Saturday, February 13, 2010

Unpaid Profession

Matt Yglesias calls this piece by Leon Wieseltier "nonsense from top to bottom." I couldn't agree more.

What is especially awful is the seemingly high-brow attack on "bloggers" (Lord, how I hate that word).
Owing to its vastness and its velocity, no medium of communication and publication ever depended more desperately on “content”--the lifeless business expression for words and ideas--than the Internet. Some people celebrate this as a historic breakthrough for literariness in its various forms. They rhapsodize about the democratization of the writing life, about the demise of the “gatekeepers” and their institutions, about the pure and perfect autonomy of blogging and “self-publishing.” Who needs The New York Times if I can arrange for you to know what it is in my heart at this instant?

You read any writer on becoming one, and you see again and again, "a writer writes, and there's no way around it." The advent of the internet no doubt does reduce the mean intelligence of written material overall; it also offers opportunities for some to write. Some fewer gain an audience. Some fewer still actually manage to make something of a living at it.

All the same, Wieseltier's lament over the decrepitude of our culture is really nothing more than the realization that the barbarians are at the gates. I would feel bad for him, but I don't. The simple reality is that internet writing of all kinds attracts a relatively small audience. Most sites tend to play to a particular audience; they are nothing more than examples of market segmentation. The demise of the craft of writing as a paid profession is a bit overwrought because, as things continue to shake themselves out, there will be rewards in the form of pay for those who do the job well. Others, such as myself, are content enough to do what we do for the love of craft.

As a side note, Wieseltier's nostalgia for his avante-garde youth is disgusting. There never has been, nor ever will be, a "decent poverty". The very thought is vile.

The Trinity And Revelation

I shall state my thesis up front - The Trinity is a short-hand for the Christian understanding of how the God we encounter has chosen to reveal who this God is.

It's really that simple.

Now comes the hard part.

Part of the problem with any attempt to unpack trinitarian thought is the western Christian attempt to make of it something rational. It is not. There is nothing rational about the claim that God is three persons in one, one substance revealed in three always-present distinct persons, wholly separate yet never separated. Unraveling the knot of Trinitarian thought usually leaves only a few alternatives, most of them unattractive to a contemporary Christian. Falling back on the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan formula, usually referred to with reference to the Greek affirmation of Son and Father being "of one substance" (homoousios), with the procession of the Spirit added as an afterthought (at least in the west, where the procession of the Spirit became a bone of contention culminating in an official split with the Eastern churches in the eleventh century).

In defense of the original language of Nicaea, those present at that first, Imperially-decreed Church Council, had little else to use but the tools of neo-Platonism with which to work. In an attempt to clarify their understanding of the newly enthroned Imperial God's interaction with the world and people who were now officially Christian, they had no recourse but to use the technical vocabulary of substance and accident to express their insistence that, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, humanity encountered not just one among many possible Holy Men, a wonder-worker of both wisdom and sagacity, but something more, something, indeed, final and complete. In this executed Galilean miracle worker, once a rebel against an Empire who now demanded all citizens become believers in his message, the bishops gathered at Constantine's insistence made as clear as they could that Jesus was the Christ because, in him, humanity came to see and hear God, completely, unblemished, without any question.

All "orthodox" theology, at least as that term is generally understood, is nothing more than an attempt to distinguish itself from those theologies that make claims that do not seem to embrace fully and completely the reality of the Divine-Human encounter in Jesus of Nazareth. As early as St. Paul, we see the beginnings of the attempt to claim that in Jesus, we Christians have encountered the fully-realized exposure of who God is. Who God is can best be seen by understanding what this God does in Jesus Christ.

By the time of Nicaea, over three centuries of controversy, argument, morphing of belief, and exposure to a vast array of settings and contexts, had rendered discussions of Jesus and God, of who Jesus was and who his "Father" is incomprehensible to the original bearers of the message known originally only as "The Way". The big controversy between those who declared (according to detractors; the writings and teachings of Arius are lost to us, known only through the sarcastic recollections of his detractors) "there was a time when He was not" and those who insisted that the Divine-Human encounter made such a statement not only erroneous, but dangerously so, led the young Emperor to decide that a clearing of the muddle was necessary. The irony, at least from an historic perspective, is that the Arians, with their high vision of Divinity which rendered any talk of a fully-divine Jesus of Nazareth intellectually incomprehensible, were by far the large majority of Churchmen. Constantine's Christian mother was an Arian, as were many of his advisers. Yet, once the council was called, Arius' rivals managed to out-maneuver him; with the blessings of Imperial power, the claim that Jesus was somehow not-quite-God was not just declared wrong, but dangerous.

