Monday, May 27, 2013

Six Theses on the Pursuit of Unhappiness: Minima Theologica

Formulate any theological methodology, purpose, or goal toward remedying misery and injury and injustice.  Attend to the closed-off and forgotten injuries of the past.

1.  Starting with a vision for the future interdicts the present.

2.  Interdicting the present ignores the present and closes the forgotten and buried past even more.

3.  Real progress is pulling the emergency-brake on the train of the present hurtling toward the future (Benjamin).

4.  Positing a future or vision for the future that does not attend to the present creates a false agency for the visioning community.

5.  Looking to the future in place of the present enables one to pathologically ignore pain.

6.  Truth is only gained through the exposure of falsehood (Adorno).

This is the theology of the cross. 


Saturday, May 25, 2013

You Wonder How the Spirit Got There -- Robert W. Jenson's Early Trinity

Persons of the Trinity are defined by their future, their relationship to the Spirit, not by their origin.

Robert W. Jenson states this principle that others take up much later in God After God:  The God of the Past and the God of the Future, Seen in the Work of Karl Barth (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969).  For instance, this way of defining Trinity is adopted by Wolfhart Pannenberg as well as John D. Zizioulas.  It is not just Jenson's insight since there are many ways to arrive at this salutary conclusion, but he states it with a force and power and then explores it in a way in this book in a way I'm not sure he has elsewhere.

Robert W. Jenson has famously (or infamously depending on your point of view) identified a pneumatological deficit in Karl Barth (and by extension lots of theological positions) in his article "You Wonder Where the Spirit Went," Pro Ecclesia 2 (1993): 296-304.  

That article should be seen in the light of this earlier work:
This gathering to the past, to the Beginning in which all has already been decided,pervades all Barth's thinking.  The direction of trinitarian formulations toward the past is something Barth shares with the tradition.  ... But if the true temporality of the triune God, and the true meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity, is at least to appear without ambiguity, this shadow must be banished.  That is, the futurity of the triune God must be made plain.  The formal pattern of the doctrine must be reversed, to give the Spirit some of the formal role which the Father has had.  ... Instead of defining all three hypostases by their relation to origin, they must be defined by their relation to goal.  The Spirit is the goal of the Trinity, and this doctrine must be given the function which has long belonged to the doctrine that the Father is the "fount of the Trinity."
God after God, p. 173-174.

After this quote, Jenson goes on to anticipate his later criticism.

In my own idiom, what is at stake here is that a God worthy of the name is a God who promises, who demands nothing except faith in that promise, whose graciousness is not the rescue of creation from its temporality and frailty into a timeless eternity or a pre-temporal election but its reclamation and conviviality.

But before this quote there are three chapters (and several afterward) that show in great detail how Jenson moves from Barth's (and Bonhoeffer's) criticism of religion to futurity and promise.  These two categories are central to the book:  the future and promise.  These two immensely important theological concerns are the engine that drives his criticism of classical trinitarian theology.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Response to Clint Schnekloth on Pope Francis' Inclusivism

Clint Schnekloth wrote a great summary of Pope Francis' recent sermon that highlighted Roman Catholic thinking on inclusivism

This is inclusivism but it might not be good news to anyone except to Christians.

This is Clint's breakdown:

1) Everyone is redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.
2) Everyone can do good, even non-Catholics or non-Christians
3) Pursuing that which is good is a a place of encounter... do good and we will meet each other there.
Here's my response:

Salvation, redemption, and the good are defined by Francis either "in Christ" or from a Christian perspective. The inclusivisms or universalisms are exclusive of non-Christian perspectives so far as they cannot be absorbed into that "in Christ" or Christian perspective.

Sure, an atheist can be saved, but it would be quite a surprise to the atheist as well largely deflating the atheist's perspectives and cherished claims, especially if the atheist was denying the existence of non-natural agents like the Triune God. If Francis were to hold that the atheist would be saved as the atheist, that would be fascinating.

