Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas 1C: Welcome to the Family

It's been a while since I did this. Last Lent, it got me through a season in which a lot of other things were falling apart, but afterwards, I blamed my Lenten practice for the fact that I got nothing else done. Still, I do insist that if you can't preach the gospel, instead of all the other things that show up in the text, you can't understand Barth. It's about time I got back into the practice. It may be the least esoteric thing I do!

Just the New Testament this week, though.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dogmatics in the Service of Ethics

Can or should ethics be separable from theology? More importantly, since these two actually are treated as separate discourses: when we connect them up, which will serve the other? Making ethics serve theology means that we might just have to do what we say. But it can then be suggested that what we call "ethics" is something parochial, a restricted set of something that ought to be a universal task—and therefore something that can only be universalized by the assertion of our dogmatic priorities over others. If we make theology serve ethics, on the other hand, we suggest that our faith will have to yield to some external priority. This is certainly one of the false dichotomies endemic to modernity. How do we escape it?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Conversion, and Reversion

So: Galatians 1-2 is pretty interesting. Especially if you read Paul's anastrophe in 1:13 as intentionally parallel with the metastrophe being attempted by the proselytizers in Galatia in 1:7. What we're talking about here, in the mid-first-century, is conversion in Judaism. Conversion, and reversion.

This is what Paul's conversion story is doing in 1:13-24, as well as the resulting confirmation by the "pillars" in 2:1-10 and the subsequent diatribe with Cephas in 2:11-21: authenticating Paul's way of life, and the freedom of the gentiles in Christ, and demonstrating that Torah, while it remains a valid option, is only an option—not a necessity. Christ is the necessity. The Galatians, like Paul, have made a valid conversion and become faithful people of God. They should not now revert to any other position—they should return to their right faith. (The language Paul uses, in another context—like Romans 2:4—will be metanoia: returning to a proper sensibility. Paul, in his prosecutorial zeal, was just as anöētos, or insensible, as he will chide the Galatians for being in 3:1.)

This is the kind of conversion Paul is talking about. Once we get it out of our heads that Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity (there being no such thing), and we get our minds around the plurality of Judaisms (much like our contemporary plurality of Christianities), a better analogy presents itself. Paul is a convert from fundamentalism. He even uses the right word: hyparchē, fundamentals. Someone's idea of basic, underlying principles. So-called "foundational Judaism." The same kind that's being pushed on his audience.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Celts, Judeans, Nature-Worship, and Civilization

One of the things we know about the Galatians, from history, is that they settled in Asia Minor (I won't mess with the north or south question) after having been invited as mercenaries. They are, as the name Γαλαται suggests, a Celtic people. (The Celts really got around. They are to Europe, in many ways, what the Kazakhs are to Asia.)

And so, in 3:1 when Paul calls them ανοηται Γαλαται, "silly Celts," and asks who has magicked them, who has cast a spell on them or given them the evil eye, he is invoking their shame at a heritage of "superstition." This isn't a Jewish thing, but rather something they would have gotten living in the cultured paganism of the Hellenistic world. Nature religions have nothing on the real anthropomorphic pantheons.

And so, when Paul goes on in 4:8-9 to talk about οι φυσει μη ουσιν θεοι, things that are not naturally divine, and τα ασθενη και πτωχα στοιχεια, the powerless and helpless elements of the world, what's he talking about? Think about Poseidon. Poseidon is not a water elemental. He's not a water-god; he's the god of water, the god of sea and squall, of earthquakes and waves. Poseidon, however evocative his raiment, is not made of the elements. He is the god who rules these elements, the god who loves the seas and their creatures and chooses to dwell among them. He is the god who, if you honor him, will get you safely home across the waters—and who, if you cross him, may see to it that you never reach your next port. One does not worship the waters and their creatures, or the waves and their force—one knows that these things are not naturally divine. One worships, and perhaps even chooses to serve, the god who moves both land and sea.

