30 November 2006

reformational baptismal theology

I haven't much time to blog anything today, but I made a comment on a fellow blogger's site the other day that he's elevated to a post entitled "The Baptism Discussion."

It's a somewhat parochial discussion, I suppose, couched in the confessional terminology of a particular tradition, but I hope I did a fairly decent job expressing the big mainstream center of a Reformational understanding of the means of grace in general and baptism in particular.

29 November 2006

body and soul

I'm not going to say much here since I'm writing a longer review for another context, but Kevin Corcoran's book Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul (Baker 2006) is raising eyebrows in some evangelical circles with its argument that the human person is constituted by our material bodies and, thus, there is no immaterial "soul". The book's attention comes, in part, due to the most recent Books and Culture in which Corcoran, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College, provides a precis of his argument.

Now, I don't agree with the conclusion of Corcoran's argument, though I'm not exactly a modern sort of dualist either. And Corcoran's argument is designed less to prove the truth of materialism over against alternatives as it is to demonstrate that Christian materialism is a viable option within the bounds of orthodoxy (even if an admittedly minority position). As others have pointed out, Corcoran's Christian materialism is a hardly unique on the contemporary scene, but is shared by philosophers such as Peter van Inwagen and Lynne Rudder Baker.

Moreover, Corcoran's argument is well-crafted and presented in a highly accessible way. If there's an argument to be made in favor of Christian materialism, this is it. And that is the importance of Corcoran's book. Even if one disagrees with his ultimate conclusions, the kinds of questions he raises and arguments that he deploys are the ones that any Christian philosopher of the human person must grapple with.

This, in part, is why a response such as John Piper's is so disappointing, and I say that as a person who agrees more with Piper's position than Corcoran's and who would appeal to some of the same biblical texts that Piper does. I grant that Piper, despite his penchant for Jonathan Edwards, is not a really philosopher and so should be cut some slack.

Still, Piper's comments are based simply upon the brief article in Books and Culture, thereby ignoring the ways in which Corcoran does wrestle with the biblical data which, arguably, says much less about the intermediate state and with much less clarity than Piper supposes. Moreover, Piper does nothing to interact and grapple with the substantive arguments to support the coherence of Corcoran's views and their consistency with both catholic orthodoxy and biblical data.

I guess, in part, I'm just weary of seeing figures in the conservative Reformed community: [a] reacting against a position which, properly understood, does little to threaten traditional orthodoxy or biblical theology and [b] reacting without really taking the time and effort to delve into the issues, assess the arguments, and genuinely understand how another position functions from within its own perspective.

Again, I say that as someone with deep sympathies for Aquinas' hylomorphism and who remains unconvinced by Corcoran's position. Further, I would even question the orthodoxy of such materialism up against the measure of Chalcedon, which asserts that the incarnate Christ is "the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body."

But there are ways to make arguments with integrity that will convince and persuade. And there are ways to make such arguments that will only impress those want their own views reinforced, while baffling onlookers. While the former certainly takes more effort, in the end it is the kind of argumentation that we owe our neighbors.

Update: Here's why John Piper is, despite my earlier remarks, a cut above many sorts of critics: "Email Interchange Between John Piper and Kevin Corcoran." Even if Piper didn't do his homework before sounding an alarm, it is encouraging to see that he is nonetheless willing and able to listen to criticism and interaction.

28 November 2006

motivational speaking

I noticed a flyer on campus today advertizing a speaker schedule for this Friday - World AIDS Day - who will be talking to students about HIV-related issues. I'm sure he is a fine speaker and will raise issues that our students need to confront and engage with. But what I found interesting is that he was billed as a "motivational speaker."

As part of my committee work on campus I sit on our school funding board and we have a lot of proposals come to us asking for funding for these sorts of motivational speakers and this, along with seeing the flyer today, got me thinking about their role in contemporary culture. It's especially curious to me since, while some of these speakers are certainly hawking their books and videos, many of them are primarily selling themselves as bearers of a message worth hearing, presented in an appealing way.

It seems to me that these speakers, in some respects, function as modern secular parodies of roles that were once occupied by various sorts of other speakers, particularly pastors and political leaders - the sermons of Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther, or countless parish preachers over the centuries; the St. Crispin Day speech of Henry V at Agincourt or the radio speeches of Churchill and Roosevelt during World War II.

The parody certainly is not an exact one. Motivational speakers operate in modes ranging from the therapeutic to the corporate, from the warm exuberance of Leo Buscaglia to the crass misogyny of Tom Cruise's character in the film Magnolia. And such modes of speech have run far afield from ideals embodied by the faithful minister or virtuous national leader.

I don't mean any of that necessarily as a criticism. But it is interesting. Is the rise of the "motivational speaker" merely a function of a growing diversity of social roles, an ever increasing division of labor? Or does it also tell us something about the erosion of the place of the church in culture or about a growing cynicism towards our political leaders?

