Thursday, April 30, 2015

Some thoughts on the relation between the social context and biblical interpretation

Over the years we've had many discussions on the relationship between scriptural interpretation and cultural analysis.  Because it pushes so many high voltage reactions, the discussion on same sex marriage is both useful and a distraction. Barth's turn to the strange new world within the Bible was as much of a story within early 20th century intellectual and cultural history as it is one of the great theological threads in the contemporary west.  In broad terms, the theological impetus is the role of the Bible serving as the basis to interpret the culture rather than the culture serving as the basis to interpret the Bible.  I, along with many others,maintain the general wisdom of this turn in privileging the Bible in in its canonical breadth and depth, ultimately over the culture, though not without much discernment, explanation, and exegesis.  This turn is based on the presupposition that in its canonical integrity, the Bible is a primary source of the revelation of God in Christ reconciling the world (2 Cor 5:19).

To stay with Gabriel Fackre's tripartite model (for the sake if this discussion), the Bible, as the inspired text, is the primary source of Christian revelation.  The church, in its 2000 ecclesial and theological illuminations, has important secondary status.  The culture (broadly interpreted) holds an honorific third priority in establishing the setting (the context) through which faith is lived out by the church in time and place.  We can debate the viability of this model, which is worth doing at some point, but in order to make an argument, let's stay with it for the time being.

The viability of the Bible, as a primary resource of revelation, cannot be determined through the significance of individual passages, wherever they may be in the text.  Individual narratives in both the OT and NT have interpretive significance, but so does the trajectory of the Grand Story, from creation to consummation, in which the former events are interpreted from later ones, including those that wait for fruition in the Eschaton. We, ourselves, are inserted into the broader biblical narrative in the time of the church.  One might say that we are living in the period of the Greater Acts of the Apostle through which we see in part but not in whole.  While the Word of God has been given, in which a good deal in what has been revealed is reasonably clear, there is still new light to break forth from God's old and ever revealing word.  In this post I will only focus on slavery and abolition and will leave the issue of same sex marriage for another day, both of which have been topics of considerable concern, in recent days on the Confessing Christ discussion list.

 I see very little in the NT which actually supports slavery, though Paul accepts its institutional reality in the early period of the Roman Empire.  Like Jesus, Paul did not come to dismantle unjust institutions of the state, but to preach the gospel. He kept his main focus on his main objective.  His interpretation of the relationship between slave and slaveholders within the body of Christ was revolutionary, and he also said somewhere that it would be a good thing for a person if they were able to gain their freedom. The broader point remains is that his mission to bring the revelation of God in Christ to the gentiles would have been utterly derailed if he focused instead on eradicating unjust first century institutions.

Let's move up to the 18th and 19th centuries.  In the colonies, the Quakers were the only sizable religious body that opposed slavery before the American Revolution.  With the American Revolution, the issue of individual freedom could no longer be avoided, which raised the specter of slavery as a profound moral and political contradiction for the first time on a widespread scale.  This was recognized by the founders of the US Constitution, but any effort toward national abolition, at that time would have resulted in the abortion of that fledgling union. The founders reasoned that that was too high of a price to pay.  Still, they did incorporate the the slave trade act which prohibited the importation of slaves by 1808.  Moreover, by the early 19th century, the northern states abolished slavery, mostly by gradual means, including,in some cases, economically compensating former slave owners. Because of the concentration of slavery in the south and the importance of the cotton industry, slavery remained very much alive and well until the Civil War.  

Through the influence of the abolition movement, as well as the emphasis on the importance of the liberty of individual consciousness in mediating the person's relationship to God within evangelical theology in the North, by 1850, many northern evangelicals opposed slavery and viewed its existence as a national sin of major proportions.  The important point for this discussion is the following: while these evangelicals were ardent opponents of slavery in the 1850s, they also rejected calls for immediate abolition. They opposed abolition because (1) they reasoned that it would destroy any prospect of a national evangelical revival upon which they based their long-range hopes;(2) they viewed the prospect of immediate abolition as utterly unrealistic and hoped for some sort of gradual emancipation (as did Lincoln),though couldn't see themselves clear to how this would actually get worked out; (3) it would lead to civil war.  Based on these problems, they embraced a form of Niebuhrian realism in their position of castigating slavery as a moral evil, adamantly rejecting the extension of slavery,and repudiating (even violating) the Fugitive Slave Act.  In effect, they sought proximate justice in an unjust world, as did Niebuhr in his early cold war stance against Russia, notwithstanding the many ironies of American history.

