We are always beginners: Barth on discipleship

For Barth, the Christian life is all grace from beginning to end, so the Christian is always a “beginner,” leaning upon God’s grace in all things.

[T]hose who through grace (because Jesus Christ became and is their Brother) karlbarthpipehave the freedom to call upon God as their Father will never once, when they make use of this freedom, encounter God except as those who are inept, inexperienced, unskilled, and immature, as children in this sense too – little children who are totally unprepared for it. The invocation “Our Father,” and all the Christian life and ethos implicit in this invocation, can never at any stage or in any form be anything but the work of beginners. Even at the most advanced stage and in the ripest form it can never be anything better, for in this field what is supposedly better can only be worse, indeed, it can only be evil. What Christians do becomes a self-contradiction when it takes the form of a trained and mastered routine, of a learned and practiced art. They may and can be masters and even virtuosos in many things, but never in what makes them Christians, God’s children. As masters and virtuosos they would not live by God’s grace. … In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in the littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father (Church Dogmatics, IV.4, 79-80).

On Shame (part 2)

I continue thinking about shame since my last post. A few more posts on the topic will trickle out, I think, over the next few weeks. Don’t expect anything comprehensive, or even closely knitted together. I’m just going to ruminate on it and bring to bear some different angles that seem relevant.

My last post ended with a comment about mortification and vivification. I said that a shame-based portrait of discipleship is “like talking about the Christian life in terms of ‘mortification’ and ‘vivification’ but without the ‘vivification.’ All death, no resurrection.” I realize the terms aren’t in much use. It’s a shame really, because they name basic realities of the Christian that bear quite importantly on the experience of shame (which I am trying to think towards here).

Here’s John Webster from my book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life.

By mortification is meant the discipline practice in which renewed creatures, reconciled to God by Christ’s meritorious death and moved by the Holy Spirit, repudiate, resist, and do away with the remnants of the old ‘earthly’ nature which has been disqualified but which nevertheless persists ‘in’ us (Col. 3:5). By vivification I mean those habits of life in which renewed creatures make alive and empowered by the Spirit amplify their new nature, actively disclosing, confirming, and exercising it. Mortification and vivification are simultaneous, not sequential. Mortification is not an initial stage which at some point in this life is left behind, for our mixed state will persist until paradise. Vivification, however, has material priority, because mortification is a practice of negation, opposing old habits of life, traces of which remain in the present but have no future, having been condemned and terminated by God. Mortification is not a permanent, essential practice of the regenerate nature but an interim necessity, and once its goal of clearing away the diseased remainders of the old nature is reached, it will no longer be required. Vivification, by contrast, is the implementation of the new nature and stretches out to perfection. In vivification we begin to perform the new nature which will endure and so complete and resolve itself that there will be no necessity for mortification (133).

Webster immediately clarifies. Mortification is not directed at on our “created nature” – as if simply being human is under fire by the Spirit. Rather, it’s

an assault on the sin which opposes created nature’s regeneration. … And so mortification is not hatred of embodied life but opposition to death-dealing vice, its purpose being not nature’s destruction but the ordering and forming of regenerate conduct. It is not [and here Webster quotes Augustine] ‘hostile persecution’ but ‘healthy chastening’ which intends the recovery and flourishing of nature (133).

Mortification is not an assault on embodied human life.

It makes me wonder: could a dimension of Christian-shame be a weak theology of creation? I mean, if we struggle down deep with being creaturely rather than being spiritual (the old Gnostic heresy), then could it be that we unwittingly but disastrously confuse our sinfulness with our creatureliness, and thereby confuse the object of mortification with our humanity? We end up imagining that the Spirit’s holy-making work in our lives is really after the destruction of our embodied humanity—our having-been-made bodily creatures—rather than the destruction of the sin “that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1).

Shame masquerading as sanctification which actually targets our embodiment. That’s not easy to shake off.

On Shame

I met with a student of mine a few days ago who talked to me about shame. She lamented that much of her faith history was in communities that (as she experienced it) emphasized shame. The effect was a lingering sense of her utter inadequacy and condemnation.

Now, a sense of one’s inadequacy regarding salvation is not a bad thing at all, and she knows that (see Ephesians 2). We are not saved on account of the adequacy of what we do, but wholly on account of the adequacy of what God does for us in Jesus the Messiah, as it is brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit. God comes to us with life from the inexpressible sufficiency of his divine life. The super-abundant adequacy of the divine life overmatches our inadequacy. Our sin is no match for his life.

She knows it. Her struggle is more a matter of this: as she sees it, once saved she still doesn’t amount to much.

So I was delighted to hear that she’s been finding a fresh vision for discipleship, one less centered on shame, from one of my favorite theologians: Rowan Williams. After reading his new book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, my student (who is fast becoming a friend) said a new way forward opened up in front of her. She specifically mentioned an image Williams uses in the first chapter. Birdwatcher

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is about to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness…is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view (4-5).

Beautiful. It makes me wonder: could it be that a shame-based sense of our relation to God gives us the sense that we shouldn’t expect God to show up, surprise us, overwhelm us with delight?  When the Christian life centers on shame, why should we expect God to show up for anything other than condemnation? It’s like talking about the Christian life in terms of “mortification” and “vivification” but without the “vivification.” All death, no resurrection. It’s a shame. No, it’s tragedy, and maybe even heresy.

Father, lead us to know our own worth as we discover our lives in you and only in you.

