Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Theology as Divinization?

Karl Barth connects theology with something like divinization or theosis - that is, salvation as involving a kind of union with God. I thought I'd share some thoughts I jotted down on this. I've recently been thinking through the connection between Christology and theosis, a connection that Michael Gorman's recent book Inhabiting the Cruciform God put in my head. What follows are some notes I made on Barth's words in the early part of Church Dogmatics 2/1.

Barth says that in faith, God becomes a new “subject” for the human being seeking knowledge of objects - “knowledge of faith means fundamentally the union of man with the God who is distinct from him as well as from all his other objects” (15). B. says later: “Knowledge of God is thus not the relationship of an already existing subject to anobject that enters into his sphere and is therefore obedient to the laws of this sphere. On the contrary, this knowledge first of all creates the subject of its knowledge by coming into the picture” (21)

Further on in the “small print” section, Barth connects this new subjectivity and new identity for the Christian “knower” in faith to holiness and sanctification: with an emphasis on being “set apart.” Further on, He says that our knowledge of God is a participation in God’s self knowledge, which B. interprets in a strongly Trinitarian way (16, later p.48)

Therefore Barth starts off with an image of theology where human work or human intellectual gifts are subordinated to this transformation which comes through faith. This is why later on Barth will say that theologies which try to explore outward boundaries of theology or to look for the Gospel in alien cultural systems are a problem (see 94-95, for instance). Barth takes very strongly in his theology that theology must begin with the fact that God exists and exists for us as Trinity - and that theology must work in faith to this setting and never doubt it - thus more abstract “religious studies” is not theology, but Barth says a perennial temptation of theologians who want to do work without this intellectual submission to the living God (26). If prayer is unnecessary for one’s academic work, one is no longer doing theology, for Barth. Drawing on Calvin on 1 John, Barth says theology is discipleship: God’s revelation of God’s will and human response to this (28-29).

This all has a Christological spin as well, as the theological knowledge Christians have of God is essentially and solely the “God-manhood of the Mediator Jesus Christ” (20) - something which Barth connects with God’s revelation to Israel as well. Union with God through the knowledge of faith means knowing Jesus Christ, for Barth (see 48). Any Lutheran “veiling” or accommodation in the revelation of God hangs only on the fact that God has mysteriously become so objective in Jesus Christ and not in other ways.

Barth adds an ethical or even “political” aspect to this knowledge as well. He criticizes theological knowledge written in the form of an abstract construal as missing the demands/actions/rhythms that faith demands (like church attendance and prayer) (22). Barth’s reading of “humans before God” is one where God in a way “re-creates” (not B’s term) the human knower into a new form of life determined by trust in the Triune God.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nerds and Theology

There's something of a rise in "geek culture" these days: one of the company mottos for Blizzard Entertainment, a prominent video game company, is "embrace your inner geek." On their website, Blizzard says "Everyone here is a geek at heart. Cutting-edge technology, comic books, science fiction, top-end video cards, action figures….Whatever it is they’re passionate about, it matters that each employee embraces it! Their unique enthusiasm helps to shape the fun, creative culture that is Blizzard Entertainment."

I've found that the amount of nerds has increased the farther I go in the academic world. Now that I'm in a Ph.D. program it seems that not a week goes by that I don't have a conversation on the relative merits of Battlestar Galactica seasons. Students aren't the only nerds either: the Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz, for instance, began his book on postmodernism by talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation. John Milbank recently published an article defending "Constantinian" use of power that references Gandalf and Frodo from The Lord of the Rings.

I wonder if folks fifty years from now will be discussing how science fiction and fantasy writing influenced our theology. I think that a lot of dispositions and habits of thought are put in theologian's heads from reading sci-fi and fantasy books. It's probably not accidental that almost every person I know who is really into Aquinas uses lots of Tolkien metaphors. A friend of mine once told me that only two types of people get theology Ph.Ds: people who are nerds, and people who are generally eccentric.  As a nerd myself, I can say that theology nerds find aspects of the Christian faith fascinating, enjoy reading books and articles, and decide to try to make a living out of it. But I think it's worth reflecting on how the "nerd culture" a person lives in can affect their intellectual work.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Baptist Ecclesiology?