Silly northern pagans, with their nature religions—worshipping the stuff instead of the god. But the Hebrews are little better, with their harvest cycles and their observation of the cycles of the moon. What, after all, is a calendar in the ancient world, but a liturgical map? Careful and even religious attention to the στοιχεια του κοσμου. But at least the Judeans have some culture. For all their traditional celebrations and their superstitions that keep them from totally getting along in the real world, they do worship and serve a genuine θεος (even if only one, and even if they refuse to get along with people of other gods), and they do follow a mostly-sensible νομος, a way of life based on their πιστις. This goes a long way toward civilizing them!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Fidelity to the Proclamation: Galatians 1-2

While I work on debunking the various places where Louis Martyn and others following him see reified opposition to God as a real force in Paul's mind, have a couple chapters of freshly-translated Galatians. There's definitely at least a study to be done on the use of ἀνατίθημι, especially when it comes to ἀνάθεμα and the nature of respectful dialogue Paul shows. Also worth noting is the theme of reversal, with μετα- and ἀνα-στρέφω. Paul isn't talking about his "former way of life"—this is his conversion narrative within Judaism. And, as always, it's worth noting the oral coherence of the piece. It's just good stuff!

From Paul—a missionary not from people nor because of a person, but rather because of Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from among the dead—and all of my siblings with me, to the assembly of Galatia:

Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ—the one who gave himself, concerning our failures, to extract us from this age of besetting wickedness in accordance with the will of our God and Father, whose is the glory for as long as time continues, amen!

I marvel at how quickly you have shifted from proclaiming the one who called you by the grace of Christ, to another proclamation—which is not different, except that there are some who are stirring you up, seeking to reverse the proclamation of Christ. But even if we, or a messenger from heaven, should proclaim something opposed to what we proclaimed to you, they must retract it. As we have said, so now I say again: if someone proclaims to you something other than what you received, they must retract it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Is It Worth It?

Ran across a beautiful bit in Culture and Value this morning. Can't preface it better than just to give it to you.
Ist, was ich tue, überhaupt der Mühe wert? Doch nur, wenn es von oben her ein Licht empfängt. Und ist es so—warum sollte ich mich sorgen, daß mir die Früchte meiner Arbeit nicht gestolen werden? Wenn, was ich schreibe, wirklich wertvoll ist, wie sollte man mir das Wertvolle stehlen? Ist das Licht von oben nicht da, so kann ich ja doch nur geschickt sein.
"Is it at all worth the trouble, this thing I do? Only if a light greets it from above. If it be so, why should I concern myself with whether the fruits of my labor get stolen? If it really is worthy, this stuff I write, how should anyone steal its worth from me? But if that light from above is not there, then I can be no more than merely clever." –Wittgenstein, 1947

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

General and Special Ethics in Barth's Church Dogmatics

I tried this once before, long ago and far away in mind when I was doing my comps. It wasn't bad—I'm not embarrassed to have it out there, and it's usually in the top five of the most-viewed posts of anything I've written here—but I can certainly do better now.

What do we mean when we say "general ethics"? We mean more than just theory as alternated with practice in "special ethics." We mean by "general ethics" an approach to the ethos of the whole, an approach to reasonably universal principles that permit us to handle every situation—if perhaps with situational refinements. And so when we say "special ethics" we mean something different. If general ethics handles what might be called "natural duties," special ethics handles the cases in the world, down where the rubber of our tires hits that bumpy surface of the road, that don't seem to admit of universal and general solutions.

The world, you see, is inevitably the unequal and imbalanced and biased world, the tilted playing field on which equitable and universal principles routinely land on their sides, tires spinning in the air. And it is for that reason that we talk about what is really the classic topos of duties, the ground on which Plato's Socrates, for example, feels around for normative principles—but he is far from unique in that! The SEP calls this topic "special obligations." It's a field in which balancing unequal relationships and their demands is the game. For this reason, discussion in special ethics is inevitably done from situation, from relativity, from localities in which the game seems to be playable by sensible rules.

This is, of course, the divide that Kant's formulation of the categorical imperative attempts to bridge, back from special into general consideration, so that we cannot justify in situational ethics anything we could not justify universally. So that species are always members of a genus, even though different, and there are therefore no true hapax ergomena, no actions that are justifiable as exceptions. I have something like the converse sensibility, which is that every ethical genre must be derived from its species. I'm not so sure there aren't sui generis moral acts, but the bar for that is pretty high. In any event, "universal principles," if there are such things, have no existence apart from specific cases, in the thick description of which resides the data we need to model their possibilities.

With all of that by way of introduction, what may we say that Barth is doing, in terms of ethics, in the Church Dogmatics?