" does have an undercurrent that renders it inherently unstable.

None of this is to say, of course, that finding effective ways of communicating the Gospel to our contemporary world is unimportant. But there is a necessary, even if difficult balance that must be maintained in proclaiming the faith to a lost and broken world and in passing it along to new generations of converts and covenant children. This is a balance between, on one hand, the missional character of a church that humbly and lovingly speaks the Gospel to people within all the various situations where they find themselves and, on the other hand, not allowing the culture to dictate the form that Gospel proclamation must take in a way that undermines the integrity of the message and the identity of God's people through the ages.

But this balance need not presuppose an opposition between missiology and ecclesiology. It is precisely when the church maintains itself as an alternative polis--a community of faith and love gathered together out of the world for the world around the word and sacraments--that the church is at its most effective. As Hart puts it, the local congregation of believers and such congregations working together,

...are sites of real, though flawed, Christian ministry, where members gather together every week in the presence of God to offer praise and petitions and to receive the good of the gospel through preaching and the celebration of the sacraments. These churches are also places where diaconal assistance is provided, the advice and warnings of discipline are rendered, and fellowship among the saints is available. (188)

Thus, the central message of Hart's book is, in the end, a plea for the priority of the local church, embodying the traditional and biblical "ordinary means" of Christian discipleship.

Finally, in evaluating Hart's book, one is faced with the question of where we go from here, assuming that he is essentially correct in much of his analysis. Again, in Bloesch's review he suggests that perhaps we should not be so ready to jettison the category of "evangelical." Rather, Bloesch submits, we might do better to "redefine the term 'evangelicalism'" so that it becomes "more closely related to the Protestant Reformation, which is its basis in history" and points to the efforts of Karl Barth, P.T. Forsyth, Alister McGrath, and others in this direction (and one could add here figures such as Newbigin, Torrance, Braaten, Jenson, and so on). Or, as in the case of the Alliance (ACE), we might adopt the terminology of "confessing evangelical."

I have my doubts about the ability of the term to be retrieved, at least in the present context, but perhaps Bloesch is correct. If, however, the "evangelicalism" of Bloesch is one that is rooted in history and in the shape and content of the Protestant Reformation, then I think we must also recognize that much of what today goes under the banner of "evangelicalism" falls short of the fullness and integrity of that reformational faith.

What's more, with a redefined and retrieved sense of things, much of what one might recognize as "evangelicalism" will, it turns out, still be found largely within the churches of mainline Protestantism, as the examples of Barth, Braaten, and Newbigin indicate. Thus, the onetime boundary between "mainline" and "evangelical" will blur, particularly in this era of post-liberalism, and our identity as Presbyterian or Methodist or Reformed will have to more readily embrace those from whom we may find ourselves separated by a common tradition. While I, for one, am comfortable with porous boundaries and while we are increasingly in an era in which denominational identities are held very loosely, such boundary breaching may not sit well with some who identify as "evangelicals."

If we do undertake such a retrieval, however, perhaps we might even draw from a history that extends back even further than the Reformation, recognizing that the "evangel" is one that is rooted in the Gospels, proclaimed by the apostles, and shaped by the life of the early church of the Fathers and Councils. In that light, being "evangelical" might also embody a kind of catholicity, perhaps even with a nod to the "evangelical counsels" of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as virtues that, in analogous ways, should characterize the life of reciprocity among God's people. Such developments are already apparent within the emerging church, the recovery of Reformed liturgy, and the various sorts of intentional Christian communities that have sprung up in recent years, whatever shortcomings and historical eclecticism such developments might represent.

At any rate, I can't claim to have the answers for the quandry that Hart sets out in such an unsettling and provocative way. But his book does have the virtue of afflicting those who find a too easy comfort in the trappings of evangelical identity with all its cultural and political baggage, while also providing some comfort for those of us afflicted by an identity that runs up against deeply held convictions regarding the centrality of God's ecclesial people in his plan to save a broken world.

17 August 2005

brother roger slain

Tragically, 90 year old Brother Roger, founder of the Taize ecumenical community in France, died last night after a disturbed woman, who was among the worshippers, slit his throat at the Church of Reconciliation in Burgundy, France.

I've known a number of people over the years who have been touched by Christ through the ministry of Taize and the counsel of their brothers, in several cases led back to the faith through the witness of those involved with the community. My eldest niece is among those who have benefitted greatly from Taize in her own spiritual growth. Many people are likely familiar with the style of prayer and music that originates with the community.