Likewise, the good that Francis intends is not something like the pluralist, liberal good that John Rawls or others intend in their "overlapping consensus." How can this good be a common ground? Perhaps in an ad hoc and fragile way, but certainly not in a pluralist or liberal-procedural way.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Future Bears the Burden of the Present, Or, Why I Like to Punt

Even though I'm not a football fan, I like to punt.  It's my favorite classroom habit and so my favorite theological habit.

When I'm teaching my theology classes, I like to punt.

When problems get too large or diverge from the task at hand, I sometimes have to say to that subject that presents itself:  we're just going to punt here.   I noticed some of my teachers of theology liked to use boxing and shipping metaphors:  they'd say that they would need to "unpack" that idea, which meant they wanted to look at this definition or phenomena, explain it a bit more.

I hope my students remember me as the professor of punting.

After all, there's only so much I can do.  And only so much you can do.

To punt, as I understand it, is to ask the future to bear the burden of the present.  It is to act on the chance that you might have a chance.  It is to imagine that things might be different than they are right now, that we will live to converse another day.

To punt is to hope.

So. I'm not going to try to answer all of that right now, dear student.  Let's just punt on that.


I mean American football.  When I explain that I like to punt to my students, especially those who play football at St. Olaf College, they wince.  Punting is the last ditch effort in American football, usually something you have to do when you fail, when your team is out of options and downs.  Football is played by a clock and so punting, aside from other mistakes that would turn the ball over to the other team, is the lowest option for a football team.  It is considered shameful and sometimes a disaster to punt.

Which is why I like using it as an act of hope.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How Not To Read Comics

Comics, as Chris Ware has repeatedly stated, is a visual language.  It is more than just text and pictures.  It is not literary prose.

This distinction between comics as a visual language and literary prose needs some work to explain it though I think it's the case. 

In the Morning News Tournament of Books, Natasha Vargas-Cooper recently reviewed a YA novella and Chris Ware's Building Stories.  Ware lost.

He lost because Vargas-Cooper read his comic as if it were text and pictures; she clearly prefers text.

Read this essay closely and you'll see exactly, with precision and clarity, how not to read comics.

Two excellent discussions of the visual language of comics can be found in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Robert W. Jenson - The Knowledge of Things Hoped For

Go to the old record bins.  Flip through the back issues. 

Because you need to get Robert W. Jenson's old work.

Admittedly, you need to read his new work, too.  As well as the recent stuff.  And the older mid-80s material when he experimented with nu-wave pop.

That actually didn't happen.

There's lots of old gems.  Not all of them are available through reprint publishers. 

One of the best is The Knowledge of Things Hoped For:  The Sense of Theological Discourse.  Published by Oxford University Press in 1969, this book is out of print!  From my correspondence with Wipf & Stock, Oxford will not permit reprinting so you'll have to find it in libraries or used.

The joy of this book is Jenson's engagement with still-important concerns:  semiotics with Origen, analogy with Thomas, ordinary-language issues with the analytical types, and narrative/hermeneutics with the Bultmann folk and history with Pannenberg and Moltmann.

All of this stuff is in the background in the systematic theology.  He references it a few times and is really the lengthy discussion of history and hermeneutics that many would have liked to see in the first volume.  Not that it would answer all the questions they would lodge against Jenson.

Even though the books he wrote before this one on Karl Barth (Alpha & Omega) and after it on Karl Barth (God After God) are obviously Barth-driven, this one is incredibly less so.  Rudolf Bultmann is the main instigator here -- and it is mainly about hermeneutics and history. 

This is hardly a review or an engagement with his work.  There is much I would argue with but since I read it so early in my theological formation I imagine my arguments with it stem from the book itself.  

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Jesus - Divinity is Humanity

Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig is not known as an innovator.  He's held out as a romantic and as cultural conservative.  One way in which he is radical, perhaps without knowing it, is when he states that to be Christian is to be merely human.  Or just human.  Clint Schnekloth explored this a bit in a recent post.

And Grundtvig is even more powerful when he, like many throughout history, state that Jesus' divinity precisely in his humanity.

