Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Further Probing the Interface between Apologetics and Dogmatics: Part Two

Further Probing between the Interface Between Apologetics and Dogmatics: In Search of the Living God Part Two

In laying forth the following I will draw on both the language of faith and secular reasoning in providing a rationale in the effort to explain something essential about the Christian revelation, which in some fundamental ways is beyond understanding. An essential part of the “mystery” of Christ is that the Christian pathway can only be entered by some basic commitment to faith as the basis of “know[ing] the truth” in Christ, “the truth [that] will set you free” (John 8:31-32) in a way that would be difficult to imagine from a purely naturalistic perspective. However circular this may seem, a step of faith in utter sincerity, however feeble, is a precondition, though not the only one in gaining a first-hand sense of the revelation of God in Christ reconciling the world (1 Corinthians 5:19). The power to convey something of the depths and riches of the Christian pathway may well be beyond my limited persuasive powers, in which conversion, in any event, is the work of God. The wind blows where it will (John 3:3), but if today, you hear the voice of God, ever so faintly, I encourage you to pay heed to the small still voice that can easily fade, for upon its prompting, a great deal resides.

The starting point with which I will begin is the core claim of faith that Christ is the full embodiment (Incarnation) of God in human flesh, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), which if accepted as valid makes other claims of truth, problematic, at the very least. There is much packed into this statement, including the very notion of "God," particularly when viewed in the monotheistic traditions as defined, however analogically as a being as well as "a dynamic, pulsating activity" (C.S. Lewis) that incorporates being, in which God is both outside history, culture, and nature (that is, transcendent) while totally immersed (or immanent) within.

There is no pantheistic sense of engulfment implied here in which God is somehow perceived as synonymous with the universe or even in the sense in which the earth might be viewed as "God's body" as some eco-theologies have it. Rather, God's loving, transcendent presence infuses the created world--a presence that is both veiled and partially visible through the eyes of faith as a discerned revelation of a power that is not simply our own. This presence has biblical, theological, personal, and interpersonal warrant which in its 2000 year totality adds up to "a mighty cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1). Any vital encounter with or even the effort to understand the faith from a distanced perspective would be well served through a substantial grappling with some of the many voices and texts of the claims made by these witnesses as a critical baseline of “the evidence [though clearly not proof) of the things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Thus, the legacy of the saints and sinners who have made up the body of Christ for 2000 years serves as a crucial source of evidence in its own right which is often ignored or simply too easily dismissed by many within and outside the household of faith. The depth and breadth of such testimony as "the assurance of things hoped for,” serves as a type of prima facie evidence in which any entrance into its pathway, and also, simply understanding on its own terms, requires. Such appreciation, in turn, opens the possibility of its viability as well as a more grounded basis for its rejection. If nothing else, such receptivity to the radical possibility of faith if at the least, as an evocative hypothesis with serious intent, opens up the receptivity of God's indwelling, which, itself, as the grace of God, is a gift that no mere willing could ever bring around.

When one enters into the Christian pathway the possibility of further unveiling of the revelatory insight of God is opened up; an unveiling which can only remain incomplete, given the nature of God's reality in which we can know something, in fact, through Scripture, theological and ecclesial reflection, and our own personal probing, a great deal, but even so, much remains clouded in the enduring mystery of Christ in which we can only know in part with the promise in eternity in knowing in full. Thus, the Christian revelation is a perpetual process of unveiling in which faith becomes the basis of further knowledge and insight.

There are other ways much more elegant and persuasive than that attempted here to convey something of the ineffable, but partially knowable God grounded in the biblical revelation; one, for example, that the Apostle Paul utilized when seeking to communicate with ancient Greek philosophers (Acts 17:16-34) through the analogy of the "unknown God." Yet, he was only partially successful at best in persuading just a few, as Paul moved on from "pagan" Athens to the newly formed faith community in Corinth. There he spent a great deal of concentrated time on instructing and building up the "saints" through the persuasive power of discerning dogmatics as embodied in the First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians. As Christ expressed it about the Holy Spirit, "the wind blows where it wishes" in which a small still voice may be discernable which requires highly attuned ears to hear a most softly spoken intonation of God through a voice that may sound like foolishness to many (1 Corinthians 1: 18-25).

The underlying reality is that the persuasive argument of faith cannot be squared with language constructs outside of its premises in which dialogue as an ultimate value in its own right can lead too easily to compromise, with much lost, or at the least, stalemate with little gained in relationship to the ultimate objective of faith (Matthew 28:19). In the final analysis, the mystery of God in Christ reconciling the world cannot be penetrated by reason or even the logic of the better argument, though these can be resources. At some fundamental level one needs to give a positive assent in which the “proof” is the evidence of things not seen that has the capacity to be revealed, however much through a mirror dimly through a discerning heart and mind receptive to the persuasive voice of God, the source of almighty power and of all infinite indwelling love.

Until my own conversion in 1972, I had no understanding whatsoever of anything beyond the natural; that there could be transcendent reality was not something I fought against. It was simply beyond my comprehension, though not beyond my acquired knowledge given my early faith formation in the Greek Orthodox Church where I gained a basic knowledge of the language of faith. It was a faith, the living language of which was outside of my then current sense of reality, which did serve as a touchstone as I re-encountered the possibility of faith in God in Christ as a young adult.