This is a long narrative which I will end here, except to say that context does matter even if, only penultimately so.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Transcendence and Immanence in 20th Century Theology

Through Christianity certain individuals seek to make sense of their lives.  This they believe takes place through a connection with a force that resides within them, which is also a power that is ineradicably beyond human experience and comprehension.  Christian theologians have referred to this as the immanent-transcendent dynamic.  In various times in the history of Christianity one or another of these aspects of faith has been emphasized.  In the fullness of the Christian faith, which is both a system of thought and a living presence that can never be fully grasped by human reason, these dynamic aspects creatively contribute to an integrative understanding that honors both human experience and the belief that meaning resides in a transcendent source which then enters into it.  This "beyond" is what Christians refer to as "God."  Other religions also believe in God, but Christians believe that God is mediated to human beings in a unique way through Jesus of Nazareth, referred to in their book of Scripture as the Christ.

This “Christ” is depicted in the New Testament in the several gospels that purport to give a running account of the life, ministry, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, and in a more formally theological depiction in various letters and other books of the New Testament.  Many of these latter texts were authored by their chief interpreter, Saul of Tarsus, originally a Jewish Pharisee.  Some point to him as the founder of Christianity, who, after conversion, took on the name of Paul and the title of Apostle.

What makes this complicated is that although the synoptic Gospels (the books of Mark, Matthew and Luke) have the surface feature of a narrative, they were written some 40-60 years after the death of Jesus and after the letters of Paul.  They are not primary sources of the actual life of Jesus, but theological statements of the Christian community, which posited Jesus Christ as the redeemer of the world and Son of God, the only true mediator between God and humankind.

For some 1850 years, Christians who appropriated the teaching of the Christ through an empathetic reading of the Scripture, the various teachings of the church, and what they refer to as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, did so in a relatively unproblematic way.  That is because they understood that the Christ portrayed in the New Testament was synonymous with the historical experience of Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers.  Then, other outlooks came to the fore, as science, historical research, and literary studies which opened up the New Testament to new critical scrutiny, leaving gaping questions among those who are compelled to take modern scholarship seriously. 

These scholarly intrusions need to be grasped within a broader paradigmatic shift within Western consciousness—with the scientific revolutions of the 16th and 17th century, the Renaissance, and the 18th Century Enlightenment, which enshrined human reason as the creative power through which humankind could progressively control the social environment.  Add to this, the theory of evolution, critical historical scholarship, the secularization of the western university system, and the industrial revolution, the quaint faith of Christianity, in which the exclusive savior of human history was uniquely revealed to a particular people, began to lose its substantive hold on significant portions of the European and American publics.

Within the Christian sector there were various responses to the challenges of western modernity.  In one sector, there was a call to embrace the fundamentals of the faith that took as its operating strategy a more or less flat rejection of these influences and an acceptance of an inerrant scripture as the literal word of God.  I will not pursue the fundamentalist thread here, though it has its own complex history and is worth more than a little study among serious students of 20th century American Christianity.  The other response that of Christian liberalism, which sought to re-integrate the core precepts of the Christian faith within the basic premises of modern scholarship and the social and cultural currents of modern social life.  While fundamentalism represented a strong pull toward the transcendent pole, liberalism emphasized God's immanent embodiment in human experience and, in which it was often difficult to distinguish the classic Christian concept of the Kingdom of God with the quest for progressive human improvement.  On the one hand, those of a more radical secular slant wondered why liberals had to refer to God talk at all.  On the other hand, fundamentalists criticized Christian liberals as selling out the basics of the faith, in what they viewed as the futile effort to explain the biblical belief in a transcendent God embodied in a literal Christ, in secular terms. 

Liberal Christian denominations continue to be caught in a bind.  What makes this particularly difficult is the persistence of a wide gulf between 20th century Christian theologians and seminarians and the average man and woman in the pews.  Many of the issues of modernity are studied in seminaries with considerable sophistication, but liberal preachers are generally reluctant to bring much of the more radical implications of these insights into the pews in Sunday morning sermons.  In addition, such insights seldom provide the framework to inform both youth and adult Sunday school instruction.  