I'm very saddened to hear of this news and know the grief it must bring to many. Let us keep the Taize community and those it has touched in our prayers, for comfort and the for grace of forgiveness. And pray also for the woman who did this, that she might know the love of God and the clarity of mind that only Jesus can bring.

A Taize prayer: Jesus, light of our hearts, since you rose from the dead, you have never stopped coming to us. Whatever point we may be at, you are always waiting for us. And you tell us: Come to me, you who are burdened and you will be comforted.

more on the humanity of scripture

Among various Christian authors who have written about the phenomenon of Scripture and have drawn some attention to the human vehicle of God's revelation stands Thomas Aquinas, particularly in his discussion of "prophecy." When Aquinas treats prophecy he does not limit himself to a carefully circumscribed subset of Scripture (and recall that the Jews categorized much of Old Testament history among "the Prophets"), but discusses a wide and diverse range of biblical revelation, using terms as varied as visio, inspiratio, and instinctus (see especially Summa Theologiae II-II, Questions 171-174).

While, for Aquinas, prophecy certainly has propositional content that takes form in proclamation (including the words of Scripture), it is first of all a kind of knowing or perceiving, initiated wholly by God's inspiration, which, in that event, comes to fruition in a proclamation which makes use of the prophet's own language, imagination, and character. But even in the divine unveiling to the prophet's perception, the "supernatural" is neither divided from nor trumps the "natural," since for Aquinas, the "natural" and "supernatural" are not nouns naming differing realities, but are adjectives speaking of the one and same reality from two perspectives.

Thus, revelation uses the powers of the human imagination as the means by which the divine is disclosed. This is so even when the "imaginary forms" present to the mind are the result of direct divine action, though in most cases, Aquinas suggests, God makes use of forms already received ultimately through the senses (whether images, colors, texts, etc.), suffusing them with a greater measure of the divine light in order they might become means of revelatio. It is this divine light that enables the prophet not only to see, but, in the same act, to judge aright regarding divine things.

All of this has bearing on the undeniable humanity of Scripture. While the Bible does, often enough, speak in terms of "thus says the Lord," this word comes through the lips and tongues of the prophets, in human language. And, often enough, Scripture draws attention to its own, everywhere evident, humanity--as Luke does in his prologue (Luke 1:1-4) or Peter mentioning Paul's labors writing his sometimes difficult texts (2 Peter 3:14-15) or at the end of John's Gospel (20:30-31; 21:24-25) and so on.

While the analogy between Scripture and the theanthropic Person of Christ is only an analogy (and thus must account for the important differences between them as well), it does usefully illuminate, I think, the dangers of downplaying the true humanity of Scripture in a kind of scriptural Docetism. We cannot, after all, denigrate the humanity of Scripture without, at the same time, denigrating its divinity, by misrepresenting who God is and how he relates to his creation.

To suggest that the emphasis must fall either upon the humanity of Scripture or upon its divinity (or that the two are somehow in competition) suggests, I think, an "either/or" where Scripture itself only knows a "both/and." This can be considered from several angles:

[1] Scripture does not reveal God simply by revealing facts about God, but in the very form that this revelation takes, in a manner somewhat analogous to the way in which Jesus reveals God to us, not just by what he said about God or about himself as God incarnate, but also in what Jesus did, that is, in the entire form of life by which he lived and died. The humanity of Scripture itself, embedded as it is in human language, culture, practices, imagination, and so on, tells us something about who God is.

[2] To suggest that the humanity of Scripture is somehow a "problem" (or a difficulty to be explained away or something that should be downplayed in light of Scripture's divinity), is to suggest implicitly that God is not the sort of God whom he has revealed himself to be, particularly as he reveals himself in Christ. That is to say, downplaying the humanity of Scripture suggests that God is not a God who should be present and active within his created order or that God is a deity too high and holy to make full use of created means in revealing himself. This is not to say that any revelation of God is exhaustive of who God is, but it is to suggest that there is nothing about the created medium, when taken up into God's perfect providence, that gets in the way of the message.

