Wednesday, September 26, 2012

It's Gotta Be the Shoes!

I teach Luther's Small Catechism as part of an undergraduate theology class on the theology of Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas.  I use it as a way to carry out the ideas of the Freedom of a Christian into the ordinary.  The following are 10 great things that emerge from the teaching of the first three articles:  Commandments, Creed, and Lord's Prayer.

1.  Luther puts the "fear and love of God" at the core of the commandments.

2.  He lodges the language of justification of the ungodly in discussion of God's gift of creation.

3.  He makes the commandments about the neighbor, the other, as well as each repetitions of the first commandment.

4.  Unconditional self-giving of God the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit.

5.   Everyday life, quotidian grace.

6.  "not with silver and gold."

7.  "I cannot by my own reason..."

8.  Shoes.

9.  Shoes.

10.  Shoes.

Monday, June 25, 2012

How to Write a Theology Book #1: Getting Started

Here's how to write a theology book.  Or rather, here's what has gone into the writing of a book under contract that I've been developing for the last three years and is soon in the publisher's hands.  I'll get to the book in a few posts but I want to lay down some maxims that summarize my experience.  I'm writing this to share the process but also to reflect on it for myself.

MAXIM #1:  To write theology, you read theology.

Just as any painter has studied other paintings and a musician listened to other music, to write theology, you've got to read it.

I don't know where I'd be without reading theology.  I would lack a handle on things, I wouldn't know my way around, I wouldn't have a sense that I don't have to reinvent the hypostatic union.  I might disagree with multitudes of my predecessors and peers but I am part of this community and hold each of them in esteem.

I've developed several habits to stay on top of what's going on in theology.  I don't really keep up with the trends since I'm usually trying to read backwards into the past, especially into the stuff that's not part of my years in graduate school and seminary.  For instance, I've been re-reading and reading a lot of Karl Rahner lately.  And Peter Brunner.

By consensus, a bibliography is an exacting account of books referred to by the author in the book.  A writer does not "pad" bibliography.  My bibliography is currently at about 150 items.  If I included all the books that I read to get to this point, the bibliography would exceed my research library.

I think I can generally tell if a book is written largely in terms of a particular school by its range of reference.  There are certain neighborhoods of theology, if you will, to which individual works belong.   Books get better, I think, the more wide-ranging they are.  This is why the most recent great works of systematic theology, such as those by Wolfhart Pannenberg or Robert W. Jenson are so great.  Though they have their scholastic limitations as well.

MAXIM #2:  Learn and use languages.  Especially German and French.

A theologian is a careful reader.  And careful readers need to tend to the books and things they read as thoroughly as possible.  The humanities scholar calls it "establishing the text."  For me, since I don't work in archival manuscripts (though I did for my dissertation) I don't muck around with some of the hard-core academic work anymore.  Not every non-English writer needs to be read in the original but Martin Heidegger does.  And certainly a word-smith like Jacques Derrida does.  Jean-Luc Marion sort of does.  And so on.


MAXIM #3:  Have a problem.

MAXIM #4:  Convince others that they should have that problem, too.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Theology at St Olaf College

St. Olaf College General Education Curriculum
Biblical and Theological Studies–Theology (BTS-T) Requirement

A course on Christian theology that acquaints students with ongoing efforts to understand the essential content of Christian belief in a critical and coherent manner, and that engages students in theological reflection.

Intended learning outcomes:

Students will demonstrate:

1. knowledge about Christian teachings, including knowledge of their historical development, their complexity and variety, and their coherence.

2. skill in reading and interpreting theological texts.

3. ability to evaluate the truth and meaning of their own and others’ theological positions.

4. ability to apply theological knowledge and skills to issues of historical, contemporary, or personal significance.

Course guidelines with Curriculum Committee comments:

1. The principal focus of these courses must be Christian theology, understood as critical and normative reflection on Christian teachings.

Comment: While these courses may also consider other traditions or disciplines in relation to theology, Christian theology must be the principal focus. Theology is understood as “critical and normative reflection.” Theology is critical in that Christian discourse about God and Christ claims to be meaningful and true. Hence these courses must explore criteria of meaning and truth, and address such questions as, How, if at all, are Christian teachings about God and Christ meaningful? Theology is normative in that it intends to shape Christian discourse about God and Christ. Hence these courses must address such questions as, What kinds of claims about God and Christ are consistent with Christian teachings?

2. Courses must consider substantial examples of historical or contemporary theological reflection, and attend to the context, the variety, and the coherence of the theological claims they advance.

Comment: Christian theology is a temporally extended and multi-cultural
discussion about Christian teachings concerning God and Christ. Courses
satisfying this requirement must introduce students into this discussion by
presentation of historical or contemporary movements or figures. Where
appropriate, this may also involve considerations of critics of Christianity,
minority Christian traditions, other religious traditions, or theological
interaction with non-theological disciplines.

3. Courses must include explicit attention to Christian teachings about God and
Jesus Christ; courses may include attention to significant aspects of other central
teachings as appropriate to specific course goals.

