Reactions: Ford Madox Brown, “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet”

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?

Theology as Easter Speech

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.

Collect on the Incarnation

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.

Athanasius on the Trinity

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)

Prayer for my students on the first day of classes

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.

The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology: Review

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

Gregory & Job on Revelation

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

Hauerwas and the “Problem” of Evil (Why Theodicies are Not the Answer)

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

Not at our Beck and Call (a Prayer)

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

A Theology of California? Call for Papers

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.

Following Barth’s Thought: 4 Handles

My last post on reading Barth received so much traffic that I thought I would post another section from the little “primer” I put together for students in senior seminar. These four are meant to give readers of Barth useful  “handles” on his thought, like tips for catching the musical tendencies of a great composer:

1.  Music – The flow of Barth’s theology is often likened to music, “the announcement of a theme, and its further extension in a long series of developments and recapitulations, through which the reader is invited to consider the theme from a number of different angles and in a number of different relations. No one stage of the argument is definitive; rather, it is the whole which conveys the substance of what he has to say” (J. Webster, Barth, 13).

George Hunsinger expands on the point: “What first appears like repetition turns out on closer inspection to function rather like repetition in sonata form. It is [Barth’s] method of alluding to themes previously developed while constantly enriching the score with new ideas. . . . The more one reads Barth, the more one senses that his use of repetition is never pointless. Rather, it serves as a principle of organization and development within an ever forward spiraling theological whole” (G. Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 28).

The first section of CD IV.1 (pp. 1-19) is a great example. Barth begins by describing the center of the Christian gospel as “God with us” (pp. 1-4), then builds, expands, develops this throughout the next 19 pages. It culminates on p. 14 with Barth’s assertion that “God with us” concretely means “Jesus Christ.”

2.  Orbit – It has been my sense that, similar to the musical metaphor, following Barth’s thought is often like tracking something that orbits around a center. Whatever the “center” might be for Barth at the moment of reading, his thought will orbit that center. The result, for the reader, is that the center can be viewed from a great many different angles or perspectives, but they must always be attentive and aware of the center around which the orbit is set.

3.  DialecticContinue reading

Reading Karl Barth: Hallmarks

I am leading a seminar this semester on Karl Barth, and we are reading the first part volume of Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation (CD IV.1).  Reading Barth can be a disorienting experience at first, so I put together a little  “primer” for my students. I thought back to what I found helpful when first encountering Barth, and I remembered Busch’s introduction The Great Passion. This is a fantastic read on many levels, but it was his manner of describing Barth’s theology in terms of characteristics or hallmarks that served me well at the beginning. Much like Hunsinger’s approach in How to Read Karl Barth (although the formats differ),  Busch gives the reader a sense for how Barth’s theology operates, its flavor and feeling, and how one might orient themselves within it.

So I went back over several years of reading journals and cobbled together a series of my own “hallmarks” of Barth’s theology, many of which I am sure you will find said differently in other introductions:

  • Theology points always toward God and not humanity, an idea, or program (I can’t help but think of Grünewald’s painting, “Crucifixion” (right) which hung next to Barth’s desk).
  • Theology, in light of the greatness of God, is best characterized as human “sighing” and “stammering” —regardless of its sophistication, expansiveness, or insight: “Now we have only a dim perception of him, the living God. There can be no talk of knowing him, of ‘having’ him. What awkward sighing and stammering there is, when we try to say something about him” (Insights, 17; Barth describes prayer the same, CD III.4, 89).
  • Theology is carried out before God; God stands before the theologian and makes possible the theologian’s work.
  • Theology enters into God’s self-mediation to us; it is not humanity’s attempt to mediate God to us; theology is, then, a response not an initiative.
  • Theology’s task is the same as preaching’ task: it stands in the service of God’s ongoing work to sanctify (judging and comforting) the church. Continue reading

Plagiarism & the Seven Deadly Sins

I have been thinking about the relationship between plagiarism and the Seven Deadly Sins. Mainly, I am trying to generate distincly theological ways of speaking about plagiarism, and this was a first crack at it. Let me know your reactions.

Pride - Plagiarism is driven by the refusal of limitation. A student comes up against their own intellectual limits, the time allotted in a busy semester, etc., and, unwilling to accept limitation, compensates by deception.

Acts of plagiarism are little Towers of Babel, constructed and standing coram Deo as refusals of limitation. A healthy doctrine of creation reminds us that limitation is not evil but part and parcel of being made and not maker. In this sense, pride is the refusal to be what I am: created, finite and therefore limited.

There is honor in being God’s creature of course, but what honor we have is the honor given to us by God.  In plagiarizing we refuse God’s honor, and in pride we steal honor for ourselves.  Barth puts it this way: “The modesty about which man is sharply asked whether in his little steps or great, consists in a recognition of the fact that his honour is before God and comes from Him” (CD, III.4, p. 666).

Envy - Plagiarism is fed by desires for the possessions of another, namely the skills, abilities, or understanding that enables someone else to produce work I cannot. As Aquinas describes, “We grieve over a man’s good, in so far as his good surpasses ours; this is envy properly speaking, and is always sinful” (ST, II.2, 158,1). Envying the work of another, the plagiarizer takes the words and creations of another and (in varying degrees) passes it off as their own.

Sloth -  David Naugle describes sloth as

a distinctively spiritual or religious sin that demotes God’s role in our lives and replaces him enthusiastically with other things. It is a sin of spiritual lethargy and dejection. When we are in the throes of spiritual lethargy, God bores us or seems insignificant, whereas other loves capture our interest and attention, excite and energize us. . . . Slothful people forget church, avoid Scripture, refuse repentance, rarely pray, reject fellowship, don’t witness, shun service, deride duty, rebuff suffering, scorn theology, evade thought or meditation, and in general are repulsed by religion and the religious life. . . . Sloth, then, is a sin of omission in that it fails to find God supremely significant and attractive so as to pursue him enthusiastically (Reordered Love, Reordered Lives, p. 71).

The one who plagiarizes finds the academic tasks at hand unworthy of their own creative efforts. More importantly perhaps, they refuse to seek their ultimate good in God through those assignments. Continue reading