And what are we to make of the way in which these secular parodies turn around and move back into the church? What of pulpits and platforms where therapeutic and corporate models of motivational speech begin to nudge aside the grammar of the faith and its place spiritual formation?

25 November 2006

no comment

I should probably take a moment to apologize for having my comments feature turned off. It's not that I want to discourage conversation - quite the opposite - but given my current teaching schedule and committee responsibilities, I haven't the time to dedicate to reading through and interacting with comments, attention that I'm sure thoughtful readers would deserve.

Besides, in this day of near ubiquitous blogging, if I manage to say something provocative enough to require comment, I'm sure someone will find a way to express their perspective. And I'm usually available by email: garvers1[at]yahoo[dot]com.

24 November 2006

gestures towards suarez's pervasiveness

In a previous post I suggested that a kind of Reformed eclectic Thomism had some currency in the 16th and into 17th century Protestant scholastic thought and that, moreover, such a Thomism provided an opening for the positive appropriation of the thought of a figure such as Francisco Saurez.

Before delving into some of the details of that appropriation, I can sketch out some wider contextual evidence that Suarez was, in fact, an important conversation partner for emerging Reformed scholastics in the early 17th century. While a survey of citations by Reformed authors shows that a variety of Suarez’s writings received attention (and would be tedious to reproduce here), it was the 1597 publication of his Metaphysical Disputations (Disputationes metaphysicae) that received the widest and most sustained attention.

Whereas many books of this era either sunk without a trace or went through only a few editions or reprints, Suarez’s Metaphysics garnered a wide popularity as is evident from its repeated reprintings: Mainz in 1600, 1605, 1616, and 1630, Cologne in 1608 and 1614, Lyon in 1614, Paris in 1619, and so on. Indeed, its popularity was so great that it made significant inroads within a variety of academies and universities, in many places becoming the standard text in metaphysics, even among Reformed Protestants. In the early 1600’s Suarez’s text played an important role in the Netherlands within the growing dispute between Reformed orthodox and the Remonstrants, leading up to the Synod of Dort. And, even after Dort, so great was the popularity of Suarez’s metaphysics that by 1644 it provoked the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Revius to publish his book-length response: Suarez repurgatus, which provided a detailed and critical commentary upon Suarez’s text presented in summary form.

And this influence was not limited merely to the Continent. Given Calvinism’s international character, as well as the role of Thomism within English Protestant divinity, Suarez also exerted a significant impact among British Reformed theologians. This is evident not only in early 17th century figures, such as the Puritan William Ames (who will receive more attention shortly), but also at a later date and among those more peripheral to mainstream Calvinism in Britain. One could cite here the use of Suarez by the English non-conformist Stephen Charnock (1628-1680) in his well-regarded and popular Discourses on the Existence and Attributes of God, which quotes or directly alludes to Suarez on at least twenty occasions, in a manner that is almost entirely positive and from a variety of Suarez’s assorted writings (though mostly the Metaphysics). Indeed, Charnock refers to Suarez many more times than any other post-Reformation Roman Catholic theologian, and that is not even including places where Charnock bears witness to Suarez’s impact apart from specific citation.

Though these few comments are only the briefest gesture towards Suarez’s influence, they will suffice to show that the question of Saurez's influence is one worth exploring. We can turn, then, to some specific matters which make that influence apparent, beginning with the interrelated issues of theological prolegomena, metaphysics, and natural theology.

22 November 2006

gimme that ol' time partisanship

At ETS last week, there were at least two papers that were overtly political and partisan in character: Wayne Grudem's paper on the Bush presidency and Denny Burk's on the "fresh perspective" on Paul (pdf).

Grudem's paper largely appears as a paean to how, in his considered opinion, the current Bush administration is so manifestly "biblical" in its policies, both domestic and foreign. I would suspect, however, that most of those who differ with Grudem's perspective would find a number of his "facts" highly debatable (e.g., international freedom to spread the Gospel has increased during Bush's tenure) and many of his arguments question-begging (e.g., that the Iraq war has been executed in accordance with biblical principles).

Burk's paper is an attack upon the kind of New Testament exegesis that sees Paul's writings as containing a polemic against the pretensions of the Roman empire and the imperial cult. As far as I can see, Burk's argument is motivated not so much by exegesis (he seems to ignore the largely grammatico-historical nature of arguments such as Horsley's) as it is by the possibly anti-American implications of such exegesis (implications that don't necessarily follow, whatever you may think of Paul). In his gestures towards E.D. Hirsch, Burk seems unwilling to admit that interpretation involves a hermeneutical circle, an unwillingness that perhaps blinds him to how his own argument will appear to many as the same sort of eisegetical partisanship that he imputes to others.

More interesting to me is the question of why we are seeing papers such as these being presented in forums such as ETS at this time. Grudem and Burk can hardly be unaware that a younger generation of evangelicals doesn't necessarily (and certainly does not monolithically) embrace the kind of right-wing politics characteristic of an older generation of evangelical leaders. Is the point of these papers to defend a crumbling conservativism against a variety of newer evangelical politics?