Comment: Although these courses must include substantial attention to
Christian teachings about God and Christ, they need not be exclusively
concerned with them. They may also include the relation of these teachings to
other Christian teachings about, for example, creation, sin, anthropology,
ecclesiology, eschatology, and more. They may consider other aspects of
Christianity such as religious practice, institutions, or ritual. They may include
comparisons of Christian teachings with those of other religions.

4. Courses must provide opportunities for students to engage in explicitly
theological reflection, and to apply their theological knowledge to matters of
historical, contemporary, or personal significance.

Comment: Students in courses meeting this requirement will both acquire
knowledge of Christian theology and participate actively in theological
discussion, through informed engagement with a variety of theological

Monday, May 7, 2012

Except When It Doesn’t

1.  Theology matters a lot.  Except when it doesn’t.

2.  Seeking the truth is hopeless.  Except when it isn’t.

3.  Giving free gifts is impossible.  Except when they appear.

4.  God can’t be spoken about.  Except when God speaks.

5.  We have always been modern.  Except when we weren’t.

6.  Life is more fragmented.  Except when it fits.

7.  Popular culture is irrelevant.  Except when it’s all we got.

8.  No one can understand another.  Except when you read this.

9.  Everyone is fake.  Except when you are authentically fake.

10.  We are in a serious crisis.  Except when we aren’t.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Lord of the Rings: Creation and Eucatastrophe

This is the panel I participated in with two current St Olaf students on Tolkien's "Song of the Ainur," the creation story of Middle Earth. I ramble on at the beginning on Tolkien and how Hobbits ruined his cosmology. Jim Peterman and Sadie Swehla speak about music, composition, and Tolkien's languages as follows. It was lovely to showcase these student's work!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Injury as the Sign of the Times

How things hurt shows us what is going on more than any other "sign" we may discern.

Most people want to know what is going on in their societies, communities, and cultures.  The worst way to do this is a poll.  Polls, unless crafted very carefully and subjected to considerable interpretation, make remarkable assumptions about the way that human beings perceive themselves.  First, polls (as opposed to extended interviews and observations) presume that I, when taking a poll, am transparent to myself.  We hardly are aware of all of our motivations and the various ways in which our self-reflective observations are self-deceptions and half-truths.  We need help to understand ourselves and our families and situations.  The short account we give of ourselves in a poll does not disclose much.

Second, polls threaten religious claims directly because they skew what people think is true based upon their situation, no matter whether they are conscious of it or not.  Polls are sometimes thought to generate or reveal what is generally plausible or believable in a society.  They are thought to present to us what are called "plausibility structures."  A person usually appeals to what is plausible by appealing to a general sense of what a society accepts as true.  For instance, many Americans can imagine environmental disaster.  What they cannot imagine is a world governed otherwise than by a free-market capitalist economy.  The German theologian Johann Baptist Metz exposes this well by pointing out another suspicion of polls:
[The dangerous memory of Jesus Christ] is always raising the suspicion that 'societies plausibility structures' can very much be 'obfuscation structures.' And it refuses to measure the relevance of its critique according to what a businessman, a bit drowsy after lunch, would take to be self-evident and relevant, which frequently functions as the secret criterion for rationality and reason. 
What Metz calls "the dangerous memory of Jesus" is the way that he hopes Christians approach the world, that dwelling in Jesus shapes a moral sensorium, a kind of sensitivity for injury.  Everyone has a stake in remedying and addressing the ways that people are chewed up, disfigured, and marred by their communities, nations, and economies.  Getting at what is going is crucial for Christians who take the memory of Jesus to open up their heart to the needs of others and to see and love themselves as well. 

Metz points forward as should anyone who follows Martin Luther's famous definition that a theologian of the cross finds the things of God in suffering and in death.  Where should we look to see what is going on in the world?  The bright lights?  The doings of the powerful?  Rather than give into despair and claim that what is going on is inaccessible to us, there is another way to get at what the signs of the time.

The better way to determine what is making up these complex social relations is injury.  A social structure is hardly reducible to either the society or the individual people and material features that make it up.  Neither alone can get us a picture of what is going on.  We have to shuttle back and forth to open up what is going on.  This lever is most visible when social systems and people together reject people or cause harm.  Theodor Adorno points out that society makes itself visible in injury.  What is going on today is visible when there is pain.

[S]ociety becomes directly perceptible where it hurts.  For example, [...] someone who is looking for a job and 'runs into a brick wall' has the feeling that all doors are shutting automatically in his face; or someone who has to borrow money [...] who meets with a 'No" ten or twenty times, and is told he is just an example of a widespread law [on who is a credit risk], all these, I would say, are direct indices of the phenomenon of society. 
This is hardly a joyous way to encounter society, to consider it made visible in its rejection.  There is certainly much to celebrate in our cultures and communities, but their spirits, their direction, and their events are most visible when they injure something or someone.  Adorno called this effort to discern the signs of the times a "melancholy science" but I consider it proper to Christian work in the world since it is precisely the world's trash heaps where new life begins.  Golgotha is ground zero for hope since it is this injury and rejection of God in the flesh that marks any way forward for Christian practice.  And so we can take another phrase of Adorno's, which is itself a modification of one of Jesus' sayings:
The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.   

