I published an essay on new monastics this month in the journal American Theological Inquiry, “New Monastic Social Imagination: Theological Retrieval for Ecclesial Renewal.” The basic idea was to explore new monastic retrieval through the lens of social hermeneutics. Charles Taylor and Etienne Wenger were my principle conversation partners on the social hermeneutics side, and among new monastics I focused primarily on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Here is an excerpt (read the entire essay here).
In order for new monastic retrieval to succeed on its own terms—to recover the monastic impulse from past monastic movements—new monastic imagination must be distinctly theological. That is, some imagination, Christian or otherwise, will invest the practices of new monastics with meaning(s); the issue is whether that imagination will be theological. This is not to say anything of the actual efficacy of such practices, in other words whether or not they achieve the “ends” or telos they are believed to serve (e.g. spiritual transformation, ecological stewardship, community formation, etc.). Rather, the issue at stake is the cultivation and maintenance of a theological imagination sufficient for the task of investing their practices with meanings broadly consistent with the Christian tradition and more narrowly with the monastic-like movements in which they see the monastic impulse and seek to retrieve it (p. 54)
This summer has been an intense time of writing as my book on theologies of retrieval draws to a close. It has left me with little time for other sorts of reading, but I have managed to fit some recreational texts into my summer schedule: Dante’s Divine Comedy (Ciardi’s translation is beautiful), the Reformation Commentary on Philippians and Colossians, Augustine’s Enchiridion (why had I never read this before?), and of course Kyle’s great new book on Jonathan Edwards’ vision of the Christian life.
Formed for the Glory of God is a fantastic read! You can see my previous posts on the first couple chapters here and here. Chapter 3 sets up the second half of the book on spiritual disciplines by treating the role of “affection” in Edwards’ thought. Kyle explains it as the development of our “taste” for glory:
The Spirit of God works within one’s heart to give them a divine taste – a taste of the ways of God. It is this vein that the psalmist would say, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Ps. 119:103). Without it, people cannot recognize God and his way as beautiful, “no more than a man without the sense of tasting can conceive of the sweet taste of honey, or a man without the sense of hearing can conceive of the melody of a tune, or a man born blind can have a notion of the beauty of the rainbow’ (Religious Affections, 208). The disciples were given a divine taste, and so they sought to satisfy their longing by following Christ. [...]
Tasting and seeing that the Lord is good entails having the whole of one’s heart made alive to God in Christ by the Holy Spirit – it is communion with the three-personed God. Tasting and seeing are the kinds of things that beget more tasting and seeing. Tasting and seeing beget desire. It is this desire that turns the Christian more and more fully to her Lord who is beautiful and glorious. It is a journey we will continue for eternity (pp. 62, 64).
You can’t miss what Kyle accomplishes in following Edwards’ moves through the first half of the book. This is a God-centered vision of the Christian life that fully engages the human person in all our dimensions. The tradition is littered with imbalanced accounts, either swaying heavily toward the affective or the intellectual or the volitional. On any such portrayal we end up with Christianities of feeling, of the mind, or of action (look around today and you see examples of all three). Following the lead of Edwards, however, Continue reading
The theme of beauty continues throughout chapter 2, as it does here in the following excerpt on the beginning of the Christian Life, conversion:
Think about the most beautiful sight you have ever seen – the immense presence of a mountain, or maybe the setting sun glimmering off of the ocean. You see it clearly and know you see it correctly (in other words, your sight is “true”). But that is not all that is going on. You grasp what you see as beautiful, and in a real sense your heart inclines to it. Some feel a quickening of their heartbeat, and others, maybe a shortness of breath. Deep beauty moves us. Edwards uses this as an example of the Spirit’s work in the hearts of people in conversion. He tells us this divine light “assimilates the nature of the divine nature, and changes the soul into an image of the same glory that is beheld.” This sight weans us from the world and raises our eyes to heavenly things. This contradicts what many people think about Edwards. Edwards is often touted as a preacher of hellfire seeking to turn people to God through fear. Rather, for Edwards, the fear of God cannot turn someone to God. Only a sight of the beauty of God can save. As Edwards claims, we are not weaned from the world by affliction or through fear, but are only weaned off of the world by the sight of something better. In Christ, God has revealed what is better. Once we see the beauty of Christ our inner clocks are set to the pace of the heavenly time.