And, if so, what does that tell us about the ways in which conservative evangelicalism has enmeshed itself with the success and fortunes of a particular sort of American political identity and, in doing so, has muted the church's prophetic stance? Moreover, doesn't the evidence embodied in Grudem and Burk's papers tend to validate the very criticism that many younger evangelicals have voiced?

21 November 2006

of respiratory viruses and resurrection

Our trip to Washington, DC last Saturday went well, complete with a visit to see the pandas along the Asian Trail at the National Zoo, some time hanging with the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History, a brief time spent viewing ancient biblical manuscripts in the Sackler Gallery, and meeting up with some friends to chat.

Unfortunately, the marathon day in Washington took its toll and the colds that Laurel and I had been trying to recover from this past week have resurged, more so for Laurel who spent the better part of Monday in bed. Claire, however, seems none the worse for wear and really enjoyed spending time with me in the midst of a busy semester where she's seen less of me than usual.

With all the sickness that's been going around, both within our family and among friends and my students, perhaps our mortality has been on Claire's 4 year old mind. In the car recently, as we drove to work, she fell into one of her quiet, pensive moods. As Laurel and I discussed some mundane plans for later in the day, Claire broke her silence.

"Daddy?" she pipes up from the backseat.

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"Can I ask you something?"

"Sure thing." I look back at her furrowed brow through the rearview mirror.

"Daddy...at the resurrection - you know, after we die and God makes our bodies alive again...?" She pauses, looking at me to see if I'm following her question.

"Yes, at the resurrection...?" I prompt.

"At the resurrection, how old will our bodies be?" Laurel and I look at one another, thrown off a bit by the query.

"That's a very good question, sweetie," Laurel comments and looks at me to handle this one.

"Well, that's a question a lot of people have wondered about. And I'm not sure we know the exact answer." I glance back to see if I still have Claire's attention. "Some people think our bodies will be like Jesus' body after he was raised and he was around 33 years old."

"You're older than that now aren't you, Daddy?" Claire asks, reminding me of my age.

"Yes I am, a few years older." I try to collect my thoughts, how to explain where my own thinking goes on this question. "At the resurrection, Claire, I think we can say that our bodies will finally be everything that God meant them to be. Our humanity will be fulfilled..." I trail off.

Laurel jumps in, "We won't be able to get sick or grow old or die any more."

I finish, "So in one sense we will finally be all grown up, but at the same time we'll never grow old."

Claire looks from Laurel to me and back again, seemingly satisfied. Then she opens her mouth to ask something more, stops herself, and then asks, "What does human skin taste like?"

Okay, I wasn't expecting that as a follow-up. "Well, I..I..I don't really know, sweetheart...Probably like chicken," I joke. "Why do you ask?"

Claire looks at me as if I've asked her to explain the obvious. "What will happen to someone at the resurrection if a lion ate them?"

Ah, that's the missing connection: resurrection bodies, being devoured by wild beasts, and what people taste like. I knew there was some kind of logic there.

"Hmmm." I glance over at Laurel who raises her eyebrows in an expression that says, "Don't look at me; you're the philosopher." Claire is waiting for an answer in the backseat. "Again, sweetheart, I don't know for sure, but a God who make the world out of nothing can certainly restore bodies even to people who've been eaten."

"Do lions eat the bones?"

"No, they don't," Laurel states matter-of-factly. "They don't even eat all the flesh off of the bones. Scavengers clean the bones."

Claire perks up at that thought. "You mean like hyenas and vultures?!?" she asks excitedly.

"Yes, like hyenas and vultures," Laurel affirms.

After another silent couple of blocks, Claire concludes, "Maybe God will make new bodies out of the bones." Maybe he will.

I'm not confident about what the eschaton will precisely look like or how all the details will work out - though I'm confident that even if some of my imaginings are, in some sense "wrong," my every expectation will nonetheless be fulfilled (see James F. Ross's "Eschatological Pragmatism" [pdf] for a philosophical exploration of how such truth claims function).

A few weeks ago I gave my "Human Person" classes the standard quiz that covers, among other topics, Pauline anthropology and eschatology. Despite my best efforts - including powerpoint charts of salvation history - in my one section of 20 students, only one of them successfully identified "resurrection of our bodies" as where human existence is headed. At least none chose "annihilation."

In that light, I'm very encouraged to see Claire grasping and wrestling with the conceptual riches posed by Christian doctrine. I hope this sense of wonder and critical reflection only grows and matures even as she does, especially given our cultural context (sometimes even within the Christian community itself) that seems not to value such reflection.

And as I sit here coughing and sniffling, feeling groggy even after 10 hours sleep, I nonetheless, through the resurrection of Jesus, am able to rejoice in the hope of a body that will be everything that God has always meant me to be.

