25 November 2007

new website additions

I've added two new items to my writings on my website that may interest some folks.

The first item is a lecture that I gave at the Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference at Villanova University several weeks ago, where it seemed well-received both at the time and in some subsequent discussion. I've retitled it (somewhat provocatively) as "Inventing 'the Bible': Revelation, Theology, Phenomenon, and Text."

The talk is exploratory more than definitive and not particularly ground-breaking. Nevertheless, in it I seek to trace out connections in relation to Scripture between [1] the shift to modern printed, bound texts, [2] changes in the theological concept of revelatio, and [3] developments in hermeneutics away from medieval exegesis.

Since I pulled the lecture together rather at the last minute (though as the culmination of much reading and thought), I didn't have to time to provide footnotes, which wouldn't show up in a lecture format in any case. Instead, I've included some general references to primary texts parenthetically in the main body and a bibliography of works consulted appended to the end. (It also has more than a few typos and infelicities that I'll have to smooth out at first opportunity.)

The second item is a set of two lectures I gave several years ago in Japan and subsequently in several other formats here in the States. These lectures are entitled "No Shadow of Turning: Classical Theism and the Openness of God." I've retained the lecture format somewhat, though there are copious footnotes.

In these lectures I seek to clear up what strike me as some misunderstandings and caricatures of classical theism, positively explicating the notion of God as "pure act" where that has a thoroughly trinitarian character.

My contention is that the concerns of open theists are well-founded with regard to how God manifests himself in the biblical text, over against some theological formulations, and we need to take them seriously. Yet, I wish meet the concerns of the open theists while retaining classical theism.

My lectures attempt to navigate this tension by giving due weight to the notion that Jesus on the cross is the climax of God's self-disclosure and thus shows us something of who God is in himself. Yet, this revelation is analogical in character, so that while God must surely embrace the sufferings of his creatures, he nonetheless does so as an impassible God of all compassion.

I think the lectures would have been better had I given greater attention to christology in addition to trinitarian theology, but I'll leave them as they stand at present and hope they are still helpful, though they address matters that surely exceed our abilities to finally grasp.

22 November 2007


I spent all last evening and all morning today cooking, though not for the ordinary reasons.

Back on Sunday we decided to weatherize our utility room for winter. The space that houses our pantry, washer, dryer, pet supplies, and so forth, is at the very back of our house, behind the kitchen, with a window opening between it and the kitchen itself. But the utility room is basically unheated. Thus, as colder weather sets in, the kitchen can become very cold with drafts from the utility room.

So we decided to cover the opening with plastic shrink window wrap. This required using a hair dryer to shrink the wrap, which I did, plugging the hair dryer into one of the outlets, unplugging another appliance to make way for the odd shaped hair dryer plug. The shrink wrap went up splendidly and shrunk tautly almost to invisibility.

Well, last night I went back to the utility room to retrieve some food to make dinner, but when I pulled the boneless chicken breast from the chest freezer it was quite cold but oddly pliable for frozen chicken. It dawned on me then that I had unplugged the chest freezer on Sunday to make way for the hair dryer and had never plugged it back in. Shall we say, "Oops"?

A quick survey found that everything was still very cold and, in most cases, still half-frozen. But half-frozen is also half-thawed. That's several half-thawed chicken breasts, four chicken legs/thighs, about a dozen pork loins and chops, a package of ground turkey, an 11 pound ham, a roasting chicken, an eye roast, a couple loaves of bread, several containers of berries, a container of phyllo dough, a bag of shredded zucchini, and a few other items. Some of those items might re-freeze without difficulty, but meat isn't one of them, at least until it's been cooked.

Thus, last night and this morning I've managed to whip up lots of meat dishes: chicken shawarma; pork chili verde; barbecued pulled pork; Chinese spiced pork slivers (for fried rice); pork vindaloo; boiled chicken legs/thighs then coated with barbecue sauce; chicken stock; taco meat; chicken soup; a roast beef then transformed into sliced beef, piroshkis, and beef and barley soup; a baked glazed ham then transformed into slices, cubes, ham balls, and ham loaf...and I've forgotten what else.

Fortunately, we weren't hosting Thanksgiving this year, so I was able to sit down and enjoy a meal at my parents house for which I cooked precisely nothing. And for that, I am thankful.

21 November 2007

rational animality

It's that busy time of semester as the end of term is in sight and a final push of papers, grading, teaching, committee work, and so on needs to be completed in a matter of several weeks. My brief Thanksgiving break is already overwhelmed. So I'm not sure how much I'll be blogging.

Nevertheless, here I am, sitting in a Panera with some coffee and a bagel, killing time until a midday Thanksgiving feast at Claire's school. As I wait, I'm going to try to string a few thoughts together, though they're bound to be somewhat rough and meandering. Yet, over the past weeks, I've run across a number of different ideas and quotations concerning our essential animality as human, the sum of which have left me pondering.

On one hand, many modern Americans seem manifestly uncomfortable with our animal nature - we lose ourselves in worlds of electronic information, consign disease and death to clinical remoteness, and distance ourselves from nature, agriculture, the food chain, and animal death, particularly the killing of animals for food. A certain sort of residual Cartesianism perhaps informs practices that decisively set us apart from the rest of the animal world.

On the other hand, earlier generations lived in a closer relationship to the material world and likely more readily identified with their natural kin among the animals. Moreover, pre-modern Christian theology situated humanity firmly within the realm of animality, drawing out commonalities and continuities between us and the wider created order.

Part of what got me thinking about this topic was reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (which I reviewed below). In the midst of some wonderful chapters describing his experience of hunting and in which he takes on the polemics of animal rights activists, Pollan refers to the writings of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin concerning "disgust" (coincidentally, I had Rozin as a professor for introductory psychology when I was an undergraduate and recall him discussing this at length).

Rozin writes about how human beings are universally disgusted by much of what comes from animals: fluids, secretions, decaying flesh, corpses. Since, as omnivores, we consume meat, meat eating creates "problems" for us, which cultures often handle through various rules, rituals, practices, and taboos that govern how we handle animals, slaughter them, and consume and dispose of their parts. Think how differently we might experience the ritual of "giving thanks" over our food when we grew or gathered or, even more, killed, bled, eviscerated, and butchered that food ourselves?

Rozin argues that part of our disgust reaction exists to motivate practices of sanitation in animal handling that benefits our health as meat eaters. But he also suggests that a large part of our disgust arises from ethical concerns and from how animals "confront us with the reality of our own animal nature." Pollan comments,
So much of the human project is concerned with distinguishing ourselves from beasts that we seem strenuously to avoid things that remind us that we are beasts too - animals that urinate, defecate, copulate, bleed, die, stink, and decompose.
And here he refers to a story about the late 17th century Puritan theologian, Cotton Mather. In his journals, Mather notes an incident in which he was overcome by revulsion when he found himself pissing alongside a dog. Mather comments, "Yet I will be a more noble creature; at the very time when my natural necessities debase me into the condition of a beast, my spirit shall (I say at that very time!) rise and soar."

Mather's sentiment here strikes me as deeply uncomfortable with his created animality - with the fact that he is not simply a spiritual soul that occupies or enjoys a present attachment to an animal body, but that he simply is a particular sort of animal. But does the belief that "natural necessities debase us into the condition of a beast" approach anything like a biblical and Christian anthropology?

It seems that, for Mather, as for many modern men, the bright line of distinction that runs through the created world is the distinction between the human creature and all other material beings. Indeed, for certain sorts of Cartesianism, it is precisely the human awareness of self, of feeling and sentience that other creatures lack and which points to our uniquely and essentially non-material nature.