[3] This indicates that downplaying Scripture's humanity--or positioning its humanity so that it only comes to the fore at the expense of Scripture's divinity--all seems to suggest a basic problem on the level of ontology, particularly the relationship between God and his creation, a problem that pits transcendence against immanence. But if God is the Creator God, so that all things, including human language and culture and so on, proceed from his creative hand (without at all denying secondary causality, etc.), then God's transcendence over creation as Creator is, at the same time, his immanence to all of his creation. After all, it is only if God's creative knowlege, will, and power extend to all things whatsoever, that God can be intimately present to those things and disclose himself in and through them.

In light of this last point, I would suggest that Scripture is best seen not only in terms of the analogy of the incarnation, but also as a particular, unique species of God's general providence and action in the world in all of their analogical manifestations (as Warfield points out). While, in our experience, human sinfulness profoundly clouds our apprehension of God's presence and self-disclosure in the creation, this is a matter of sin and sin's effect, rather then the original order of the world and of humanity within the world, created in perfect relation to God and directed towards God at the final end.

Therefore, to suggest that the humanity of Scripture, in itself, can only be emphasized at the expense of Scripture's divinity, seems to me to assume either [a] that Scripture's humanity is something that partakes of human culture and language as deformed by sin or [b] that the relationship between God and his creation is a problem on the level of ontology. But [a] seems to entail a denial of Scriptural authority, while [b] seems to assume something akin to a gnosticism that rejects the goodness of creation.

I'd prefer to say something like the following. Scripture is manifestly divine because it is the most fully and perfectly human text we have, particularly inasmuch as it, above all, reveals Jesus Christ, who shows us what it means to be truly human.

16 August 2005

jesus: symbol of God

I may have mentioned earlier that I'm supposed to be on a faculty panel this autumn discussing a book entitled Jesus: Symbol of God (Orbis 1999), by the Jesuit theologian Roger Haight.

I've begun to read the tome this past week and trying to evaluate it. So far the opening chapters are largely preoccupied with methodological concerns. I'm also finding them a bit tedious, so I hope that Haight's writing style picks up as he moves into the main argument of the book.

So far, while they are rather problematic at points, his methodological suggestions are not necessarily inimical to useful and orthodox theological reflection upon Jesus Christ. It will all depend upon how Haight deploys and applies these methodological considerations.

For instance, he makes a number of remarks regarding the nature of "religion" and "religious experience." Now, some of these remarks strike me as problematic in that they assume that there is this universal phenomenon of "religion" that we can discuss and draw generalizations about, quite apart from the specific content of particular systems of belief and practice.

Likewise, he wants to make what seems a fairly sharp distinction between "faith" and "belief," where "faith" refers to some kind of underlying religious attitude or experience which may, in turn, generate "beliefs," but is somehow prior to and unconstrained by belief, so that the same faith-experience may give rise to a range of incommensurate beliefs or systems of belief. Again, this strikes me as problematic in that it assumes that there is an identifiable aspect to human experience that we can isolate and meaningfully discuss apart from any specific propositional content or about which some beliefs might be necessarily more fitting while others are excluded.

Not having read the rest of the book, I can only speculate about where he takes these methodological considerations. While they are, to my mind, highly problematic, I can imagine an author deploying them in a fairly innocuous manner. But I can also see them being taken in very troubling, even heterodox, directions.

Haight also makes a number of rather vague comments about the "postmodern" world and what people who have a "postmodern sensibility" can and cannot understand, grasp, or believe, particularly regarding what premodern people might have said or thought. The nature of his comments, however, are general and abstract enough so as not to have much specifiable content or assure me that he has any significant grasp of what serious postmodern theory in the academy actually entails.

In this context, he rightly notes that classical christological formulations, in order to communicate effectively to contemporary people and culture, will need to be re-expressed and re-interpreted in language that communicates more clearly to those around us. But given his vague statements about postmodernism, I worry what precisely that will mean and whether his re-formulations will actually preserve classical doctrine in any meaningful sense. At times his supposed concern for a "postmodern" perspective sounds to me little different from all-too-modernist liberalism of the sort that suggests people who live in a world of electric lightbulbs can no longer believe in miracles.

At any rate, the faculty panel discussion was sparked by the fact that Haight's book led to an investigation into his views on the part of the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The investigation led to the publication by the Vatican, in February of this year, of a "Notification" reagrding the book, suggesting that it contains "grave doctrinal errors against the divine and Catholic faith of the Church." Since the issues here are ones of christology and trinitarian theology, I imagine the opinion of the Vatican's theological watchdogs carries significant weight, though I've not yet read through the "Notification" they issued.