What happened was as “simple” and as subtle as the following. I was asked directly to consider Christ as my Lord and Savior. The evangelical language was a bit strange, but in perceiving something of the quality of the moment I stayed with the process that was opening up to me. I said to this college student who I never met before; a friend in the most spiritual sense of the term who was pivotal in a radical re-orientation of my life. I said to him something to the effect that when I was a child that “other voice” one hears in the realm of conscience I took as the voice of God, but then at age 24, I “knew” that that voice was simply another aspect of my own consciousness. Thus, my young adult belief was that there was no reality, if not beyond, in some way, the existential self, that there was no beyond the natural realm, in any event that could be associated with reality.

It was at that precise moment that I did hear a small still voice; an utterly non-threatening perception that that other voice in fact, could be God. In this imperecptible moment, an invitation was offered to explore that possibility with the most radical and unswerving intent as if it were true that God was, in fact real. I discerned at that point that some level of unswerving commitment to the "hypothesis" was essential in order to find out the reality of it, and more significantly, that there was something of fundamental significance in this matter.

More precisely put, the doorway of faith in God became unveiled, opening to me a relaxed and adventurous assurance that this is the pathway I should follow. This was more than a possibility, but a source of revelation itself that came to me in a way that I could recognize as the most authentic reality that I could fathom, what the gospel writers refer to as a pearl of grace worth which requires all of one’s wealth as the price of purchase (Matthew 13:45).

In that experience the revelation of God linked in some way that I did not thoroughly understand, to Christ, became clear, even as the fuller implications of God’s awesome significance can only be but continually worked out through and beyond a single life process. What did become crystal clear in that long ago event in 1972 was a distinctive understanding of God, who was unfathomably different than what could be perceived through the natural, though incredibly immersed within my own sense of reality as well as throughout the entire created order.

From this basis, I gained an appreciation for the significance of the Bible as a primary source in understanding and grappling with God as well as the central role of Christ as touchstone for and embodiment of the living God for the human race and of the entire created order, subjects of which will need to be discussed at another time.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Further Probing of the Interface Between Apologetics and Dogmatics Part One

Further Probing the Interface Between Apologetics and Dogmatics: Arguing Deeply from the Stance of Faith Part One

"For the Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians" 1:22-25).

"And without faith it is impossible to please, him, for whoever would draw near God must believe that he exists and rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

It became clear to me close to a decade back that there was a profound difference between apologetics—providing reasons for one's faith in Christ in an effort to persuade those outside the camp to consider the viability of Christianity—and that of dogmatics in an ever deepening internalization of the core presuppositions of the faith as a way of enhancing one's personal relationship with Christ.

Through this reflection, I came to a new realization that apologetics could only go so far in providing a coherent rationale for Christianity, a faith which one could only experience by living within its own linguistic, ethical, and epistemological structures; that is by embracing and being embraced by something of the inexhaustible richness of its own interior claims, traditions, and promises. This necessitates, among other things a deep and passionate engagement with what 20th century neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth refers to as “the strange new world of the Bible;” an embrace of the entire biblical canon. This biblical orientation, in turn, is part of a broader acceptance of the core precepts of the Christian faith, especially the Trinity, which includes an unswerving commitment to Christ as the way, the truth, and the life as God incarnate in human flesh without equivocation or remainder. In short, it became clear to me that fully entering and remaining immersed in the core narrative of the orthodox, incarnational Trinitarian faith was the only way of thoroughly grasping something of its depth, power, subtlety, beauty, and truth. From that time forward my sense of personal gravity shifted from one focused on seeking a deeper faith in ways that could in principle find congruence through the prism of contemporary secular reasoning toward a more deliberate embrace of the core dogmatics of faith in search of greater insight as the fruit of such a renewed shift.

This turn, one of several in my 38 year odyssey with Christianity, was based on the recognition that the significance of religious language as a valid discourse on its own terms is utterly absent from the contemporary academic and cultural canon of what is viewed as legitimate. I concluded, consequently, that there was little further to be gained in attempting to process my religious identity with one hand tied behind my back, so to speak, in not deliberately utilizing and depending foremost on the richness of religious language to get at what I most believed. What became clear was the realization of the utter insufficiency of secular language to convey something of the fuller richness of the unique particularity of the Christian revelation in which, while there is evidence and witnesses to bring forth, cannot be squared through the precepts of secular Enlightenment or Post-Enlightenment reasoning on the logic or reasoning of its own terms.

Rather, the revelation has its own source of truth that when grasped has a way of manifesting itself, which requires active processing—that is, believing and acting as if it were true; in other words, active faith as the basis for entering into the “language game” of Christianity. This does not require other modes of reasoning for its own self-justification in which its language forms, while always reaching toward increasingly coherent explanation, are sufficient on their own terms for self-understanding and for effective communication with other Christians. Granted, other linguistic forms may well be needed when seeking to convey core faith claims to those operating outside its premises as well as among those on the border lines seeking greater convergence between faith and culture. Multilingualism, therefore, has its merits and practiced in the right hands, can become very fruitful. I also acknowledge that analogical reasoning has its own value amidst the very depths of a sustained evangelical theology and pietism, though the temptation of granting the symbolism more influence than the revealed Word itself as the very thing signified, is of even more pressing concern, which requires much careful scrutiny.