According to Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, an animal is a complex machine, different from other mechanisms in the degree or level of complexity rather than any difference in fundamental kind. After outlining the mechanics of animal motion, he writes,
This will not seem at all strange to those who know how many kinds of automatons, or moving machines, human skill can construct with the use of very few parts, in comparison with the great multitude of bones, muscles, nerves, arteries, veins, and all the other parts that are in the body of an animal. For they will regard this body as a machine which, having been made by the hand of God, is incomparably better ordered than any machine that humans can devise...
Descartes goes on to argue that, if we had the technology, we could build a machine in the form of an animal and, were our technology good enough, there would be no way to discern that the humanly devised machine was not, in fact, of the same nature as the animal it mimics. That's to say, for followers of Descartes, in the same way you might program a computer to cry "Ouch!" when one types an ampersand without the computer thereby experiencing pain, so also an animal such as a dog is "programmed" to yelp were one to kick it even though it doesn't actually feel anything.

Yet, Descartes argues, we could never build a mechanical human being, even if we could build a human-like automaton. Given the fact of the human soul, no machine could ever convincingly replicate our form of mental life, produced as it is by a simple, non-composite, spatially unextended, spiritual soul.

While Mather may not have been a Cartesian - I expect he would attribute sensation and awareness to animals - he nonetheless seems to have breathed alongside Descartes the same air of early modernity when it comes to philosophical and theological anthropology. As far as Mather is concerned, the "natural necessities" of our bodies appear purely univocal with those of the beasts and it is only by a voluntary, super-added act of the spirit and will that we may rise above our animality.

But such a position, I submit, would have been scarcely recognizable to earlier generations of Christian reflection.

For one thing, having a "soul" for Augustine, Aquinas, and most pre-modern Christian thought was not the unique provenance of human beings. A soul, for all these theologians, was the first principle of life in any living thing, whether a plant, an animal, or a human being.

In Thomistic terms, the soul is the form of a living body, the way in which matter must be organized and actualized in order for there to be life. That is, the soul is a sort of ordered, purposeful motion in the world that persists through change, exchanging matter, sustaining itself, and with the capacity for replication. As a form of organization, the soul is not itself a material thing, or a corporeal object that occupies space by way of bulk, and yet it is real.

Think, by analogy, of the difference between a pile of wood, glue, nails, and then all the sorts of things that pile might become: a table, a book shelf, a dog house, a wardrobe. On its own, the unassembled pile is not a "thing" in its own right, enjoying the sorts of compositional properties that would grant it an internal integrity and distinctive function.

On the one hand, in transforming this wood into a particular sort of artifact, nothing is added to the wood - there is no more physical material (wood, glue, nails) than when the craftsman began. On the other hand, there is a profound difference for now there is a table or shelf where before such a reality was, at the most, latent or potential. Through the labors of the craftsman, the potentialities of wood are revealed, actualized, and organized so now the wood functions in a way that it did not before, possessing a recognizable and distinctive function and purpose - that is, its form, everywhere present in the artifact, but distinguishable from the material out of which it was made. After all, a table could as well be glass or plastic or fiberboard or metal.

The soul, then, is like that - a form of organization that reveals and actualizes the potential for certain sorts of matter to be alive, to be caught up into those complex assemblages of process that we call "life." As such, soul adds nothing materially to the matter it enlivens and yet is utterly indispensable to life, identical with that specific actualization of life that makes a particular living thing the thing it is, a self-sustaining activity in the matter it informs. As Aristotle said, "If the eye were an animal, sight would be its soul."

Or, to use another analogy, think of the organized energy of a wave moving through water - something distinct from the water through which it moves, mathematically describable, giving shape and direction to the water, and discernible to our intellect by means of its material actualization in water. In the case of the soul, its form of organization is everywhere present within the body of matter it enlivens, with a greater and different sort of complexity and integrity.

Thus, on such views, the bright line of distinction within the world is not between humans and other living things but between living and non-living matter - though even there the distinction is relative, as the analogies with artifacts and waves suggest. In analogical ways, all things that are "things" in their own right posses "form," modes of organization, directed towards ends, just as all things have an analogically articulated share in the eternal law given how they function together within the ordered whole of the cosmos as an expression of divine purpose and loving care.

As Thomas Aquinas puts it,
Since all things are subject to divine providence as the rule and measure of eternal law (as stated before), evidently all things participate in some way in eternal law, that is, insofar as from its imprint upon them, they derive their peculiar inclinations to their proper activities and purposes. Now among all other things, rational creatures are subject to divine providence in a most excellent way, insofar as they participate in a share of providence, having providence both over themselves and for others... (ST I-II.91.2)
Or, to think of it in other terms, using contemporary vocabulary, for pre-modern thinkers the whole of the cosmos teems with divinely gifted information that shares in God himself as to his will, purposes, and loving care for the world, ordering the cosmos as a interrelated whole in all its parts and directing it towards participation in the life God himself as its ultimate end.

That divinely gifted information, in accordance with the character of that gift, transmits and replicates itself in various ways - over the passage of time, in traces it leaves behind, into the mind of knowers, and so forth (and note how we speak here of information). In living things that information becomes self-sustaining and self-replicating. In animals, information becomes consciously aware of other modes of information. And in human beings, information becomes aware of itself as information, apprehending that essential giftedness and thus having a sense of the God who gifted it.

Thus there is a continuity present within the ordered whole of the cosmos, so that the more simple potentialities of matter are taken up into each successively more complex form of life without loss. In this way human beings are more properly existing, more fully alive, and more completely animals than any other things. That is to say, our humanity does not make us any less animals, but more so. Our humanity pulls us more deeply and profoundly into the potentialities and deep mystery of the material world and thus more fully into the transcendent depths of material reality as it relates to its Creator who, in the infinite fullness and plenitude of his being, is thereby immanently and intimately present to his world.

Returning to Mather pissing beside a dog, the reality of that event is more complex and mysterious than Mather might allow. While the "natural necessities" of the human body are analogically similar to those of other animals, the difference between Mather and the dog lies less in a choice of his immaterial spirit to soar above his material nature, and more in his capacity as a rational animal to be a material organism in a manner that is more fully meaningful and rich than the dog.

As I think through this, I cannot help but recall a lecture by Denys Turner at Villanova University several weeks ago (which, with grateful thanks to Cynthia Nielsen, one may read in its entirety at her blog Per Caritatem). While I have differences with Turner in his overarching argument, I think his comments on the meaning of "rational animal" are absolutely on target and very helpful.

As he unpacks Aquinas' notion of the human person, he begins by noting that for Aquinas,
...we humans are genetically animals all the way through, not partly animals. Therefore, whatever we humans do, we do as animals do it. When we love, we love as an animal loves. If my cat cannot reciprocate on equal terms the affection that I bestow upon it, this is not because she is an animal and I am not. It is because I am and she is not, a rational animal. If I know and love God, then I know and love God as only an animal can. If my cat cannot know and love God, this again is not because my cat is an animal and I am not. It is because the cat is a different sort of animal than me.
As Turner notes, we are different from other animals in that we are "rational" (and do not read "rational" in Aquinas in a reductionist way, in terms of sheer, disembodied intellect). But we must also say that, "rationality is the form of [our] animality."

In this way we are different from either angels or God himself, since "it is only an animal that can be rational, and the rational animal is rational all the way through - not partly rational, partly angelic." Our mode of knowing is different from that of angels or God, even if there are analogies, so that only we, as human, are properly "rational" since "when it comes to how to know things, animals and only animals do it by the rational means of deliberation." For Aquinas, God's knowledge is not discursive in the way ours is, moving from one thing to another, in a process of reasoning and deliberation. Instead, in his infinite and full actuality, God's knowledge has always already fully proceeded through all things knowable in the single event of the eternal generation of the Son in the Spirit as the Logos of the Father.