In the 1700 years since that time, the formula adopted at Nicaea, and affirmed over a series of councils in the century following that culminated at Constantinople, became less a touchstone upon which the Church could build a dialogue about who this God is we claim to encounter in Jesus of Nazareth, and more a relic of a dead age. Ensuing centuries saw the attempt to make sense of this declaration of God's threeness and oneness, and for the most part they lose themselves in far too much technical discussion, losing sight that, at its heart, the declaration that, as St. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, lies at the very heart of Trinitarian thought. When we affirm the reality of the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - we are affirming that the God we Christians declare has claimed us in a unique way through Jesus Christ has chosen to reveal not something of the "whatness of Divinity" so much as something of the Divine mind and plan.

Protestant thought originally followed the scholastics in getting lost in all sorts of technical discussions concerning substance and accident, procession and interpenetration. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, there was a general recognition, at least by some, that far too much of this talk had become mere noise, a banging gone and clanging symbol. Schleiermacher's Glaubenslehre disposed of the Trinity easily enough, adding it as an appendix, a mere afterthought. As late as the mid-20th century, another Reformed theologian, Emil Brunner, could declare in his own dogmatic musings, that the Trinity is not only not Biblical, but the affirmation of the Trinity was just not all that important. It is certainly not essential to salvation (which is really beside the point).

Karl Barth, on the other hand, returned Trinitarian thought to pride of place, putting it at the very beginning of his Church Dogmatics. Yet, over a century of neglect and ridicule had rendered even Barth's heroic attempt to revive the centrality of trinitarian language and thought somewhat off-balance. He tried to speak of the "persons" as "modes of Divine revelation", which could lead the casual reader (if he had any) to think that Barth was falling back on a time-worn error.

This is nit-picking. Because of his prominence, Barth's reversal of Schleiermacher's sidelining of the Trinity opened the door to a revival of sorts of Trinitarian thought in western Protestantism*. While they have varied in success and clarity, the return of the claim that we have to do with something unique in the God Jesus called "Father", and whom we declare has claimed us through the power of the Spirit at the very least offers the possibility of returning talk about God, about revelation, even about Jesus and the life in and of the Holy Spirit a little more coherent, if not always acceptable to a world where such talk no longer has much traction.

Which returns us full circle, I believe, to my thesis. The Trinity has always been nothing more (and nothing less) than a short-hand way of describing the Divine-Human encounter we Christian claim as our unique inheritance. From it flow all the discussion we will subsequently have - on who God is, on who Jesus is, on what it means to be human in Christian terms, on the Divine plan for humanity. No real grasp of my own approach to Christian confession comes without understanding this: I am a Trinitarian by choice, because in the declaration of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we declare the full story of God and creation in the simplest possible terms. Just as working through Scripture is always the starting point for real Christian thought, so, too, is the Trinity.

*I qualify this statement with "west" because the eastern churches have never lost their Trinitarian focus. Indeed, they are so relentlessly Trinitarian, they very often verge on a kind of tri-theism which is far preferable to the watered-down, muddled unitarianism and even Divine utilitarianism of the western churches.

Saturday . . . Well, Music

Sometimes, music evokes a moment in a life. Most people recollect the song that was playing the first time they kissed someone, the first time they made love, or the soundtrack to other life-moments. Sometimes, though, a performer evokes a mood. I cannot listen to the Allman Brothers Band, for example, without thinking of road trips. Their long jams, played very loud, are the perfect accompaniment for those long stretches of driving with the window down, turning them somehow from mundane to something not just fun, but perhaps sublime.

Joni Mitchell brings to mind, for me, high spring. I have no idea why. I hear any of her songs, and for some reason I find myself in the May of life. As we are now in the midst of the harshest of winter's attempts to make us forget the possibility of spring, I have found myself thinking more and more of those May days when the sun is bright and warm and sticks around later and later; those May nights when the breeze takes the edge off the heat without leaving a chill.

