Monday, December 19, 2011

The Obedience of Faith?

What struck me in this week's lectionary readings wasn't the gospel -- the Luke reading for Advent 4B is a bit trite for me, by itself. And as a good Lutheran should, I enjoyed watching God keep the balance in the relationship with David in the Old Testament reading -- even gifts we would give to God, God grants, and not always to us. The hubris of giving what we want, to God -- God gives us, instead, what God wants. And the psalm was a nice reflection on that.

But what struck me most this week belongs instead to that snippet of the very end of Paul's address to the Romans, through which I heard two different Christmas chancel dramas. "The obedience of faith" -- a phrase that encompasses Romans from 1:5 to 16:26. Whether or not Paul wrote this massive single-sentence doxology that appears as our epistolary reading this week, or meant it to appear in this place if he did, the manuscript tradition seems to find it a fitting coda. And the more I listened to the tableaus of Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the more I saw in them that "obedience of faith".

But is that what's really going on in our proper texts for this week? The more I look, the less sure I am. But it's certainly a way to cast fresh light on Luke 1.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

An Account of the Divine Logos

A pretentious title, I know. And a long post to try to do it justice. Fair warning.

For a while now, every time I read someone on the doctrine of the trinity, even Barth, I am bothered. And what bothers me is that we take for granted a very radical statement: the God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. And we take it for granted against its corollary: the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament.

What I'm missing, so often, is the implications of the simple fact that Torah and the prophetic writings were normative scripture for the authors and communities of the New Testament writings. That these people were Judean, and that their trust in God lived in and through Judean stories. And so, before God is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This same God is authentically and faithfully God to an elect people through an entire history from Abraham, before we goyim steal the spotlight. And this same God, and no other, chooses to become incarnate as the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth, in full faithfulness to the people Israel and the entire history from Abraham. Whether or not the people choose to be faithful!

And here's where I tend to lose my Reformed audience: this vast incarnational expansion of God's history of faithfulness in Jesus is perfectly coherent with the original act in which God chose one man, Abraham, to be the people in whom the whole creation would be redeemed.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pistachia of Justice

וְקֹרָ֤א לָהֶם֙ אֵילֵ֣י הַצֶּ֔דֶק מַטַּ֥ע יְהוָ֖ה לְהִתְפָּאֵֽר׃

"That they might be called righteous terebinths, the planting in which the Lord God takes pride." (Is. 61:3)

Righteous pistachia, nut trees of justice. And yet also "righteous pillars," marking out and defining in prominence that place in which the Lord God takes pride. Being the "righteous strength" of that place, because the Lord God is their strength. And that righteous strength has purpose: what had been made into desert and wilderness, the redeemed will restore. God has redeemed the people from exile, and restores them in their land -- God's land, truly -- and theirs is to be a redeeming strength in that land, the responsive echo of God's own redeeming strength. A strength of justice.

And the text could just as well read "oaks" as "terebinths." It would certainly be more familiar to us -- the stately European and American Oaks of our acquaintance certainly speak of strength and prominence, and shade the meaning of `ayil in the text. But you will not find tall, deep-rooted and well-watered temperate-zone oak trees in Palestine. No structural pillars and beams of quartersawn heartwood as in Europe. Oaks in Palestine and the Med are spiny, durable shrubs, evergreen, and good for grazing sheep and goats. They grow among terebinths, equally shrubby nut trees whose sap is a preservative. The mention of these trees speaks automatically of Mamre, where Abram pitched his tent. And yet these specific trees are both `elon, not `ayil. `Ayil speaks to the strength of these trees in their place, as much as to the strength of the ram in the flock and the stag in the herd. To their noteworthy prominence. Of such is the people of God's own redemption, planted in God's own land. Hardy, adaptable, strong, flourishing where we are planted because God has planted us there.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Big-Enough Concept of Nature

Phil Hefner is asking for a concept of nature large enough to encompass both the scientific and the theological epics of creation in their fullness. This is one of the reasons I'm involved with Zygon -- because of Phil and Lea Schweitz, my advisor, for the sake of doing theology as science. It's always a good day when Phil puts his theologian hat back on -- the echoes of Sittler, the more rigorous systematic work, the focus on the doctrine of creation, the precision on theological topics that tends to sit in the background as he talks his way through science.

A big-enough concept of nature. A big enough concept, not only to handle the rigors of our doctrines of God and human being and animal life -- to the extent that we actually have a doctrine of animal life (stay tuned for next term's Advanced Seminar!). A big enough concept also to handle everything we know from the natural and human sciences, even in spite of the naturalistic assumptions and expectations of those sciences. A big enough concept of nature for us as theologians to handle not only scientific knowledge, but also the intersection of technology. And, of course, to still tell the rich stories of creation that belong to our tradition. To speak our epics of creation without self-contradiction.

Hierophany and Sanctification

Otto and Eliade: explicable supernaturalism. This is what the study of religion gets you. Or, at least, the study of homo religiosus.

It's been important for me to converse with Otto and Eliade in dealing with Barth -- and it was apparently also important for Panu, my Finnish colleague, to deal with them in dealing with Sittler. Two emphatically preserved ("TÄRKEITÄ!") quotations from The Sacred and the Profane:
"It is impossible to overemphasize the paradox represented by every hierophany, even the most elementary. By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding cosmic milieu."

"For those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany."
We have here the ganz andere, the totaliter aliter, the sacred as "wholly other." (Which is not, of course, to speak of the ganz Andere as a naming of God.) The hierophany others some worldly object -- even the entire world -- leaving its worldly being intact but surmounting it with a transcendent divine reality. As Eliade will explain, it adds definiteness to an indefinite world. It is not a reality of our choosing, but we know the sacred to be more real than the profane -- which is to say, more real than the world absent this divine presence. And so sanctification orients us in the midst of troubling relativity.