Turner continues by noting that "only animals have bodies to speak with," a point Dante (good Thomist that he was) picks up suggesting that this is "what it is to be human," to be "a speaking animal," so that human failures involve failures of language. Or, to put things another way, Turner suggests that "only rational animals have meaningful bodies - bodies which bear and transact meanings; bodies which speak." Turner goes on to meditate upon the materiality of our rationality in gestures, sounds, and signs. He says,
You may have a general problem about how meanings get into matter in any case, but if that is so, your problem about meaning and formal language has no more nor less a difficult solution than how it is that a smile or a kiss or a laugh could be the bearer of ironies. All are bits of matter which say things. Explain the one if you can, but only by such means as explaining both.
And so, to say that a human is a rational animal is to say that a human is "a meaning bearing, a sign-conveying lump of organized sensuous matter." Turner adds,
And we call those human bits of matter "bodies" because they are matter alive with that form of life...which consists in the transaction of meaning. They are alive precisely as communicating and the quality of their lives is in the quality of their communicatings. A rational animal is speaking matter - it is a body in its character as language.
And so, for a human animal, though we are indeed animals, we do not eat, urinate, defecate, copulate, bleed, and so forth as other animals do. Even in what might seem our animality at its most brute, there is ineluctable meaningfulness.

When we bleed, we bleed in horror of the sight of our own blood, knowing it to be the ebbing away of our very life. And so blood comes to have meaning and value as it is poured out upon altars, exchanged in a rite of making brothers, drunk as a vampiric elixir of life, signed upon documents, displayed as a token of virginity or of circumcised manhood, consumed mystically in the eucharist, and so forth.

Similar reflections can unfold the meaningfulness of eating, copulating, and indeed, even urinating - for, as Camille Paglia rightly notes, to "piss upon" something as the human male is not simply the elimination of waste, but to make a statement.

An upshot of these reflections is that Descartes' dualistic argument wrongly discerns the character of our thinking. To observe that "I am, I exist, I am a thinking thing" need not entail a dualism of the sort Descartes urges when we recognize that even "thinking" is itself a form of animality, the process of life at its most alive.

None of these remarks are intended to imply that the ontology of the human soul is nothing more than that of other animals - but it is certainly nothing less. I remain convinced that Christian theologians are correct to suggest that human embodied meaningfulness, tied as it is to self-consciousness and deliberation, reveals the self-informing character of our form of life, which coheres with the biblical witness that death for us is not the utter end. If, in the human animal, our animality enfolds itself within the dialogue of community - so that we are together aware of and enjoy ourselves as meaning-bearing animals - then there is a self-transcendence that opens our conjoined lives to God.

And yet, in the end, we remain animals, also joined to the whole of creation around us. In us, the created order comes to its most expressive pitch and so, it is in our humanity that the fate of the cosmos rests and for which the eternal Logos assumed to himself the rational animality that we are.

18 November 2007

badiou, critchley, & žižek

This past week French philosopher Alain Badiou spoke in Philadelphia, interacting with the British philosopher Simon Critchley. I have little expertise in either philosopher, who have risen to some prominence in American academics only in the past decade or so. Nor was I able to attend their interaction. So I post this mostly as a reminder to myself to try to catch up on their thought a bit.

Badiou is an eclectic leftist philosopher with debts to both Continental thought (especially Lacan and varieties of neo-Marxism) and Anglo-American analytic thought (largely mediated through logic and set theory). In the wake of post-structuralism and deconstruction, Badiou's thought returns to an interest in ontology and the universal. What little I've read of Badiou primarily concerns ethics, evil, and his secularized re-reading of St. Paul.

Critchley is a left-anarchist British philosopher who labors primarily in Continental philosophy, building upon the wider phenomenological tradition, especially as mediated through Levinas and Derrida. Recently he has outlined his philosophy and politics in his book Infinitely Demanding, which engages at some length with the work of Badiou.

For an intriguing interaction with Critchley, a friend pointed me to a current article in the London Review of Books by Slavoj Žižek entitled "Resistance Is Surrender," in which he provides an extended reflection upon Critchley's Infinitely Demanding. Žižek is critical of Crithcley's notion of anarchic resistance to capitalism and the modern liberal State, arguing that recent history shows that such resistance is easily embraced and assimilated by the liberal State and the global market. As an alternative, Žižek suggests that "well-selected, precise, finite demands" can leave those in power without excuse.

In terms of operational and tactical involvement, activism, and resistance within contemporary political life, I suspect Žižek's criticisms and alternative are largely on target. Yet, as an overall strategic positioning within the public life of nations and economies, I'm not convinced that either Žižek or Critchley exhaust the possible alternatives. In particular, it seems to me that, when she is faithful to the scriptural witness, the church provides a site of "anarchic resistance" - an alternative polis with its own governance, identity, community, and shared practices, that doesn't so easily succumb to Žižek's criticisms.

That claim, of course, needs further unpacking. I've tried to do this in my essay on gospel as politics (despite some of its weaknesses), but would also commend the provocative work of theologian William Cavanaugh.

14 November 2007

veritas forum at upenn

For those of you in the Philadelphia area, especially college students and faculty, the Veritas Forum is occurring at University of Pennsylvania tonight through Friday evening. The overarching topic is "Reconciliation in a Divided World."

In a world marked by conflict, division and violence, is lasting reconciliation a possibility, or a romantic ideal? The Veritas Forum at Penn exists to engage the entire university in discussing and exploring together life’s hardest questions, such as these.

Tonight's speaker is the Honorable Mark Siljander, former US Congressman and Ambassador to the UN who currently labors as an emissary to the government of Sudan and the UN in Darfur. He'll speak on the topic of "Darfur: Resolving Conflict by Bridging the Muslim/West Divide" at 7:30pm in the Hall of Flags, Houston Hall (lower level & balcony) on Penn's campus.

Tomorrow night, Dr. Gayle L. Reed will speak on "The Power of Forgiveness: or 'What's So Good about Loving my Enemy?'" at 7:30pm in the Hall of Flags, Houston Hall (lower level & balcony) on Penn's campus. Reed is a psychiatric nurse, consultant, and educator, teaching at the University of Wisconsin who has developed a Forgiveness Process Model which has spiritual transformation as its ultimate goal.

On Friday, Dr. Miroslav Volf will speak on "Healing the Memory of Evil: Wisdom from the Abrahamic Faith Communities" at 7:30pm in Harrison Auditorium at the University Museum. A Muslim scholar (Carolyn Baugh) and a Jewish rabbi (Aaron Feuer) will each respond to Volf’s message. Volf is a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School and the director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture.

Each event is followed by a reception. For more information consult the UPenn Veritas Forum website.

13 November 2007

student - faculty colloquia

As I think I mentioned awhile ago, the Dean of Arts and Sciences asked me to coordinate a new program for our University that would bring first year students and full-time faculty into closer contact. He had given me some general parameters within which to develop the program.

After gathering a small advisory group, we came up with something we are calling discourse. The idea is that pairs of faculty will meet with small groups of first year students in order to generate discussion around themes chosen by the faculty and related to their own areas of interest.

The program attempts to accomplish a variety of goals.

With regard to faculty it draws more full-time and newer faculty into contact with first year students. As a collaborative project discourse increases connections and interaction among faculty and across disciplines, inviting students in faculty interests and research.With its colloquium format, discourse provides an informal space to try out small group and active learning strategies.

With regard to students the program enhances the intellectual culture of the University community and demonstrates genuine faculty interest in student growth outside of the classroom, valuing and drawing out a spectrum of students, inculcating an appreciation of the University’s values and culture.

Here's part of the letter sent out to faculty we were trying to recruit:
You’re a dedicated teacher and committed to student learning.

But the semester draws to a close. And once again, it seems to end just as your freshmen are finally beginning to “get it.”

