Thursday, April 28, 2011

Teachable moments in church history

It's one thing to suggest that the institutional church is failing. It's another to say that the phenomenon is brand spanking new. More appropriately put, institutional churches are always failing. But that has to do with bureaucratic formal organization. Never be surprised when human ventures in community go "the way of all flesh."

And yet, in the title link, David Housholder is surprised. And it's apparently the end of the world as we know it. This is nothing new for him, and I've commented on it before. But this time he's not talking about denominational churches participating in demographic stagnation. No; this time it's a characteristically American conservative rant about how all of society is on the downward spiral to failure. "The rusting of our major institutions," as he puts it, saying he's "a pessimist about the ability of our major institutions to survive this century." (In spite, of course, of his natural optimism "for the human race and for creation in general.")

And what institution heads the list? The church.
Arguably the most resilient of all institutions (outliving languages and nations, and all ideologies), the church has gone "sideline" in the space of one generation. The church was the only major institution to survive the fall of the Roman Empire. Irrelevant and ignored are the two adjectives that come to mind when I think of the 21st century church.

Virtually no explicit Christian leaders, for the first time in two millennia, are first-team varsity culture-shapers on our planet. We don’t even have an Oprah, let alone a Churchill.

Today’s 15-year-olds to 30-year-olds are ignoring the church in unprecedented droves.

Most denominational organizations are ripped apart by political issues. Christianity is fragmented like never before.

And this, friends, is a teachable moment in church history. Because mister Housholder wasn't paying attention, apparently, when they covered the history sequence in seminary. Or he's willing to act like it for some reason.

Monday, April 25, 2011

New creation (emphasis)

Somehow, over the past year, I've fallen into a fairly stable orbit around the doctrine of creation. I didn't plan it, it just has sort of happened. And there's good support for it happening, what with being the Sittler fellow and involved in all these green circles, and the fact that I set out to be in religion and science in the first place, lo these many years ago, and have landed in the Zygon Center. But the key thing for me was doing my Barth exam, and becoming enthralled with CD III.4, and creation ethics.

So right now I'm inching my way through the whole of volume III, and it occurs to me that I hear very little anywhere about III.1. Plenty of work on III.2. Again very little on III.3. And then we come to III.4, with another glut of work (relatively speaking). So part of my summer project (therefore also part of exam/dissertation prep) is reading the whole blessed volume and coming out with a larger thematic sense of it. And let me tell you, even at my during-semester crawl because of everything else that has to get done, III.1 is revelatory. And part of me wonders why this view isn't more represented in the field.

Now, another part of me realizes that Frei and Lindbeck blew out the narrative vein in their own ways, and so there's stereotyped resistance to the thoroughgoing narrative understanding of creation. Die Sage has been taken as its own methodological basis, and after Dibelius and Bultmann and friends (and enemies, for that matter), who can blame them? But I find Hefner's creation exposition reflective, and I've got Reumann on my list. The question is the same one, for me, that I come to when I try to describe my growing theological method as "narrative theology" -- that name is taken, find another one. Theological narratology?

I look up that word, and I find it has the meanings I want already. Or at least to some extent -- I'm not clear that the existing modal/thematic distinction serves, but I can make it work. And of course narratology tends to be structuralist in ways that have to be fixed, but I'm used to that.

Anyways, creation. I'm off track here, and I think I'll get back to this in another post.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Taubes' Paul ... and mine: 2

Enemies: inimicus or hostis? Private or public enemies? Why in the hell should it make a difference to God? Neither as personal antipathy nor as social group antipathy can Romans 11:28 have any relevance to the relationship of the people before God. I have to disagree with this basic component of the Taubes-Schmitt discussion.

Romans 11:28-32:
Concerning the proclamation, they are inimical because of you, but concerning the election, they are beloved because of the patriarchs, for the graciousness and the calling of God are irrevocable. Indeed, just as you were once unpersuaded with respect to God, and now you have been shown mercy for the sake of these unpersuaded, so also these now have been unpersuaded for the sake of your mercy, so that they too shall receive mercy. For God bound everyone up together in unpersuadedness, in order to show mercy to everyone.

Opposition to the proclamation and mission -- to the drawing in of the goyim across a boundary which could not so easily be transgressed before Christ -- has caused what may well even be a communal antipathy, and enmity between groups, but it is an internal Judean conflict. And despite their enmity, it is not permissible to denigrate and destroy these who are apeithoi when it comes to Jesus as the Christ. The election remains, and there is reason to love them as God loves them, who has elected them in their ancestors, just as you have now been elected and joined to their ancestral line.

Taubes' Paul ... and mine: 1

I can see how Taubes has little choice in his milieu but to read Paul as a traitor. But I cannot read Paul as anything but a faithful Judean embracing a new situation. This has much to do, in my opinion, with the fact that Paul's language is not so strong as its polemical appropriation and translation by later Christians. For Paul there is no negation of Torah. But there is by the same right no aberrant extension of Torah to contexts in which it is not rightly the consequences of God's relationship. What Taubes had to resolve using Hegelian sublation, in order to avoid the straight destructive transgression of the law, is not in fact a necessary reading of Paul. It need not be resolved, because the situation that caused the reading can be negotiated out of the problem altogether. The Christian polemical reading of Paul as having been a Jew, and converting to Christ, is false.