This means that there is no divine add-on, no hidden divine actor cooperating with a human partner.  No quality or divine sheen that is the +1 that enhances Jesus.

As the truly human one, Jesus is as the crucified, one with God.  It is not by being a certain thing or being sent in a certain way from the eternal pre-historical prom party that is the divine life that Jesus is God but by his history, by his actions, by his flesh-and-blood life that is truly human, love for others.  He is the one in whom creation finds its fulfillement because he not only responds to the call creation and all creatures ask of one another but attends to the injury and pain of life.  This is his divinity, his human solidarity and death, held together in a strange way by the resurrection in the Spirit.

The divinity is his humanity, meaning that to be divine is for God to be God in this Jesus, to have given up all divinity waiting on this Jesus and his fate, for them together to single out their Spirit and mutual love to be their future and utterly possibility.

In a way, this theologomenon is a kind of test.  If you worry:  adoptionism!  arianism!  monophysitism!  You just might be perpetrating the kind of Jesus that is not truly human.

Worried about adoptionism?  Jesus is truly human in his relation to God throughout his life -- there is no time in which he wasn't human.  So goes adoptionism by the wayside.

Worried about arianism?  There was when he was not?  There is no Jesus pre-Jesus unless it is the stage of eternity and history clearing its way for Jesus to be conceived.  Jesus' eternity is precisely his relation to God the Father.  Does this make me go for some Barth election stuff?  Perhaps.  But the freedom in the Spirit, which is their future, is more eternal and important than all that election-pre-stuff to me.

Worried about monophysitism?  Naw.  Step aside.  As Pannenberg and Jenson have it, the divinity is precisely in Jesus self-differentiation from God and God's self-differentiation from Jesus.  Divinity is their eternal common life, not a thing that Jesus is.

Christians feel variously bound by ancient ways of talking.  And I like it when there are theologomena that explode and shake up those ancient ways without utterly abandoning antiquity.

This is what Jenson calls the revisionary task of theology.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How to Write a Theology Book #2 - Revisions

If you want to write theology, revision is in order.

I have page proofs from the publisher for my book Being Promised:  Theology, Gift, Practice, so I think I can look back at the drafts.

Here's the lowdown:

Revisions of each of the five chapters:

chapter 1:   5 drafts
chapter 2:  10 drafts
chapter 3:  13 drafts
chapter 4:   6 drafts
chapter 5:  10 drafts

After putting it into one whole book:  10 more drafts.

Size of file that contains paragraphs and sentences eliminated:  301kb.

Revise, revise, revise.

No Writers without Readers

No writing for a while.  Just catching up on book reviews.

So Johann Georg Hamann:

"As children become people, young girls become women, so writers emerge out of readers.  Most books are therefore a result of the capabilities and incapabilities that one has read and can read."
Johann Georg Hamann
 Leser und Kunstrichter (1762)

As we have young readers in our house and my spouse is a reading specialist, there is reading and reading and still other kinds of reading.

Hamann rejected book reviews that merely report and so laud the author and those reviews that excoriate and so condemn the author utterly.  Most of his writing was in the form of the book review.

He thought the best form of book review was massively critical and emerged from within the plane the book creates.  Thus, his most important work, the Metacritic of the Purisms of Reason (1788) is a review of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.


Here's my review queue:

A massive in-the-works review of recent political theology
Svend Andresen, Macht aus Liebe:  Zur Rekonstruktion einer lutherischen politischen Ethik
Vitor Westhelle, Eschatology and Space
Jean-Luc Marion, Reason of the Gift
Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism (stand-alone review, though referenced in the state-of-political theology review essay)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Models of Gift-Exchange

So you'd like to think about giving, gifts, and receiving gifts.

A theology of the gift can concern faith, money, resources, social stations, community, forgiveness, difference, power, media, and ecology.

Gifts are an anthropological study.  Lots of anthropologists agree that gifts are not free.  They don't agree on why people feel obligated to give.  Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion are philosophers who think about the limits of these gifts.  They want a gift that has no obligations at all. 