Now imagine you could hold onto a few students a bit longer...

Imagine you and a colleague could gather these students in a small group – at a café, in a dorm lounge, at your home, in Center City – and you could talk informally, freely, and enthusiastically about themes that interest you.

If that sounds attractive, then enter into discourse – an initiative enabling you to do exactly that.

La Salle will support student-faculty colloquia by providing structure, hosting development workshops, offering staff support, and underwriting the costs of light meals and travel, accompanied by assessment and follow-up.

discourse is part of a wider Freshman Year Institute pilot, initiated by the Provost and carried forward under the auspices of the Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences.

Goals of the pilot include increasing full-time faculty contact with first year students, improving our pedagogy, enriching freshman learning, and boosting freshman retention.

For the discourse pilot, we are recruiting 16 faculty members, who will organize into 8 pairs.

Each faculty pair is responsible for choosing a theme, drawing up a discussion plan, recruiting 6-8 students, and facilitating four colloquia during February and March of the spring term.
Well, that's the idea at least. Now, over the coming months, I'll be busy - along with participating faculty - in trying to bring that idea to fruition.

11 November 2007

introducing radical orthodoxy

Back in the spring, the CBC radio show Ideas, hosted by Paul Kennedy, introduced the overarching theological perspective provided by Radical Orthodoxy. Here's the description for the Ideas website:
The modern world seems bent on its own destruction. A theological movement called "Radical Orthodoxy" believes it has uncovered the roots of the modern mistake. David Cayley talks to the movement's founders and leading writers, John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock.
I finally listened to this tonight and found it a very lucid, engaging, and profitable introduction, suitable for an audience who might find Milbank and Pickstock's writings a bit heavy-going. I find myself in fundamental sympathy with most of what Milbank and Pickstock argue, even if I might quibble with some of the details of their arguments.

For instance, it's a bit of stretch to lay all the ills of modernity at the feet of John Duns Scotus. Certainly, however, Scotus is a important figure in the genealogy of modernity, even if the blame lies more in the reception of and extrapolation from Scotus than in Scotus himself.

Nevertheless, Radical Orthodoxy's diagnosis of the tendencies in thought and practice plaguing modernity strike me largely as spot on. As such, the perspective provided by the viewpoint is well worth our interaction and consideration.

The podcast is available for download here, hosted by the University of Notthingham's Centre of Theology and Philosophy. Thanks to Matt at religiocity for pointing this out.

08 November 2007

how many conversions?

A few weeks ago over at "Thoughts & Adventures," Scott Lamb (a pastor at Providence Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri) posted some helpful and challenging thoughts on Calvinism, conversion, and evangelism in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Scott's primary point was to rouse slumbering churches in which there are, say, a half dozen adult baptisms each year, but little or no long term increases in actual worship attendance - or, on the other hand, churches where there are only a meager one or two adult baptisms a year, though the persons who come to faith do seem to persevere in their profession.

He backed up his arguments with statistics from the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) and the PCA (very roughly similar in terms of number of congregations), looking at the average number of (adult) baptisms each year per congregation. In whatever way one interprets the data, he suggested, it seems our churches could be making a far more effective effort in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to every creature.

I heartily agree with all of that and don't wish to dispute the overarching point. But there are some complications in the data that Scott's post didn't address. I commented on his blog and we exchanged email and cleared this up, so I'm not saying anything here of which he is presently unaware.

Allow me to elaborate a bit. He provided the following statistical analysis based upon 2005 figures for the MBC and the entire PCA:
  • MBC total churches & missions: 1993
  • PCA total churches & missions: 1594
  • MBC has 399 more congregations than the entire PCA

  • MBC total baptisms: 12,755
  • PCA total baptisms: 7727
    • PCA total number of infant baptisms: 5279
    • PCA total number of adult baptisms: 2448
  • MBC average baptisms per church: 6.3
  • PCA average baptisms per church (including infant): 4.8
  • PCA average adult baptisms per church: 1.5
  • From these statistics, the MBC's evangelistic effectiveness is hardly stellar, but the PCA's seems pretty pathetic.

    Having admitted that, however, I think the statistics could use some further qualification. For instance, the average size of an MBC congregation is larger than the average size of a PCA congregation since total membership for the MBC in 2005 was 590,315, while the total PCA membership was 331,126. That means that in 2005, the number of baptisms relative to membership breaks down this way:
  • MBC had one baptism for every 46.3 members
  • PCA had one baptism for every 135.3 members (adult baptisms only)
  • PCA had one baptism for every 42.9 members (infant and adult baptisms)
  • Given that last statistic, it would seem that the PCA does slightly better than the MBC.

    Now, I don't particularly want to play the numbers game. But what I pointed out to Scott is that "number of baptisms" is actually a very poor measure of conversions within the PCA context and that this points to differences between Baptist and Presbyterian ecclesiologies and sacramental theologies.

    Scott had been assuming that all adult converts would be baptized in the PCA upon coming to faith. But this simply isn't the case.

    Many of those who convert in adulthood were baptized as infants - whether in an evangelical church, a mainline church, the Roman Catholic church, or whatever. But if an adult convert was at any earlier point in life already baptized in the Triune name by a church that officially professes the Nicene Creed, then (generally speaking) a PCA church will not (re-)baptize the convert (the exception is with converts from Roman Catholicism who are baptized again in many of our southern churches).

    This difference in practice is part of what defines Presbyterians over against most Baptists. And this is because historically Presbyterians didn't view baptism primarily as a profession of faith on the part of the person baptized, but as an action of God offering himself in Christ to the person, the promise of the gospel held out in water.

    If there's a time delay between the moment when a person was baptized, and her acceptance of what is offered to her in baptism, then that's seen as a defect on the part of the person baptized (and, in the case of infants, perhaps a defect in their context of Christian nurture and discipleship) - not a defect on the part of the God who baptized her. Thus, we don't (re-)baptize those who are already baptized, but rather give thanks that what God had once signified and offered in baptism has finally come to fruition in personal faith.

    Part of what this mean is that, in terms of actual adult conversions, our denominational statistics tell us very little.

    Infant baptism statistics only include infants and children baptized in the PCA. Some adult converts come to us already baptized and some don't, so "number of adult baptisms" isn't an accurate measure of adult conversions. The 2005 statistics indicate that "profession of faith by adults" was 5514, more than 3000 people more than the number of adult baptisms.

    Even the statistic for "profession of faith by adults" isn't a perfect measure. In general, one can join a PCA church by profession of faith, re-affirmation of faith, or letter of transfer. But there's no way of mapping that directly onto number of actual adult conversions, especially given the variety of ways in which a person may become a member of a PCA church.

    Some who join by "profession of faith" may already have been baptized believers who, for whatever reason, had never previously "officially joined" a church. Some who join by "letter of transfer" may be adults, just converted, now transferring with a profession of faith from a liberal mainline Presbyterian or other church, depending upon how the local Session handles "transfer of membership." Those joining by "re-affirmation of faith" may include baptized believers who are switching membership from a church that doesn't issue letters of transfer or they may be people who've fallen away from the church for a time, who are only now coming back.

    Thus, there really isn't any way to directly compare what "number of baptisms" in the MBC means in comparison to adult conversions in the PCA. Probably the closest you can get is an approximation based on the "number of adult professions of faith" in the PCA.

    In that case, the PCA statistics for 2005 indicate 5514 adult professions. That's 3.5 adult professions of faith per congregation or one adult profession for every 60 members. If we add in infant baptisms (as the other primary way we publicly bring people to Christ), then the total number of adult professions combined with infant baptisms is 10,792. That's 6.8 persons per congregation or one person for every 30.7 members, which is comparable to MBC.