A theology exam I took back in August made me realize that there are two big things I really don't know much about: ecclesiology and the sacraments.  This is not surprising, as these two are essentially absent in everyday Baptist theology.  Growing up, I heard lots in Sunday School and sermons about the inspiration of Scripture, the Trinity, Soteriology, Jesus' divinity, the nature of sin, and so on, but very little on "the Church" and very little on how God might be present to us in things like Baptism or the Lord's Supper.

As I fumbled through explaining Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI's notion of the Church in my oral exam, a theology professor of mine, Vincent Miller, asked me what my own personal ecclesiology was.  What did I, as a Baptist, think the Church looked like?  The question stunned me for two reasons.  First, I've been trained in academic theology, and in the setting of things like theology exams, to only do theology through layering quotes and ideas from other theologians.  Second, because I had an answer, and it was one completely different from the sources I had read for my exam.

I told Vince Miller that my own experience of ecclesiology in working in a local church, like Lamberth Memorial Baptist in Roxboro, NC, was one where God took the institutional and cultural reality of brick and mortar southern Baptist culture and through the Holy Spirit did endlessly surprising and unexpected things in the lives of people.  While I had been taught, theologically, what would "work" to make "excellent" Christians at Duke, I was continually surprised when God exceeded the practical theology I was taught and spoke through people and events to testify to the power of the Cross and to Jesus' overturning of the powers in the world in ways I didn't expect.  To put it in more systematic terms, I see "the Church" as an overlapping context of (1) institutional bodies, church buildings, salaried ministers, committees, Sunday School classes, Wednesday night meals and so on and (2) the mysterious and constant work of the Holy Spirit in and beyond this setting in doing work to testify to Jesus continually and surprisingly.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nietzsche on Writing: only when you forget, can you move forward

I mentioned in an earlier post that I've been reading Nietzsche.  Reading Nietzsche is very helpful for one of the main questions in my blog: how are writing and doctrine/theology and communication and doctrine in general, related?

I like this long quote from an essay by Nietzsche on history, and in this instance specifically on the danger of not being able to "forget" when one writes:
Forgetting belongs to all action, just as not only light but also darkness belong in the life of all organic things. A person who wanted to feel utterly and only historically would be like someone who had been forced to abstain from sleep or like the beast that is to continue its life only from rumination to constantly repeated rumination. Moreover, it is possible to live almost without remembering, indeed, to live happily, as the beast demonstrates; however, it is completely and utterly impossible to live at all without forgetting. Or, to explain myself even more simply concerning my thesis: There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which something living comes to harm and finally perishes, whether it is a person or a people or a culture.

I have a tendency towards a kind of perfectionism, when I write or teach, in which I imagine all the ways that what I'm saying could be nuanced or wrong.  This tendency is especially dangerous in teaching Freshmen, as they get confused or bored really fast if I bring in all the standard academic nuance and profusion of disclaimers that accompanies theology at the graduate level.

When I teach I find I just have to "go on" with an interpretation that seems it makes the most sense to my students.  But I've been happy to discover that these interpretations usually end up being faithful to the original text in ways I didn't foresee.  In this way, I think Nietzsche finds something important for writing and teaching. Writing and teaching are all about a strategic forgetting.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Nietzsche as Christian theologian?

I've recently read Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals and The Antichrist for teaching in my Freshman religion course.  We're teaching Nietzsche, along with Karl Marx, as part of a set of "modern challenges" to Christianity.  Until fairly recently, I wasn't really a "Nietzsche person" and I thought that engagement with postmodern readers of Nietzsche, the intellectual craze at Duke while I was there, was a weird trend that wasn't very fruitful for Christian theology.  The only Nietzsche I've read in the past was when a crazy atheist neighbor of mine lent me The Antichrist to read back in undergrad.  I've been surprised in going back to him in teaching this course.