16 November 2006

hanby on creation

Earlier this year a stimulating and suggestive article by Michael Hanby of Baylor University appeared in an issue of Theology Today (62:476-83), entitled "Reclaiming Creation in a Darwinian World."

His focus is not a discussion of the mechanisms of change within the natural order, or to advocate for "intelligent design" over against Darwinism. Rather, Hanby attempts to step back from such specific questions in order to provide the larger metaphysical context within which other such discussions occur. His point is to help us "recognize latent metaphysical [and even theological] presuppositions in Darwinism" - presuppositions that "arguably threaten to undercut its explanatory power" - but also to suggest that some versions of "creationism" unwittingly share those very same presuppositions (477).

Hanby opens his article with the observation that a
...world known and loved into existence by God and for our enjooyment of God is, in its very meaning and essence, a different place from an intrinsically meaningless, machine-like world that is merely the accidental product of blind forces, governed by scarcity and force, and that patiently awaits our free and arbitrary assignment of quality and values to it. (476)
What we have in the debates over Darwinism is not simply a dispute about the findings and status of science, but rather a conflict over "control of the stories that are going to define, guide, and orient our lives, a preoccupation that well exceeds the bounds of scientific concern" (477).

Part of the difficulty in any such discussion, however, is the definition of terms, in particular here, the definition of "Darwinism" itself. Some scientists, such as Richard Lewontin, define Darwinism primarily in terms of the "transmutation of species" (to which Christian theology does not necessarily have an immediate objection). Most definitions of Darwinism, however, emphasize the mechanism of "natural selection" and all that it assumes about scarcity and competition, as Hanby suggests, a sort of biological Malthusianism.

But there are conceptual difficulties with his notion of "natural selection," even apart from attempts to impute purpose to the process. In particular, Hanby notes, "selection" (like Hegelianism and Marxism) attempts to proved "a logic for contingent history, a kind of secular providence accounting for all cultural and biologial life as the outworking of a single process transcending those events," which is, of course, a metaphysical thesis that, as such, "defies empirical or experimental verification" (479).

After all, what exactly is it that we can grant, on purely scientific grounds, that justifies viewing all the diverse and disparate events of nature as "instances in the operation of a single transcendent process" (479)? Some scientists see this difficulty and suggest that "natural selection" is not a single mechanism, but a name we give to a variety of different sorts of causal mechanisms at work in nature. But, as Hanby asks, what "makes this unity more than abitrary" and, furthermore, why doesn't this move just turn "selection" into "everything that happens" (479)?

These sorts of questions are not, however, Hanby's main focus of concern. Rather his aim is to note the importance of "a rigorous recovery and articulation of the doctrine of creation" that disentangles the doctrine from its enmeshment within evolutionary debates (480). Creation, strictly speaking, is not an "explanation" and cannot be used to answer the kinds of questions about origins that Darwinism seeks to raise. When "creationism" is used as an answer to Darwinism, Hanby suggests, it has already succumbed to Darwinism's rules of engagement and, even if it is able to point towards some kind of god, it will not be God of Christian faith.

Hanby notes that for Thomas Aquinas creation is an article of faith. Aquinas writes, "By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist," so that "the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself" (Summa Theologiae I.46.2). This is not some kind of blind fideism on Aquinas' part, but rather stems from a proper understanding of what we mean when we speak of "God" and of his "creating."

Creation, ultimately, is not a kind of causation that is univocal with other kinds of causation. When we ask questions about the origin of species, we are still in the realm of causation from within the created order, as Hanby notes, the realm of "Why this instead of that?" (481). But "creation," in the proper sense of the term, refers to things coming to be out of nothing, moving from nonexistence and potentiality within the mind of God to existence and actuality as the created world. And that difference - between nothingness and being something - is an infinite difference.

Thus, as Hanby asserts, creation's "'mechanism' remains inaccessible to us by definition, for the simple reason that prior to the movement there is nothing for this mechanism to act upon" (481). Hanby explains further
Creation simply names a relationship of dependence between effect and cause that occurs when anything genuinely new appears, which happens with everything that is neither reducible to the sum of its parts nor to the sum of causes that produced it - which is, of course, every single thing in existence. (481)
And there is, in the relationship of dependence, a radical asymmetry, since God stands in absolutely no need of the created world and thus creation cannot be "explained" by any sufficient reason beyond the non-explanation of "the sheer, extravangant generosity that God is, in his essence as trinitarian love" (482).

The Christian Trinity, therefore, is not merely the first item in a causal chain of effects. If that were the case, then "God" would name some thing existing outside of and above the essentially closed world of nature and limited by that natural order. The god of such quasi-scientific explanations turns out to be merely one more finite item in a world of such items, designed to meet the needs of science's own explanatory expectations - once again, the modern god of onto-theology.