Part of the challenge of modernity is the degree to which one can assume the historical accuracy of the New Testament portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth.  While the scholarship may vary somewhat, there is a substantial swathe of research which posits a wide gap between the historical Jesus and the Christ of the New Testament. There are others, grounded in a more evangelical perspective who take issue with some of the broader ramifications of the "Jesus Seminar," as exemplified by the scholarship of John Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Also requiring consideration is the magisterial work of N.T. Wright, particularly his study, Jesus and the Victory of God, which draws a close connection to claims of the Synoptic Gospels and the actual historical personage of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Then there is the broader question of what to make of other religious teachings, as Planet Earth moves increasingly toward a global world.  Is there still a meaningful place, even for a modified Christian exclusivist viewpoint in the belief that God is revealed in a particularly unique and superior way than in other religious traditions?  Much hangs in the balance on how these matters get adjudicated in contemporary theological, denominational, and congregational settings.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Funding Postmodernity One Text at a Time?

Walter Brueggemann is the master of drawing out the imaginative depth of the individual text and in that he offers much potentially both to hungry liberals and conservatives seeking a fresh word of truth in a land that may be very dry.  In his wrestling with the text WB is a consummate preacher and expositor.  I take no issue with that, which I view moreover, as his primary gift to the modern/postmodern church.  What I do find troubling is an almost dogmatic-like aversion to the “grand narrative” of the canon as a whole, from Alpha and Omega to various points between.  While I agree with you that the biblical text can be domesticated, it not need be so and does not have to be to the extent that preachers, teachers, and other communicators of the Word honor both the text and the context in which the Word and people are situated.  Of course, this is what WB seeks to do, but I think we do have to look closely at his core project of “funding” postmodernity, which he views as kairotically integral to the times in which we (in the west) live.

I, for one, do not dismiss the potency of this moment; this off-centered (geographically defined) Christianity in which marginality rather than Christ the center defines the primary space of where so many people who are willing to hear the Word, live.  That has defined my own space for a very long time, one that I know quite well, which has its own allures and appeals, and who am I to say that it is not authentic space.  This Christ at the margins is a very real space where many who sit in oour pews, and perhaps more than a few pastors, as well, live.  What WB does is to give them voice and in that he is making a substantial contribution to mainline identity and in the process he re-introduces the legitimacy of the Bible.  This is no small achievement.  His “angular” interpretation speaks to this mode.

I want to keep this angularity and the imaginative construals that fresh interpretations evoke.  I want to do this, however in a way that honors the biblical canon in its entirety; the grand narrative as well as the many little stories that comprise the Bible’s constructed text.  This, I believe, Brueggemann has not adequately grappled with, and, in fact, exercises a profound hermeneutics of suspicion against any such project, as indicative in his ongoing canon criticism of biblical theologian, Brevard Childs.  The question that I pose is what do we do with the grand narrative?  Is the biblical text, as ultimately a coherent story simply part of a mythopoetic legend that speaks an idiom of an ancient world, but has no applicability today?  Be clear, I, too, want to separate the wheat from the chaff of critical historiography and modern scientific understanding, and the allures of obscurantism have no appeal to me. 

That said, we still have to deal not only with the matter of interpretation, but the standards upon which interpretation is based; the standards upon which our faith is grounded; particularly the relationship between the text and the world.  What I find in serious evangelicals like Bloesch, Fackre, Erickson and others is a profound grappling with the challenges of modernity/ postmodernity, while at the same time, when push comes to shove, viewing the Bible as interpreting the world rather than the world setting the context in and through which the Bible is interpreted.  Obviously, the relationship is more complex in that there is considerable interplay between these two—complexity always leaking out against our best construals.  This I grant.  Nonetheless, we do have to decide at some level below having complete or perfect knowledge, in which our decisions are invariably based on where our ultimate vocabularies and commitments reside.  At his best moments, Brueggemann is nothing short of prophetic in his electrifying imaginative construals, which, in the very act of his speaking (writing) it is as if God’s revelation is piercing into postmodernity at the very moment of reading his electrifying essays.  That’s how it seemed to me, a least at one point in my faith journey. Such an engagement is very powerful, which to lose is to lose much.

This is where I want to raise a very big issue:  to what extent does Brueggemann see funding postmodernity, as he describes it in Texts Under Negotiation, as THE kairotic moment of our times?  For if how he sees it is, in fact, the way it really is with us, then Brueggemann’s evocative vision can be nothing short of the will of God for our times, in which we can only fund postmodernity one text, one miracle, one revelation at a time.  However, if he is holding onto this vision in a more tightly construed way than God may intend, then perhaps there are some problems lurking in his insistence that marginalization, is in fact the key characteristic state of our times, or that even if it is, there is only one way to play it in light of the many cultural realities that overwhelm a sustained and coherent Christian identity—acceptance of our marginalization rather than any frontal confrontation with the secular society, itself.   