I know that at least one of the other panelists will probably side with Haight against the Vatican, which will likely put me in the odd position of being a Protestant defending the Vatican's opinion over against the claims of a liberal Catholic colleague. Still, I'll have to read the book myself first and try to make a determination about the author's claims. If any of you have read Haight's book, I'd appreciate whatever comments you might have regarding it.

birthday girl

One more picture from our trip to Knoebel's last week:

That's our daughter, probably feigning an inability to hear us telling her that maybe Daddy needs a break from the amusement parks rides for a bit.

Though difficult for her parents to believe, Claire turns 3 years old this week. We're doing a farm-themed birthday party and I just put the finishing touches on a barn- shaped chocolate cake a little bit ago, piping icing to outline barn doors and a silo. So now it's off to bed. G'nite.

15 August 2005

music tag

Andrew tagged me with this music questionnaire thingummy that's making its rounds. So here goes:

Amount of music on your computer?

That depends on the computer. I'm using the laptop right now and it's only got 145 songs on it. I've got access, however, to something called "Real Rhapsody" from my university for $2/month and it lets me stream unlimited amounts of music from its collection, so the "amount of music on your computer" question is kinda moot.

Currently listening to?

O Sister! The Women's Bluegrass Collection, which is a follow up of sorts to the soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Five songs that mean a lot to you...

Top 5 albums?

Hmm. Gosh. These two questions are ones I'd answer very differently if I were in a different mood or had other things on my mind. In fact, when it comes to music, I'm pretty sure my brain just doesn't function in terms of individual songs and albums.

Thus, instead of these two "top five" lists, I'm going to list the top ten composers and artists whose music (at least at this moment) means the most to me, in alphabetical order:

[1] Anonymous 4. The sing medieval and Renaissance era chant, polyphony, and the like, but the way in which their strong voices blend perfectly, even in live performance, is incredible.

[2] Johann Sebastian Bach. The B Minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio, and the two great Passions are probably among my favorite pieces of choral sacred music since I was young. And that bare scratches the surface.

[3] David Bowie. Yes, he's a freak. But he's a talented freak whose musical output has a lot of variety has retained my interest for decades.

[4] Celtic. Okay, that's a genre rather than an artist or composer, and a highly diverse genre at that. I looked through my drawer of Celtic CDs and couldn't narrow it down. While there's some Celtic stuff that I don't care for, I love the vast bulk of it.

[5] Edvard Grieg. Though I'm generally not a fan of most 19th century music, this Norwegian composer has long fascinated me with his inventive compositions, often rooted in folk music.

[6] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While the unfinished Requiem is high on my list of pieces I most appreciate, I find almost of all of Mozart's work to be great.

[7] Peter, Paul, and Mary. There's not really an explanation for why these guys are on the list except that I've been listening to their brand of 1960s, socially conscious, folk music since I was a kid and have been to several of their concerts. For better or worse, their version of "Blowing in the Wind" is woven deeply into my psyche.

[8] Frank Sinatra. My Dad listened to Frank since I was a small child, particularly since one of our local radio stations featured "Friday with Frank" every week. As a result I know the words to almost every Sinatra hit without ever having tried to learn them. Predictably enough, outside of some hymns and Christian children's song, Sinatra's version of "Come Fly with Me" is my daughter's favorite song, which goes back to me "flying" her on my knees and feet since she was a baby, singing it to her.

[9] The Smiths. I was a teenager in the 80s, of a slightly artsy, morose sort. Enough said.

[10] U2. They're U2 and they're still going strong. What's more they produce songs that are muscially complex and with literate lyrics.

I hereby tag...

Richard, the musicologyman.

14 August 2005

pentecost 13

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and sent into our hears the Spirit of your Son.
Give us grace
to dedicate our free to your service,
that all people may know
the glorious liberty
of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

13 August 2005

bowles on pastoral practice

Over on the website of the Westminster Assembly Project, you can find all kinds of interesting and exciting developments with regard to the historical study of the Westminster Standards, the Assembly, and the theological work of its participants.

Among their current projects is a translation of Oliver Bowles' A Treatise on the Evangelical Pastor (De Pastore Evangelico Tractatus). The translation is being undertaken by Jonathan Rockey (my high school Latin teacher) and by Phil Ryken, pastor of Tenth PCA here in Philadelphia. I'm not sure when it will appear, but I understand that the Rev. Dr. Ryken is putting some work into it during his current vacation/study leave.

