This piece at christianitytoday.com is full of good sense, and it brings back memories of ministering among and to college-age students some time back without this sort of wisdom. From the glitz and glam of youth ministry events and retreats to stadium-housed Passion conferences, young believers are often trained to live for the putatively big moments that come only annually (if that) and are subtly encouraged to conceive of their futures as epic series of great feats for the kingdom of God.
Whether the architects of the ‘radical’ mentality intend it to do so or not – and, to be fair, some of them may not – the language itself, it seems to me, exacerbates this problem. If the language helps to mitigate materialism and the like, then it is of course beneficial, but it also has the effect of engendering the expectation that one might just get free of the mundane patterns of life under which both believers and unbelievers must operate in order truly to ‘impact the world’, ‘transform the city’, or do something similar. Of course, it can engender guilt as well when (almost inevitably) it becomes clear that this is not to be. Just as few of us are given some great platform from which to rally the troops against the world’s ills, so are few of us able to divest ourselves of locality, home-making, material possessions, etc. in order to traverse the country or the globe to help wherever help is needed.
We need not content ourselves with the status quo where evil and injustice are present, but, for almost all of us, doing something about it will mean simply making daily decisions to be thoughtful and kind toward others as we come into contact with them and ensuring that we give a responsible (indeed, sacrificial) amount of our income to our churches and to those in need. For almost all of us, the lot we are given will appear to radicalizers as but a vapid middle ground, a space for taking care of many unremarkable things while also still learning godliness and demonstrating Christ’s love in loving our neighbors, be they city-dwellers, suburbanites, or country bumpkins. Perhaps, however, the God who esteems a ‘peaceful and quiet life’ of occupational diligence (1 Tim 2:2; 2 Thess 3:6-12) will not be so put off by all of this.
In the recent rumblings about marriage and attendant Facebook-picture campaigns for equality, it is intriguing to observe the lines of reasoning and rhetoric taken up. In the end, advocacy for the widening of the term ‘marriage’ seems to turn on the fact that certain individuals want to be able to do something or have access to something and therefore should have access to it. Perhaps the most forceful variation on this, though, is the insistence that some individuals simply do not, indeed cannot, prefer or choose or do otherwise than they do and ought then to be granted every opportunity of enjoying a happy (whatever that may mean) life in accord with their innate tendencies.
I’d like to make a comment on some of the pertinent doctrinal dynamics here, but in relation to the condition and conduct of the human person more than an official national position on the content of marriage. Interaction on the inner workings of doctrine and ethics at this nexus is welcome, though without the vitriol injected into so many blog threads that touch on this subject.
For those interested in maintaining a classical Christian sexual ethic, the contemporary discussions and debates are a forceful reminder that the perceived plausibility of such an ethic stands or falls with a willingness to make peace with the doctrines of Adamic headship and original sin. ‘Born-this-way’ Lady Gaga-ism wins the day unless one is able to assimilate the teaching that someone else (i.e., Adam) represented us and made a decision (i.e., rebelled against God in the Garden) whereby the rest of us incur guilt before our Maker, inherit a corrupted nature with all manner of spiritual, psychological, physiological, and moral maladies, and are still left responsible before God to resist certain innate tendencies (sexual or otherwise), repenting of sin, calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved, and seeking by the grace and power of the Spirit to grow in holiness. Continue reading
I was invited to offer the meditation one morning last week at the CCCU New Faculty Institute. I took 1 John 1:1-4 as our text, and after briefly reflecting on it I developed my remarks toward the following question, “What does the Incarnation have to do with teaching and learning that is distinctly Christian?” What I am posting here (for brevity) is the final third of my remarks without the discussion of 1 John and other New Testament texts that set up the theological vantage point of the Incarnation
“What does the incarnation have to do with teaching and learning that is distinctly Christian?” If John so closely links the physical reality of Jesus’ bodily existence to the shape of the Christian life, then we might extend the question to the arena of Christian teaching and learning. I don’t mean teaching and learning that might take up Christian topics or that which aims toward salvation – surely these would have much to do with the incarnation. Rather, I am interesting in teaching and learning, regardless of its subject or field of study, that seeks to conform itself to the logic of the incarnation. At the center of the Christian witness we proclaim that God took on human flesh–not the illusion of human flesh–in order to redeem human existence. How is distinctly Christian teaching and learning informed and directed by this reality that we confess is the beginning of God’s restoration of the world?
