In a fascinating essay on St. Augustine’s conversion, Thomas Finn argues for the importance of ritual. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion is sometimes told exclusively in terms of his garden experience at Milan in 386AD, and indeed Augustine himself calls that event his conversion (Confessions, 8.12.30). However, taken on its own the garden experience sets a pattern for understanding conversion that centers on an instantaneous decision of faith. Finn, however, argues that Augustine’s Confessions shows a conversion narrative in which a decisive moment initiates a long ritual journey. Augustine’s garden experience, on Finn’s reading, was part of a much larger narrative that began in his youth and carried forward into the ancient process of the catechumenate.
The central decision [Augustine] faced was not whether to believe but whether to present himself for initiation, which he decided to do in the summer of 386. Well before that…his mind was made up about the content of Catholic belief. No, the problem was to become, to enter. Although it is not customary to read the Confessions as the account of a ritual or liturgical journey, it is clear that Augustine’s conversion was neither sudden nor limited to the garden in Milan. Rather, it was a process that began with his inscription in the catechumenate as an infant in November 354 and ended when he laid aside his white baptismal garment on the Sunday after Easter, April 25, 387: a thirty-year journey from first-born to new born. To be sure, his journey was not the journey of every ancient convert, but the ritual process that assured Augustine’s conversion, mutatis mutandis, attended the conversion of everyone, at least every documented case, who become a Christian in late antiquity. The case of Augustine establishes with clarity that conversio goes beyond the turned of one’s mind to the turning of one’s self, for which, at least in antiquity, ritual was indespensable. The ritual process was the normal means in the religions of antiquity to form and to reform the self in a community whose ideal was transformation (“Ritual and Conversion: The Case of Augustine,” in John Petruccione (ed), Nova & Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patric Halton (1998), p. 161).
This is interesting to me because Augustine’s garden experience is often the paradigm for Protestant evangelicals. Continue reading
We promised some excerpts from our forthcoming book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, so here we go. An obvious question is simply what we mean by the construction “the Christian life.” To what does it refer, what is its range of meaning, and from where does one draw to fill out its content? This is taken from the Introduction:
‘The Christian life’ is theological shorthand for redeemed human existence in communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit. That is, it names the temporal experience of God’s eternal purposes for fellowship as they are realized in human beings according to God’s grace. To state it yet another way, to address ‘the Christian life’ is to speak about the character of reconciled and renewed human existence. God’s gracious purpose to conform fallen people to the image of Christ takes shape and fulfills itself in time and space; this is the Christian life.
Putting it this way points out the rich doctrinal nexus within which the doctrine of the Christian life is situated. While the primary reference of ‘the Christian life’ is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension.
With the PhD thesis officially submitted, I’m hoping to eek out a few blog posts now. My wife recently gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers and devotional reflections. It has been a joy to read thus far for several different reasons.
Probably the most significant aspect of it for me is its way of reminding me of who God is and why it is such a blessing to have a place among the saints. Even when devoting oneself to the doctrine of God in systematics, one can never take in enough thoughtful pastoral statements about the goodness and wisdom of God. These nourish and stabilize our faith (certainly mine, at least).
The meaning of the name of the volume is glimpsed in the opening prayer:
You have brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see you in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold your glory….Let me learn by paradox…that the valley is the place of vision….Let me find thy light in my darkness…thy glory in my valley.
The book is excellent not only for personal reading but also as a resource for crafting pastoral prayers to be used in corporate worship. Here is a longer portion of the prayer entitled “The Trinity”:
O Father, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have given me to Jesus, to be his sheep, jewel, portion; O Jesus, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have accepted, espoused, bound me; O Holy Spirit, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have exhibited Jesus as my salvation, implanted faith within me, subdued my stubborn heart, made me one with him forever. O Father, you are enthroned to hear my prayers, O Jesus, your hand is outstreched to take my petitions, O Holy Spirit, you are willing to help my infirmities, to show me my need, to supply words, to pray within me, to strengthen me that I faint not in supplication. O Triune God, who commands the universe, you have commanded me to ask for those things that concern your kingdom and my soul. Let me live and pray as one baptized into the threefold Name.
The book of course isn’t designed for the lenten season, but it does include a series of morning and evening daily prayers as well.
Ben Quash’s 2013 Lent Book, Abiding, is a beautiful meditation on the Christian life. Here is an excerpt from the chapter, “Abiding in Relationships.”
Human relationships will sometimes fail – often in small ways and occasionally in big and terrible ways. The Christian confidence is that no failure that is enacted by the embroiled human will can outrun grace. The Christian belief is that our abiding in relationship with God and one another is a ‘work’ that prospers only because God first abides in relationship with us. And God can bind all things – including the times, the seasons, and our fractured lives – not because God is one solitary and almighty will, but because he is faithful, and makes covenants, and gives himself, making an ‘us’ that will abide for eternity because it is established in the power of this infinitely responsive love (p. 128)
Kyle and I have been working for several years on a theology of the Christian life. In fact, we started the project while office mates and quick friends at the University of Aberdeen. We are very happy to say it is done and will be published in the early summer by T&T Clark! (you can preorder here) In the meantime, we are going to post some excerpts to whet your appetite.
The following is from the book jacket:
Books on the Christian life abound. Some focus on spirituality, others on practices, and others still on doctrines such as justification or forgiveness. Few offer an account of the Christian life that portrays redeemed Christian existence within the multifaceted and beautiful whole of the Christian confession. This book attempts to fill that gap. It provides a constructive, specifically theological interpretation of the Christian life according to the nature of God’s grace. This means coordinating the triune God, his reconciling, justifying, redemptive, restorative, and otherwise transformative action with those practices of the Christian life emerging from it. The doctrine of the Christian life developed here unifies doctrine and life, confession and practice within the divine economy of grace.
Drawing together some of the most important theologians in the church today, Sanctified by Grace achieves what no other theological text offers – a shared work of dogmatic theology oriented to redeemed Christian existence.
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