I posted recently on theological education and explored the importance of attending to the thoughts of others. I am continuing that line of thought here, and I want to look at an essay by Simone Weil (“Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” in Waiting for God (pp. 57-66).
Weil suggests that giving our attention to academic studies forms and cultivates our capacities for loving God. Whether it be geometry or Latin, training my attention upon the subject develops my capacity for attending to God in prayer. This makes sense because, for Weil, prayer consists of attention: “the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”
In other words, attention is like a necessary muscle for prayer, and academic studies train that muscle through requiring me to give my attention to various tasks. So, the value of academic study related to prayer is simply that it cultivates my capacity to give attention to God.
This adds a spiritual dimension to our discussion about the place of careful, patient, and deliberate attention to the thoughts of others in the process of theological education. For Weil, a Christian view of studies will define the ultimate purpose of study as training in the love of God, and it will therefore understand activities that require attention as opportunities to develop the capacities necessary for that end.
For example, what might working hard on a geometry problem have to do with prayer? Weil explains, Continue reading
I opened one of my favorite academic journals recently and was intrigued to see an editorial by Stephen Holmes on theological education. He observes that students in theological studies (especially postgraduate) are often directed to spend the majority of their efforts attending to the ideas of others. In doing so they defer the work of actually speaking well about God themselves.
Holmes wonders if this should be lamented. Could educational practices focused on careful, lengthy attention to the ideas of others actually work against the ends and purposes of our discipline? Maybe we should just get down to the business of constructive theology more quickly. Holmes describes the situation this way:
Faced with a potential research student, passionate about understanding divine providence, we advise her to study the doctrine of providence in Barth or Calvin or Thomas Aquinas; when we set ourselves to write on God’s final intentions for the saints, we fill chapters with careful expositions of Gregory Palamas on deification. We trace the ideas of others in their particular context, and defer the task of making a theological proposal of our own.[...]
If the heart of our discipline lies somewhere between this disputed territory between speaking well about God and living well before God, our seemingly endless reflections on other writers demand defense; are we in fact evading our proper calling, practicing our discipline inadequately (or even refusing to practice it)?
It is a fair question, and my postgraduate studies followed a similar pattern. In fact, when I supervise independent studies with our best undergraduate students I shape the project along the same lines Holmes describes: we select an important figure, read him or her carefully and together, trace the lines of their thought, then communicate the findings orally and in writing. Could I be unintentionally trapping these budding theologians in an endless circle of attending to others when they should be giving their own account of the living God?
Before I share Holmes’ answer, how do you see it? For those of us who care about theological education, should we lament the fact that we often focus heavily on attending to the work of others? Should we just get down to the business of speaking well about God?
Kyle is publishing an updated edition of Jonathan Edwards’s “Charity and Its Fruits”, a meditation on 1 Corinthians 13, which should be released sometime over the summer (Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love). I want to give Kyle a chance to talk about the project because I know he is excited about the book’s potential to make one of Edwards’ more important works on the Christian life accessible for a new generation of readers.
Kent: What is it about Charity and Its Fruits that made you want to re-release it in a new, more accessible version?
Kyle: First, there are already a lot of editions of Charity and Its Fruits floating around, but they all use Edwards’s great, great grandson’s text that is highly edited. This is one of the reasons I wanted to provide a new edition. Mine will be the first edition of Charity in its own volume that goes back to Edwards’s original. The only other time Edwards’s original is published is in the Yale critical edition which costs $150 and has two other works bound up with it. Second, Charity is an important work to understand Edwards and yet it is often forgotten behind his Religious Affections. Charity is less tied to the polemical environment of the revivals, and so it is a bit more purely Edwards’s theologizing. Edwards never wrote or spoke without polemical partners in mind, but this is as close as you get. Third, I tend to think that if you want to start reading Edwards, you should start with Charity. I like to call is Edwards’s spiritual theology, because you really see spirituality and theology come together for him here.
Kent: What can Jonathan Edwards teach us about the Christian life?
Kyle: Edwards can teach us to be theological concerning the Christian life. Evangelicals have notoriously left theology aside when they talk about the Christian life, either turning to common-sensical notions of life that are more American than Christian or simply using the spiritual tradition as their own personal buffet-line. Edwards provides us with a great example of what it used to mean to be a theologian. Continue reading
In the midst of semester-end examinations I look for inspiration wherever possible (perhaps you find yourself in the same academic malaise). Here Barth gives a lovely account of the value and purpose of theological exams. I close my two semester, undergraduate theology cycle with oral exams for reasons similar to this:
When properly understood, an examination is a friendly conversation of older students of theology with younger ones, concerning certain themes in which they share a common interest. The purpose of this conversation is to give younger participants an opportunity to exhibit whether and to what extent they appear to give promise of doing so in the future. The real value of a doctorate, even when earned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such. Only by his qualification as a learner can he show himself qualified to become a teacher. Whoever studies theology does so because to study it is (quite apart from any personal aims of the student) necessary, good, and beautiful in relationship to the service to which he has been called. Theology must possess him so completely that he can be concerned with it only in the manner of a studiosus (Evangelical Theology, 172).
Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet. 1852-56 (retouched several times up to 1892). Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.
During my class on 1 Peter today I invited students to reflect with me on this painting. After asking for their impressions, I directed their attention first to Peter. How does the Gospel of John record Peter’s response to Jesus’ insistence that he wash the feet of his disciples (John 13: 8 – “You shall never wash my feet”)? How does Brown’s rendering of Peter in this scene interpret Peter’s response to Jesus’ soft rebuke?
Next we looked at those around the table. What does Brown suggest about their own willingness to be served by Jesus? How about the one untying his sandals? How about Judas clutching his head? How about the others who are more or less in the light?
Finally, the image invites the viewer to consider his or her response to Jesus’ insistence that he wash the feet of his followers (Caravaggio and Rembrandt evoke the same in many of their paintings). In other words, in which disciple do we see ourselves? How will it lead us to pray?
I gave a paper this morning at the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature. My presentation focused on the category of mystery in the theology of Rowan Williams. Specifically, I explored how his reading of the resurrection narratives generates a doctrinal rationale for the mysterious in Christian theology. Here is an excerpt.
Christian theology is Easter speech; it stands on the brink of its own impossibility because of the unsettling character of Christ’s resurrection, then and now. It stands on this side of that brink because with the risen Christ from the tomb comes God’s work of re-creation. The world, and consequently language, is simply not the same; so those who do in fact say anything at all stand “paralyzed as if in dreams, waiting for his spring” (“Resurrection,” in Headwaters).
What does all this have to do with the category of “mystery?” For Williams, as I hope is becoming clear, the resurrection of Christ establishes an orientation and cadence for Christian theology that mirrors the encounters of those who met the risen Christ. In that pattern, Williams argues, “Christian speech is for ever entering into and re-emerging from inarticularity. There is not one moment of dumbness or loss followed by fluency, but an unending back and forth between speech and silence” (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospels, 66). [...]
Theology’s Easter-orientation means that “mystery” —that which supersedes our understanding—is fundamental to its starting point and to its ongoing viability. At any point that theology attempts a “final word”, a total explanation or formula, then it transgresses the pattern of silence and speech which characterizes the Easter encounter.
Daniel Bonnell, "Jesus Praying," pen and ink
We praise you Lord, our God, that your love for us took the strange shape of enfleshment; you made your way in this world with skin, bone, fingernails, eyelashes . . .
hungerpains, parched lips, abandonment – “made like us in all respects” but without sin.
We acknowledge our deep needs before you: our rebelliousness, brokenness, estrangement from each other and ourselves, and our deepest need of all, to be known once and for all, inside and out, coming and going, seeking and being found.
May we make our ways in this world along the grain of your way, through Jesus Christ our Lord and according to the power of your Spirit. Amen.
My students and I were reading Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers today on the topic of God’s self-disclosure. On one hand, the teaching that God is in some sense unknowable has always been a part of orthodox Christian belief. But on the other hand so has the claim that God has made himself known in Jesus Christ; ‘Emmanual,’ God is with us. To feel the tension you can go any number of places in the Christian tradition, but Athanasius and Hilary open this up really well.
This excerpt from Athanasius is on the Trinity and only indirectly about revelation (for Athanasius to talk about revelation is to talk about the Trinity), but it is just marvelous, so I had to post it:
As the Son is an only-begotten offspring, so also the Spirit, being given and sent from the Son, is himself one and not many, nor one from among many, but Only Spirit. As the Son, the living Word, is one, so must the vital activity and gift whereby he sanctifies and enlightens be one perfect and complete; which is said to proceed from the Father, that it shines forth and is sent and is given. The Son is sent from the Father; for he says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.’ The Son sends the Spirit; ‘If I go away,’ he says, ‘I will send the Paraclete.’ The Son glorifies the Father, saying: ‘Father, I have glorified thee.’ The Spirit glorifies the Son: for he says, ‘He shall glorify me.’ The Son says: ‘the things I heard from the Father speak I unto the world.’ The Spirit takes of the Son; ‘He shall take of mine,’ he says, ‘and shall declare unto you.’ The Son came in the name of the Father. ‘The Holy Spirit,’ says the Son, ‘whom the Father will send in my name’ (Letters to Serapion, on the Holy Spirit)
I am teaching a class on 1 Peter this semester. 1 Peter is a dramatic witness to the Gospel and teaching the course is really just an excuse to read Scripture as Scripture with a group of students and grow together in interpretive wisdom. This was my prayer with them on the first day of classes.
O God, you have taught me since I was young, and to this day I tell of your wonderful deeds (Ps. 71:17).
Father Almighty, we praise you that the words of Scripture are living and active because through your Spirit you continue to correct and comfort the Church through them.
We read, we wrestle, we sometimes even throw up our hands in confusion when we encounter the words of this book we call “Scripture.”
At other times we struggle to read, we weep, and we risk saying that you seem no where about these pages.