Christian Beliefs Contrary to the White House’s Climate Policies [Reflections]

How do Christian beliefs about Scripture, Creation, Jesus, and the Church correspond with recent White House climate and environmental policies? 

Donald Trump said he would drain the swamp. Whatever swamp he drained, he seems eager to refill it with oil. From appointing former big oil executives to key administrative roles to making executive orders favoring fossil fuel lobbyists, Trump has pushed forward an incredibly anti-environmental responsibility agenda.

Most recently, Trump rolled back Obama-era legislation that favored cleaner forms of energy. Trump and his staff have suggested this is a wise move because it frees up industries to create more jobs. Of course, job creation is important. What they fail to acknowledge is that new pipelines do not create long-term jobs but pose very real threats to local ecosystems and communities, especially when mountaintops are blown up for coal or when vast tracks of land are mined for tar sand oil (like Keystone XL will transport). When the administration champions its “anti-regulation” approach to environmental matters, we must remember that what they are actually championing is an “anti-responsibility” agenda. Responsibility, in this case, is taking care to steward our environment for the sake of our neighbors (present and future).

I have written elsewhere about Christianity and caring for God’s creation. This time around I simply want to offer angles from which Christians might be able to recognize the connection between environmental policy and the Christian faith. In this article, I will present four angles for reflection. I do not suggest how Christians ought to respond in this article. Churches will need to have conversations in their own communities and respond according to the unique problems in their own cities. Continue reading

Spiritual darkness and ‘keeping a low profile’

a brakelSpiritual darkness is something that affects – or at least can affect – all Christian believers. It may develop as a result of a particular affliction (Lord, why this?), or it may be difficult to link to any one issue in life. It comes in the form of seemingly inexplicable feelings of doubt, loss of joy, loss of clarity about spiritual matters and so on. It is likely running its course in the lives of quite a few in our own churches.

Thankfully, this is something addressed with specificity and pastoral insight by the Dutch Reformed minister Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) in his excellent work The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols with Reformation Heritage Books). After serving churches for forty years, à Brakel published this gem that not only covers topics commonly found in systematic theologies but also addresses many of the Christian’s immediately practical concerns.

He defines ‘spiritual darkness’ in this way: it is a ‘spiritual disease of a person who has made some progress in the Christian life’ in which that person faces ‘the absence of the normal illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit’ and is ‘without joy, warmth, and direction’. Such a person ‘lives in fear and anxiety, causing him to wander about aimlessly, as in a desert’ (4:260). It’s difficult to provide more precision in defining this phenomenon, but I think, as they say, we’ll know it when we see it. According to à Brakel, spiritual darkness is manifested in sorrow, even in ‘fleeting atheistic thoughts’ and temptations to err in doctrine and practice. In another respect, it is like being cold: ‘During the winters and beneath the pole-caps everything becomes immobile due to the frost’ (4:261-2).

What are the causes for this darkness? Whether because he is dealing more narrowly with strictly spiritual darkness and/or because it simply wasn’t on his radar, à Brakel doesn’t deal here with depression influenced by bodily issues. Suffice it to say, for my part, I believe spiritual darkness, physiology and even what we often call ‘personality’ (or personality type) can be intertwined. In any event, à Brakel names several potential causes for spiritual darkness:

Continue reading

Sanctified by Grace (Contents and Contributors)

Sanctified by Grace_cover_March62014 With Sanctified by Grace Kyle and I have in mind a vexing challenge for contemporary theology: the hyper-specialization of the academy which causes divisions unnatural to theology, such as between mind and heart, belief and action, dogmatics and spirituality, etc. Spirituality, the Christian life and Christian practice are all relegated to other disciplines and no longer flow from and speak back (prophetically) into theology. Rather than recognizing the death of spirituality when it is divorced from theology (and vice versa), the modern academy baptizes this separation with academic programs and books in which theology and spirituality rarely collide (let alone mutually influence).

In a modest way we hope the book addresses these temptations by providing a theological account of the Christian life in which doctrine and life, confession and practice are held together in the divine economy of grace. The approach is straightforwardly doctrinal – focusing the life of the Christian on the triune God who creates, elects, calls and redeems.

Part One—The Gracious One
1. The Triune God   •   Fred Sanders
2. The Electing God   •   Suzanne McDonald
3. The Creating and Providential God  •   Katherine Sonderegger
4. The Saving God   •   Ian McFarland
5. The Perfecting God   •   Christopher Holmes

Part Two—The Graces of the Christian Life
6. Reconciliation and Justification   •   John Burgess
7. Redemption and Victory   •   Christiaan Mostert
8. Communion with Christ   •   John Webster

Part Three—The Means of Grace
9. Scripture   •   Donald Wood
10. Church and Sacraments   •   Tom Greggs

Part Four—The Practices of Grace
11. Discipleship  •   Philip Ziegler
12. Prayer   •   Ashley Cocksworth
13. Theology   •   Ellen Charry
14. Preaching   •   William Willimon
15. Forgiveness & Reconciliation   •   D. Stephen Long

Though we did not edit the book specifically for  classrooms (a publishing practice I sometimes despair over), we nonetheless hoped it will be a natural fit for courses in Systematic Theology, Practical theology, Spiritual theology, and those more narrowly focused on Ecclesiology or the Christian Life (such as the one I teach at HU).

Conversion and Ritual

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 inImage 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