    But, having worked out the numbers in a way that better reflects Presbyterian ecclesiology, Scott's larger and more pressing point still stands - the statistics indicate that we in the PCA have a lot of room to grow in terms of proclaiming the gospel in a way that draws unbelievers to Jesus Christ so that they may become faithful disciples.

    07 November 2007

    harry potter & the magical muggle museum

    On this Sunday, 11 November, from 12:30 to 4:45pm, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is sponsoring an event they're calling "Harry Potter and the Magical Muggle Museum."

    Here's the description from the website:

    "Designed for Harry Potter aficionados and novices of all ages, the afternoon, free with Museum admission donation, includes a potions class, a sorting hat, lectures by Hogwarts (and University of Pennsylvania) professors, a game of Wizard Chess with real people, Diagon Alley and Ollivander’s wand making shop, a tour of magical muggle objects on display in the Museum, grand finale concert appearances by The Moaning Myrtles and The Whomping Willows."

    The event is created and sponsored by a group of students in an anthropology course ("Mythology and the Movies" taught by anthropologist Louise Krasniewicz) who are looking at "fan culture" and all the forms of excitement and creativity that it generates. As an academic event, it includes a tour of various "magical" objects in the Museum's collection - charms, amulets, and so on - that muggle have devised along with a talk by Peter Struck of Classical Studies Department about ancient incantations. The event also includes a talk by Mallory and Megan Schuyler about their upcoing documentary, "The Wizard Rockumentary,"

    If you're interested in coming, the Penn Museum is located at 3260 South Street on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    I don't know about all you folks, but I certainly plan to be there!

    06 November 2007

    the next mayor

    Today - Tuesday, 6 November - is election day and today Philadelphians will almost certainly be choosing Michael Nutter as the next mayor of our great city.

    Nutter is a 50 year old Democratic former Councilman for the 4th District, where he served well, keeping in close communication with his constituency and taking the time and effort to explain in detail the kinds of policies he was pursuing and why. By doing so, he gained a reputation as a "policy wonk," one of the smartest guys in Council.

    Nutter's been in the forefront of ethics reform, sponsoring the city's reform bills, which would limit campaign contributions and require the identification of lobbyists for those seeking no-bid city contracts. He's also pushed for tax reform, reducing and/or repealing the city's Business Privilege Tax and Wage Tax. With whatever he proposes, including his campaign issues, Nutter always presents highly detailed plans, crunching the numbers and trying to anticipate any difficulties and problems.

    Overall, this makes him not-a-great-candidate in a world where sound-bytes and bumper sticker slogans are the substance of most political debate. Nutter, in that respect, isn't very "exciting."

    Nonetheless, he has proven a very successful mayoral candidate. After lagging in polls for months leading up the primaries, he won over Philadelphia voters and began to climb steadily in the polls - in part through positive ads featuring his daughter Olivia (the only child of a candidate actually attending a city public school). Eventually, after winning the endorsement of almost every media outlet (though only one union), Nutter won the primary with 37% of the vote in a field of seven candidates, 12 points ahead of his closest rival.

    Though Nutter has a Republican rival, in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-to-1 (Kerry won more than 80% of the vote here against Bush), the Republican candidate - Al Taubenberger - has barely received any attention. So, I fully expect that Nutter will win the mayorship today without any problems.

    Yet, as mayor Nutter will face a number of profound challenges - chief of which is the steady growth of violent crime in the city since the year 2000. In addition there are ongoing issues: political ethics, a slowing housing market, public transportation, affordable housing, job creation, neighborhood blight, tax reform, urban casinos, and so on.

    I'm excited about Nutter's election and am looking forward to his tenure as mayor. As with all of those entrusted with governance, he is a man who deserves our prayers as he will soon begin the transition into office.
    Almighty and everlasting God,
    we are taught by your holy Word,
    that the hearts of rulers are under your governance,
    and that you dispose and turn them
    as it seems best to your divine wisdom:
    we humbly beseech you so to dispose and govern the heart of
    Michael your servant, soon to be our mayor,
    that, in all his thoughts, words, and works,
    he may ever seek your honor and glory,
    and study to preserve this city committed to his charge,
    in justice, peace, and for the good of all:
    grant this, O merciful Father, for your dear Son's sake,
    Jesus Christ our Lord.
    Update: The AP called the election last night almost immediately after the polls closed. With 97% of precincts reporting Michael Nutter won with about 83% of the vote - a historic margin of victory in a mayoral race. Unfortunately, with rain in the morning and the inevitability of the outcome, voter turnout was usually low.

    04 November 2007

    the omnivore's dilemma

    Michael Pollan applies his deft and engaging skills as a literary journalist to the complexities of the American and global food chain. A former editor of Harper's Magazine and professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, Pollan earned praise for his most recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

    I received The Omnivore's Dilemma as a birthday gift in September and have found it a fascinating and informative treat, though also a challenging one as we continue to make choices about our own patterns of food consumption. What does Christian prudence and discernment look like relative to the enormous complexities of contemporary, industrial food production? What does that look like in terms of our family's health, stewardship of our finances, sustainable care of God's creation, a preferential option for the poor, and political and economic policy?

    One of the personal effects of reading the book is my closer scrutiny of food labeling and ingredient lists: adding up the number of corn derivatives in my salad dressing or wondering what "free range" might really have meant for my chicken or who went foraging for the "wild" blueberries in my granola bar.

    Pollan's book is divided into three sections: "Industrial: Corn," "Pastoral: Grass," and "Personal: Forest." The first section attempts to follow a field of corn and the life of a steer, from their planting and pasture to a dinner plate. The second section examines the rise of organic farming, both in its more prevalent industrialized variety and its more radical, sustainable "beyond organic" forms. The third section follows Pollan's adventure to hunt and gather an entire meal: meat, vegetables, and fungi.

    The Omnivore's Dilemma in its well-crafted narrative, traces the history of agriculture and amasses copious data, defying easy summation. Yet, towards the middle of the book, Pollan's comments bring together some of the most salient aspects of his overall presetantion.

    The question concerns the overwhelming triumph of corn in the American diet - not only as a food product itself, on the cob and in tortilla chips, but also as the primary feed for the animals we eat, in the ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup, and in the genealogy of numerous food additives from xantham gum to maltodextrin. Is this a matter of sheer economics, a field of corn producing more total food energy per acre?

    Quite simply, no. Research indicates that grass - once a food staple for ruminant animals and poultry - has greater biodiversity and sustainability, not to mention less waste. Moreover, if well-managed grass does not need chemical fertilizers and can capture more solar energy and produce more biomass than a cornfield. So, why does cheap corn prevail?

    The answer is complex, involving not only temptations inherent to corn itself (e.g., it can fatten cattle more quickly than grass even though it makes the animal sick), but also various sorts of government policy (e.g., subsidizing corn farms and commercial feedlots, grading meat in a way that favors corn-fed livestock, bending rules for clean air and water, putting tariffs on sugar imports).

    The end result is a mind-boggling surplus of cheap corn that needs to be consumed in an ever growing variety of ways. And so, that fast food lunch you grabbed on the run may turn out to be two-thirds corn, even if not a single kernel or grain of corn meal appears on your tray.

    The preference for corn, then, makes a certain sort of economic sense, providing a cheap, easily accessible and quality consistent food supply to consumers. Pollan comments,
    I say "certain" because that statement depends on the particular method of accounting our economy applies to such questions, one that tends to hide the high cost of cheap food produced from corn. The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn't take account of that meal's true cost - to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves. (200-201)
    The problem then is one of negative externalities - all the costs that for various reasons are left outside the market transactions and exchanges of information that set the retail price of corn in its many manifestations.