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sketching Theology of Culture

[This is a handout I use with my undergraduates.]

A theologian of culture attempts to identify the practical effect Christian commitments have or could have.  It differs from other modes of theology that reflect on the internal coherence of Christian claims or puts those claims in dialogue with modern science, social science, or other concerns.

There are two major ways a theologian of culture proceeds.  The first is analytical or descriptive; the second is constructive or prescriptive. 

Analytical Approach

An analytical approach to the theology of culture attempts to identify the footprint or effect of Christian claims.  This means that an analytical approach can take up any cultural phenomena or practice at all since it will proceed to work backwards from the phenomena to disclose the underlying social imaginary that makes such a practice possible.

This kind of reasoning does not suggest that the practice or phenomenon can only be explained by the logic of Christian claims but that it is one of the possible if not the most probable explanation.  It is an argument from fittingness.  A better analytical account will give fuller logic and grounding in the social imaginary – it will show how an isolated phenomena is better understood if not best understood (which is still not the only way the phenomena can be understood) by its reflection of Christian practice. 

Analysis requires a crucial intermediary step of showing the broader implications of a social imaginary that engenders the practice.  Thus, when considering a work of art, one must consider how this art develops a world or discloses some aspect of the world.  Even art that intends not to disclose but hide or attempts to be divorced from world or world-creating can still be analyzed by a theologian of culture.  Even the most purely secular practice or commitment can be under girded by a social imaginary that is influenced by Christian logic.

Constructive Approach

A constructive approach to the theology of culture actively engages a social imaginary in order to transform cultural practices on the basis of Christian logic.  This more prescriptive approach is aided by the analytical approach to unfurl the connection between practice and the larger social imaginary from whence it springs.  It is constructive in that it attempts to change cultural practices.

The best kinds of analysis are those that show what is going on, calling attention to the transformation and practical effect or import of Christian commitments or arguing that Christians should adopt or change.

Problems and Promises

A theologian of culture -- even in an analytical mode -- is advocating the influence of a particular set of Christian hopes (love, forgiveness, community), hopes that are part of an internal debate among Christians that extends over the history of Christianity.  Likewise, it is impossible to suggest that Christian practices are not influenced by the cultures in which Christianity emerged and expanded.  Thus, this procedure of analysis or construction can seem to criticize the failings of Christianity in its blatant accommodations to social imaginaries alien to it or its capitulations of its commitments.

A final problem emerges in understanding the social imaginary in any shape or form.  The imaginary is not just what people believe. It is not transparent to them.  Rather, it may determine societies in ways that their members cannot fully discern or appreciate.  Getting at the social imaginary (or ideology if the imaginary causes injury or regression) is another matter that pairs the theologian of culture with the critical social theorist.

Adorno (and Critical Social Theory) Summarized in a 1940s New Yorker Cartoon

I haven't yet found the New Yorker cartoon.  Just a description of it.

I like to run across bits that express a complex matter without sacrificing its difficult contours.  To be sure such bits do not express all the conceptual argumentation and examination that such a "X in a nutshell" bit provides.

In the case of communicating and understanding the way a critical social theorist approaches social and cultural phenomena, one difficult matter to communicate is the suspicion and hesitations these theorists have in using polls and surveys.  They do not think that just asking the "man in the street" can disclose the sign of the times.  Or even to have a massive survey or poll.

But to the cartoon.

Theodor Adorno, one of the major contributors to critical social theory, emigrated to the United States from Germany (by way of the UK) in the 1940s.  He joined Paul Lazersfeld's Princeton Radio Research Project.  Lazersfeld, himself an emigree, had pioneered the study of media in the United States through his consideration of emerging radio networks.  Lazersfeld is a name any cultural critic should know since he constructed many of the ways that media firms and corporations research and develop their programming.  He cut what some consider a devil's deal between research and the industry he researched.  He studied the social and cultural effects of media by working closely with NBC and other media companies on their behalf.  He called his work "administrative research" and to his credit, he held out the hope that mass media would improve culture (in the high sense of culture) by disseminating the gems of music, plays, and other news features more widely than before.  Lazersfeld championed reader and listener surveys, the poll, and other forms of research that are still in use as a way to gauge what is going on in media.

Adorno and Lazersfeld clashed from the beginning of their mutual involvement since Adorno was and would be utterly opposed to the dominance of empirical research in social science.  It had its place but required considerable and complex interpretation through what Adorno sometimes called a "dialectical theory of society."

Adorno wrote a considerable body of material in his short tenure at the Princeton Radio Research Project.  These unpublished papers have been collected as Current of Music.  They are wide-ranging and fascinating discussions of radio and emerging medias that have a wide range of applicability to contemporary social media and other cultural concerns.  This collection includes various research memos and notes, one of which refers to the particular approach of Adorno and critical social theory in general:

Dr. Lazersfeld once characterized my approach by a joke [cartoon] from the New Yorker:  An old Negro cook who believes in metempsychosis shows to her mistress a dog playing in the street and hints at the probability that the dog might be the reincarnation of the old man.  The mistress, well aware of her cook's crotchet, replies cautiously that this might easily be the case, but that the dog is playing with some children, which certainly would not be the thing for the old man to do.  "That's all right," replies the cook, "but I am not so sure about them children either."  Current of Music, p. 141 n.