In 1976, she released Hejira, finishing a turn to jazz fusion. The most important performing addition on the album was the tragically wonderful Jaco Pastorius, bassist for Weather Report. Mitchell included not just Pastorius but also jazz guitarist Pat Metheny in a tour that showcased not just their talents as musicians, but their ability to subsume their own incredible abilities toward the end of making music for others. She had already worked with Tom Scott; now, with Pastorius and Metheny, she showed she was not messing around.

For me, there isn't a cut on this album that misses the mark. It is hardly "hip and cool", as the writer of the overview at claims. Even at her upbeat best, or her more contemplative down-tempo, thoughtful recordings, Mitchell isn't "cool" in any conventional sense, because she is so deeply, personally engaged with the songs. Here she is, performing the song "Amelia", with Metheny, Pastorius, Metheny's long-time keyboard collaborator Lyle Mays.

The Death Of An Institution

I follow many narrative threads on the internet upon which I rarely comment. The liberal murmuring about the on-going public embarrassment that is The Washington Post is something that needs a comment, I think, if for no reason other than it still sits on my link-list.

The meaningless "liberal media" nonsense of the right is easy enough to disprove; all one need do is point, say, to Eric Alterman's book-length analysis about the reality of media bias to show up that particular urban legend for the nonsense that it is. More than that, however, with the rise of editor Fred Hiatt, the Post has taken a deliberate turn, not so much away from a liberal slant to a more conservative one, as much as it has quite openly courted a certain group who, at one time, certainly held the reins of power and could be considered the shapers of conventional wisdom in the nation's capital.

Anymore, however, those men and women - David Broder, George Will, Kathleen Parker, Michael Gerson - are more and more exposed as either irrelevant, intellectually dishonest and bankrupt, or morally and politically confused. With the addition of Marc Thiessen, and a seemingly deliberate anti-science stance vis-a-vis climate change, the paper whose fame was sealed when two of its reporters hounded a sitting President and his advisers until their entire house collapsed under the weight of public exposure of wrong-doing, is now, as one internet writer called it yesterday, "fish-wrapper".

While an argument could be made that the editorial stance of the paper is distinct from its reporting (one hears this all the time in relation to, say, the Clinton-era Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages were filled with conspiratorial drivel, but whose news pages were actually quite well-written with a careful attention to factual detail), but just a glance at the on-line front-page today shows how that distinction, which has always seemed to me to be largely artificial, cannot possibly be taken seriously.

I will not harp on the "conservative turn" of the editorial page or op-ed page. I will not carry on about what journalism "should be" (a habit of far too many non-journalists that exposes their ignorance more than any bad habits of journalists). I just note all this to say that I do and will keep the Post on my link list. Nostalgia? Perhaps. Hope that it may yet change not so much to a liberal stance as an intellectually honest and coherent one?

No, I don't hold out hope for that any time soon.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Reading II (UPDATE)

I find it inconveniently necessary at this point to do something I find dreadfully dull - say a few words about "method". In Langdon Gilkey's Reaping the Whirlwind, he stops the flow of discussion on the topic at hand to offer an over-long chapter on "method". I kept thinking to myself as I read it, "You know, I could figure this stuff out on my own, but now I have to read all about it." Except, that's not very fair. Gilkey was offering an honest assessment of his own position, giving the reader a chance to understand his own position, and how it had changed since his earlier writings.

So, as I was thinking of how to move forward, I realized that I hadn't really set out, except in some vague general ways, any "method". Instead, I just kind of started writing this. So, in the interest of transparency and intellectual honesty, I guess I should say a thing or two, not so much about method as such, but just generally stake out my own position.

As one could gather reading the first "Reading" post, the Bible is central to my own understanding of the Christian faith. Nothing shocking or surprising there, I suppose (well, maybe to some people). Yet, beyond some vague discussion that the Bible is the starting point, I failed to move forward and say how I read it. Recognizing the diversity of literary styles, the vast time spans covered by a consideration of discrete authorship and specific audiences, it would seem that any attempt at a coherent "reading" of the Bible is, as many scholars have indeed concluded, pretty much a non-starter. There was, for a long time, a vigorous "Biblical Theology" movement (it still exists; WTS's recently retired academic Dean, Bruce Birch, wrote one a couple decades ago). Yet, as Biblical scholarship has continued to move on, the old "New Testament/Old Testament Theology" writing has not only ground to a halt (mostly), it looks kind of quaint. Gerhard von Rad's work, while important, has been superseded. Rudolf Bultmann's Theology of the New Testament, while an important historical document, really doesn't satisfy much anymore.