No, the Trintarian God of Christian faith is entirely other. Hanby paints the picture:
God is that simple, immutable act of being and love so transcendentally other to creation as to be at once external and internal to it, mysteriously indwelling it while calling it into the novelty of existence in the mystery of the divine love. (482)
According to Hanby, this recognition of super-abundant love at the center of all reality suggests something important about the nature of the world: "that each created thing is also a mystery" (482). That is to say, the novelty of creation as an overflow of divine love is analogically disclosed in created things that are surpassingly irreducible either to the sum of the causes that produce them or to their own constituent parts.

After all, to explain this blog post as an electrical array appearing on a computer monitor, registering as squiqqles and shapes upon the retina is not an "explanation" since it leaves out what is most important: that this is a blog post, a form of personal communication and expression. As Hanby says, knowing the world truly requires that we "recognize in matter and in the wholes composed of it the true reality of qualities - form, beauty, and purpose, for instance - that are manifestly part of the world" (482). In that light, Christian faith cannot be construed as closing off the possibility of scientific inquiry, but rather as opening up a space for the possibility of a better understanding of the world.

14 November 2006

suarez and reformed eclectic thomism

Francisco Suarez, who died in 1617, was a near contemporary of many formative figures within emerging Protestant and, especially, Reformed scholastic theology. I am thinking here, in particular, of influential (though today largely forgotten) thinkers such as Bartholomaeus Keckermann (1571-1609), Clemens Timpler (1563-1624), Gilbertus Jacchaeus (1578-1628), Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638), Antonius Walaeus (1573-1639), and Johannes Maccovius (Jan Makowski; 1588-1644), among others. While the Reformed tradition has, at times, been presented as largely Scotist in character - and there is some truth to that claim - it is also true that late medieval varieties of Thomism played a significant role in the formation of the tradition.

For instance, the theology of Martin Bucer, a former Dominican, shows signs of Aquinas’s influence. This, in turn, arguably shaped Calvin during his years with Bucer in Strasbourg, particularly (in my estimation) with regard to Calvin's sacramental theology, which, during those years, took a decided turn toward seeing sacraments more as efficacious instrumental causes of grace and less as mere moral and occasional causes - though Calvin never, of course, embraced a fully Thomistic understanding of sacramental causality.

More important than Bucer, however, were the shaping influences of the Italian Reformed theologians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchius (1516-1590), both of whom were openly and pervasively indebted to late medieval Thomism, even if certain of Aquinas’s teachings were freely questioned or revised in light of later developments or questions raised by figures such as Scotus and even some nominalists. Nevertheless, in Vermigli and Zanchius we begin to find a growing Reformed receptivity to a limited natural theology, as well as a deployment of Thomistic apparatus and vocabulary.

We find, for instance, talk of primary and secondary causality that assumes God as the first and final cause, all of which plays out within the created order in terms of instrumental, formal, and material causes. Likewise, we find talk of form, matter, substance, potency, act, habits, and so forth, all with clear (and sometimes explicit) debts to Aquinas, even if again such notions are sometimes re-tooled and re-interpreted in light of subsequent developments and contemporary concerns.

The point here is that already within the Reformed tradition there was an openness toward the heritage of Christian use of Aristotle and its major exponents (often within the wider currents of a Christian faith shaped by a more “neo-platonic” Augustinianism). As Reformed theologians began to construct and solidify their own educational institutions toward the end of the 16th century, and as those institutions began to address questions of pedagogy and polemics, a Protestant “scholasticism” began to emerge.

Within this emergent scholasticism, the already extant openness toward Christian use of Aristotle would foster affinity for, and lay the groundwork of, a positive appropriation of figures such as Suarez, who was himself, after all, a major contemporary representative of Christian use of Aristotle, surfacing from within what one could see as a broad, revisionist - or even eclectic - Thomism. That appropriation of Suarez, in turn, tended to reinforce the relatively Aristotelian character of early Reformed scholastic orthodoxy.

12 November 2006

mcknight on emerging

For some time I've been trying to get my mind wrapped around what the "emerging church" phenonemon is about. What I've observed is pretty diverse, some of it very congenial, some of encouraging, some of it confusing, some of it troubling. Part of me suspects that I would easily enough fit into the category, broadly construed, given my own background, studies, and interests. But I also wonder how helpful some aspects of "emerging" are and how useful a concept as stretchy as "emerging" might be.

Last month Westminster Theological Seminary hosted a forum on the emerging church at which Scot McKnight of North Park University presented some of his thoughts on the emerging church, providing what I found to be a helpful overview. If you'd like, you can read the full text of his talk, "What Is the Emerging Church?" (pdf).

McKnight's aims are modest and situated, more of a sketch than, say, a detailed genealogy, and aimed primarily at an American context, more so than, say, how the emerging church functons in the UK. Given the complexity of the phenomenon that McKnight is trying to describe, his remarks are appropriately qualified and flexible. As Aristotle says in another context, "Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions."