Adorno readily accepts Lazersfeld's characterization.  He goes on to state that
In our situation we do not have on the one side the social mechanism [that is, media or institutions] like radio operating on human beings and on the other side human beings as a sort of tabula rasa.

Surveys and polls in Adorno's view do not reveal much since they assume what is not the case -- that human beings have a clear window on themselves and on what they are experiencing from without (the media acting on them, for instance).  This view assumes people are in full control of themselves, know what they think, understand their situation in the world.  Adorno does not claim that people are utterly duped, that ideology is so pervasive its influence is total, and that the sign of the times is so utterly distorted and obscure that no one can figure out what is going on.  Rather, Adorno holds that misperception is reality, which is a story for another day.

But I haven't yet managed to find this cartoon since it is neither by a famous cartoonist (it seems).

Update (April 18, 2012): 

My colleague at St. Olaf, Professor Dr. Torin Alexander, discovered that this refers to a joke in the "Talk of the Town" column from the July 1, 1939 issue of the New Yorker.  The authors are Stewart Schakne and Russel Maloney.  I thought it was a cartoon so I was searching that database instead.

Here's the original text:

A friend of ours, a true skeptic, has always treated with respect the psychic theoris of his colored maid, who is inclined to believe in reincarnation. The other morning she said, "Mr. Harrison, you know that little old dog with the wrinkled face that lives in the next block? Well, I don't think he's a dog at all. I think he's a little old man." Our friend said that the dog's appearance certainly favored this notion, but there was a serious objection. "That dog is always playing with the children in the neigborhood," he said. "A little old man wouldn't want to play with children, would he?" The maid shook her head darkly. "Just between you and me," she said. "I ain't none too sure about them children."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Maximally Confessing Maximus the Confessor

WHEREAS current ecumenical lectionaries include Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane in the readings for Passion Sunday and Maunday Thursday, and;

WHEREAS Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer in order to teach us how to pray, and;

WHEREAS in Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane we see a crucial moment in the arrest, trial, and passion of our Lord, where he seems to waver from the betrayal and death that awaits him; and

WHEREAS we confess in the creeds that God became truly human and so possessed of the same freedom we have to follow or deny God; and

WHEREAS we confess that Jesus is at the same time truly one with God  and so possessed of perfect harmony and agreement with the will of God; and

WHEREAS the incarnation of this eternal Word admits no limit to the solidarity between God and creation in Jesus; and

WHEREAS the Gospels portray Jesus as he is in his agony for our sake to not only reflect the experience of the faithful as a teacher but also to join it; and

WHEREAS to believe, teach, or confess that Jesus only pretended to hesistate suggests he either was not fully human or that his humanity was not in community and union with the eternal God, be it

RESOLVED that Jesus did have a choice in the Garden to turn away from his mission; and further be it

RESOLVED that God’s eternal will for the salvation of the world rests on the choice made by the human Jesus in the Garden; and further be it

RESOLVED that Jesus as the incarnate Word did not have one but two wills, one human and one divine; and further be it

RESOLVED that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorate Maximus the Confessor (580-662) on 21 August to recognize that his teaching of dyotheletism is a witness to the faith and is in harmony with the Bible, the Lutheran Confessions, and the experience of the faithful.

[ELCA synod assemblies routinely consider resolutions; My friend Clint Schnekloth suggested that one should be written on an obscure theological topic.  I'm not sure this is so obscure.]

Friday, April 6, 2012

First Thoughts on the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Criminal Justice

I'm really excited for discussion of this draft Social Statement on Criminal Justice for several reasons. As a theologian, I am delighted at the kinds of reasoning that it displays and how the statement puts forward a succinct and persuasive framework for Christian ethics.   As a Christian, I hope it can aid our congregations and communities to seek out a more just criminal justice system at the same time to build up our most precious crumbling infrastructure, civil society!

What follows are a few non-technical observations on this draft statement and a few gestures to show how wonderful and utterly evangelical (in the best sense) this draft is.

1.  First thing.  You won't find a lot of big-spun theories here. I do like complex and subtle reasoning but I don't think that huge swaths of airy speculation are that helpful unless they are really necessary.  What we need most of all is a bit of orientation.  Just as we find our directions through Google maps we don't really need to know our absolute location in the entire world, we just need a bit of a direction, a slight view of the road ahead.  So when we raise the question:  how should Christians consider and respond to a situation?  we should just try to get a shard of perspective.  We certainly don't need more than that.  What this statement gives is that the Christian dwelling in baptism, in the word, in the Scriptures is an orientation.  Nothing more, perhaps less since we may not know what lies ahead but we may learn which way we can go.