Particularly, I've been startled by how "Christian" Nietzsche is - not in terms of personal belief - but in terms of how steeped Nietzsche was in the basic ideas and grammar of Christian theology.  The terminology, the setting, the basic concerns in Nietzsche's work all come from Christian theology, and the questions he raises about Christianity are incredibly helpful.

In my teaching Nietzsche I keep reminding my students to keep from saying "this one thing is what Nietzsche means."  The poetic, under-determined quality of Nietzsche's work has really struck me.  For instance, it's possible to read Nietzsche's account of master morality/slave morality in the Genealogy of Morals as simply "amoral," but it's equally possible to read this account as a critique of his German society’s own racist, "Christian" outlook on the marginalized/the poor/factory workers, etc. I think Nietzsche uses his discussion of "slave morality" to point to some of the more sinister ways in which Christianity functions to legitimate or theologize oppression through stirring up fear of dangerous "others."

Nietzsche also challenges a lot of the modern scholarly ideas of "objectivity" that are still present in university settings today.  Nietzsche, in some of his writings on history and historiography, shows how universities and academic settings create their own ends and goals that sometimes trick writers and thinkers into writing for the university, rather than writing to help people (or help the Church/preach the Gospel, for theologians).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Luther on bad and good theology

It's interesting to know which Luther sees as which.  I've been reading a book by Gerhard Ebeling, a pretty significant theologian from a past generation, on Luther.  Ebeling says that what Luther often condemned when he said negative things about "philosophy" wasn't reason or philosophy itself, but theology that became so academic as to become inaccessible.  This relates to my previous post on writing and theology a bit.  I thought it would be helpful to offer this quote from one of Luther's lectures that Ebeling cites at length:
I certainly believe that I owe it as a matter of obedience to the Lord to bark against philosophy and speak words of encouragement to the holy scripture.  For if perhaps another were to do this, who was not acquainted with philosophy from his own observation, he would not have the courage to do so, or would not have commanded belief.  But I have worn myself out for years at this, and can see quite clearly from my experience and from conversations with others that it is a vain and ruinous study.  Therefore I admonish you all, so far as I am able, to be done with this form of study quickly, and to make it your sole business not to allow these matters to carry any weight nor defend them, but rather to do as we do when we learn evil skills in order to render them harmless, and obtain knowledge of errors in order to overcome them.  Let us do the same with philosophy, in order to reject it, or at least to make ourselves familiar with the mode of speech of those with whom we have to deal.  For it is time for us to devote ourselves to other studies, and to learn Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
 Ebeling, Luther 78

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ecumenism and writing

I'm a Baptist interested in ecumenism.  Ever since I realized that there were groups of Christians who did things differently from my own Baptist church upbringing I've wondered, "what can Baptists learn from other Church groups?"

I realize, though, that I'm asking this question in a very particular way.  I'm asking it in a very fragmentary manner, on a blog with posts, comments, facebook links, and so on.  We can say at least that writing an "ecumenical blog," in this way, presupposes that writing in this setting can do something.  This blog, then, is not only motivated by an ecumenical question, but it's also motivated by a more philosophical question: what is the best way to write about theology?  What does it mean when we write about theology at all, whether in the customary form of academic papers in seminary classes or the more recent forms of theo-blogs or tumblrs?

If we believe, as folks like Karl Barth believe, that every believer has the vocation of a theologian and preacher as one called to proclaim the Word of God, what does it mean for the Church that a very small number of these believers ends up writing in the academic university discipline of theology? (or expressing elements of this discipline on internet theology blogs)

Maybe there's biblical precedent for the special selection of particular persons according to their spiritual or intellectual gifts. But I also think it is important for those who are working in the world we call "academic theology," those studying for degrees in university settings, to regularly think about what the Bible says about what they are doing. It is also important to think about the social "side effects" of a university education and how it might set you apart from others. What kind of language or dispositions does a university education give you that you might not realize? There are a lot of great recent books on this, two examples being James KA Smith's Desiring the Kingdom (which analyzes the "secular" nature of university formation, even in confessionally Christian schools), and Kathryn Tanner's Theories of Culture, which points out how academic theology is a customary institution that can blind theologians to the realities of the Church they serve.