Moreover, I do not dismiss the potential value of dialogue with those outside the faith, but view it ultimately as a subsidiary manner, which all too often has the potential of becoming a primary one. The temptation of theological liberalism is to be so accommodating to the discourse of others in the desire to be reasonable and “open,” that one sacrifices the radical uniqueness of one’s own claims, in which something of its fullness cannot be grasped outside of faith. The temptation of theological conservatism is to be so rigorous in one’s conceptual logic that (a) one misses much of the actual arguments others are making; (b) that the reasoning on its own terms becomes so precise that one misses the analogical nature of seeking to grasp and communicate something essential about our relationship to the living God, whose back we may, from time to time be privileged to get a glance of, but never his face.

The more likely result, in our secular age, is more of a tendency toward stalemate or even ceding more ground to those who doubt or reject the faith in reinforcing prevailing cultural beliefs, albeit with the prospect of gaining a more nuanced position of another's perspective. If one's central value framework is toleration, that's one thing; if it is to persuade one of the truth of what one is claiming that is another matter altogether, which is part of the “scandal” of the faith, particularly in these secular times in which we are still called to “preach the word…with complete patience and teaching” (1 Timothy 2:4:2). There are some subtle matters here which require a great deal of deliberation and discernment beyond what I can discuss at this point.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Dogmatic Turn Continued

Part Two

In making the shift in the 1980s and 1990s from a liberal theological to a more centered evangelical perspective (one that grounded my initial conversion experience in the 1970s), I have come to realize the importance of making actual truth claims in faith, however darkly our perceptual filters may be. This I view as an essential aspect of evangelical theology. That is, however much we evangelicals grapple with the tension between faith and culture, a foremost challenge is that of proclaiming and constructing our lives, as if it were absolutely true that Christ is the way the truth, and the life, in the final analysis, without equivocation or remainder. No doubt the gap between our varied epistemologies (our knowledge of faith) and core ontological claim of ultimately the Trinity remains unfathomable. That we are immersed in history I readily acknowledge. That we are confined to radical historicism as an absolute itself, I argue, is a form of highly tempting cultural idolatry to which a great deal of the contemporary church is captive.

I would agree that there is the temptation of arrogance in which our ontological claims about reality, which in faith center on God in Christ can become fused with our epistemological ones in conflating what we claim with what we profess to know in which faith is transformed into provable-like knowledge claims. That is a temptation of certain streams of evangelical or fundamentalist theology. Mainline Protestantism veers in the other direction, in the tendency to privilege culture over the universal truth claims of a rigorously argued and aesthetically sublime New Testament based Christianity which, in faith as the substance of things unseen, can brook no other discourse as final vocabulary. While we all interpret the faith from various selective perceptions, it is, on the core precepts of evangelical theology, the canonical biblical text with the revealed Christ at the apex and not our perceptions which grounds the truth claims.

The tendency toward ever intricate theological and intellectual parsing may well be inevitable Yet, there are some basic truth claims central to the faith that have been foundational to radical orthodoxy from its inception, which, while embedded in the various theological and cultural traditions that have housed the faith once for all delivered to the saints, transcend them in the very universality of Christ revealed as the Son of our Father God. In history such manifestations can only be partial, an important in sight as argued in H.R. Niebuhr’s (1951) classic text, Christ and Culture. This is an important insight that evangelical theology may overlook to its deep peril. Equally, if not more important from the viewpoint of a richly nuanced evangelical theology, is that such signposts toward the truth are human incarnations of God working out some of the fullness of his reality through the flawed instrumentalities of human vessels over time and place throughout the eons. More emphasis, I argue should be placed on the significance of these crystallized images as partial, but authentically-grounded revelations of the glory of God. To be sure, these require ongoing processing by contemporary dialogue partners so that something of their intended fullness may enter into new realities constructed in the desire to hear the Word of God again and again in ever new and authentic, yet recognizable ways as “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude, 3) whether in the 1st, 16th, or 21st century.

As we think and work through the various traditions that have given so much shape to our faith, I encourage caution in grappling with the temptation of viewing these traditions through the filter of culture as final vocabulary which has the capacity to cut the very nerve center of revealed truth. As I have attempted to argue above, there are some delicate tensions between historical thinking and the radical truth claims of faith as they are articulated and mediated throughout the Bible and 2000 years of theological and ecclesial discourse.

A critical challenge for evangelicals is to be aware of the way they may be tempted toward a conflation of their actual knowledge with what they believe in faith as truth. A crucial challenge for the Protestant mainline is caution against subsuming the core truth claims of even a most generous orthodoxy within an all encompassing absolute of a cultural prism (radical historicism) in which there is no critical remainder outside of traditions; more problematically outside of cultural interpretation itself. This is the pathway toward Feuerbach and ultimately to the atheism which has so captured the 20th century intellectual and cultural imagination in the radical rejection of revelation as synonymous with truth, however darkly our dimmed perceptions may be in seeking to account of it and conveying something of its power.