Taubes, Paul, and apocalyptic

Reading up on Jacob Taubes in preparation for reading Taubes, in preparation for proposing a paper on Taubes and Paul and apocalyptic. So these are preliminary musings.

Strote's article in Tablet is interesting -- and raises exactly the point at which I wind up disagreeing with Agamben on Romans. Eschatology. Of course, I wind up disagreeing with a large swath of Christianity on eschatology as it is, but doing "Jewish studies" studies and reading Romans from that lens has forced me to discard a lot, in favor of the sense that our eschatology is a tale told, and that the earnest expectation is not what is stated in the tale, but the release that God will give from the bondage of our situation.

I'm not sure I believe in eschatological salvation. You can find my quibbles about heaven and hell back in October or November 2010 somewhere, but destinations are secondary to the plain notion. The saving acts of God happen constantly throughout the life of the endless and expanding relationship between God and creation. And I think we've taken a lot of medieval apocalypticism and turned it into earnest doctrinal expectation, which is a mistake. The judicatory notions that we have granted primacy belong in the tradition, but they do not belong where they are today. Eschatological salvation is a hope for God's good order as the righteous termination of this false and oppressive order. That I can get on board with, because the present order in apocalyptic vision is never something to be celebrated. God's good order breaks in, violates this order and ultimately defeats it -- it belongs to the eschata of evils rather than their teloi. And so it is naturally an end. But it does not therefore belong where we have placed it, at the ultimate end! As a destination after life in all instances, life therefore ruled by all that comes before salvation. This is a mistake. This is how words like eschatological and apocalyptic come to be applied to nuclear holocaust and the like, events devoid of theological content but filled with ultimate human disaster. This is how hope comes to be ultimately escapist, counter to all proper holistic ecology of creation as God's good work and rightful kingdom.

Apocalyptic is an excellent language for hidden transcripts.

I'm obliged to read Paul in ways not necessarily available to Taubes, but certainly influenced by him. Taubes had to take on the Christian Paul, because he was what there was to work with, and to Judaize him even as a radical and rebellious Judean to find any text worth reading. He had to take on a Paul for whom law and faith were antithetical, for whom Christ and the Jews were antithetical, and one is unsurprised that as a German, he chose to do it in the venerable language of Hegel, to use Aufhebung, sublation, the simultaneous annulment and elevated preservation of a thing. The trail he blazed I have seen, though I still have to read the tools he himself constructed for the purpose.

My question, therefore, for Taubes, is about the character of the Pauline eschaton.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Romans, Barth, and universalism

I have no plans to read Rob Bell. But the good and bad being said about him gives me something I ought to say, which is about universalism. And being me, I have to connect it to Barth and Romans.

I'm about to give a presentation on the doctrine of creation, as story since it's the kind of thing I'm into now. And I've said elsewhere that the doctrine of creation is not a primary evidential claim about God -- it's ascribed to God by faith in response to salvation. This is the sort of thing that faith does, when faced with a God so good and gracious and fundamentally just in ways that blow our judgmental notions of justice out of the water. God's self-revealing, in exactly the saving ways it happens, is the sort of thing that blows open our concept of the world. And we give that world to God, because we have seen past the ways it appears to work, to the real logic. And this is exactly what John 1 says, when it makes Christ the divinely given logos behind all creation. Whoever appears to be in charge, however the game appears to be played, even and especially when it seems like you're losing -- that's not the way it really is. Creation is apocalyptic in this way. It is a radical claim (literally -- radix means root), a counter-factual except by faith. And faith sees that this is how the world actually works out -- Second Isaiah is a fantastic example of this, edited as it is to read Cyrus as the messianic deliverer.

Given this kind of view of God, especially as it works into a history of the expanding peoples of God, of the inclusiveness of God's salvation and adoption (which is always set alongside a limiting, consolidating history -- see Ezra-Nehemiah in contrast to the Ruth narrative, or the Pastorals as contrast to the genuine Paul), how could we tell a story that wasn't in some way universalist? Having ascribed to God the whole of creation, and the genuine and ultimate order underlying all others, how should we tell a story where we then cut out some part of it? Now, apocalyptic gives one answer to the question, since the creation apocalyptic is always told in opposition to an enemy order of the world, one that does not evince God's will and saving regard for God's chosen people. Judgment (God's no) falls upon the oppressing enemy. Judgment falls on the false game. In the prophets, judgment even falls on God's own, when they play the false game, when they are the oppressing enemy. So there's a basis for distinguishing where the "no" of God falls. But is it a basis for division of eschatological salvation? (Whether or not I believe in the idea is another question!)