    The problems here are not simple matters of "free market" solutions over against failed government tinkering with the agricultural economy. For one thing, given the unpredictability of drought, disease, and crop failure, taken together with the relative inflexibility of food demand, no agricultural society has ever opted for an entirely free market in food production.

    Yet government policies have had a role in shaping the present kind of agricultural market we face - a market that, in many respects, is not working so well, even apart from the possibility that it may be slowly killing us. This, along with negative externalities, suggest that part of any solution will involve policies that begin to undo some of the damage.

    But part of the solution also falls to consumers. On this count, The Omnivore's Dilemma provides a bewildering wealth of information and reflection, which in the end makes Christian prudence and discernment more difficult rather than easier. How we answer the question "What's for dinner?" is problematized and deepened by Pollan's account.

    If you haven't picked it up already, The Omnivore's Dilemma is well worth reading. At the very least, you will find yourself looking at your dinner plate and grocery aisle as if you had never really seen them before.

    02 November 2007

    all souls

    Today marks the commemoration of All Souls on the church calendar, remembering all of the faithful departed in Christ. Following on the heels of All Saints, the celebration of All Souls presupposes a distinction between those whom the church has traditionally deemed "saints" - whose lives are commended to us as worthy examples for which all Christians should give thanks - and the rest of those who have died in Christ - whose lives and witness may remain, humanly speaking, unheralded and unknown.

    In many Christian cultures, the distinction between the two days is fuzzy, merging together into general "days of the dead." And that, in many respects, is as it should be.

    Even the greatest of saints whom the church remembers and celebrates is still a baptized soul, our sister or brother in Christ. And even the lowliest of Christians who lives and dies unnoticed and unremembered may be, for all we know, among the greatest of saints. All Saints holds out the worthy examples of the holy persons who, in Christ, we strive by faith to become, while All Souls holds out the certainty of salvation for all those who abide in Christ by faith.

    There is, however, more involved in this distinction of days.

    Within the teaching of the medieval western church, the "saints" were those who the church discerned to presently enjoy the Beatific Vision, fully in the presence of God in Christ. Other "departed souls," however, were thought possibly to remain apart from that Vision, undergoing the purifications of purgatory before they could fully enter the presence of God in Christ.

    Thus, around the commemoration of All Souls, there arose all the practices of intercession and action on behalf of the dead, including the obtaining of indulgences on their behalf, in order to secure or hasten their freedom from purgation. It is no accident, then, that Martin Luther posted his "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," with its 95 theses for debate, on the eve of All Saints and All Souls, which focus attention upon souls in purgatory, remission from temporal punishment, and the sale of indulgences.

    My personal experience of Roman Catholicism in America has been that traditional teachings on purgatory and indulgences receive little focused attention. I've attended numerous Catholic funerals, but the message was typically one of celebrating the entrance of the deceased into the blessed presence of God through Christ and our joyful hope in the resurrection to come. As several friends of mine point out, compared to their experience of Catholicism in Latin America, the Philippines, and elsewhere, American (and much of western European) Catholicism is highly "Protestantized."

    Witness the editorial cartoon to the right, which ran yesterday in a Philippine English-language newspaper. The cartoon was accompanied by an editorial on All Saints and All Souls, outlining the relationship and distinction between the two days, and drawing out some implications for wider society. The editorial stated at one point, "The idea behind All Souls is an article of faith: souls separated from their bodies at death may not be cleansed of all sins; it is the task of the faithful left behind to help purge them through prayer" - and thus the cartoon.

    In America it is easy to forget that purgatory and indulgences remain an official part of Catholic teaching. And looking at their popular manifestations in piety throughout many other parts of the world, it can also be difficult to discern just what that official teaching entails.

    In recent decades a number of Catholic theologians have returned to the topic of purgatory and indulgences to see if they might articulate those doctrines in way that is more in keeping with the contours of the biblical witness, the absolute priority of grace, the sufficiency of Christ's redeeming work, and a healthy piety. While, as a reformational catholic Protestant, I reject Roman Catholic understandings of purgatory and indulgences, such a rejection ought to be based upon examining the doctrines in their best and most amenable expressions, rather than upon caricatures or exaggerations within popular piety.

    So what is purgatory?

    On one hand, purgatory is the belief that those who die in Christ nonetheless die still experiencing the ongoing consequences of original and actual sin, not yet perfected in faith nor wholly sanctified in the love of God. Since "nothing unclean" may enter into the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:27) in which dwell "the spirits of the righteous made perfect" (Heb 12:23), God must bring the dead in Christ to perfection in order that they may be received into his presence and enjoy the Beatific Vision.

    With this much, a Protestant may entirely agree. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, teaches that at the time of bodily death, the souls of the dead "immediately return to God who gave them." Those who die in the grace of Christ are "then made perfect in holiness" and "are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies" (32.1).

    But the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory goes further, maintaining that if "those who are truly penitent die in charity before they have done sufficient penance for their sins" then it is necessary that "their souls are cleansed after death in purgatorial or cleansing punishments" (Second Council of Lyons). The key point here is that this perfecting of the dead in Christ constitutes a "punishment" that completes "penance for their sins."

    At this point a bit of history may be helpful, though keep in mind this is my own understanding of the history and it may be open to correction at some points.

    The early church saw the sacrament of baptism, received rightly, as remitting and forgiving original sin and actual sin up to the time of baptism. But what about post-baptismal sin, especially very serious sins that were public and brought scandal to the church?

    While the church has always seen the eucharist itself as a sacrament of forgiveness and reconciliation, it came to be felt that some kind of public reconciliation was necessary in cases of scandalous sin that publicly estranged a person from the life of the church. Thus, sometime in the 2nd century a public, liturgical ritual of reconciliation developed for those who sinned gravely after baptism. Often there was a period of time leading up to the reconciliation in which the penitent was suspended from participation in the eucharist, the length of the time proportionate to the seriousness of the sin.

    The idea here is that sin has concrete consequences that disrupt the life of the Christian community. Even if God offers forgiveness of the guilt of sin immediately, freely, and graciously to all who turn to him in faith, the process of communal reconciliation itself can take time, as the sinner comes to understand the effects of her sin, owns up to and takes responsibility for those effects, and seeks restoration and renewal personally and within the larger community.

    The period of penitence and its formal conclusion in a public, liturgical rite gave public recognition to the serious effects of sin, encouraged the process of reconciliation, engaged the wider Christian community in that process, and provided a final sense of "closure" at its completion, cutting off the possibility of further recrimination or bitterness. Pastorally, the widsom here is evident, even if the ritual seems foreign to us.

    One of the features of this ancient practice of penitence was that the length of suspension could be shortened in view of the contrition of the penitent, the penitent's willingness to engage in acts of love and service to mitigate the brokenness and ruin of the world (to which his sin contributed), and the prayers of the faithful on his behalf for his restoration. Eventually, as a matter of fairness and consistency, some rules of thumb were put in place regarding the ways in which these times of penitence could be shortened.

    As time went on this very public and very communal form of penitence gradually was set aside. Celtic Christians for some time, in connection with their vibrant monastic communities, had developed practices of private counsel and penitence, where an individual oppressed by the weight of sin could seek absolution and amendment of life through the ministrations of a priest gifted in counsel and discernment.

    Unlike the rites of public penitence, reserved only for very serious sins and typically only undertaken once in a lifetime, a sinner could avail herself of these private rites repeatedly and for much less serious failures. Pastorally speaking, such private rites have the obvious benefit of assuring sinners of God's grace towards them, proclaiming the forgiveness of their sins to them, and engaging them in practices of spiritual (re)formation - often through acts of love and piety in thankful response to God's prior grace. Theses practices functioned to restore the sinner within the community and set her upon a path of personal renewal in holiness.