Let me suggest one way that I believe the incarnation can inform our vocation as Christian educators. In order to redeem creation, God sent his Son, born of a woman in order that he might restore and heal everything that makes us human. I suspect that this should aim our educational practices, regardless of the subject, toward the whole person– intellect, heart, body. Said differently: the doctrine of the incarnation directs Christian teaching and learning to be concerned with the flourishing of the whole person. I am sure many of us have thought about this before, but perhaps not from this vantage point
If God cared so much for his good creation that he would take it on in order to redeem it, we too should be concerned with the whole person in all of its complexity and beauty.
FITTING PRACTICES OF CHRISTIAN PEDAGOGY
The incarnation might take us one step further and spur us to think about practices that are appropriate for a pedagogy which is self-consciously informed by the incarnation. Let me offer two: Continue reading
Instructing the Corinthian church in the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul moves to expound the different functions of prophecy and tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. In preparing the readers for an Old Testament reference that sheds light on the matter, the apostle writes,
Brothers and sisters, do not be children in thinking, but be infants in evil, and be complete in thinking (1 Cor. 14:20).
Obviously, the point of chapter 14 concerns spiritual gifts more than it does being childlike with respect to evil, but I think the moral innocence piece here is worth pondering. On the one hand, it seems that becoming mature in one’s spiritual thinking entails knowing something about various evils and the perils they hold for the church and for believers. On the other hand, there is, apparently, a certain sense in which we ought to be rather unschooled in the way of ungodliness. I’d like to hear some thoughts on potential implications for Christian engagement of culture. Does the text in some way commend naivete as an appropriate modus operandi? Does the text in some way chastise the pursuit of relevance? What does it look like for the church and for believers to be appropriately unacquainted with evil?
I’ve been puzzled a bit about Jamie Smith’s new volume (reviewed in several posts) and its popularity. In one sense, it isn’t surprising – he is a great writer, a deep thinker and he addresses concrete problems in our congregations and lives. But there is another sense where it is downright shocking that his program is so universally well-received by American evangelicals (my focus is on North American evangelicals in this post). First, his conversation partners are not the conversation partners evangelicals typically turn to (e.g., Yoder, Hauerwas and Radical Orthodox). Second, his emphasis on liturgy is not something (sadly) that evangelicals are typically excited about. Third, his exposition of practices, particularly the ex opere operato nature of liturgical practices runs directly against the sensibilities of evangelicals who fear, almost above all else, rote practices. So why such enthusiasm?
I have a theory. Evangelicals hate theology. Continue reading
I commented in an earlier post about my reading of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and noted how much I’ve enjoyed reading it. I, for the record, am still enjoying the volume immensely, it being my holiday reading on airplanes, stuck in airports and on the occasional couch. I want to read the whole volume before offering any really critical interaction, but for now, I thought it would be fruitful to muse over one specific passage that highlights a central thrust of the work. In discussing the Pledge of Allegiance, Smith states:
What are the students doing when they recite this each day? Many will just be ‘going through the motions.’ However, given that we are liturgical animals who are deeply shaped by practices, I’m suggesting that a lot can happen when one just goes through the motions. The routine begins to inscribe habits of the imagination within us; the repeated saying of allegiance works itself into an orienting allegiance. What begins as a merely stated commitment begins to work itself into a functional commitment” (109).
It is at this point that I think Smith overplays the roles of practices as such, and offers something of an overly reductionistic anthropology. I will refrain from developing this critique until I’ve read the whole volume, and, I should add, I think his critique of a Cartesian anthropology as itself reductionistic is correct. Smith’s account of human persons as essentially lovers is, in my mind, the right way to go. But are we truly formed by practices, even when we are “going through the motions” as Smith suggests? Continue reading
Of the many theological temptations that can plague the theologian, grandiosity may be one of the most subtle. Grandiosity is that aspect of fleshliness that allows one to find their identity in what they do – and it is used as a means to create a self that is greater, stronger and solidified in a way their true self is not. It tends to trade knowledge of theology for knowledge of God and self, being convinced that one’s labors are always kingdom labors, and that one’s effort is of the highest order.