Where have you gone? Why have you left us with these words? How do you expect us to make our ways with you along the grain of these words when we can barely make any way at all?
So we ask you to encounter us again that we might stand at the end of this semester and say with the Psalmist, “You have taught us since we were young.” And may we become men and women who “tell of your wonderful deeds” to each other and to the world. Help us, we pray, to read this witness to the Gospel before your face, with each other, and toward the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press sent me copies of two recent reference publications, and both are superb. If you have any influence over the purchasing of your university or seminary’s library, these next two reviews are for you.
First, The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. Given the proliferation and easy access to online resources why produce another dictionary? What sets the Cambridge Dictionary apart is its format. Oriented around a small number of “core entries” which focus on key topics to provide a general overview of major subject areas, the Cambridge Dictionary fills a troublesome void in theological reference texts. More than a few adequately provide brief lexical definitions, and many offer longer, more in depth treatments of major topics (see below for recommendations of both), but none the middle-length treatment provided here. The editors intention was to use these core entries to “provide the conceptual ballast for the volume as a whole, serving as the superstructure around and in terms of which many of the other entries are conceived and composed” (xix).
The core entries fall into five basic categories that together map the territory of systematic theology from distinct, though “complementary, conceptual perspectives”: Continue reading
I cannot think of another time since we started this blog when I have been more absent. The end of the spring semester was a blur, and I typically go into hiding once grades are submitted. I want to push my kids on the swing, tend the garden, read fiction, and do little else. And I have done little else for the past couple weeks.
Now, with summer projects clambering for attention (a chapter on Radical Orthodoxy must be written by August), I hope to be more consistently present on TF. Let me wade back in by posting part of a brief presentation I made for our University’s student awards night. The student and I had worked together on a research project on Gregory of Nyssa, so I geared my comments on divine revelation in his direction:
In the book of Job, chapters 38-41, God interrogates Job with a series of questions:” “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? . . . Who marked off its dimensions? . . . Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (38:4, 5); “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it? (38:12-13); “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (38:16); “Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.” (38:18)
God shows Job that he has attempted to reach beyond the limits of his grasp, beyond what his knowledge is able to attain. How does Job respond? “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things to wonderful for me to know.”
Gregory of Nyssa tried to evoke a similar response from his readers in his book The Second Book Against Eunomius. Continue reading
The following is from Stanley Hauerwas’ acclaimed God, Medicine and Suffering. My students this semester in theological bioethics are reading it, and it is raising a host of unsettling but important issues to discuss.
Hauerwas points out the inadequacy of theoretical theodicies (justifications of God in the face of suffering), and in doing so offers Christians a timely reminder as they formulate “responses” to suffering. Whether suffering be over the sea in Japan or in one’s living room with a sick child (I had two of my own children in the hospital this winter), theoretical responses to suffering are not the answer, even though they may be the ones we think must be offered.
Only after the seventeenth century did the problem of evil become the central challenge to “the coherence and intelligibility of Christian believe per se” . . . That Christians now think the problem of suffering renders their faith in God unintelligible indicates that they now are determined by ways of life that are at odds with their fundamental convictions.
For the early Christians, suffering and evil . . . did not have to be “explained.” Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be “explained”—that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing suffering. [...] Continue reading
Let’s start the work week off with a prayer. The following is Walter Breuggemann’s, and I used it last week in conjunction with my teaching on the divine attributes. I am challenged every time I approach that topic with students for various reasons, not least of which because it is (undoubtedly) an area of Christian theology requiring great humility. The theologian finds themselves in a territory of Christian confession in which terms and appellates for God are lying ready at hand: love, power, mercy, knowledge, etc. Yet, in taking up and employing such terms what does one expect from them, and what is the reference point one uses for filling out their meaning? The risk is sharp that we unintentionally make God out into a bigger, stronger, version of ourselves, that without some care we find ourselves speaking about God by speaking about ourselves in a really loud voice.
In the face of such challenges, Brueggemann reminds us that the triune God “shows himself yet fresh beyond our grasp”:
We call out your name in as many ways as we can. We fix your role towards us in the ways we need. We approach your from the particular angle of our life.
We do all that, not because you need to be identified, but because of our deep need, our deep wound, our deep hope.
And then, we are astonished that while our names for you serve for a moment, you break beyond them in your freedom, you show yourself yet fresh beyond our grasp. Continue reading
Have you ever thought there might be such a thing as a theology of “place”? How about a theology of California? As Fred Sanders poses the question, “What should we say, theologically, about this West-coast entity?”
This question is being asked and answers are being attempted by a new project called Theological Engagement with California Culture, a multi-year conversation that will draw together theological resources for a series of consultations on the subject.
The Theological Engagement with California Culture project is developing a proposed session at the Evangelical Theological Society 2011 meeting on the theology of California. Visit the TECC website for details on the Call for Papers, but the main idea is simple: If you are a theologian with ideas about California as a cultural entity demanding a distinctively Christian understanding, send them your idea.