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Encountering Walter Brueggemann

In addition to his profound understanding of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann’s strengths lay in his knowledge of post-reformation theology and his powerful exegesis, as exemplified in his various collections of essays.  Also extremely provocative is his tapping into the imagination as the most potent means of linking the biblical text to the ethos of the contemporary setting.  In this respect he may be viewed as the apostle to the postmodern secularists.  In this capacity he would play a formidable role in the UCC God is still speaking campaign

 For those on the margins of faith and doubt, WB offers an extremely powerful way of re-entering the strange new world within the Bible that for many, more dogmatic approaches would not have been convincing.  The seeming irrelevance of the Bible is a phenomenon that shapes the thinking of more than a few who attend mainline (or perhaps even evangelical) congregations, who at some level are still seeking a Word where one has not been found for a long time.  The deep influence of secularization, even in the midst of our congregations, is a factor that cannot be lightly dismissed, in which the pastoral call very well may be, in WB’s terms, that “funding” of the Word of God, one verse, one miracle, one revelation at a time, in which to attempt more could very well turn into sterile bibliolatry.  I hope it is clear that I am speaking at the level of reception and I am speaking for some and not for all. 

Brueggemann played a similar role within me that Jurgen Moltmann's, The Crucified God, did some years earlier in opening up the hermeneutical possibility that God could speak a vital Word through his text.  I spent a good part of two years pouring over everything I could get my hands on by WB. In the process of following the trajectory of his imaginative biblical construals, as he would put it, I also read substantial portions of the OT.  I encountered the Bible, once again, as the vital Word of God.

In my reading of Brueggemann, I also experienced some limitations, such as his privileging of some texts over the others, which I interpret as at least partially contradicting the spirit of 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”  While WB might have viewed it as ironic, my re-encountering the Bible through his theology pushed me toward an evangelical faith retrieval of some enduring stability, which I needed to reclaim if the Christian faith were going to prevail in my life in a compellingly vital way.  This retrieval— illuminated, as far as I could discern by the Holy Spirit—has depended, in no small measure, on the capacity to embrace the Bible full without privileging certain texts over others, as the very source of my ultimate vocabulary. 

The second, and related limitation I find in WB, is, notwithstanding the “existential” power of his “funding” of postmodernity one text, one miracle, one revelation at a time, I simply could not fathom how one could construct a stable religious life from that basis, or how a congregation could establish an ecclesiology which could mediate the religious needs and passions of a congregation from week to week.

In theory, I could imagine a postmodern/post-Christian congregation, which gathered week-to-week from their travails within the secular city.  This ideal congregation would encounter the Word once again through the imaginative dynamic of the charismatic preacher who would reach those in the pews through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, where the Word would come alive, once again, in WB’s evocative imagery, one verse, one miracle one revelation at a time.  I do believe this is a place where many people, and perhaps congregations in such denominations like the United Church of Christ are, and in this respect, the voice coming out of the theology of WB may very well be the authentic Word of God that such a congregation may need to hear.  Interpreted from this vantage point, WB represents an authentic UCC voice that needs to be thoroughly heard and respected within the denomination’s Confessing Christ network, at least as a viable kairotic option for a certain sector of the faith community in our secular era of postmodernity/post-Christendom era, within the suburban congregations of cosmopolitan America.

Yet, if taken as the gospel itself, or as THE authoritative theology of our times, WB’s vision could also be viewed as extremely repressive and oppressive to boot.  The possibility for a thoroughly biblically-based evangelical encounter through the likes of Bloesch, Vanhoozer, Barth, Henry, Fackre, Lints, and others is also a critical need which has been profoundly repressed within the mainline denominations going back to the struggles with fundamentalism at the beginning of the 20th century.  In order to get at the root of these issues, the historical dynamics that lent them their intensity would need to be imaginatively re-encountered and reconstructed. 

 I would recommend a thorough and respectful encounter between Walter Brueggemann and Donald Bloesch where some of these critical issues could be aired out. For this is one of the crucial encounters I believe that needs to take place between the confessional communities within the United Church of Christ and the denomination's Cleveland leadership and progressive ministry throughout, as exemplified, particularly, in its bi-coastal conferences.  Let us assume that both brothers deserve a respectful place at the UCC table, and then establish the places where they could mutually sit and where we could respectfully engage them.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Viability of God Talk within the Milieu of the Secular City

Given the current emphasis on the term (or title) Lord, Avery Dulles’ reflections in The Assurance of Things Hoped For may be of relevance:

Faith is a religious act.  It involves an adoring submission of one’s whole self to God as supreme lord of all things.  In faith I abandon the self-centeredness of my normal vision and consent to look at reality from God's perspective.  I transfer my concern from narrow self-interest to the God on whom I depend and who is to be unconditionally esteemed, trusted, and loved for his own sake.  The intrinsic motive of faith, the ‘authority’ of God, is God himself in his wisdom, truthfulness, holiness power, and fidelity. These divine attributes, though conceptually distinct, are all identical in God (p. 275).

