Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I have a problem with John Milbank. It's the same problem I have with pretty much everyone who sets up the dialectic of modernity and positions Christianity as the alternative to it. Their version of Christianity, to be sure. And perhaps I've been guilty of that sin myself. But when the discussion of the deprecation of religion, or of atheistic secularity, or in Milbank's terms, the pagan and heretical theological misinterpretations of the Christian concept of the saeculum, points toward a dialectic of Christianity vs non-Christianity (religion vs atheism as it inevitably seems to boil down), I must object! This is the logic of the "keep Christ in Christmas" crowd, that seems to think that the problem with Christmas is all these non-Christians spoiling the fun. That political correctness is a means of getting Christianity to water itself down so that other people won't get offended by the truth. Yes, that's the pop side, but the advocacy of agonism in interreligious dialogue is no better. And the Christianity advocated is inevitably culturally conditioned. It carries a host of historical appurtenances that do not belong to the message. It is a thrown brick of Western cultural hegemony wrapped in a paper message of Christianity. It offends, but not with the truth of Christ crucified. It offends in the name of the glory of God.

Christianity is not the answer. It isn't an answer, at all. And the saeculum is not the problem. A healthy saeculum, in the basic sense of interregnum, is a sphere in which those who trust in God can do the work of God in humility. It is likewise a sphere in which those who disagree coexist. It is the ground between the already and the not yet. To insist that it be subjected to God's No is to forget that it has received God's Yes at the same time. It is hubris, the offense of replacing God with self. The aimless meandering of the contingent is ever in danger of being made to seem the long upward spiral towards divine truth. The world only relates to God by God's good grace. From creation through eschatological termination, with as many covenants and relationships as may develop between, God proves faithful and we prove offensive. We do not have a relationship with God, except as God sustains a relationship with us. We do not have knowledge of God, except as God sustains revelation to us. On the other hand, we have a remarkable plethora of attempts to own some aspect of this, to retain it in the absence of God. To mediate that unreliable immediacy. To remember, to teach, to explain, to understand. Because we look at God, and then something else. And, to be sure, God works with us. While they are honest attempts to be true to God, there is no evil in them, just human nature in the wake of God. But they are part of the saeculum. Christianity has no business opposing its permanent failure, its mediateness in the face of the immediate. Christianity is not right, any more than Judaism or Islam. Only God is supreme. And God keeps correcting and affirming this secular humanity (as though there were any other kind). The No and the Yes come upon everything, and we are not permitted to take the Yes for ourselves while deferring the No to another.

Forget post-secularity. Give me a healthy secularity, a truly pious humility that remembers at all times that every formation of this world stands under condemnation, its own included. That fears, loves, and serves God without concern for its own righteousness because God has given the Yes without connection to merit. That is Christian without lordship, without domination, without any right but the grace of God freely given. Judgment is God's and has been given, and the agon is no longer to be right, but to be faithful. If we believe that God has achieved the salvation intended through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as Christ, once for all, how then should we struggle against the saved? Least of all on behalf of some supposed righteousness of our own position!

... and yet I will continue to do theology. This may be hypocrisy on my part. You can tell that I think I'm right. More right, in fact, than another whose position is also wrong. I'm not sure what to do about that.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Why dogmatics?



Alright, that's out of the way. Why dogmatics? Pannenberg suggests that historical-critical scholarship of the Bible has made dogmatics, and not exegetics, the place for the "truth of Christian discourse about God" (ST vol. 1, p. 8). Old way was exegesis of scripture --> exposition of dogma. You can see it in the Augustana. But we have essentially deconstructed the truth of scripture to the point where its nature is not sufficient as a basis for doctrinal truth. Therefore dogmatics bears the entire weight of "the question of the truth of talk about God." Which looks a heck of a lot like "dogmatics is self-supporting" if you tilt your head just so. To the clarification of which Pannenberg then launches into a differentiation of dogmatics-as-science and dogmata (or dogma in general).

The basic point winds up at the eschatological nature of truth. Hegelian progressivism isn't necessary, but what is necessary is the fact of cumulative history. Repristination doesn't work for the simple reason that we've gone that route already. You can't do it again without acknowledging the failures of the first time around. It is naive to suggest that we can reclaim a past position uncritically. Truth here is relative, and keeps moving, but always remains relative to absolute truth. The state of the art is the current relationship between our truth and the truth. We've learned something between then and now that makes then a nonrepeatable event.