No doubt the reality is 1000 times more complex sublime than what I am able to describe about its ineffable and magnificent reality.

The Dogmatic Turn Part One

The Dogmatic Turn and the Pivotal Role of Presuppositionalism

Part One

The gap between what we profess and what we know is literally unfathomable (Deuteronomy 29:29; Hebrews 11:1). In principle, one can be on one side or the other on the doubt/faith axis and many points in between. I would describe myself as leaning strongly toward the faith continuum, though with many residual doubts in the ongoing encounter with life and culture in which Paul’s dictum of daily dying is no simple process. Nonetheless, in an emphatic evangelical (re)-turn after a long odyssey toward the theological liberal pole some years ago, I made a deliberate shift from radical historicism as a Christian to a return to a more distinctive theist grounded evangelical theology. This was the result of much searching and what I perceived through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This self-referential claim has the power to convey something of its essence to those within the faith, but may appear exceedingly problematic among those viewing the Christian faith from a more external position. This I acknowledge, but cannot directly address, though additional commentary will follow in succeeding posts.

The issue I am seeking to address here is the pivotal, though secondary role of the relationship between faith and culture. There is something deeply compelling about the quest to embrace culture and faith on the basis of what each has to offer. For example, a profound respect for the transcendence of God should also lead to an abiding creation theology as reflected in Jurgen Moltmann's creation theology. There is also the evangelical desire to be swallowed up in Christ, in the best Pauline sense of the term, and to have one's whole being defined and thereby enhanced through a radical embrace of the image of God in the abiding quest for holiness as one's most singular and passionate calling in life. Such theology provides scope for an embrace of culture and nature within faith, but not to the extent that either of these is naturalized in any manner that that marginalizes the power and significance of God’s transcendent majesty and awesome infinite love and holiness. To put this in theological parlance, I accept Moltmann’s quest to subsume nature and culture within faith, but only through an emphatic Barthian turn to the Bible and the sovereignty of God.

In my own experience I had pursued the perspective of faith "from below" for many years. After considerable angst in grappling with the tensions stemming from the grounding point in secular culture through what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann refers to as “funding postmodernity one verse at a time,” I came to the conclusion of the need to recognize the essential difference between dogma and apologetics in which in which critical reasoning (apologetics) cannot subsume dogma (faith) which has its own poetic language that cannot be translated into other idioms.

No doubt this was a move made within history in an effort to move beyond historicism as an enclosed world view. In making such a shift I had to view my primary interlocutors, the post-liberal Brueggemann and the naturalistic pragmatic philosopher John Dewey, in a less privileged perspective, both of whose collective work I continue to respect and admire a great deal. In the process I made a distinctive orthodox shift toward the United Church of Christ centrist theologians Gabriel Fackre, and Donald Bloesch. In the past few years, I have been extremely inspired by the many writings of J.I. Packer who has spoken very deeply to my evangelical sensibilities who also introduced me to the Puritans, especially to the solid theological pietism of John Owens.

In the very process of making this transcendent turn, I encourage my evangelical friends to loosen up a bit on the doctrine of literal inerrancy in that the stake in the ground is not the historical accuracy of the New Testament, but the radical claim of God in Christ reconciling the world (2 Corinthians 5:19). Moreover, in loosening up on literal inerrancy, while holding firmly to the biblically revealed God in Christ, one is in a better position to embrace what is truly important in a radical biblical perspective. Among other things this avoids the all-too-easy temptation of caricaturing secular thought and culture in the very process of exercising serious and sustained critique of what contemporary Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as our Secular Age. The challenge I would posit to evangelical theology is to grapple with the allure, the power, and realities of secular paradigms for all they are worth, while adhering to the higher calling that faith overcomes the world on its (faith's) own terms, not the worlds. Rejecting escapist strategies to which we are all tempted, the challenge is that of pressing on in fear and trembling on the assumption that God is laboring within us with us in the effort to walk worthily in our calling amidst the many fears and doubts we experience throughout our lives (Philippians 2: 12-13).

I say to my mainline friends, loosen up on your desire to put context in the first place in grappling with the biblical text. As we've learned in a century or more of theology and cultural criticism, context is both important and inescapable. However, when cultural context is given a privileged interpretive place it becomes an idol which profoundly limits the influence of the text to exhibit its dynamic saving and cleansing holy power. Rather, I say, the core claims of faith as such (John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-4; Romans 1:1-6) remain the foundation, a foundation which has transcended many ages and historical locations, however flawed our filtered perceptions of those foundations may be. “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid in Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