In the important work of coming to term with modernity many of the more liberal Protestant denominations and theologians sacrificed at least to some degree the clarity and power of this fundamental faith act.  In reading through Dulles I get the impression that on the whole, Vatican I & II did a better job than Protestantism of grappling with the intellectual premises of modernity as well as that of inter-religious dialogue, while maintaining the radical particularity that in Christ the fullness of God’s revelation to humankind has been given once and for all even as there are always new insights to be gleaned from this core revelation.

To be sure this religious act is a matter of faith all the way down which cannot be proven by human reason, logic, or evidence.  Nonetheless, these can, and need to be helpful, for without signs it would be very difficult to see, even in a glass darkly.  Even still such faith viewed exclusively through secular channels might readily be viewed as absurd, or more charitably as obscurantist. 

In seeking to come to terms with modernity, liberal Protestantism at its worst accepted too readily the underlying assumptions of secular intellectualism, particularly a diminishing of the radicality of God as transcendent Other over and above anything that can be conceived in the natural world or in the realms of our inner and social experiences.  Thus, one might say that the notion of God was repressed from 20th century intellectual history and philosophy as a manifestation of a broader “death of God” phenomenon, particularly in Europe and less so in the US, notwithstanding persistent strains of fundamentalism as well as evangelical resurgences throughout the century.

At its best the effort to come to terms with modernity is indispensable, if there is going to be a credible apologetic aspect to the faith at all, not only in response to overt unbelief (and therefore to the culture at large), but in response to the multiplicity of identities among many who are overtly Christian (like many of us?) in their (our) various constructions of reality which are anything but purely Christian.  Perhaps I might suggest that at least in Protestant circles that apologetic work has barely begun to take place outside the realms, say, of Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Langdon Gilkey.  One might also place Walter Brueggemann in this apologetic category in his “funding” of postmodernity in the compelling breakthrough of the kairotc moment through the imaginative stimulus of the Holy Spirit.  Such apologoteic theology is indispensable if such fundamental religious acts of claiming Christ as Lord and Savior are going to mediate in ways that are compelling.

There is a broad range of problems linked to the liberal (post or otherwise) or neo-orthodox solution.  Might we see as a next step a thick reformed-grounded evangelic apologetic that does not merely collapse into dogmatics, but confronts the intellectual premises of modernity and postmodernity on their own terms while maintaining a distinctively Christian perspective?  Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackreand George Hunsinger, UCC centrist stalwarts, have done substantial work in this arena. I suppose one could argue that Barth’s turn to dogmatics was also a subtle form of apologetics by indirection, but a fuller apologetic effort may be needed, such as that as exhibited by Jurgen Moltmann, if the religious act of faith is going to be viewed as credible by more than a remnant.  

I don’t disagree that the more fundamental work may still be the need to sharpen a subtle dogmatic project right in the heartland of the UCC denomination and its supporting seminaries.  In fact, I think it’s essential. Let that work go forth! On Bloesch, on Fackre, on Brueggemann, too!  Still given the pervasive cultural and religious pluralism of our times along with a profound agnosticism in the heartland of the “thinking” middle class and contemporary intellectuals, perhaps there is a need to move beyond Karl Barth’s dogmatics (while drinking richly from his wells) and incorporate richer apologetic work in the very creation of a more subtle articulation of faith.  On that score, perhaps Dulles may have a point or two in Ch 11 in The Assurance of Things Hoped For, titled “Properties of Faith.”  In that chapter, Dulles points to five key properties:  “supernaturality, freedom, certitude and doubt, and obscurity.”  For Dulles, faith is primary, but it is faith in search of knowledge amidst the dynamic tension of certitude and doubt within the context of the ultimate obscurity of the mystery of God, given the fathomless range of His Kingdom and the inherently limited and flawed nature of our own understanding and will.  The gap between what we seek and what we possess is itself fathomless, though we press toward the mark in the midst of our groaning and travail, and in the process are occasionally given the light of the beautific vision of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of human history.