Recognizing the splintering of any attempt to paste a coherent narrative on the whole of the canon, however, leaves the question still begged - how do you read the Bible, then? I think it is important to say that any attempt to do a cohesive reading of the Bible runs up against the simple fact of diversity of authorship, diversity of literary styles, and the sheer weight of two thousand years of commentaries. For example, I do not subscribe to the typical Christian belief that all sorts of Old Testament passages are actually predictive of, or refer in some way to the Christ event. Part of honoring the reality of the Bible is reading, say, Isaiah, chapters 40-55, as what it is - the celebration of the release of those held in exile in Babylon after the Babylonian Empire was destroyed by the Persians (the Emperor Cyrus is actually referred to with the Hebrew word "meshach" - the same word applied to David, "anointed by God", roughly transliterated as "Messiah"). Too often read during Advent as referring to the birth of Jesus and all that entails theologically, I think we miss the deeper meaning of these texts if we set aside the reality that these poems are songs of joy from a people who have been dreaming, and upon awakening discover their dream is coming true. Shifting the focus of these texts to a Christian context - "they're all about Jesus!" - strips them of meaning, and power.

As always, there is a "but" here. One can, I think, make a general comment about how to read the Bible without impinging on the textual integrity of various passages in and of themselves. I think it isn't a stretch to say that, even those Biblical passages referred to by one scholar as "texts of terror" are part and parcel of the on-going project of people wrestling with their own understanding that they have encountered something Other, an Other that has claimed them in some way. This Other is not some vague "idea" of "Divinity"; it isn't (as I read far too often by people who think they're being oh-so-radical but are really kind of stupid) "the sky fairy". This Other, this very specific, concrete experienced Other has been given the title "God", and a name was offered by this God. The specificity of this name, the specificity of the events in question and how they relate to these people's understanding of who this God is (as opposed, as always, to the very real claims made upon these people by other gods), should, if one is paying attention when one is reading, make clear that, from the stories of the creation of the Universe in the first two chapters of Genesis through the concluding "Amen" when St. John of Patmos declares his vision of the final consummation of this same God's plan for creation at a close that this God can be known. Fleshing out "this God can be known" is going to be the content of the rest of these related posts.

UPDATE: As serendipity would have it, I was pointed to this post, which covers, in a general way, issues that are central to the question of Scriptural centrality in our understanding of the faith. Just go and read it, if you would.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Galileo II

Galileo became famous not only because he invented a telescope, or was the first human being to see the four large moons of Jupiter, or all sorts of other things. He became famous because he managed to force a trial before ecclesiastical big-wigs that ended up with him spending the rest of his life locked in his house, retracting everything he claimed, and (according to one legend) muttering as he walked out after the final verdict was read, "Still, they move".

What's interesting about the whole Galileo episode, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Copernican Revolution, was the theory of optics under review - Galileo's that is - was not only hardly established, it was indeed quite dubious. That it resulted in findings at variance with accepted cosmology was not the only issue; it seemed to violate common sense. Galileo had no answer to the counter-question that the "stars" he saw moving about Jupiter might not just be a trick. They only had his word on the matter, and an optical theory that wasn't even fully fleshed out.

Now, it is clear from the vantage point of several centuries, the whole thing makes the church look bad. The thing is, it could very well have turned out otherwise. What the optical theory Galileo used had going for it was the possibility of being improved upon through the use of tools of various kinds. All the Church elders had was Aristotle and Ptolemy.

I bring up this sad chapter of the history of the science/religion divide because we are experiencing it now. Rather than science/religion, though, it is a conflict between science and industry, science and politicians, and science and blabbermouths. All of the global-warming-deniers seem to rely on the same argument, which always boils down to, "Well, it isn't very warm here, so it's all crap." Which, in a way, was all the Church court had against Galileo; "We don't feel the earth move, and if it did move we'd all go flying out in to space. Besides that, you say you saw those stars move, but we didn't, and besides that, we have no way of proving it's anything more than a trick."

In the long-run, the climate-change deniers are going to look venal, ignorant, and power-mad. The major difference between then and now is the fate of millions of people didn't hang in the balance on the question of whether or not there were moons orbiting Jupiter. While there is little on the table right now that will address the issue as aggressively as it needs, at the very least an acknowledgment the problem is real would be nice.