I do not say disregard context; an impossible task in any event, but in faith as the substance of things unseen, to embrace this mystery in full faith unreservedly without doubting at least as a radical ideal with real intent (James 1:6-8) even as we see in a glass darkly and may experience much doubt at the core of our being. That is because, on faith, the core of our being is less real than the putting on the Lord Jesus as our new identity, which requires as part of the process the full surrender of ourselves to new being in Christ as the basis of gaining new life possessing an eternal significance of great worth which can begin to be experienced in the here and now (Romans 6; John 6). Clearly, such identity transference is an imperfect process. It is one, however, that calls us within the mystery of the privileged stance of revealed faith to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and will, and to keep knocking, knocking, knocking, until the grace of God breaks in and floods our life with the righteousness of Christ that passes all understanding. It is this and nothing else which is the Alpha and Omega of the born again experience (John 3:5-8), the foundation of the Christian identity upon which all else resides.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Festival of Pentecost

Sermon Note:May 23, Festival of Pentecot, John 14:8-17

It is fashionable to say,"no one knows God" or "there are many ways to God." Both statement maybe true. Moses' request to see God was denied to protect him. God is wholly other, so in a sense God is not accessible to humans. These are not John's concern. He know that if you see Jesus, have have seen the Father. If you know Jesus you know the Father. The Father we see in Jesus is one who loves the world, who lays down his life for us, who is not ashamed of us but invites us to dwell with him forever. Father we know is the judge we love. John is convince that the God we know in Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed to all the world. The world needs to know and love the Father we see in Jesus.

Yet at the same time we are like Philip who is unsure, who have difficulty seeing the Father. The Jesus we meet is a scandal. There is no solid proof that this is the One. There is no absolute certainty that we have made the right choice. The Father we see in Jesus is not a noble, exalted man we seek but a Jew who dies on a cross.

Yet the Holy Spirit teases us, woes us, and sometimes convinces us that this crucified and risen one, this pushed aside one, this down trodden, rejected, mocked one is truly The One, the face of the Father, the very heart of God. Miracle of miracles we believe!

So we celebrate the Pentecost, the miracle of miracles that a people still gather to praise Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Miracles of miracles is that there is still a people who keep watching and waiting for the new creation and get a glimpse or whiff of the Kingdom's presence. Miracle of miracles there is still a people who bear one another burdens. Miracles of miracles we see in our midst greater works than those of Peter and Paul and the Apostles. We know that what we ask in Jesus' name is done. Like Jesus the church is a scandal. There is no positive proof that we have received grace upon grace, love never ending. There is always the temptation to celebration Pentecost as an event in the past, to be nostalgic, to dress up in red and light flames of fire and remember the ancient Pentecost. John will not allow us to live in the past. The work of the Holy Spirit is a present work. The Mighty Acts of God are present in our midst. The great works than these are alive in us who in spite of the darkness, Confess Christ as Lord of Lords, very God of Very God. We can't help ourselves! Jesus always a scandal is in our midst.

Herb Davis
Guest Blogger

Pastor of Eliot Church of Newton, 1973-1994, visiting lector in Preaching
Andover Newton Theological School, 1975-1993, one of the founders of Craigville Colloquy, Confessing Christ

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Is Theology Merely Poetic?

“Is theology merely poetry? Does theology offer us, at best, only that kind of truth which, according to some critics, poetry offers us?” (C.S. Lewis, 1944).

The quotes come from “Is Theology Poetry,” which is one of a number of short works in a fine collection of C.S. Lewis’ essays titled The Weight of Glory. Lewis claims, among other things, that in comparison to the inspired literature of the ancient classical world, northern European mythology, or the 20th century scientific tradition, that Christian poetics comes up poorly by way of comparison on a purely aesthetic dimension. However, as Lewis astutely observes once one has embraced and is embraced by the core vision of God reconciling the world through Christ a poetics of the Holy Spirit is unleashed in the believer in which all other ways of knowing and representing the world pale in significance. To be sure, this is an acquired taste; one nourished by a thorough engagement with the story in the desire to embody the full scope of its narrative power as if one’s very life depended upon it, which according to its precepts, is precisely the case.

Such direct impact on personal illumination is, of course essential in any adherence of faith as a living reality in which, in theological terms, it is the work principally of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. A full bodied faith, however, requires as well the work of the Father, in his ultimate grounding before the foundation of the world, and in the meditational role of the Son in his incarnational presence through his life, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).

To put this is in philosophical terms there are ontological claims about the very nature of reality as well as epistemological claims that go to the lesser important, but ever significant issue of how we know and can come to know that which we claim as true to the extent that is humanly possible, which in theological terms is “through a mirror, dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Once the poetics of the Christian revelation are opened up and linked directly to its core truth claims it yields an aesthetics sensibility the sublime reaches of which extend to a transcendent power in which, perforce, a merely naturalistic artistic vision, whether of poetry or science simply cannot attain.

The theme Lewis tackles has been a pivotal one in grappling with 20th century theology on whether “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) has had appeal because of its aesthetic sensibility or because of the viability of its inherent truth claims in which once revealed has an aesthetic draw that cannot be comprehended from a third person perspective. The matter is compounded in the current period when contrasted to Lewis’ initial readership in the 1940s when Christianity had greater cultural currency than in the contemporary era. Yet, the core claim stands on the truth content of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, notwithstanding the increasing cultural marginalization of the faith since Lewis’ time. It is, one might argue, the very ludicrousness of the orthodox faith stance in light of the multiplicity of metanarratives that dot the contemporary cultural landscape and the rejection of any notion of foundational truth which places its insistent claims even in starker relief in our era than in Lewis’ time.