    By the 11th century these Celtic rites began to displace the earlier public rites. But in the process, some of the structure and meaning of the public rites migrated over into the private ones. Thus post-absolution practices came to have the character of "penance" and "making satisfaction" and were regulated in some respects by the rules of thumb that had developed earlier in connection with shortening times of public penitence. Moreover, the need for penitence once reserved for sins of a public, scandalous nature (which disrupted the fabric of the faith community), came to qualify all serious sins and, to some degree, all sins.

    It is in this context we find a developing distinction between [a] the eternal punishment that is due to sin in virtue of its guilt and divine holiness and justice and [b] the temporal consequences of sin for which we must "make satisfaction" through "penance" conceived as "temporal punishment." And here is where the doctrine of purgatory comes into the picture.

    Already by the turn of the 5th century we find Augustine speaking of a "correctional fire" (ignis emandatorius) through which sinful believers may be purified after death, distinct from the fire of damnation. Augustine writes, "it is not impossible to believe that some believers will pass through a cleansing fire, and in proportion to the degree they loved perishable goods with more or less devotion, so they will be more or less quickly delivered."

    The image of "fire" in Scripture, after all, is a multivalent one. As a metaphor for God himself, he is experienced by some as a consuming fire leading to destruction, by others as a purifying and refining fire, and by others as a gracious, protecting, and transforming holiness and presence (see Ex 19:18; 24:17; Dt 4:11-36; 5:4-26; Ps 79: Eze 36:5; etc.). Moreover, these are not mutually exclusive - it is the holy presence of God that destroys the remnants of sin in us, thereby purifying our lives.

    If there are temporal consequences of sin and if those consequences remain with us at death - without reconciliation, penitence, or satisfaction - then, the reasoning goes, these consequences are the object of purgatorial fire. They cannot but be consumed in the fire of God's holy presence, burnt up as the chaff of our imperfect lives, purifying us to enjoy finally and fully a blessed vision of God. This is not a matter of sin's guilt, which is forgiven in Christ, but of sin's effects upon our lives, effects from which, in grateful response to God's forgiveness, we desire to be delivered.

    Various medieval Roman Catholic depictions of purgatory suggest a place of torment and fiery punishment, poised between heaven and hell, and extended over great lengths of time, until at long last souls are freed to finally enter the glories of heaven. But this is more the stuff of popular piety than official teaching.

    St. Catherine of Genoa, on the other hand, suggests that the pains of purgatory are more desirable than the greatest earthly pleasures, painting a picture of purgation as joyful deliverance. Moreover, purgatory is not some third place in between heaven and hell where some persons receive a "second chance." Purgatory is taken to be, as it were, the entryway to heaven, something experienced only by those who die in Christ and in his saving forgiveness of sin.

    As to length of time, there is no official teaching regarding the experience of time within the intermediate state, much less the duration of purgatory. Yet, were one to discover an old holy card in a well-worn Missal, there might be prayers on the back with a "partial indulgence" promised, measured in days or years.

    What are those time measures if not reductions to the length of purgatorial cleansing for the person for whom the indulgence was intended? But matters are not actually so straightforward.

    Let's turn them to the whole topic of indulgences, against which, on the eve of All Saints, in 1517 Luther rightly raised his theses for dispute. The basic concept of an "indulgence" here is the Roman Catholic church's affirmation that certain acts fully or partially mitigate the temporal consequences of sin that would otherwise have to be dealt with through purgatorial cleansing.

    Regarding the time measures, those times connect back to the ways in which periods of public penitence could be shortened in the early church. The early church practice, however, is now refracted through the lens of private rites of confession, the notion of temporal consequences to sin, and the manifestation of that in purgatory.

    That's to say, the time measures in a partial indulgence indicate a lessening of purgatorial cleansing that, in some unspecified way, is commensurate with the reduction in length of penitence that early Christians received through their prayers, deeds of mercy, intercession of others, and so forth. This is, of course, a complex answer and prior to the Second Vatican Council (after which these time indications were dropped), many a devout Catholic likely misunderstood the subtleties of Roman Catholic belief on this point.

    Here we also encounter the concept that the actions of a living Christian may somehow affect the purgatorial cleansing of a sister or brother in Christ who has died, even as in the early church the intercessions of others could reduce the length of public penitence.

    In Roman Catholic teaching, an indulgence - a mitigation of purgatory through prayer, service, deeds of love, and holy intentions - can affect not only one's own future in purgatory, but also the way in which those who have already died experience their purgatorial cleansing. Such a perspective receives further support from ancient Jewish belief and practice as seen in 2 Maccabees, which attests to offerings made on behalf of the dead, a practice carried forward in early Christian offerings of the eucharist and prayers on behalf of the dead.

    The ultimate backdrop to such a line of thinking is the communion that all believers share with one another in Christ as his one mystical Body. The spiritual life of each of us in Christ is wrapped up in myriad ways with the spiritual life of others and of all in Christ. In the same way that sin affects not only the sinner, but can also affect the wider Body, so also a life of renewal and obedience that one person experiences can serve and benefit the wider people of God.

    In Roman Catholic theology, those recognized as "saints" are singled out in gratitude and as examples in part for the extraordinary ways in which their lives, by the power of the Spirit, have brought unmeasurable good to the life of the church. Thus, the church recognizes the good done by these saints, from within the saving work of Christ in whom we all are united by the Spirit, has an effect upon the experience of purgatory. This is sometimes spoken of in terms of the "treasury of merits of Christ and the saints," which is applied in the granting of an indulgence.

    I provide this historical narrative in order, as a Protestant, to try to make some sense of how my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers have come to hold beliefs that, to my mind, seem unnecessarily complicated and foreign to the pervasive New Testament emphasis on the triumph of Christ over sin and death.

    Some of the basic instincts embodied in the doctrine of purgatory make sense biblically and theologically (e.g., our sin carries negative consequences distinct from sin's guilt, the Spirit can use our faith-filled actions to mitigate sin's consequences for ourselves and others, God's holy presence purifies and perfects us). But the full-blown doctrine of purgatory and, even more, indulgences, seems to stretch far beyond anything we can derive from Scripture. As a Protestant, it strikes me as a violation of conscience to require assent to such teaching on the part of the faithful.

    Nonetheless, as I mentioned above, some Roman Catholic theologians have articulated ways of understanding purgatory (and even indulgences) that perhaps are more in keeping with the biblical witness.

    Monika Hellwig, for instance, suggests that purgatory "plays an important function in underscoring the seriousness of all of life's choices, relationships, attitudes, and actions, and the redemptive need to restore integrity." She goes on, however, to suggest that we may be on firmer ground if we see purgatory as "representing another aspect of death as the divine judgment, demanding a refocusing and reordering of all aspects of the person's expectations and relationships."

    Or, perhaps, with Peter Kreeft, one might interpret purgatorial cleansing as a form of heightened and perfected awareness, effected by the light of God's presence as an illuminating and purifying fire. Thus, in death, in coming face-to-face with God, we finally see ourselves as we truly are, the depths of our own sin and brokenness, and all the consequences and ruin wrought by our own sin and unfaithfulness in our own lives, the lives of others, and the ongoing life of our family, church, and world.

    In this case, it seems to me, there would be no reason to see purgatory as something distinct from the moment of death itself, entering into the blessed presence of God, and the immediate perfecting of our souls. While such a perfecting awareness would be painful, in the light of the comprehensiveness of God's promised salvation, it would also be most joyful.

    Moreover, in comprehending all the consequences of our sin, we would also simultaneously become aware of all the ways in which moments of faith and obedience - in our own lives and the lives of others, especially the great saints (whether known as such or not) - are taken up by the Spirit. Through the Spirit's working in and through Christ's Body, we would then see those moments of faithfulness miraculously multiplied to soften, undo, mitigate, and redeem the deleterious consequences of our sin. And in seeing this we would grasp fully God's gracious indulgence of sinners such as us. (For some Catholic reflections along these lines, see Rino Fisichella, "Indulgences and the Mercy of God," in Communio: International Catholic Review 26.1 (1999): 122-133.)