In this sense, it inclines the theologian towards existential bi-polar angst. In other words, there is no middle ground. Everything they do jumps from perfection to pointlessness. Their craft as a theologian lacks purity because it is done to seek approval from others and is grounded in their self-identity and meaning. Praise for their work fuels the endeavor while critique sheds light on their deepest fears that they really don’t know what they are talking about. Other theologians who are brighter, more well-read and advanced in their theological reasoning are either seen as necessary compatriots who they need to be aligned with, or they must be in some way undermined, either in character, in viewpoints or in background.
The closer one is to fundamentalism, in many cases, the more grandiose is one’s view. This stems, in part ( I believe) from the apologetic character of fundamentalist theology. Continue reading
As of late, I have been contemplating some of the many temptations for the theologian. One of the more subtle, what I am calling elitism, is what I am concerned with here. My worry tends to focus on the teleology of the theologian, namely, “What are we becoming?” From my perspective, what often happens is that, somewhere along the way, our loves are reorganized and re-prioritized, and we find ourselves loving the ethos of theology more than the end of theology itself.
So what is the ethos of theology? The superficial answer is something like tweed, pipes, brown leather furniture and dark cherry bookshelves housing thousands of hard to find (and barely read) volumes. There is a side of this, of course, which is both natural and good (I do love all of these things by the way). When we deepen our understanding we come to appreciate, to use an Edwardsian idea, the complexity of harmony within objects of beauty. This soon oozes out of our academic context of book reading to things like food, where fish and chips are left behind for white wine reduction; music, where U2 is left behind for Mozart; and drinks, where Bud Light is left behind for Glenlivet’s fifteen-year french oak reserve. The problem with this is that it seems to be the telos of the academy rather than the church. Isn’t this true, for instance, of any philosophy program as well?
I’m not sure why these things have been on my mind lately, and I don’t really have anything terribly constructive to add, but I would love to hear any of your thoughts on this. Is there a teleology for the theologian which pushes against the academizing of our souls? Is there something inherent in the task of theology which should undermine our love for these things? Is there any sort of sense that we should start looking more like John the Baptist and less like Mr. Belvedere (see the awesome photo on right).
I wonder if Philippians could be of service to this discussion as well, which, if Joseph Hellerman is right, is mainly a polemic against the Roman worldview. It makes sense therefore for Paul to hold his status (we could probably say C.V. as well) against Jesus’ in Philippians 2 where the overall movement of Jesus’ life (which is supposed to be our attitude) is from honor to shame, from having status to handing that status over. Is the academy modelling a worldview which mimics worldly ideals that needs to be mortified for the theologian to truly be a churchly theologian?
For the third part of this discussion, I thought it would be interesting to turn to an Eastern Orthodox theologian. This will close out our look at more mystically minded theologians. In doing so I will look at Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (and because I wanted to remind Mark that he didn’t buy it for £3 when he had the chance!).
From the very beginning of the volume, Lossky claims that “all theology is mystical, inasmuch as it shows forth the divine mystery: the data of revelation” (7). He admits that there is a strand of mysticism that focuses solely on an “unutterable mystery” to be “lived rather than known.” On the contrary, Lossky suggests,
we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transforming spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically. Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other. If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone” (8-9).
Lossky states that, “Mysticism is accordingly treated in the present work as the perfecting and crown of all theology: as theology par excellence” (9). Continue reading
After looking briefly at Hans Urs Von Balthasar, I thought it would be appropriate to look at a Balthasar commentator, Mark McIntosh. I will mainly be referring to McIntosh’s prolegomna discussion in his book Mystical Theology. He starts by addressing some issues in defining spirituality, landing on an understanding which focuses on a discovery of the true self through an encounter with the divine and human other. This lays a platform for a discussion of spirituality and theology:
Perhaps one might think initially in terms of encounter with God as the common ground of spirituality and theology: spirituality being the impression that this encounter makes in the transforming life of people, and theology being the expression that this encounter calls forth as people attempt to understand and speak of the encounter” (6 – my emphasis).
McIntosh pushes away from seeing “experiential phenomena” as the defining features of the spiritual life, because when they are, “spirituality seems to lose its theological voice” (9). Continue reading
When Kyle and I began working together on a theology of the Christian life project, Nicholas Healy’s edition to Ashgate’s Great Theologians series shot to the top of my list: Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life (2003; many thanks to Ashgate for a review copy). I was not disappointed.