Even in, or more radically put, especially because of our marginal location in this contemporary cultural milieu we are called to tell our story, to the best that we can while acknowledging and resting in the reality that persuasion is ultimately the work of God. This task is part of our individual calling in our every day encounters as well as our common calling as the body of Christ in directly engaging the narrative paradigms of the broader culture since our faith is ultimately about powers and principalities and not merely about flesh and blood to which we are called to give a defense.

How to engage that work is beyond what I can address at this point, though in his many writings Lewis provides many clues, especially in the merger of the faith’s core truth claims with its transcendent elegance. To be sure,this convergence between sublime poetics and the insistent, yet humbly stated truth claims of orthodox Christianity that so propelled Lewis needs to be recalibrated based on the exigencies of our considerably different era in which in any event a faith that purports to be evangelical needs to hold both of these elements as foundational. While the longer term intent of such an apologetics is meant to address the culture at large, the church itself, where much confusion over these issues resides, is as good a place to start as any; a location where where many of the formative precepts of the culture are consciously and unconsciously embodied.

If today we hear his voice let us not harden our hearts, but give even greater heed so that we do not drift away in the least and if we do let us seek the faith in grace "to draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance...having our hearts sprinked to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water." (Hebrews, 10:22).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jurgen Moltmann and David B. Hart in Critical Juxtaposition

These past few posts leading up to this final one on Moltmann and Hart stem from an initial posting on the Confessing Christ listserv on discussions centering around the suffering of God the father. While there may be more commonalities between Hart and Moltmann than what may seem evident in a straight forward appropriation of their views, the differences between Moltmann's view of God's eternal and "retroactive" suffering as a result of the cross and Hart's view of God in his eternal essence as beyond the fray of human history remains both noteworthy and significant. Perhaps the following extract from the piece below can serve to telescope the issues addressed in the critical differences between hart and Moltmann in their respective Trinitarian theologies:

It is in this respect, the reflection of God’s incarnational glory even onto deification, that Moltmann and Hart share a common aspiration. For Hart, however, the viability of God’s incarnation depends on the depth and range of his transcendent beauty, which Moltmann does not conceptually deny, but dramaturgically underplays throughout the passion of his theological narrative. By contrast, for Moltmann God is eternally wounded in his triune being as a result of Golgotha in a manner that resonates with rather than in any way inviolates his fullness.

More briefly stated, one might argue that Moltmann's focus is God within history, up to the eschaton in which Hart, while fully embracing God's incarnational indwelling both in Christ and in the creation, is more fully focused on the eternal nature of God's being which he conveys to and through creation "in an infinite display of analogical differentiation."

Moltmann and Hart in Critical Juxtaoposition

Hart hits very close to Moltmann’s core project if the convergence of the economic and immanent Trinity “is taken to mean that “God depends upon creation to be God and that creation exists by necessity (because of some lack in God).” In such an interpretation, “God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its true gratuity.” It is true that for Moltmann, God’s passibility, his vulnerability is a voluntary self-limiting, but by this he also presses the point that given his very nature as creator, a God of love could do no other than to give to humanity and the created order “its time” in the economy of God’s kingdom, which, on Moltmann’s interpretation has a retroactive impact on the very nature and substance of God’s triunity. To this, McDougall raises a core challenge that, despite the emphasis he places on biblical foundations, “Moltmann’s theological move to postulate such an eternal self-limitation is certainly a highly speculative move that lacks any direct support in the biblical witness.” This is so, one might argue, even as it possesses a certain explanatory power in shedding light on his effort to attain an underlying coherency in his broader theological project.

It is also worth emphasizing at this point Moltmann’s rejection, and perhaps caricature, of any notion “about ‘the mystery of the Trinity’…pointing to some impenetrable obscurity or insoluble riddle.” However much there may be some convergence in their perspectives, Moltmann and Hart exhibit profoundly different emphases in their Trinitarian theologies, ultimately over the passibility and impassibility of God’s need to suffer in order to be the God whose Son went to the cross, and the role of God’s transcendence even in the midst of his incarnational indwelling within the created order. Hart, for example, does not deny the importance of a dynamic vision of the Trinity, one of Moltmann’s major concerns. What he wants to assure is that “[t]he insuperable ontological difference between creation and God—between the dynamism of finitude and an infinite that is eternally dynamic” is maintained. This, he believes is viable through the capacity of “creatures [hence of, creation as well], embracing” God’s infinity “in an endless sequence of finite instances,” which for Moltmann is the Spirit’s work of deification in bringing creation toward its ultimate destination; what McDougall, in turn, refers to as “drawing creation into” the “life of fellowship” of the divine Trinity itself. “In so doing, the Spirit acts to consummate the original intention of creation, that is, to make all things [in Moltmann’s words,] ‘the home of the triune God’” through which the creation itself participates in God’s triune being even as the distinction between the creation and the creator is maintained.