2.  Whose justice?  Which rationality?  This draft statement makes a statement and separates itself from many approaches to Christian ways of being-in-the-world by holding that a Christian doesn't get special equipment to learn new things or insights about the way the world is nor does seeing the world in the cross of Jesus somehow pull back the curtains on all that is hidden.  This is to assure us that God has many ways of working in the world, most of them hidden apart from the ways that God is hidden in Jesus.  And the various kinds of justice that God offers, gives, and demands are served by the justice that Jesus accomplishes in his death and resurrection.

This worldly justice and the eternal justice of the gospel is a sharp departure from what is probably the dominant way of thinking of justice and Christian ethics in the last century:  that God's justice is not divisible or at odds with itself.  Especially in American Christian ethics, justice is considered continuous across the various domains of church and community.  This would mean in drastic oversimplification that the world already possesses justice and the church merely reflects that or that the world is to be utterly absorbed into the church without remainder.  Both of these approaches, and with qualifications, a few more, are competing ways of approaching Christian ethics that would issue far different sets of Christian action and ways of reforming criminal justice.  More on that later.

3.  The whole orientation of the what the draft statement -- following Martin Luther --- is that the marks of the church permit us to search, weigh, consider, and invest ourselves in the needs of others.  This is an orientation, it is giving ourselves a direction.  It does not supply us with new riches to invest in others; rather baptism and the gifts of the Spirit are there to permit a full-blown self-giving to others.

4.  This entry into the needs of others also opens a way for pleading for the limitations of what we can accomplish in our actions.  It allows for us to bear the guilt of our failures and to confront the lost and forgotten ways of the past.  This is a further strength of the orientation this statement puts before us.

None of these points have gotten me to the substance of the document, positions that are worth much more careful reflection than these first few thoughts.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Love as Strong as Death

Chapel Talk
St. Olaf College
7 April 2008
The Season of Easter

Song of Songs 8.6-7
Opening Hymn:  Christ lay in Death's Thrall

This lesson speaks of a ferocious love.  When partnered with our first hymn today, the great Christ lag in Todesbanden, we must speak of a devouring love.  This ferocity comes to expression finally in a sort of fearful symmetry:  love is strong like death.

Hearing about love and its powers, of course befits the Easter season.  The same goes for death.  But to say the are strong like each other not only fixes us to the ferocity of the love that Jesus bore in accepting the death and dishonor offered him but it also can bring us to wonder about what we say when we say "Christ is risen."

I say none of this to soften the word spoken again and again:  "he is not here.  He has been raised."  Without this, we must look elsewhere for hope.  So let us hear carefully this lesson from the Song of Songs when partnered with this message.

This love demands:  set me as a seal upon your heart.  This poem, the Song of Songs, has an important life in the church and in Israel.  It, as modern students of it have noted, speaks of an all-too-human love.  Centuries of reflection have saw in it God's unimpeachable love for the world.  We can take a little of both views and note that God's love, if it is to be at all intelligible to us, has to be comparable to our own.  And so the Song of Songs has pride of place for this, though we may be tempted to the Yankee excess of Cole Porter (I've Got You Under My Skin) or the British modesty of John and Paul (I Want To Hold Your Hand).

Seals, of course, are like signatures.  They display publicly whose identity they are.  The lover wants to be the very seal of her beloved.  This means that she will be the very identity that is displayed around her beloved's neck.  Such a person as seal does not mean identity theft but identity sharing., to tie the fates of lover and beloved together.  It signifies the ferocity of love gets up close and personal.

By demanding this, we can see the stakes of the central line from our lesson.  If lover and beloved are tied together, one has the other as a seal, as the very identity of the other, their fates are tied.  So the demands of this fierce love, is the greatest of sharing, the sweetest swap, and the greatest community.  So love and beloved belong together.  Since Jesus displayed a terrible love, a strange love that bore all close to him, who refused refusal and judged judgment, this poem speaks to him as well.  Jesus bears all close to him, indeed, under his skin.  This, of course, is why Cole Porter is a great source for Christian theology.

This loving proximity, this getting up close and personal, is strong like death.  Fierce as the grave, and cannot be quenched by mighty rivers.  This poem ascribes great things to love and this is worthy indeed of God's.  Let us move closer.

This trope seems important.  In Latin translations of the Bible this comparison between love and death has been taken as a strict equation and so this line of the poem demands further reflection.  If love and death are in stalemate, this runs counter to our experience.  Death always seems to have the upper hand. 

And so we are back to the message of Easter.  The field of Easter always, I think lies shrouded in early morning fog.  This field of Easter stands between night and day and so betrays the eye easily.  Mark's gospel, with its non-angelic young man and its ending in terror, presents the fundamental dilemma for anyone who wishes to think about the Easter message:  he is not dead but risen.  Friend and foe alike, it is not manifest that this fierce love outstripped the grave.  We await further report.  It appears unclear and inconclusive.

Because of this delicate situation, I want no mystification, no hand waving, no empty curt phrase, no obfuscation of the truth of this proclamation.  I desire no quick solution.  To ignore this trope from the Song of Songs is given in to the danger of taking this Easter message and selling it at bargain-basement prices.  He died, he's alive, let's get on with it.  To ignore this endangers the message of resurrection and lends it to toxic perversion.  There is no way around but through.