What kind of gift do you want?

Here's your options:

1.  Ignore the theology of the gift.  Most likely you are at the mercy of whatever theories or strategies those who use gift-language employ.  You'll usually end up using a form of agonistic giving.

2.  Agonistic gift.  Gifts are not free and require action.  If you fail to give, there's trouble, whether violence or shame.  Gifts always carry with them obligation.  They can be welcome or unwelcome.   Giving is competitive between giver and recipient.

Examples of agonistic gift reasoning:

a.  If you want to get anything, give.
b.  Because you are so grateful for what you've received,  you'll give.
c.  You have received, so you should give in turn.
d.  Don't let what you've been given sit idle.  Give it in turn.
e.  Since you've said you are sorry, you can be forgiven.

Basically any time you are urged to act out of gratitude, know that the agonistic gift is being used.

3.  Unilateral gift.   Gifts are free but are one-way.  There is no return, nothing, no obligation.  Most think this is impossible.

Examples of unilateral gift reasoning:

a.  You have inherited this.
b.  It's yours, no strings attached.
c.  It doesn't matter if you repent or are sorry:  you are forgiven.
d.  Surprise discoveries.
e.  Many forms of anonymous organ-donation.  But not all.

Caveat:  if you are urged to act out of gratitude, an obligation is introduced that makes a seemingly unilateral gift into an agonistic gift.

4.  Negotiated or Purified Gift:  Both parties agree that the gift is wanted and not poisonous and that both agree what is involved in the exchange; there is no hidden ploy or strategy but there is force and exchange.  Both parties are on a level playing field.

Examples of negotiated gift reasoning:

a.  Use of covenant/contract examples to illustrate giving.
b.  Any giving which is done "with eyes wide open" and no deception about force and 
c.  God is Trinity and God gives between Father, Son, and Spirit in peace.  This is the kind of giving we are taken up into.

5. Pure Gift.   A gift that is impossible because it is the gift utterly free of obligations.  This requires the giver to not know that a gift is given, the receipient to not recognize the gift as gift, nor to receive it as such.  This is the gift that is more than the unilateral gift.

Examples of pure gift reasoning:

a.  The ungodly are just.
b.  God is a mad giver.
c.  Utterly surprising and unknown gift.  A forgotten and disappering gift.

6.  Promise.  A gift that is recognized but has no force.  It enables other kinds of exchange but does not itself obligate anything.  Utterly unilateral but enables those who trust it to engage in the other kinds of giving in which they are immersed.

Example of promissory reasoning:

God promises and so you may give to those in need in the impure, halting, and difficult ways that you do give.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Faith Creates Divinity (Fides creatrix divinitas)

We need to embrace the prevenience of faith. 

Yes, with all its risks and dangers.  Faith is omnipotent, without limit, and creates God.

Western Christians talk a lot about the prevenience of grace, that God's grace is powerful, that it is before everything else, and sets all things in motion.  The human will is bound to that prevenience, love is nought without out it, and freedom waits upon the arrival of grace.  This, and so much more, is wrapped up in grace.

But faith is more powerful since it makes God God.  Faith is not alone, no autonomous power of the self that constructs God as the idealist tradition would have it.  Faith is correlated to promise, God's pledge in Christ.  Faith alone preceeds all else.  It has powers that deserve the highest praise, writes Luther in his 1531/1535 Galatians Lectures on Galatians 3:6. No one can praise it highly enough, give it proper accolades.

Suddenly, we see the peril and promise of the left-Hegelian tradition.  Only promise is needed to distinguish the creative power of faith and the subjective faculty of imagination that results in human self-deception and self-alienation.  Promise is the critical discrimen that distinguishes fancy and pathology from the hope of the Crucified, Triune God.  And that faith makes God God.  Without it, there is no divinity, no majesty anywhere in the world.

[This, a preview of an article I've written for the fall issue of dialog: a Journal of Theology.]