For Hart, the persisting gulf between God and humankind is not an intrinsic barrier toward living a life that is increasingly attuned to God. He maintains, rather, that the gap between that which can be attained, “the presence of the infinite God” within human flesh, and the creation itself, can never fully realize the desirable (total union with God) because the desirable is infinite in its capacity to transcend every achievable human incarnation in which God existed fully complete in his triune plenitude before the creation and will exist similarly even after the consummation comes to fruition. For Hart, God will be all in all because God is all in all even before the creation, which on his view adds nothing to the plenitude of God even as the bestowal of the gift of creation was an overwhelming expression of his desire. There is nothing static about this as Hart has it in the ever present possibility of going from glory to glory in the infinite embodiment of the indwelling spirit and power of God to infuse and transform human reality within the context of its own finitude and historicity “in an infinite display of analogical differentiation.”

Continuing with his words, creation is infused with “the infinite plenitude of the transcendent act in which all determinacy participates” wherein “God is the being of all things, beyond all finite determination, negation and dialectic, not as the infinite ‘naught’ which all things are set off.” Rather, through what he describes as “the analogy of [God’s] being—the actual movement of analogization, of our likeness to God within an always greater unlikeness,” we have the capacity, that is, the possibility of participating in God’s triune identity in and through the various finite manifestations that characterize our lives in which the specter of non-being as false identity is also an ever present existential possibility.

In short, for Hart the gap between our finite being and God’s ever infinite splendor is never overcome even as “deification” can be experienced in the here and now embodying in analogical plenitude God’s glory in an infinite array of display in concrete manifestations as diverse as the universe itself. For Hart, this “gap” is the basis of God’s apatheia, which if diminished results in a rhetorical attenuation of nothing less than God himself even ultimately in his fully incarnated manifestation. It is in this latter respect, the reflection of God’s incarnational glory even onto deification, that Moltmann and Hart share a common aspiration. For Hart, however, the viability of God’s incarnation depends on the depth and range of his transcendent beauty, which Moltmann does not conceptually deny, but dramaturgically underplays throughout the passion of his theological narrative.
By contrast, for Moltmann God is eternally wounded in his triune being as a result of Golgotha in a manner that resonates with rather than in any way inviolates his fullness.

For Moltmann, there is something profoundly suspect about any claim of God’s eternal glory that itself is not a dynamic process of perpetual agonistic overcoming in the very midst of the history of God himself in the unfolding of human and creational time. As Moltmann has it, therefore, in contrast to Hart, the crucified God in his triune fullness unequivocally embraces the pain and shame of the cross as the provocative and exceedingly risky means of its transcendence in the resurrection and ultimate promise of the final eschaton that on his reading the Spirit brings to fruition.

This persisting dialectical dynamic within the stream of time as well as in the diversity of the divergent Trinitarian functions in the midst of its interactions in history is crucial to Moltmann, without which in the most fundamental sense, there would be no triune God as revealed most fully in the New Testament. In contrast, Hart emphasizes at least the possibility of a perpetual indwelling of the infinite Spirit of God manifested within creation (deification) in which God’s apatheia does not result in dialectic contradiction as a result of human suffering and evil. This is so on Hart’s reading even as contradiction in creation is a consequence of an all-too-common occurrence of human sin, but not of the intrinsic nature of creation, itself.

The difference between the two can also be parsed in that Moltmann focuses primarily on what he refers to as “the history of God” within the context of human and creaturely time leading to, but not, extending in his theology, in any dynamic sense beyond the eschaton (1 Cor 15:28). For Hart, by contrast, the starting point is the eternal significance of God’s ontological reality and the appropriation of his glory in human and creaturely time. The difference in emphases has a great deal to do with how the transcendent/immanent manifestations of God’s revelation are perceived in which neither Hart nor Moltmann take a strictly polar approach even as each pulls very strongly toward one pole (apatheia) or the other (pathos) as theological starting point for very compelling reasons that go to the heart of their respective projects.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Moltmann's "Open" Social Trinity

In continuing the "thick work of exploring aspects of Jurgen Moltmann complex Trinitarian theology, I thought it best to divide of this section of my unpublished essay, The Trinitarian Vision of Jurgen Moltmann: An Eschatological Perspective into two parts. The section that follows here focuses on some of Moltmann's parsing of the difference between the "economic" and "immanent" Trinity related to God's "subsistence" in himself and existence within human history and created time. Moltmann does acknowledge that God "subsists beyond history, but does focuses almost exclusively on the the triune God within history and created time.

I will follow up in the next post with a brief analysis of the key differences between Moltmann and Hart on their largely diverse positions on God's eternal suffering verses his "apathea" (Hart's term).

Note: I realize this is heavy going and I labor myself as I thoughtfully re-read the words I have written in putting this essay on Moltmann together. With this acknoweledgement, two things come to mind: (a)the issues discussed by Moltmann and Hart are complex and require a degree of complex explanation as a legitimate theological exercise even if the result is fewer readers; (b)after completing this cycle of posts I intend to create texts that are more accessible to larger numbers of people and, arguably, more important. However theology warrants its day which I do not intend to skirt in this blog.