That love is death-like, many know.  Think of the phrases from your own life or Romeo and Juliet.  All of them bear remarkable instances of dying and death.  Oh, I died in your arms!  But though this underlines the happy circumstance that love has great power and is inevitable, it is unlike death in that while death still is rationed at the rate of one per person, love is not. 

To take the question full on, love is strong as death in the scene of direct confrontation, the place of the skull, Golgatha and the field of the tomb.  Here we are aided by a verse from the great hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden.  It was a strange and dreadful strife when death and life collided.  Die Schrift hat verkundigt das:  wie ein Tod den anderen Frass.  As one death shall eat the other.  The ferocity of love, Luther put it, eats.  Chomps.  Bites and Swallows whole.  And, for those of you faithful to your German, you know that humans get the dainty eating verb assigned to them (essen) and dogs devour (fressen).  When his big teeth are pointed out by Red Riding Hood, the wolf responds:  "so ich dich besser fressen kann!" The fearful symmetry of love and death comes down to one death devouring another.  The next time you see your dog or cat taking its meal, or perhaps a very hungry friend or family member, take this as a reminder of the Easter message.  One death eats the other.

And so this odd dish that death has in front of its maw:  death devouring death.  This image, when set alongside our trope, might seem that love is stronger than death.  They are at least equals.  But the strength of this hope is takes good root in the message of Easter: he is not here, he has been raised. 

In clinging to this, you may find you need to enlarge the letter of this trope.  You may need to add, like I do, conjunctions and adverbs like  "but,." "despite," or "perhaps" or, best of all, "nevertheless."  This will make our poem from the Song of Songs sound a bit different but I think no less true:  "love is strong as death, despite death."

And so, let us stand in this strange sight, let us hope honestly and so love fiercely ourselves this and the seasons ahead.  For the love of God that comes among us in this Jesus, removed from the grave, devours death and so opens up a new breath of life.  For this seal upon your brow, your heart, your arm, is this one who has devoured death and so this dish, his eating, his dessert, is yours.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Angels and the Word of the Cross: Theological Considerations from the Gospel of Mark

[A version of an article published in the Lutheran Forum, vol. 41/1 (2007) 36-39.  
It was published without footnotes]