In his talk, McKnight attempts to explain the emerging church using the image of a lake ("Lake Emerging") that has four rivers flowing into it: postmodernism, praxis, postevangelicalism, and politics. The point here, in part, is that different people within the larger category of "emerging" may find themselves in very different places - different edges or depths of the lake, so to speak, drinking more deeply of one or more of the four rivers flowing into it.

After all, "emerging" includes missonally Reformed figures such as Mark Driscoll, emergent postconservatives such as Brian McLaren, various sorts of house churches, as well as a re-tooled evangelicalism that, in its attempt to reach out to a contemporary audience, freely draws upon a variety of resources, both ancient and postmodern. As such, any set of emerging "marks" need to remain somewhat open-ended and elastic.

Based on McKnight's talk, it seems that if we wanted to define the emerging movement, we could say that it is a missional ecclesiology that:

[1] engages with postmodernity both as a cultural phenomenon and in terms of how theory and practice might reorient our theology

[2] embraces a Christian praxis that rethinks and reshapes:

[a] worship in terms of how we have traditionally “done church”

[b] orthopraxy as central to Christian faith

[c] social justice as transformative suffering with others

[d] proclamation as missionally going out to draw others towards Christ

[3] contructs a postevangelical critique of evangelicalism’s complicity with modernity as blunting the wholistic force of the Gospel and biblical narrative

[4] promotes an approach to politics that refuses simplistic left-right dichotomies of the American two-party system, though often strategically leaning leftward

If so - and assuming it’s an accurate portrayal of what “emerging” is about - then I must say that it deeply resonates with me on a lot of levels and how my own thinking has evolved over the past decade and a half.

In future posts on this topic, I want to dip into each of these four areas a bit more deeply, jumping off of McKnight's talk. I'm particularly interested in what we can learn from the emerging church inasmuch as it presents an alternative way of thinking about and practicing what it means to be a Christian in our contemporary context.

Such an alternative creates a space in which we can gain distance upon our own tradition and practices, thereby learning about ourselves and how we might better contextualize the Gospel for a changing world. While there may be areas in which the emerging conversation itself may be open to criticism, my intent is more to take up a posture of listening and learning than that of critique.

11 November 2006

samuel smith brewery

I picked up a variety case of beers yesterday produced by the Samuel Smith Brewery of Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, England. There are four bottles each of their Lager, Pale Ale, IPA, Nut Brown Ale, Taddy Porter, and Oatmeal Stout. I wish we could get their two varieties of bitter and their dry cider in the US, but unfortnately, I don't think we can. Still, these are all great beers and, for those who like dark beers such as brown ales, porters, and stouts, these are some of the best.

10 November 2006

aar/sbl in dc

Following upon the heels of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature will be meeting in Washington, DC from Saturday, 18 November through Tuesday, 21 November 2006.

Laurel, Claire, and I plan to head down to DC for at least Saturday the 18th in order to take Claire to the Smithsonian and to view their current exibition of biblical manuscripts from before the year AD 1000.

If any of you plan on being in DC that Saturday, it would be great to meet up for lunch or a beer or coffee or the like. Drop me a line at garver[at]lasalle[dot]edu if you're interested.

presbyterians still together

Six months ago today, in a text entitled "Presbyterians & Presbyterians Together," a cross-section of Reformed and Presbyterian pastors, leaders, academics, and other laypersons committed themselves to bearing witness to the ongoing vitality and missional effectiveness of a Reformed understanding of the Christian faith, particularly as we come together with all our variations in doctrine, emphasis, and practice and across denominational boundaries.

My own understanding of the evolution and intent of that document is explained in some detail elsewhere, but I would like to add a couple of additional thoughts at the present.

Folks occasionally ask me whether or not I think the document is making any practical difference. Given that there is no organization or sponsoring institution working on some kind of "implementation" (assuming that even makes sense), it is naturally difficult to figure out what differences, if any, such a document might be making.

I do think the witness of nearly 300 individuals, confessing their past and present failures, and committing themselves to Reformational teaching borne up in charity and grace, is itself remarkable and encouraging. And I pray that such a public witness on the part of these individuals, including myself, will continue to bear fruit as we conduct ourselves with appropriate Christian humility in our relationships and in our theological discourse - even if we all fall short, many times over, of the ideal we espouse.

I also think the document has had an overall positive role in nudging our public conversation as theologically orthodox Reformed Christians in a constructive direction, bringing various issues more out into the open so that ongoing patterns of community and institutional disfunctionality can be named, addressed, and reformed through the message of the Gospel (and in this connection, see Anthony Bradley's thoughts and ensuing discussion and further posts on some aspects of that disfunctionality). Moreover, among those who came together in common purpose as signatories, some new relationships have been forged and our conversation continues in many different ways, to the benefit and health (I hope) of our local churches, ongoing ministries, and wider institutions.