Oliver Bowles was born sometime around 1590 and lived until 1674, serving as the rector of the parish of Luton in Bedfordshire for about fifty of those years, along with his position as a fellow of Queen's College, Cambridge. In addition to serving the Westminster Assembly faithfully, he also preached one of its opening sermons on 7 July 1643, a sermon preached after a season of fasting, given before the assembled divines and both Houses of Parliament.

Bowles' treatise on pastoral practice was published in 1649 and represents reflection, at that point, upon nearly forty years of pastoral care of souls, dispensing of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments. An overview of the table of contents is available on the Westminster Assembly Project website.

12 August 2005


We've been gone the past couple of days with some friends and their 3-year-old for a short trip up to Knoebels amusement park in Elysburg, Pennsylvania (a town, which, for some reason, shows up on maps as "Ralpho"). Knoebel's has been around since 1926 and, for most of that time, was called "Knoebel's Grove." It's around two and half to three hours from Philly, depending on traffic.

In almost every respect, Knoebel's is the perfect family amusement park, especially if you're travelling with toddlers: admission is free, parking is free, live entertainment is free, you can bring in your own food, pets are allowed, and they have a strict policy against immodest and obscene clothing.

Moreover, the staff are very friendly and interact really well with the little kids. Since you pay per ride, you only pay for what you end up riding, which is especially nice when you'll mostly be riding with your toddler or watching the toddler ride by him or herself.

Over half the rides (including almost all the kiddie rides) are in the 60-80 cents per ride range and all of the rides, with the exception of the new "Scenic Skyway" chair lift, are $2 or less per ride, with most of those priced at $1 or $1.20. And this includes two incredibly good large wooden rollercoasters.

One could compare Knoebels to, say, Morey's Piers in Wildwood, New Jersey where the kiddie rides begin at around $2 per ride and the rollercoasters are nearly $6 per ride.

At any rate, Claire, who will be 3 years old next week, had an absolute blast and, I predict, will end up being one these kids who rides the big rollercoasters over and over. A few months ago when we were down the shore in Wildwood, she approached even the kiddie boats with a bit of fear and, at one point, was unwilling to board the dreaded carousel. All of that is past.

We've exchanged fear and trepidation for giggles on the Whip, shouts of "Faster!" on the Teacups, and squeals of glee on the big Log Flume. Daddy might feel dizzy and ready to pass out, but Claire is running off to choose the next ride.

One of the other nice things about Knoebel's is the location, nestled among some small mountains on the north side of the Appalachian ridges, not far from Danville and Bloomsburg, both of which are quaint old towns, with some historic sites of their own. Thus the park itself is surrounded by trees and has several branches of the Roaring Creek running through it, which is what drew the descendents of Rev. H.H. Knoebel, who purchased the land back in 1828, to enter the lumbering business upon the profits of which the park was built.

11 August 2005

electronic tip jar

I've got very mixed feelings about this sort of thing, but I'd added a link for readers and correspondents to make contributions via Amazon.com. You'll find the link over there, towards the bottom of the right-hand column.

I was encouraged to do this by several folks who know how much time I spend putting into blog posts and who are aware of the high volume of email correspondence I find myself replying to each month. I think it's all a bit mercenary, but, heck, this is America, the land of free enterprise, right?

09 August 2005

davenant on "adoption"

John Davenant (1572-1641) was at one time the Lady Margaret professor of divinity at Cambridge and a member of the English delegation to the Synod of Dort. He later took up a call to be the Bishop of Salisbury and was, in his own lifetime, regarded as a Puritan Anglican.

I've been finishing up a translation of a Latin letter of his on the topic of perseverance, apostasy, and infant baptism. One of the topics he touches upon are the various ways in which the biblical notion of "adoption" can function scripturally and theologically.

The following an excerpt from that letter, leaving out the many supporting quotations Davenant draws from the Fathers, scholastics, and Protestant divines:

In order for the matter to come clear, we pay attention to the fact that men are said to be the adopted children of God in many ways:

[a] Some are called sons as to the eternal, unchangeable, and secret intention of God to conduct them to an heavenly inheritance....And if anyone were to maintain that any one among these adopted sons of God may become apostate and perish, he is not to be refuted by anyone, but to be mocked by everyone. For those, whom God has by his good gift has predestined to kingdom, shall without doubt reign with Christ. If "any of those should perish, then God would be defeated or deceived; neither of which is possible."