Angels either play a new or no role in modern theology.  This situation owes to many factors.  But in the attempt to find their place, no matter if angels disappear into the fields of force that govern matter or if they dwell in hermetic glory, it would appear that the theology of the cross excludes angels.[1]  At first sight, it seems that cross and glory do not belong together and so angels, since they manifest God’s eternal glory, distract from the glory hidden in the cross.  However, this is not so since angels have their being in speaking the word of the cross.  Angelic being marks creaturely entrance to the new world of God’s reign; angelic speech translates into human speech.  This requires some reconsideration of angelology in light of the word of the cross.
             Mark’s Gospel provides the star to anchor angelic speculation since a young man, whom we might infer to be an angel, speaks the crucial message at Jesus’ tomb.  Jesus, who promised to gather in Galilee, had his promise thwarted by crucifixion.  On Easter morning at the tomb, a young man gives the message of Easter to the women gathered there (Mark 16:1-8).  According to the narrator, this young man clothed in white marked the boundary between the secrets of the Reign of God and the public declaration of Easter morning (16:6-7).  Against expectations to the contrary from readers and the characters themselves, this young man's message left the women bewildered and silent.  This is an angelology that attends the word of the cross since angels mark the union of contradiction, glory, and an open future.
            Angels ordinarily receive their place within theological speculation from Jacob’s dream where he saw a ladder that connected earth and heaven (Genesis 28:10-17).  The ladder of Jacob stands in for the relationship of angels to the drama of the world:  they descend from their principal home, the divine cult, to work abroad.  They have a task in their mission.  Thus, in the cosmology of heaven and earth, the ladder denotes a way station for transients.  Angels have a momentary business but then recede to their place within the chorus.  Angels do far more than this, of course, but their place in the divine cosmos depends upon the structure of the cosmos itself.  As heavenly beings, they keep their beds there even when abroad.
            The baptism of Jesus shatters this arrangement of heaven and earth (Mark 1:9-11).  This event displays the cosmology of Mark’s gospel.   Its terse narration of the events without comment seems to depend, as many note, on the imagination and cosmological commitments of the readers.[2]  Crucial is the displacement of the heavens:  they tear apart when John baptizes Jesus and the Spirit descends.  No longer does heaven denote a location removed from the earth.  Whatever angelic worship occurred in the heavens remote to the earth now continues in earth.  Thus, Mark’s gospel makes an implicit claim that Jesus’ advent upends the cosmology of heaven apart from earth.
            Angelic distance from earth requires things like Jacob’s ladder. Some bridge between the two spheres ought to exist in order for angelic ingress.  But if heaven and earth now intertwine, it may seem that pockets of eschatological glory now appear here or there.  If earth and heaven permeate one another, one can no longer credit a heaven that lies without the world.  If heaven now interacts with earth in a more complex way than Jacob’s ladder, angels are not simply peregrinating beings, displaced from their true home.  Rather, earth and heaven now belong together.
            This cosmology displaces angels from heaven as their primary home since heaven and earth belong together.  Eternity and time coincide.  Nature and supernature embrace.  Though Mark intends none of this as subsequently developed in theology, the tearing of the heavens points to an upheaval in imagination that seems to echo in those throughout the ages who have resisted separation between heaven and earth.  It goes without saying that modern cosmology simply eliminated the possibility of heaven as a place that lies without the spheres.  The Copernican revolution made it impossible to locate heaven on a map, even if it was never construed spatially.[3]
            Rather than displacing angels, Mark's altered cosmos where eternity and time, heaven and earth, all stand in deep communion with one another makes them ordinary and spectacular at once.  They are not at a remove.  But if angels retain some aspect of their former glory, that glory now subsists in the speaking the word of the cross.  It is this word that will enable a discussion of angels and their being.
            Mark’s gospel presents an extraordinary service to the word of the cross, particularly because of the absence of any resurrection appearance in the narrative.  When taking the earliest available ending that ends with the scene we are considering, 16:1-8, all the women have, all the reader has is a young man in white or bright clothing and the women’s reaction of terror.  This form of the ending has attracted enormous analysis; for reconstructing an angelology, we focus on the young man and his role in the word of the cross.
            Recognizing the difficulties involved with arguing from silence, some scholars postulate that Mark did know a tradition of resurrection appearances and intentionally omitted one in the earliest available ending.[4]  Leaving out an appearance enables two of many possible interpretations:  that Jesus is in Galilee as he promised or that Jesus’ failure is total.  The first, the word as promise, means that the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection takes the place of an appearance by the resurrected Jesus.  The last, failure, holds the most important possibilities since it implies that the message given, the word of the cross, could ring hallow and hold no truth.  As many have pointed out, an empty tomb does not entail a resurrected Jesus.  Nevertheless, if this young man is taken to be an angel in the cosmology of Mark, his office is to speak the word of the cross, true or false.
            This lends sense to the terror and amazement that seize the women (16:8).  Ordinarily, angels inspire this because of their glory in an otherworldly sense.  If angels exist to mark the speaking of this word, then the wonder owes to the message.  Since they no longer solely posses the glory of heaven alone but wear the dust of the earth as the cosmology of Mark might imply, the office of angels to speak the word inspires this reaction, not their being as heavenly creatures.
            Thus, in order to get at angelic being, we must attend to the word spoken.  The word of the cross does not simply refer to a past act.  It does not solely point outside of itself to another reality, leaving an empty syllable; it does not simply refer to Jesus' death, to direct attention away from the present word to the past event.  The speaking of the word does something.  It creates terror.  And, it creates the possibility of faith.  The angel says:  “he is not here.”  This utterance points both to the absence of Jesus and the possibility of failure or of promise.
The terror the women demonstrate means more than just failure.  The second part of the young man’s announcement, “He has gone on before to Galilee” means the extension of Jesus’ promise.  This extension means that the word of the cross speaks the crucified Jesus to another.  By speaking the crucified Jesus it refers as much as it creates; it is the recollection of the past death of Jesus in light of his resurrection from the dead.  The death of Jesus marks the end of Jesus' life and his proclamation of the Reign of God.  This death could mean end or it could mean a new kind of Reign that is shaped by Jesus’ crucified body.  Hence: terror.
            All this rests, though, on the crucial point for any contemporary angelology:  why there ought to be angels at all.  Part of their employment in the obscure and intimate piety and fancy of modern folk or their reconfiguration as fields of force owes to the difficulty that modern commitments have to find a place for angels.  Since God indeed does all things, then angels seem to violate God's activity.  The more angels do, the less God does, it seems.
            In order to answer this question, we must consider why angels exist.  They seem superfluous.  The supports they received in the pre-modern cosmological imagination now have foundered.  Their being and existence owes to the speaking of the word of the cross.  If angelic being owes its existence to the office of the word of the cross, then angels, albeit in ordinary guise, mark the boundary of absence and promise whenever this word is spoken.  If the word of the cross is true then the young man has a dramatic necessity—his role matters in the warp and woof of the drama of Mark’s gospel.  A promise requires absence.  If Jesus met the women at the tomb, no promise would be possible, no breathing room for faith.  But this is not enough to establish angelic being.  If it is true that Mark’s ending is open rather than closed then something opens the future, shatters the ladder of Jacob, and presses this young man to speak angelic speech.[5]  A closed ending would entail that no further future is possible.  But something is necessary to make this word sound:  “he is not here.”  If this word is true, angelic being dwells in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, in the openness of his promise, and in the translation of this event into human speech.
            The resurrected Jesus needs to be translated into human speech on the grounds provided by Mark's gospel because of the contradictory nature of Jesus' existence.  No one witnessed the resurrection itself.  It perhaps exceeds the possibilities of this world; Jesus' resurrection is not a single, isolated miracle within the world.  In this, it is difficult to translate into ordinary human communication.  Because of the eschatological nature of this resurrection, it is no wonder that seers and prophets use apocalyptic language to describe it.  Their bizarre images and scenes attempt to communicate the ineffable they have witnessed.  But this means that the resurrected Jesus is a cipher not a word.  Without the angelic speech, "he is not here," the ending of Mark would be closed.  Perception of the glory of God unveiled is not immediately given except in a contrary way.  The being of the young man, of angels, belongs to the contradictory glory of the word of the cross, of God's glory in the crucified Jesus.
            The women at the tomb understood what the young man said.  And they are terrified because rather than disaster this crucified Jesus is free.  This understanding is made possible by the translation of angelic speech into human speech.  As the condition for the possibility of the word of the cross, angels are those creatures that speak the glory of the resurrection in ordinary ways.
            All this means that if Jesus’ resurrection is true, that if the word of the cross is true, then the union of heaven and earth has begun, God is now “loose,” and its freedom now is given in a single word. Angelic being is here the possibility of human speaking.  It may be that the Spirit, as the very breath of God, is the possibility of God’s speaking the divine Word.  But since the word of the cross is both a human and divine word, it requires a creaturely possibility antecedent to its translation into human speaking.  This addresses the worry that angelic being usurps the community of divinity and humanity in Jesus or the Spirit.  No competition exists between angels and the Triune God since angels are the purely creaturely possibility of human beings speaking the word of the cross.
Thus, angels are the creaturely possibility of human beings speaking the word of the cross.  None of the fragments of an angelology presented here have addressed the nature of angelic individuality, their agency, or their fall.   These traditional topics would find new place in the angelology that attention to Mark brings.  Attending to their freedom, their individuality, or their action would emerge out of reflecting on them as speakers of the word of the cross.
            Modern theologians have many just suspicions about angels.  They belong to an outmoded cosmos, to a discredited metaphysic.  Angels may tempt human beings to worship them.  Beings that flit willy-nilly represent a surd in the natural ordering of the cosmos.  A theology that concerns the word of the cross additionally carries suspicion that angels all-too-much belong to the glory of God and therefore distract from the specific glory of God hidden under the opposite.  But the cross does not oppose glory.  Rather it conceals it, hides glory in the lowly, in its proper form in Christ.  We need not abandon Jacob's ladder, just find it elsewhere.  Heaven does not exist as the final sphere encompassing the world.  Rather, it hides and appears among the lowly and emerges in unexpected ways in the word of the cross.  Angels, as beings of this crucified glory, engender and tend the possibility that humans might speak this word.