One area of disappointment I have felt is the difficulty in bridging denominational divides, even within the narrow sphere of Presbyterianism and close sister communions. Perhaps the overt confessionalism of the "Presbyterians Together" document or parochial nature of some of the issues it mentions have had the effect of limiting its currency. One document obviously can't do everything, even if it is a step in the right direction. I do think growing cooperation between Reformed churches of various traditions, confessions, and emphases remains a front-burner issue for our witness and mission (not to mention the importance of wider circles of cooperation, especially on the local level). And I hope we can continue to find creative ways to make that happen.

The other question I'm sometimes asked is whether I worry that documents such as these have a tendency to exclude as much as they include, cutting off opportunities for dialogue or positioning certain responses as a priori problematic or uncharitable.

I think I understand that concern and, yes, I do worry about it. But I've said from the beginning - and I think others share this viewpoint - that there are all kinds of reasons why someone might not want to sign the document and that those reasons need to be respected and heard and allowed to occasion discussion of what they tell us about ourselves and our relationships with one another. "Presbyterians Together" is not, as I read it, a manifesto or an ultimatum, but rather a personal testimony and witness of where a number of us find ourselves as we sojourn within the context of a Reformed understanding of the faith, confessing our own shortcomings and seeking to do better.

Nor is the document an attempt to leverage any particular theological position or judgment automatically into the category of "uncharitable." The list of areas of diversity are, of course, aimed at issues that have historically faced our churches and continue to do so in the present. But, as such, their intent is descriptive rather than prescriptive, allowing that within any of those given areas there is always ongoing need for discernment, so long as the instruments of such discernment carry out their tasks in charity and patience, by careful listening, and from within the bonds of unity we all share in Christ. If there are some who are offended at the suggestion that Reformed doctrine is an open field with some fences rather than a pinpoint, then I'm not quite sure what to say beyond suggesting that we talk more about these incommensurable understandings of how theology functions.

In any case, on the occasion of this six-month mark, it's worth noting that people are still more than welcome to add their signatures to "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together" (more have signed even in the past several weeks). From there, we can continue to commit ourselves to bear the kind of witness embraced by signing and seek to encourage one another in that witness.

09 November 2006

some notes on suarez

I'm not a Suarez scholar and so offer these observations at my own peril, especially since my interest is not a narrow point of detail, but the broad ranging topic of the relationship of Francisco Suarez to Protestant scholasticism.

My first exposure to Suarez was as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in a course taught by Jim Ross in which we spent considerable time on the medieval discussion of universals, culminating in Suarez’s treatment of universals in his “Disputation on Formal Unity,” a text that had been translated into English by Professor Ross. I must say that the whole discussion was extremely stimulating and stuck with me.

Admittedly, my attention to Suarez subsequently waned and languished as I took up other matters in both philosophy and theology. Nonetheless, I found that his name, writings, and ideas kept resurfacing, particularly as my interests turned increasingly toward dogmatic theology, Protestant scholasticism, and their philosophical underpinnings, all of which lay at the origins of my own Reformed tradition. And there, somewhat to my surprise, I once again came face to face with that Spanish Jesuit who had piqued my interest years before. Moreover, unlike much Protestant interaction with figures such as Bellarmine and Cajetan - which was largely polemical and apologetic in nature - the bulk of interaction with Saurez was positive and constructive.

So, before getting into the matter of Protestant scholasticism, a bit about Suarez himself for those unfamiliar with him or his work. Francisco Suarez was born in the Spanish city of Granada in 1548 and studied philosophy and theology with the recently-formed Jesuits at Salamanca, beginning at the age of 16. He went on to become a leading Jesuit theologian and scholar, often cited as the greatest scholastic of the early modern period and sometimes ranked second only to Thomas Aquinas among scholastic theologians.

Suarez was the prolific author of dozens of treatises, taught at a half dozen different schools, and became one of the leading lights in the shaping of post-medieval metaphysics and legal theory. After his death in Portugal in 1617, Suarez's influence only continued to grow, both within Roman Catholic theology, Protestant scholasticism, and wider currents of philosophy.

08 November 2006

why i'll miss santorum

Even though I didn't vote for him, part of me will nonetheless miss Senator Rick Santorum. Not that I'll miss his sometimes flustered, goofy, and impolitic comments before the media. And not that I'll miss many of his political positions, a number of which I would reject, a few rather strongly.

But what I will miss is the fact that, whatever you may think of Santorum's views (or, on the part of many Pennsylvanians, even his intelligence), he is nevertheless a genuine, honest, straightshooting guy and loyal family man, which is saying a lot for a politician.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, as a faithful Roman Catholic politician Rick Santorum was a bi-partisan leader on issues of poverty relief, visiting blessing upon orphans and widows in their affliction. As David Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, Santorum
has pushed through a stream of legislation to help the underprivileged, often with Democratic partners. With Dick Durbin and Joe Biden, Santorum has sponsored a series of laws to fight global AIDS and offer third world debt relief. With Chuck Schumer and Harold Ford, he’s pushed to offer savings accounts to children from low-income families. With John Kerry, he’s proposed homeownership tax credits. With Chris Dodd, he backed legislation authorizing $860 million for autism research. With Joe Lieberman he pushed legislation to reward savings by low-income families.
In addition Santorum has sponsored legislation on a slew of social justice issues: fighting tuberculosis, assisting orphans and at-risk kids in the developing world; providing homes for people with AIDS, financing community health centers, raising awareness of the Sudanese genocide, to name a few.