    If that were what our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers understood concerning purgatory and indulgences, then I could set aside these teachings as no longer a significant barrier to ecumenical rapprochement.

    I would still have questions, of course, particularly about the system of partial and plenary indulgences. Such a system, with its seemingly authoritative dispensing of indulgences, goes well beyond a mere recognition of the fact of the Spirit's redeeming work through our imperfect faith and obedience. Moreover, the possible understanding of purgatory I outlined remains a piece of speculative theology and therefore ought not to bind the consciences of the faithful.

    Recalling now all the departed in Christ upon this All Souls, let us rejoice in the communion in glory they enjoy at present: made perfect in holiness, received into the highest heavens, beholding the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.

    As Martin Luther proposed on the eve of All Saints when he posted his theses: "Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God."

    01 November 2007

    emerging christian praxis

    In his talks a year ago at Westminster Theological Seminary, Scot McKnight provided a four-fold description of the emerging church movement. I've given an overview of that talk and a more detailed analysis of the first part of it, concerning postmodernity.

    Now, after many months, I'd like to pick up where I left off and muse a bit about another part of McKnight's talk.

    Recall, in general, that "emerging" here is a broader category than "emergent." "Emergent" refers primarily to those cohorts associated with Emergent Village and figures such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and others. But "emerging" would include a much wider array of shifts, including house churches, missional reformational groups, and even some shifts within the seeker-sensitive movement. McKnight was attempting to identify some broad commonalities among all these various trends.

    In the second point of his talk, McKnight characterized the emerging church as embracing a Christian praxis that rethinks and reshapes the life of our communities. It does so, he suggested, in four ways in particular.

    First, emerging worship reshapes praxis in terms of how we have traditionally "done church." Second, the emerging church tends to emphasize orthopraxy as central to Christian faith. Third, it often sees social justice as transformative suffering with others. Fourth, the emerging church sees proclamation as missionally going out to draw others towards Christ.

    In this post, I will consider some of ways in which emerging communities "do church." McKnight suggests that what we see in emerging churches is an emphasis upon the creational goodness of the body and, therefore, the embodied character of worship. Emerging Christians look at the way many traditional churches have put flesh on their worship, to caricature a bit: plain pulpit-centered lecture halls where the focus is upon the pastor's words.

    The way we gather, what we do when we're together, the ways in which the congregation participates (or doesn't participate), the kinds of actions we make, our posture in prayer or praise, the presence of visual arts, the choice of music, the flow of the meeting, how we connect to the wider church, how we appropriate historical forms, and so forth - none of these is value-neutral.

    If it is the case the theology shapes praxis, emerging Christians want to emphasize that it is just as true that praxis shapes theology. McKnight states:
    They ask this question: is the sermon the most important thing on Sunday morning because that’s all you can do when you are in room shaped as most churches are? They ask, if we sat in circles or in the round would we engender a different theology? If we lit some hippie-like incense would we see our prayers differently? If we took down the pulpit and put the preacher on the level with us would we create a clearer sense of the priesthood of all believers? If we acted out what we believe would we come to terms more emphatically with incarnation?
    And these are all excellent questions that we need to wrestle with. All of us - even those of us in the most liturgically regulated traditions - have inherited sets of patterns, particular practices, and a variety of forms that are historically contingent, that arose at a time and a place as the gospel came into a particular context and shaped our way of worshiping.

    Moreover, lex orandi, lex credendi is not the invention of emerging theologians, but a well-worn and time-honored principle of all Christian theology. Even the Protestant Reformation can be interpreted through the lens of worship practice, as an attempt to recover the biblical contours of worship in conversation with the earliest centuries of Christian practice, in order to wean God's people away from patterns that might obscure the gratuity of grace, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the simplicity of faith.

    While particular instances of emerging worship may rightly worry us, we should be grateful that a younger generation of believers is asking important and vital questions about liturgical practice, as well as recovering some patterns from the larger Christian tradition.

    Yet, there are criticisms we should consider, even apart from specific criticisms of particular worship practices.

    First, emerging churches can sometimes appear to favor a kind of liturgical eclecticism - say, for instance, an inventive gathering combining video monitors, image projection, and worship stations with iconography, candles, and a eucharistic focus. But, one might object, isn't this simply a liturgical embodiment of some of the most troubling patterns of a hyper-linked, intertextual, untraditioned, consumer-driven late modernity?

    Such a criticism has validity. Yet it seems to me that those of us who gravitate towards more traditional expressions - of preaching and prayer, confession and catechism, sacraments and service - should welcome any renewed interest in these patterns and practices, even from within a highly contextualized, postmodern ancient-future eclecticism.

    Traditions can, of course, be appropriated in a piecemeal way or co-opted within a wider commodified religiosity. But if we believe these patterns and practices are integral to a biblical and historic Christian piety, then we can hope and expect their forms and stability to disrupt the pervasive modern evangelical consumerism. Celebrating the eucharist weekly or confessing the creeds or drawing upon ancient liturgies, done with genuine faith and piety, cannot help but challenge our priorities.

    Second, some emerging Christians want to re-think how evangelicalism has "done church" and to draw upon more historic and ancient Christian traditions in order to both connect with a larger sense of what the church is and to gain a critical distance on their more immediate evangelical contexts of piety. But a criticism often voiced here is that it is not possible to draw upon traditions in an eclectic way that pulls rituals and practices away from their organic contexts.

    The point of this criticism is not the same as the prior one, which pointed out concessions to consumer culture.

    Rather, the criticism is that such eclecticism does violence to the traditions it seeks to draw upon. If emerging Christians really want to find a larger catholicity, to connect with history, and to draw genuinely upon wider traditions, then - the objection goes - they must do so from somewhere, from inside an established living tradition, rather than from within the swirling undercurrents of pop evangelicalism.

    That's to say, perhaps emerging American evangelicals would be better off becoming Anglicans or Lutherans or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics (in the UK, "emerging" churches often exist within the established church). Within the boundaries and trajectories of such traditions, there is room for experimentation and contextualization that doesn't have the same potential to distort and misappropriate the practices its taking up.

    Whatever value such a suggestion might have, I think there is a need for realism in our relationships with other churches and traditions, including the emerging movement. Yes, believers continue to grow and develop in their perspectives and understanding, so that some may even come to find a home within more historic church traditions (assuming here that this is desirable). Yet, this is not going to happen with most people.

    Not everyone has the time or resources to search out other alternatives or to even recognize the possible shortcomings of where they might presently find themselves (and doesn't every expression of the faith have its own liabilities?). Furthermore, typical emerging churches are very often effective missional communities, bringing the reality of gospel to engage with those who otherwise might never encounter Christ. That's something we should acknowledge and be very reticent to undermine.

    To put it another way, when traditional ecclesiastical institutions find younger, non-traditional believers looking to them as role-models and examples, the response should be one of welcome - not a condescending, all-or-nothing demand to "get with the program." We may then patiently come alongside and listen, so that, if we think we have further resources to offer, we might gain the relationships and trust to make that offer in a way than can be heard and received authentically. In so doing, we can perhaps have a role in forming the consciences and discernment of those who will shape the future of evangelical worship.

    Living after more than century of evangelical worship experimentation, often wholly re-making worship for every new context and generation, any interest in turning back to older, catholic forms and practices seems to me a welcome change. While traditional churches may have room to learn from our emerging sisters and brothers how to better speak the gospel to a postmodern generation, emerging churches might also learn from what we can offer, at least if we offer ourselves in humility.