In memory of Donald H. Juel (1942-2003)

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg reassigns angelic activity to the forces that bind the cosmos.  See Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. Geoffrey Bromilly (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), vol. 2, 102-109.  Three other important angelologies that seek the rationale for angels in the message of the gospel or the drama of salvation may be considered:  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromilly (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1960) III/3, 369-530; Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), vol. 3, 465-504; Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), vol 2., 112-132.  Readers of these theologians will the many ways the present essay diverges from these powerful thinkers.

[2] See, among others, Donald H. Juel, The Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 33-44.

[3] Theologians often have expressed worries about a naïve or spatial relationship between heaven and earth, particularly when considering Jesus’ ascension to heaven or the implied translation of his body to the Eucharistic altar.  See, for instance, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 75. a. 1.  On the support of Copernicus by Lutherans and the theological commitments that arose from their Eucharistic doctrine, see Charlotte Methuen, Kepler’s Tübingen:  Stimulus to a Theological Mathematics (Brookfiled: Ashgate, 1998), 1-60.

[4] Andreas Lindemann, “Die Osterbotschaft des Markus.  Zur Theologischen Interpretation von Mark 16.1-8,” New Testament Studies 26 (1980) 298-317.  The other gospels, which present appearances of Jesus, are themselves careful or cautious of appearances and visions.

[5] Donald Juel argued the difference between an open and closed ending in The Master of Surprise, 107-122.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Maunday Thursday -- Jochen Klepper

The Savior is my servant and host
He serves me and his crowd of disciples.
He who is the Lord of all heaven
Himself here renders bare God’s glory.
Kyrie elaison!

He salves and bathes our feet
Passes us the cup and breaks the loaf
And already waits for the kiss of Judas
So I may rest without strife.
Kyrie elaison!

With a pilgrim’s hat and walking stick
He holds, this shepherd, the Pascha-meal.
And as he gives it, he goes to the grave
To the torture of the cross, scorn, and hatred.
Kyrie elaison!

In the garden of Gethsemane
A beam for the cross already has fallen.
That the cup should yet pass him by,
Pleads the Savior of all the world.
Kyrie elaison!

The cup of bitter pain and death
He has already prepared to drink
For this remembrance, he has set
A supper for all time
Kyrie elaison!

The hour of betrayal is here.
No place serves as a shield
He stays near to his own [though they flee]
In cup and bread and word.
Kyrie elaison!

The cup is now my own
And bread and wine my lavish share.
The cup takes its glory
In announcing salvation to the sinner!
Kyrie elaison!

He comes, he comes, that is sure,
To the joyous meal of his disciples
At the end of all darkness
Is always found the cross’s posts!

--draft translation by Gregory Walter