BS Express

There are a series of short blurbs at Talking Points Memo on recent GOP attempts to make the President look bad on everything from health care to how the Feds handled the Christmas plane bomber. What stands out more than anything is the utter disregard for fact, for consistency, or for propriety.

This is why I don't really worry all that much about the November elections. While the Democratic Party is a sad failure, they aren't wedded to insanity and lies and hypocrisy the way the Republicans are. The simple facts defeat the Republican smear campaign every day. At the very least, if they took a principled stance on an issue rooted in facts, they might be easier to fear. As it is, well, they're a rectum right now spewing out offal at an alarming rate. It's actually kind of funny, because the only politicians the American people are more unhappy with than the Democrats in Congress are . . . Republicans in Congress.

One final thing - I so hope the Republicans get Newt Gingrich front and center this fall because their demise will be even bigger.

I will even start taking bets. Any takers?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


I hold the Bible to be authoritative for the rather banal reason that it is the single best source for an understanding of our faith. "Authority" in my understanding rests on nothing more than, "What else do we have as a starting point?" We can certainly quibble over non-canonical texts, texts declared heretical by the early church, early post-Apostolic writings that almost made the canon. Some of them are certainly fun to read. At the same time, the Church was deliberate about the structure of the canon, and it seems to me the writings of both testaments (the Protestant rejection of Greek parts of the Old Testament is interesting, to be sure) do a fine job as a starting point.

And a starting point is what the Bible is.

I was asked a long time ago how I read the Bible. I said, without any sense of sarcasm, "One word at a time." How else do we read? How else should we read? I have cited, at various time, my conditional acceptance of the Rortyan view of language - as a tool and nothing more; marks on a page (or screen) or sounds - but I want to make the conditions more explicit here. Words have meaning not just because I make them meaningful. Others have found them meaningful as well. How have they been meaningful? Indeed, what is "meaning"?

This is the kind of circular argument and questioning that gets us all bogged down in interesting tangents. Something is "meaningful", words have "meaning" because we respond to them. Should someone attempt to call my name in Urdu, say, or Togalog, I'm not going to respond because those sounds, meaningful to some, would not be so to me. The Bible is meaningful in the same way - it gets us to respond to its words.

I'm not sure how else to put the background to all this.

Anyway, the Church has said over the millennia that the Bible is the source of our faith. It is to be read, to be studied, allowing its words to inform our lives, to challenge our lives, and (one hopes) to change our lives. And we do this by reading. One word at a time.

There is no magic formula for this. There is nothing in the Bible itself, no holy secret sauce that is going to grab this or that person and make him or her suddenly grasp what it is the Bible is offering. We approach the Bible always with the understanding that it is also approaching us. It is a collection of writings from all sorts of places and times, the authors of which are often unknown to us, the original intent of which is also often opaque. Speculating on authorship or original intent might be helpful to some; we can grasp some of the original intent of, say, the Pauline corpus, or the Gospels, without too much difficulty. I say "some" because I am skeptical of ever getting to the point where we read them as their original audience would read them (or hear them, should they be read to an audience).

Like reading any text that no longer serves its original audience, we should always approach "meaning" with the proviso that, with time like a river, layers of meaning have been added to the words, layers we very often can't see. We need to respect all those layers of meaning - even those we aren't aware of - by at least acknowledging their existence. The Bible has been read around much of the world, over the course of two thousand years, sometimes in ways and languages that still surprise us (an ancient Chinese text dating from sometime in the 3rd or 4th century was uncovered not very long ago, suggesting Christian missionaries, or perhaps just caravan members, were moving in to China far earlier than is usually thought). When we approach the Bible, we aren't a "self" in the current understanding of that word. Rather we are just a small part of the whole host of readers, past and present.

Unpacking a Biblical text has more requirements, however, than surrendering the illusion of our autonomy. Part of recognizing the distance in time and space that exists between the text and us means accepting the original language, and understanding that our reading in our contemporary idiom is as much an issue of interpretation as our reading of it. There is no escaping, at our distant remove from the original settings of the writings themselves, the question of interpretation. With this in mind, we should always read consciously, which is why my original answer, "One word at a time," was meant in all seriousness. Each word has weight, if we open ourselves to the possibility. The sum of the linguistic parts is certainly greater than those parts, themselves, but if we disregard those parts in search of some whole, it becomes detached from it.