By positioning himself, however, as a leader in the so-called "culture wars," Santorum has managed to turn himself into a casualty of that war, as well as a casualty of President Bush's Iraqi war policy, of which he was a strong supporter.

Bob Casey, Jr., also a faithful Roman Catholic politician, will replace Santorum next year and will, I think, strive to continue along some similar paths as Santorum on issues of poverty relief, AIDS, abortion, public health, and so on - that's to say, implementing his own understanding of a comprehensive Catholic social ethic, and perhaps doing so in a way that corrects what many would regard as some of the infelicities of Santorum's tenure.

So, while I will miss Santorum's work and witness on poverty-relief and some other issues, I hope and expect that, with Senator-elect Casey taking his place, those who are most vulnerable to the whims and winds of politics will not miss out.

07 November 2006

apathy and cynicism

I've been asking my students about the elections: whether they are registered to vote, whether they plan to vote, whether they know the names of who is running, and so forth. In general answer to all of the above is: "No." My informal survey indicates that only perhaps a little over 10% of my students will vote.

Among our philosophy majors, I grant, most do vote and have an awareness of candidates and issues. But philosophy as a major tends to attract a crowd who find value in what others might regard as arcane and who think that the big questions of life - questions concerning values, purpose, the common good, and so on - are still meaningful questions worth discussing.

So I spent some time asking my non-voting students why they don't vote or even seem to care. The answers are familiar: "My vote doesn't matter." "The candidates are all pretty much the same." "Voting isn't going to fix anything." "I've got better things going on." "It's a waste of time." "They make it too much work - why can't we vote online?" The answers range from apathy to cynicism and back again.

I wish I had something intelligent and insightful to say about that. But I don't.

I'm sure part of the difficulty is simply a youthful paralysis in the face of options arrayed in nearly indistinguishable shades of gray. Yet, there's something deeper (and still more shallow) to this detachment from the electoral process that I can't fully articulate - perhaps a kind of middle class nihilism. Does such a nihilism empty our choices of value and render elections, wars, government, and even "freedom" as fraught with ambiguity? Why vote for a candidate who is, at best, deeply flawed when the bright (even if ephemeral) clarity of choosing a new tune for the iPod awaits?

two studies

In the past week or so, Scot McKnight has pointed out two interesting studies of American religion.

The first is a study from Baylor University, entitled, "American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights to the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the US" (be forewarned, this is a large PDF).

The second is a study of American academics that asks, "How Religious Are America's College and University Professors?" (PDF).

Part of me thinks these studies are both deeply flawed in the way they ask their questions, presupposing an overall shape to American piety that is itself problematic. But the fact is, even though I personally would be uncomfortable answering a number of the questions in the manner in which they're asked, the researchers undertaking these studies know their discipline and know how to ask questions to which most Americans would probably have fairly straightfoward answers.

Even so, that raises some questions about the role that such surveys have not simply in reflecting or reporting upon the condition of American religion, but also in guiding and perpetuating particular ways of thinking about what it is to be a person of faith in America. Do the instruments of a scientific study ever leave the object of that study entirely untouched?

06 November 2006

on election eve

Every few years or so I return on some occasion or another to Stanley Hauerwas's pithy 1995 text, "Preaching as Though We Had Enemies." Along the way, Hauerwas writes,
The moral threat is not consumerism or materialism. Such characterizations of the enemy we face as Christians are far too superficial and moralistic. The problem is not just that we have become consumers of our own lives, but that we can conceive of no alternative narrative since we lack any practices that could make such a narrative intelligible. Put differently, the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy. That story and the institutions that embody it is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.
In times such as national elections, such thoughts provide some perspective.

It's not that democratic processes are in themselves bad. I agree with Thomas Aquinas when he writes that ideally "all should take some share in the government: for this form of constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is most enduring" (Summa Theologiae I-II, Qu. 105, Art. 1).

Rather, it's worth remembering that such political arrangements, particularly as they present and package themselves in the modern West, can offer themselves as idols - alternative stories, making promises in conflict with the Christian story, offering competing claims for meaning and value. Our politics as Christians involves, first and foremost, embracing a different story and belonging to another polis.

So, whatever the results or the hype, tomorrow's election isn't going to change the world, even if it effects temporary, incremental shifts in our political constellation. As Hauerwas reminds us, the day that changed the world already occurred nearly 2000 years ago. And the church is the self-divesting power in our world which continues to herald that change.

a bit of blog

I haven't the time to do full-blown blogging and I've been enjoying my hiatus, but I think I'll be posting some short items occasionally now that I'm past the mid-term hump.