[b] They are called "sons of God" or "born of God," whom upon believing in his own Son, God grants the actual perogatives of sons, that is, the Spirit of adoption, crying in their hearts, "Abba, Father," repairing and restoring them to the image of God, and at least "sealing them to the day of redemption." This adoption is (so to speak) the genuine offspring of that secret one, which now, risen to light by its effect in time, testifies to that eternal adoption...

Regarding this adoption - that no one who comes to it shall afterwards perish - Protestant teaching is unanimous...When our theologians uphold perseverance and the infallible consequence of salvation, for those adopted, it is manifest that they understand it to be the adoption we have been describing.

[c] Men are called the "sons of God" by outward covenanting together with him or being gathered together among the visible people of God. In this sense all the tribes of Israel who entered into covenant with God, by means of the seal of circumcision, are called "sons of God" and "sons of the kingdom," even those who would be exiled from that kingdom and ejected into outer darkness. In this sense all Christians are covenanted together as sons of God, even if the greater part of them by their conversation were to prove themselves children of the devil. Both single persons and whole nations are able to be cut off from this outward adoption and slide into apostasy; as is evident from the example of those who have deserted the Christian faith for the perfidy of Islam. But this is not the adoption into the people God that we are considering when we dispute about the perseverance of the saints, the sons of God.

[d] And finally, whoever is sufficiently disposed for the heavenly inheritance with regard to his present state, he is called "an adopted son of God," even if he is not foreordained by God nor sealed by the Spirit of adoption unto future possession of it. Adam in the state of innocence was, in this sense, an adopted son of God because as such, according to his condition at that time, he was sufficiently fitted to the consequence of life eternal. The same can be said of the non-elect angels considered in the state in which they were created. And in this manner, nearly all baptized infants are accepted by God or adpoted, because "the divine willed has falled upon them, that they should be blessed, if they remain in such a state and subsequent sins are not an impediment." But (as you see) this adoption is limited; it is not that absolute, eternal, and infallible one founded upon election, which Aquinas admits "never to be in vain." Nor is that a kind of image of this eternal adoption, which the Holy Spirit impresses upon and seals in the hearts of believers. Nothing, therefore, is delivered against our opinion concerning the perseverance of the saints or of the sons of God regenerated by faith (which respects only the first and second manner of adoption) by attacks based upon examples of those who are adopted in the third or fourth manner and yet desert God and the divine covenant and thus perish in eternity; for we never asserted the infallible salvation of those who are adopted in those ways.

My translation could probably use some smoothing out. I'll provide a link to the entire letter once I've finished with it and provided some explanatory notes.

08 August 2005

boys by any other name

Laurel and I have been volunteering at our church nursery for around seven years now and yesterday I worked both morning and evening. I must say that if you want to find a group of Jacobs, Michaels, Joshuas, Matthews, or other names that show up on the list of popular baby names, then our church is not the place to visit.

Instead, among the boys yesterday, we had Hezekiah, Joost, Micah, Judson, Gresham, Zane, Bradley, and Israel. I think those are really cool names and these guys, growing up, are not likely to get lost in a crowd.

07 August 2005

pentecost 12

Almighty God,
you sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church.
Open our hearts to the riches of your grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love, joy, and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

06 August 2005

on aquinas' mode of argument

The Fall 2004 issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (which arrived in late Spring 2005) opens with an essay entitled "Reading Immemorially: The Quaestio and the Paragraph in the Summa Theologiae" by Peter M. Candler of Baylor University (531-557).

It is sometimes suggested that Aquinas' writing style and mode of argument represents logic, dialectic, and theology as "science" eclipsing earlier Christian rhetorical art: theology as preaching, rooted in prayer and allegorical meditation, with an aim to persuade and change the audience. Candler's essay goes a long way to undermine any too easy positioning of Aquinas in this way.

Candler begins by noting how modern edited versions of Aquinas' Summa attempt to render the text more "accessible" to modern readers, typically by excerpting, rearranging, and altering the textual apparatus in various ways. Often enough the more "philosophical" bits become abstracted from what are thought to be the more "theological" ones. The end result is that the oral character of the Summa is lost, transforming the work into a series of modern paragraphs outlining theological loci for which Aquinas provides a kind of monological explanation in his responses.