I want to point to a particular passage in Romans 2 where Paul is talking about the perfect judgment of God. Romans 2:5-11:
In accordance with your hardness and unrepentant mind, you store up for yourself wrath on a day of wrath, and of the revelation of the just judgment of God – the judgment God will give to each according to their deeds. To those who, according to persistence in good deeds, are seeking glory and honor and incorruptibility, God will give eternal life. To those who, out of rivalry, both distrust the truth and assent to injustice, God will give wrath and emotional suffering. Oppression and straitened circumstances for every human life that does evil, to the Judean first and also to the Hellene, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Judean first and also to the Hellene – for there is no partiality with God.

Look at what the blessings are here: eternal life. Glory and honor and peace. And the curses? "Wrath and emotional suffering" -- my translations for orge and thymos. "Oppression and straitened circumstances" -- my translations for thlipsis and stenochoria. Now, it may be obvious that eternal life is an eschatological reward. (It isn't, necessarily, but we'll go with it.) Doxa, time, and eirene are not. Sure, they may apply to the "everlasting reward," but these are gifts of God for good behavior here on Earth. In the same way, there is no pressing reason to see the four words used for the curses, as in any way otherworldly or eschatological. Let's start with wrath -- I won't argue that the original reference for this in Romans is about the wrath of God. And apocalyptic gives us every reason to see God's wrath properly directed here, outside of the antithesis to Paul's mission that is Romans 1:18-32. But it is worked out in this world, not some other. Thymos, which I've glossed as emotional suffering, is a very specifically this-side concern. As for oppression and restriction, apocalyptic gives us every reason to see these as the hope of the people of God, the turning of the tables upon the oppressors, and a hope for the suppression of those who would do harm in this world.

None of these are in any way an eternal punishment of any sort. There is no hell here. And in point of fact, there need be none, since what is being countered here (from 1:18-32) has no eternal dimension either. God hands over the idolatrous sinner to a subordinate authority for punishment, but punishment meet to the temporal nature of the crime, meant to counter the error -- dishonoring what has been falsely honored in place of God. And it is fitting that in no place in Romans is God's judgment of sinful creation any form of eternal condemnation. In fact, in the closest place to that sort of thing, Paul explains what God could do, and in fact does not because of justice -- because of goodness and restraint and patience, not destroying vessels that could have no other purpose but to be destroyed, but honoring them instead. And this is the story of the Gentile converts in the audience, to whom Paul speaks in chapters 9-11 -- they are those about whom 1:18-32 are commonly said, but not by God. They are those whose lives rest in the family tree planted and cultivated by God, whose strength is in the root of Abraham because of Christ. And who were never supposed to wind up there! Who could easily find themselves outside again, standing in the august company of Ishmael and Esau, and whose destiny is with God because God has acted to graft them in.

The next place I have to go after that is always Barth's re-ordering of the "orders of creation." How, in the face of that purity of gospel about the actions of God, can we move to a story that upholds any eternal judgment against our brother or sister? That stands on God's "no" as though it were not in every case a "nevertheless" -- as though it were instead a final word? No; in the face of this God who does this sort of thing by nature and choice, we are obligated to a different sort of worldview. It is in no way unusual to put humanity before God, but it accords well with both Paul and Matthew to place human beings level with one another before God. As high, and only as high, as the least among them. Which is at the same time exactly as exalted as Christ, our brother. There is no room, between "man and fellow-man," for judgment and condemnation -- for elevation and deprecation. Only the goyim believe in such things. (Again, not a terminal judgment, just an observation -- they're mistaken about the ultimate order of things. And Jesus says, don't you make the same mistake. Don't play that game.)

We are level before God in judgment, too, and that is as much an article of faith for Paul's audience as for ours. But the justice of God is revealed adjacent to that judgment. In a space contiguous with that of judgment, a space that does not abolish judgment, but a space that God has chosen as preferable when it comes to dealing with creation in Christ. A space witnessed to by both the law and the prophets. And here's the trick -- this space is not judgment according to deeds, which is our usual justification discussion, but it is also not judgment according to identity. Just as God's perfect judgment has no preferential option for anything but doing the good, God's perfect justice in Christ has no preferential option for anything but trust. It has no room for the presumption that anyone is excluded from that space in Christ. Nor does it have any room for the presumption that anyone is necessarily included in that space!

So: universalism. I can't stand uncritically on the assumption that everyone is automatically in, but I can't countenance the assumption that anyone is necessarily out. And I refuse to let human choice creep in; God made the choice in Christ for the whole of creation. "For" as in "in favor of"; "for" as in "in place of and binding upon." The choice was made while we couldn't choose it. The choice was made while we wouldn't choose it. And that salvation, already accomplished and constantly, inevitably working out, is our epistemology underlying the doctrine of creation. And every person who hears that gospel, and trusts in the God who does this sort of thing by nature and choice, is one more person who sees the kingdom of God as the way things are. In view of this, double predestination is a foolish approach to the world. It takes the unconditional election of God and assumes that it has a dark side. It assumes that God plays the false game with us. Whether or not every universalist perspective is correct, universalism is certainly a more appropriate approach to this new world where God has set salvation in motion in ever-widening paths.