Dogmatics is the location of validation of God-talk because we've learned things about scripture that we can't unlearn. It is historical, literary, one textual component of a discursive formation, &c. The orthodox position of literalism was always a hedge against the growing realization of this fact of our separation from scripture. Pannenberg goes into a concise history of the development of exegetical strategies for dogmatics, leading up to the calcification of protective interpretive strategies around scripture and dogma -- rigid formations that attempt to preserve their truth. And fail because truth cannot be presupposed, nor can it be sheltered privately, away from all other truth. Truth here is relative, and moves. Absolute truth will only be had at the eschaton, the end of the line. You can't make a provisional result into absolute truth by walling it in.

And here is a break with Barth. Barth, coming out of Anselm, found that he had to presuppose the church as the place where dogmatics could be true. It was impossible that he should defend the articula fidei against reason and natural philosophy on their own grounds. To do dogmatics right was, for Barth, to do it in the presence of faith, in the presupposition of faith, as exposition and ordered presentation of that which is believed. Pannenberg, on the other hand, cannot presuppose the truth of Christian God-talk (or any other God-talk) and do systematic theology as science. Note well that Barth is doing dogmatics because he cannot abide the mandatory conformity to a logic outside of theology -- a system -- while Pannenberg is doing systematic theology because he cannot abide the exclusive interiority of theological truth -- dogma -- separate from global logic.

Why dogmatics, then? For Pannenberg, dogmatics is the locus of validation for God-talk because of its conformance with all other human quests after truth. As systematic theology, it is capable of taking the truth of God-talk as an open question, and making that truth its theme (48). It is capable of taking the things we believe and structuring them in ways that demonstrate the comprehensive and coherent nature of our discourse about God (18). And it must do so for the simple reason that it is a science. It structures in order to progress beyond its structures. It keeps reaching for better truth. It cannot sit still or it will die. Scripture is valuable in this effort, and perhaps even normative, but it is not, itself, capable of validating the truth of statements based on evidence of which it is part. It is, itself, a compendium of theological product. It is necessary to the realization of present truth, but no longer sufficient to it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Ah, Pannenberg!

Back from vacation, back to work!

I never really got Pannenberg before. His scientism always seemed to depend on provisional results of the physical sciences at the time (like his field theory pneumatology -- I had as well use M-theory to develop a ToE doctrine of God). But coming back to him now, I get it. That stuff is end-product, and should be regarded as provisional in itself. It's quaint, but so is every decades-old state of the art. The real work is in theological epistemology, which has no basic reliance on product. Models are just snapshots of the state of the art, and we keep making them for the express purpose of having a working map which we can obsolesce. Theology, because it is a science, is not in the business of coming up with absolute answers, and Pannenberg says as much repeatedly. It is in the business of arguing from evidence.

ST vol. 1 opens with a discussion which really places Pannenberg's Anthropology in Theological Perspective. The question of appropriate evidence from which to argue is key to theology as a science. Pannenberg follows the tradition which Barth also takes, making clear that the only appropriate evidence for God comes from God. We don't reach outside of the proper object and noetic space of the science, or we are in fact doing something else, not theology. Replace "God" with the object of any other science, and the statement still stands. We may expand the territory appropriate to the science as our understanding of the relations of different fields grows and shifts, but appropriate evidence is always determined on the science's own grounds.

At which point Pannenberg brings up the distinction between theology and anthropology. It is proper theology to talk about God, but theology does other things. Theology also moves to human society and nature. And how do we get proper ground from which to speak about this? The ontic relationship between creator and creature only goes one direction. One might say that we bear the image of God, but God does not bear the image of us. Except! God has chosen to bear the image of the creature in Christ. This is the root of our knowledge of God: it is from the incarnation that we begin to derive the trinity.

I feel some qualms about this, because it could turn into a claim to supremacy of knowledge of the divine. It could turn into a thing we have. But it should not, and it does not (so far) in Pannenberg. It is reliance on revelation, on data given by the only source of primary knowledge of God. And while the incarnation is the root of our best knowledge of God, it is still one of God's self-revealing actions toward creation. I like the fact that Pannenberg takes Christianity as one religion among others, at least in part because at the moment I have become highly sceptical of claims to closure of revelation. Those claims seem too much like making revelation something we have, a possession, not a reliance upon God. And I don't see any legitimate grounding for them. Islam makes sense to me, at least in part because it recapitulates many of the claims used by Christianity over Judaism (and over Islam in the case of the Baha'i). And the parts about "neither your fancies, nor those of the peoples of the book" are warnings to remain reliant upon God. It's what Islam *means* as a word, and what the religions of God should be doing. And it's just good epistemology!

At any rate, coming out of Barth and into Pannenberg is keeping me going very nicely. I'm not so sure about Rahner, for all that I like his re-emphasis on fundamental theology over the reiteration of textbooks.