The Bible is the first source of our understanding of what it means to be a believer. It is the deep root and trunk of our faith. In it we encounter kings and queens, slaves and whores, abandoned children and murderous siblings. We see how God has worked through all of them to bring about God's desired end of communion with us, the creatures God declared to be "very good" at the end of Creation.

In the Bible, we encounter the One whom we declare is our Savior, our Judge, the embodiment of the Divine Word that Created us and sustains us.

How we unpack what these events might mean, well, that's the subject of much of the rest of my planned posts. For now, it is enough to state up front this is the position taken herein.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Deep Background

The postmodernist is in every way a child of the romantics, one who stand alone in nature, defying demands upon the self and searching for that which will satisfy. The difference is that the postmodern self no longer harbors hopes of discovering truth or secure principles. Instead, driven by the ideals of therapy and consumption, it seeks, by whatever means will work, to provide satisfactions for the unencumbered self; it strives to reduce all individual moral actions to matters of choice for which there are no authoritative guidelines or binding principles. In the culture of therapy and interpretation, there is nothing to direct the self except its preferences. There is no goal for the actions of the self save the fulfillment of its desires.

Peter Lundin
The Culture of Interpretation:Christian Faith and the Postmodern World
, p. 75

When the first volume of Douglas John Hall's Christian Theology in a North American Context, entitled Thinking the Faith was released, I had many, many faculty at Wesley Theological Seminary insist it would be a landmark. I bought it, and was, to say the least, underwhelmed. It has several things to recommend it, not the least of which is he states the problem of much of contemporary American theology quite succinctly; seeing academic theology blowing in the winds of fads and fashions, most particularly liberation theology, he desires to set forth a statement that is true to our own zeitgeist, while respecting countervailing theologies.

For all that, however, I have numerous problems with his work. First and foremost, he is Canadian. While he strives earnestly to link America and Canada under the rubric "North America", it falls kind of flat. Also, generally speaking, there just seems no methodological center. He insists he has one - the old Lutheran theology of the cross - but it doesn't really inform his musings and thoughts. He outlines it perfunctorily and then just leaves it there.

On the other hand, one thing he does quite well is insist that, before we get to the theological meat, we need an appetizer of a descriptive outline of our "context" (I wearied of reading that word . . .). I believe he failed quite masterfully at this - his main source if a long-dead Canadian psychotherapist - but he at least offered the attempt.

In that vein, I believe it important to state upfront and quite clearly, my own position as to where I believe the Church currently sits. What is the world, as it is currently understood, to which the Church claims to offer a word of grace, of hope, of love?

I offer the epigram above with more than a touch of irony. I wonder about the epithet "postmodern", to be honest. How can we be "postmodern", since we really aren't sure what "modern" is, or perhaps was? It is a lazy way of suggesting that the modernist project has run its course, to be sure; yet as a general way of describing the current state of philosophy, art, and culture in general, I think it is far too broad and ill-defined. Furthermore, while I think the general description Lundin offers - a rootless, monadic self, etching meaning on the walls of a meaningless universe always with the proviso that it is nothing more than a passing fancy - is correct (and would further add that even the heartiest philosophy is nothing more than that; it is our hubris which makes us believe we have reached a stopping point we can call "true"), I think it is banal.

I also do not think it captures the essence of our current culture. There are those who subscribe to this way of living in the world; I do not believe most people would be so bold as to put it this way. The possible exception, of course, are fundamentalists who think this kind of nihilism is pervasive, indicative of the secular mindset, and destructive of our common religious and moral heritage.

I think the world in which the Church currently lives faces far less a threat of cultural nihilism than it does the twin threat of exuberance on the part of some members who seem to believe Christian faith is necessary to our society, on the one hand, and the vocal opposition of at least a committed minority who see any expression of religious belief as a threat to our society. These extremes, to be sure, have limited appeal (as extremes always do), but they at least have the virtue of offering a vast middle ground wherein we Christians can stake out a position that challenges both.