The destination for the Christian is a sight and experience of God in eternity. It is, ultimately, life with God. God knows and loves himself infinitely, enjoys and delights in his own life fully for eternity, and now calls us into that life. This life is characterized as God’s beauty (pp. 48-49)
I just received an advance copy of Kyle’s new book on the Christian life, Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards. Kyle is quickly becoming one of the most well-respected and prolific contributors to the study of Jonathan Edwards’ thought. Last summer I reviewed his edition of Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruits that goes a long way toward making an important work of Edwards on love more easily accessible (read my interview with Kyle here and a review here). This new book is an immensely readable vision of the Christian life that draws throughout on the wisdom of Jonathan Edwards. I will be blogging through it chapter by chapter in the coming weeks.
In Chapter 1, Kyle paints a portrait of the goal toward which the Christian Life is drawn: the beatific vision. “Life is a pilgrimage of faith that dissolves into sight,” he writes. “That sight is the beatific vision.” Seeing God transcends merely visual perception. As Kyle points out, “To see God is to become like God” for in seeing God we come to know him in fullness.
Truly seeing God is grasping him as the highest good, truth and beauty. It is having your eyes opened and taking in the reality of who he is. Continue reading
It is a sad day for Aberdeen, but John Webster is heading south to the University of St. Andrews. Ivor Davidson, head of school at St. Mary’s, said the following in the press release (more here):
John Webster is widely recognized as one of the very best theologians in the world. He has a stellar reputation as a scholar, author, and communicator, and is an outstanding servant of both the academy and the church. His major current projects promise to be of immense significance for the shape of English-language theology in the years ahead. John has long had collaborative links with several colleagues in the School, and I am absolutely delighted that he will now be joining us at St Mary’s College, where his research, teaching, and supervision of graduate students will add considerably to our established strengths in several areas. Professor Webster’s appointment further reinforces the reputation of St Andrews as one of the world’s most dynamic centres for theological and biblical scholarship.
I mentioned in my last post that senior seminar has been studying disability theology this spring. We read contemporary voices like John Swinton, Stanley Hauerwas, Jean Vanier, Brian Brock, Thomas Reynolds, Henri Nouwen, and Hans Reinders, as well as deliberating over relevant biblical texts. We are capping off the semester by closely reading Amos Yong’s recent theology of disability, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God.
Our first discussion centered almost entirely on Yong’s method. He worries that traditional interpretation of Scripture has been oppressive of disabled individuals because it operates from what he calls a “normate” (i.e. non-disabled) perspective.
According to Yong, “normate bias” is the “unexamined prejudices that non-disabled people have toward disability and toward people who have them. These assumptions function normatively so that the inferior status of people with disabilities is inscribed into our consciousness” (11). This normate bias, or “ableist worldview,” influences our interpretation of Scripture and leads to theologies of disability which confirm, support, and extend our assumptions about normalcy, abledness, and capability. Thus, to challenge our normate bias and question our presuppositions about disability, Yong offers an interpretation of Scripture and theological perspective on disability that is specifically “derived from the experience of disability.“
I posed the following question to my students: why is perspective so important to Yong? Wouldn’t someone suppose that the biblical text is the biblical text regardless of your context as an interpreter? “Well”, Yong might say, “Yes, but…” Continue reading
The topic of senior seminar in the Bible and Religion department this spring has been disability theology. Together we engage relevant biblical material and consider important contemporary figures. The seminar is entirely student-led which is a real treat, and not just because I don’t carry the same preparation load. It is a unique opportunity for me to explicitly take the position of learner alongside my students and colleagues in the department. What I find shouldn’t surprise me: they consistently have something to teach me.
Our biblical texts this week were from Luke (Jesus’ sending of the 72) and the reading was Nouwen’s Adam: God’s Beloved. The book is an extended reflection on a man Nouwen knew from his time at the L’Arche Daybreak Community. As the book jacket describes, “In the eyes of the world [Adam] was a complete nobody. And yet, for Henri Nouwen he became ‘my friend, my teacher, and my guide.’ It was Adam who led Nouwen to a new understanding of his Christian faith and what it means to be Beloved of God.”
The student who led us through the material works in group homes for the mentally disabled, so his engagement with the reading was intensely personal. I found my reading of the text no less personal but for different reasons. The acceptance of God and his unconditional love which Nouwen learned from Adam resonates deeply with my own struggles as a scholar. Vocational expectations and career comparison so quickly threaten to overwhelm my sense of self. As Nouwen says, “While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” A timely reminder.
Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more about my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you in prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”
And while I, a so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was life me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered” (Adam: God’s Beloved, p. 55-56).