Healy’s Thomas Aquinas is a concise and highly accessible introduction to Thomas’ theology, surveying his historical context and development, reception history, and the major doctrines of the Christian faith in Thomas’ Summa Theologiae (henceforth ST). Though a good introduction, likely its most noteworthy contribution is the proposal for a particular kind of reading of ST that makes transparent the evangelical, pastoral and theocentric character of Thomas’ premodern theology. Healy wants to recover a reading of Thomas in which his theological method, his hermeneutics and metaphysics, his conception of the Christian doctrine and practice and pedagogy, as well as the material claims of his theology, are seen to be guided by the principles and norms that ‘reflect the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’ (p. 23).
The book unfolds in six chapters beginning with an historical overview of Thomas’ life and career followed by subsequent chapters addressing Thomas’ Dominicanism (specifically its Christocentric orientation and emphasize on obedience to Christ), doctrine of God, Christology, and conception of the Christian life in light of its ground in the Trinity and in the work of Jesus Christ.
The early material related to Thomas’ identity as a Dominican is actually quite significant for grasping Healy’s interpretative proposals. To be a Dominican was to view the Christian life as a ‘radical’ life, Continue reading
I will be posting next week a review of Nicholas Healy’s introduction to Thomas Aquinas’ theology, Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian life, but I wanted to whet your appetite with a quote before the end of the week.
One of the aims of Healy’s book is to recover a reading of Thomas in which his theological method, his hermeneutics and metaphysics, his conception of the Christian doctrine and practice and pedagogy, as well as the material claims of his theology, are seen to be guided by the principles and norms that ‘reflect the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’ (p. 23). Healy contends throughout that Thomas’ theology should not be read as philosophical, apologetic or systematic work, but instead as a work of scriptural exegesis intended – above all – to serve the preaching of the Gospel. And toward these ends, Thomas must then be read as a theologian first and foremost of the Christian life:
Thomas’s is an anti-systematic system, so to speak, in that its principles systematically undermine any system that does not push the reader back to Scripture and to the concreteness of a life dedicated to following Christ. His theology is best approached from his concern with the Christian life. It is not an attempt to develop an apologetics or a system that confronts and conquers all other systems. It is not concerned with mapping out the complete set of doctrines, though its covers all the doctrines that Thomas thought is necessary to discuss. It is least of all concnered to construct a perennial metaphysics to counter all other worldviews. Theology, as Thomas understands and practices it, attempts to clarify what has been revealed to divine wisdom through the incarnate Word and the operation of the Holy Spirit. Theological inquiry’s main function is to serve the preaching of the Gospel. And the preaching of the Gospel serves the Christian life, which is distinct from other ways of life, since it is an attempt to follow Jesus Christ obediently (p. 21).
What is the relationship between the believer’s union with Christ and his or her obedience to Christ’s teaching?
Our answer to that question is incredibly important not only for retaining the gracious character of the Gospel, but our language of salvation and Christian obedience says a great deal as well about our theology of the Christian life.
Toward sparking some discusson about the relationships we form between our theology of salvation and the Christian life, let’s consider the controversial (to some) reinterpretation of Martin Luther by the Finnish scholar Tuomo Mannermaa. As I have read, and reread, Mannermaa’s interpretation of Luther, I can’t figure out how Mannermaa’s theology of union with Christ doesn’t completely obscure the role of the Spirit in the Christian life. Consider the following from Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification:
The logic of [Luther's] thinking is as follows: In faith, human beings are really united with Christ. Christ, in turn, is both the forgiveness of sins and the effective producer of everything that is good in them. Therefore “sanctification” – is, in fact, only another name for the same phenomenon of which Luther speaks when discussing the communication of attributes, the happy exchange, and the union between the person of Christ and that of the believer. Christ is the true subject and agent of good works in the believer, as illustrated for example, by the following passage: Continue reading
Michael Buesking, “Adventus”, Oil on Linen (2005)
Reactions? Buesking’s own comments about this piece might get us started: “My intention is to suggest the presence of the Spirit and His gifts, and present them as something impossible to contain or hold. Implying a tenuous quality to God’s presence is not meant to be a bad reflection on God’s nature or to demean his promises and gifts. Instead, it has more to do with our interaction with Him and our own human tendency to claim ownership – presumptuously – of something given to us.”
How does this speak to our theology of the spiritual gifts? Our doctrine of the Spirit? Or, our understanding of God’s “haveability”, to use Bonhoeffer’s turn of phrase (Act and Being)?