To the fundamentalist, I would offer the insistence that to be the Church we are to live as those called out, set apart. To the secularist, I would simply ask how a world without the religious imagination in general, and specific, concrete religious expressions, would look. The fundamentalist disregard for the "Otherness" of the Christian community ignores the historic idea that we Christians are to be the salt of the earth; as Jesus himself asks, what happens when that salt loses its savor? It is to be cast aside and trodden underfoot! The idea that our society, our culture, can only be our society as long as it adheres to a particular, Christian, ethic and way of believing ignores the impossibility inherent in really being Christian that, at its heart, is part of the dilemma we all face. Since this fundamentalist insistence usually accompanies an insistence that Christian faith be reduced to a kind of middling morality - an obsession with sexual propriety, personal behavior to the almost total disregard of the social implications of love for neighbor, and a peculiar regard for the human fetus that borders on compulsion - it is easy enough to mock. Yet, we need to do more than mock. We need to be clear as to why this position does not address the Scriptural, historical approach that sees belief as a Christian as a witness to something other than prevailing norms.

To the secularist, the answer is completely different. While refusing to disregard the reality that Christians have been the authors of much horror, we would offer the unrepentant, "So?" The first attempt at a rational state, the French Republic after the Revolution, ended up at the logical conclusion of the Terror. I find that hardly exemplary, even from a humanist perspective. Any ideology is inherently totalitarian, which is why it must always be tempered with the acceptance of criticism. I fail to see where non-religious ideologues have offered anything remotely human, or anything that in the long run does not end with a mass grave.

While the caricature of the post-modernist as the romantic monad does have some validity, my own perspective is that uprooted self cannot exist. We are part and parcel of an historic stream, in to which we are born and from which we depart. We are rooted as human beings existing as part of that history - not History as some grand narrative, or overarching force driving us collectively forward or backward, but very concretely as the events of our times as reactions to past events, and creators of new reactions in the future - which keep us grounded. It is true that far too many Americans, most eloquently Emerson and Whitman, believed history was a chain binding us to a kind of ontological and ontic slavery from which we Americans must needs escape in order to be American. The impossibility of this, just on a practical level, is evident all around us. The constant striving to exist as a people outside the whims and fancies of time and history leads to unrealism in our approach to being a nation among nations, an unhealthy belief in our uniqueness, politically, socially, culturally.

Quite apart from any metaphysical argument, the simple reality is we as human beings exist as historic creatures. The attempt to actually live a life uprooted from history is, in the end, to choose not to live at all. It isn't even existence.

More than any other single thing, I believe this idea - our peculiar American notion that we do, or can, or should, exist outside our collective national and world history - is the most pervasive ideological stumbling block we face. From it we stream all the rest - our racism, our destruction of the native populations, our imperial wars in Central America and the Caribbean, the Pacific rim and southeast and southwest Asia, our refusal to allow others to be our guides as to how best to coexist with other nations, the pervasive insistence that ours is not only the greatest nation ever, but that all other nations desire to emulate our way of life. Both fundamentalism and secular ideologies hold these ideas; they are both rooted in our American claim to exist, in some way, outside of history.

Thus, our postmodern condition is only partly correct as a diagnosis, precisely because it, too, shares this delusion.

Music For Your Monday

In honor of American's First City of Music winning the Super Bowl, well, you know . . .

Jelly Roll Morton's "Finger Breaker":

Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five's, "Heebie Jeebies":

Mac Rebinack, known as Dr. John, plays old-time, New Orleans-style jazz and boogie-woogie, a purist to the core. His CD Going Back To New Orleans is a masterful celebration of the sound of a city. Here he is from 1986, doing "Mac's Blues":

Last and best, here are The Neville Brothers. If you listen close, you can hear zydeco, jazz, blues, funk, and even some serious rocking. These guys are among the greatest American bands of all time. "Fire On The Bayou":

If the Colts had won, what could I have done? John Mellencamp and David Lee Roth . . .

Sunday, February 07, 2010

As Good A Place As Any

So, I was thinking if I'm going to do this whole "positive statement" thing, it might be a good idea to start. A good place to start is to anticipate a couple questions that usually come to the forefront when addressing the whole questions, "What do you believe? Why do you believe it?"