The Open Social Trinity Part One

Moltmann incorporates a good deal of theological reflection and historical exegesis in his concept of the open, social Trinity. The primary focal points include the nature of God’s character, the relationship between what Karl Rahner has described as the “economic” and “immanent” Trinity, and a constitutive/relational contrast on the formation and operation of the Trinity. Democratic politics and feminist and liberationist theologies provide some of the not difficult to discern sub-text that gives shape to Moltmann’s Trinitarian vision, in which one might hear the echo of the intercommunicative social theory of Jurgen Habermas.

Moltmann’s critique of what he interprets as static definitions of God’s substance and absolute subjectivity has been discussed. In short, Moltmann maintains that:
[T]he trinitarian Persons are not ‘modes of being’; they are individual, unique, non-interchangeable subjects of the one common, divine substance, with consciousness and will. Each of the Persons possesses the divine nature in a non-interchangeable way; each presents it in his own way.

Each Person “possesses the same individual, indivisible and one divine nature” in which there is intrinsic unity, yet each “possess[es] it in varying ways.” This largely accords with a great deal of classical orthodox Trinitarian theology. What is more novel is the distinction Moltmann makes between the Trinitarian relationships, which diverge in function and in consequence of world historical contingency in which God acts in time, and the underlying substance of God which remains the same regardless as to person or contingency within the fundamental constancy of the triune God. As Moltmann puts it, “[t]he trinitarian Persons subsist in the common divine nature; they exist [original italics] in their relations to one another.” The first reflects the constitutional makeup of God in which the Father precedes the Son and the Spirit; the second, the manner of their interaction in human history.

Both of these expressions are critically important and dialectically intertwined. Yet, the heart and soul of Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology is the manner of their radical egalitarian and diverse interaction (perichoresis) within the context of God’s fundamental purpose in bringing creation to its ultimate consummation. In Moltmann terms, “through the concept of perichoresis, all subordination in the doctrine of the Trinity is avoided” notwithstanding the acknowledgment of the constitution of God “the Father as starting point.”

This “starting point” has traditionally has been viewed as God’s unequivocal and unremitting sovereignty, the latter concept of which Moltmann attenuates a great deal as fundamentally contradictory to any notion of God as love. His critique of Barth and Rahner’s modalistic representations, which he doubts has never “really been overcome,” provides an important critical baseline in contemporary theology through which Moltmann launches his own Trinitarian thesis. It is this which warrants additional commentary.

Our main entry point is Moltmann’s probing into the relationship between the economic and immanent Trinity. The former has at its basis a soteriological function as the means through which God reveals himself to humankind, while the latter, to which Moltmann gives little sustained focus, is the embodiment of God’s innate being beyond creation. In contrast to the classical vision of God’s “impassibility, immutability, and nonsuccessive eternity,” Moltmann’s depiction of the divine revelation seldom extends beyond the apocalyptic moment of new heaven and new earth. While not deeply examining the relationship, Moltmann rejects as utterly speculative any radical disjunction between the economic and immanent Trinity. He stresses instead their continuity in the ineradicable nature of the suffering God, an incarnational deity, seemingly without transcendent remainder beyond history even as hope extends to the eschaton, the red thread pulling human and natural history to its ultimate destiny.

In a formal theological sense, Moltmann does give credence to God’s utter incomprehensibility, hence, transcendence as an outer, and even when pushed, an impassible boundary. Nonetheless, the brunt of his theological vision gravitates toward the utter trustworthiness of the God who suffers, who cannot by his own innate nature as incarnational love deny his fundamental purposes and basic character. With an exceedingly strong proclivity toward divine passibility in the image of the crucified God, there is, on Moltman’s account an ultimate singularity between the economic and immanent Trinity in that “[t]he triune God can only appear in history as he appears in himself, and in no other way.” While there are depth dimensions to the fullness of God’s reality well beyond our own comprehensibility, there is a quintessential consistency wherein God as revealed to human beings “‘cannot deny himself,’” and in any fundamental way be radically different than what such unveiling discloses. Thus:

"Statements about the immanent Trinity must not contradict statements about the economic Trinity. Statements about the economic Trinity must correspond to doxological statements about the immanent Trinity" (original italics).

The nub of Moltmann’s argument is that “[t]he economic Trinity completes and perfects itself to immanent Trinity” as part of the emergent soteriological process that comes to fruition “when history and experience of salvation are completed and perfected.” The process of unveiling within the history of human and creational time as the red thread pulling the eschaton toward its cosmic destiny depends on the viability of God’s perpetual self revealing, however fragmentarily and ambiguously perceived. Any notion of an impassible God and a suffering Son as somehow reconcilable is, on Moltmann’s reading, fundamentally contradictory on its face. Whether in the process Moltmann collapses too much of what Hart describes as God’s “incomprehensibility, absolute power, simplicity, eternity,” and “uncircumscribab[ility], elusive of every finite concept or act” in his quest for comprehensibility and coherency is an issue further explored below.