The bulk of Candler's argument, however, is to shape an alternative understanding of the Summa, noting the way in which it "arises out of the tradition of the quaestiones disputatae" central to medieval pedagogy and which are, in the first instance, "non-textual performances" that remain "irreducibly oral" and open-ended in character (533).

The disputed question requires a performance that draws upon memory (which "fell under the curricular heading of rhetoric" in the classical and medieval eras), calling upon the voices of the auctores along "the itinerary of the recollective mind" - a constant movement that takes form in the narrative structure of the magister's speech. As such, the determination of the question was understood both as a "compositional exercise" and a "site of rhetorical invention," where the movement of the master's mind, embodied in speech, moved the hearer's own soul by participation, which is the art of persuasion (534-5).

If this is so, Candler reminds us, then the determination of the question is not a matter of absolute and definitive "closure," but an act of the magisterial role that, in drawing upon past auctores, points forward to further questions and future attempts at resolution (535-6).

Against the backdrop of the medieval disputation, Aquinas' Summa takes on different dimensions than are evident at first glance or in heavily edited versions. Candler goes on at this point to draw upon Marie-Dominique Chenu's argument that the very structure of the Summa manifests a movement of exit and return (exitus et reditus), as part of the tradition of Christian Neoplatonism, where all begins and ends in the life of the Trinity. If this is so, then, in light of the tradition of the quaestiones disputatae, the reader of the Summa is called to become "a participant in this itinerary [who] performs, through the memory, the very reditus to God which Thomas does not merely describe, but actually 'conducts'" (538).

For a medieval student of theology, steeped as he would be within the patterns of Christian liturgy and the art of memory the offices required, reading Aquinas' Summa would resonate, even on the level of the individual quaestio, as a "performance of a liturgically trained memory...which is, ultimately, ordered towards the Good" (538). As Candler suggests:

Aquinas' Summa theologiae is fundamentally interrogative in the sense that each article begins not with a proposition to be defended, but with an utrum to be investigated...The reply at the end of each question, however, serves to point forward to the next utrum, and thus there is a constant motion... (539)

The Summa guides the reader through these questions, invoking voices so as to draw the reader into the great, "endless conversation between God and His people," so that the memory of God's people might be "trained and ordered towards its proper end, union with God" (540).

Further along in his essay, Candler argues that the questions of the Summa are neither specifically Aquinas' own questions nor are they some sort of loci theologici intended to provide a "panoptic cartography of theological knowledge" (546). Unlike the spatialized loci of modern thought, the loci of Aquinas lie along the route to the beatific vision and thus must be traversed and traveled, with the voices of many companions to guide the way.

The loci, moreover, take the form of questions, indeed, questions composed of still further questions. But these are not the questions of a catechism, each with its own set answer. According to Candler, in asking "Whether...," the utrum "emphasizes the participation of the reader (or disputant) within a larger interpretive cosmos or community," among whom only can the question be rightly raised or debated (550).

The objections that begin every article in the Summa likewise assume an ongoing dialogue and set aside the possibility that the matter has already been resolved, presenting instead how things seem (videtur). Moreover, Candler reminds us, the same voices appear time and again in both the objectio and the responsio, even within the scope of a single article.

When we arrive at the sed contra, the text "protests against any 'monological' tendency" and, further, is not yet giving us an answer. Rather, the sed contra, often enough, points towards an alternate position, another extreme from that of the objections, and "between these two the author will have to come to a satisfactory resolution" (553).

Aquinas' responsio, then, at last, grants us a determination of the question, though, even then (as mentioned above), this is meant more as act of magisterial performance or ceremonial function than as a settling of the question once and for all. Since a disputant or, in particular, the writer of a Summa (of which Aquinas' was one of many), is "implicitly a future auctoritas in a future Summa or other work," the determination is necessarily open-ended, allowing for further clarifiation, distinctions, and qualifications (554). This perspective is underscored by the replies to the initial objections as they fill out the article, often introducing further qualifications to the resolution just expressed and even pointing the way to the possibility of still more objections.

In light of this analysis of Aquinas' great Summa, Candler concludes that the work remains "essentially an itinerary of the soul's return to God...as the source and end of all that is. The textual form, therefore, is not separable from the manducation of the soul towards the beatific vision." If Candler is correct, then the Summa does not stand as a rational system of theological science, but rather carries forward the ancient Christian understanding of theology as faithful persuasion.