According to Albert Outler, John Wesley added to the traditional Anglican triad of Scripture, tradition, and reason. With experience comes a way of reflecting upon how these other three impact our lives as individuals, and individuals who are answerable to one another in and for the faith. I like this so-called "Wesleyan Quadrilateral" precisely because, potentially, it encompasses the Bible, Church history, theology, and our own growth in the faith. In fact, I have thought for a while a great, 40-week course (like the Disciple Bible Study and Christian Believers series the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship has developed, both of which are successful) using the Quadrilateral as a model: ten weeks on the Bible; ten weeks on church history; ten weeks on theological thought; and ten weeks on the spiritual disciplines. Then, if one is interested, turn to the Disciple series of Bible studies, the Christian Believer class, and perhaps develop other curricula as well, centered on the history of the Church and the spiritual life.

In any event, at its heart, those are what are often referred to as the "norms" of my reflections. Scripture. Tradition. Reason. Experience. If you want to push me, "scripture" refers to the canonical texts of the Protestant Bible; tradition is the whole broad, deep, and wide history of the faith and its expressions; reason is the multitude of ways people throughout time have wrestled with this whole thing they call "faith", and expressed it, sometimes well, sometime poorly; experience encompasses not just mundane "experience", the everyday living of life, but also and more specifically prayer and worship, the place of the sacraments in one's life, and how this is pursued, with or without a certain discipline, but always answerable to our brothers and sisters in the faith.

I have spent the better part of 20 years of my life reading, studying, discussing, thinking, arguing, and trying to understand theology. I have done so not as a disinterested observer, as if it were an interesting intellectual exercise, but rather as a deeply personal desire to understand others' attempts to come to terms with their faith. Even if I don't always agree with them; even if I find their conclusions questionable, their methods narrow, and their sources in need of some serious reconsidering, I still benefit from their struggle.

A friend said that his own theological inquiry was rooted in the question, "What do the Cappadocians have to say to Bedford-Stuyvesant?" My initial response to that was, "Probably not much." I think I would change that ever so slightly and say that I am searching for my own perspective, and while I can see where the Cappadocians - or St. Thomas, or William Ockham, or Zwingli, or Tillich - might come in handy, it would only be as deep background. They spoke to their time and place, and spoke well, to be sure. For that reason alone they have an authority to be respected. Yet, their dialect and idiom, their world and time are all strange to us. We can only use them so much before their words cease to have meaning.

Even a more recent Christian thinker - Reinhold Niebuhr, say, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer - might offer insights that seem, at first blush, to be right on the mark. After carefully considering them, however, we might come to see a word or phrase, or even whole works, as being answers to questions we do not understand. Part of respecting one's sources is respecting the distance in time and space, the very real milieu in which this or that person wrote and taught, lived and died.

Even a passing familiarity with the history of the Church* should humble anyone who thinks that his or her voice has anything significant, let alone original, to the conversation we continue to have on belief. Very often, all we have is a reshuffling of the deck, a change in emphasis at most. I offer no belief either in my own originality or even persuasiveness. All I offer is what I have, and since I am offering it, not to you, but to God, well, I know it won't be good enough on any merits. Because I understand grace to be both prodigious and prodigal, however, I don't worry.

*When you see "Church" capitalized, I am referring to all the various expressions of communal faith we call "churches" - Orthodox and Roman, Evangelical and Reformed, Pentecostal and Anabaptist. Some might disagree and think writing in this way is too abstract; I think it's a lot easier than writing all that out time and again.

Stripping Down

I have spent the better part of the past couple years standing aside from much "churchy" controversy. I have been highly critical of "theologies" that I find either purposely obtuse or obscurantist. I have concentrated a bit too much, I think, on left politics and my own music fetish, and not enough on any kind of positive statement of what I believe, how that belief guides my life.

I was reading Karl Barth's lecture, "Gospel and Law" this morning and I realized, like Barth did at some point, that "Nein!" just isn't enough. In a far more colloquial, vernacular way, I hear, "OK, wiseass, what do you believe?" I want to stammer, "But . . . but . . . can't you figure it out from what I've written so far?" If the answer is "No", then, well, I can't blame you. Positive statements have been few and far between here.

So, over the ensuing days and weeks, I shall be pursuing, in a rather unsystematic way, what it is I believe, why I believe it, and some of the roots of that belief. Just one caveat. As this is a blog, not a theology seminar, if it seems incomplete or haphazard in some way, that is more the nature of the medium than anything else. If a point seems off, or ill-conceived, or not thought through, make a comment and I'll address it best I can.

I would outline the way it's gonna go, but since I only have the desire at the moment to address these issues, and no plan in place, I guess we all will be surprised with what comes out, won't we?

Virtual Tin Cup

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