Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Apokatastasis in Barth's Doctrine of Election

To say Barth opposes "universalism" isn't to say Barth thinks the scope of salvation is partial rather than total. It's to say that of the positions asserting total human salvation that Barth sees, he likes none of them. He is not "a universalist"—though if you're worried about that, as Lewis Smedes recollects, you might want to worry that your Bible is!

The position on total salvation that Barth gives the most press, the most explicit mention, is apokatastasis, which he treats as an eventual, total restitutio ad integrum of the world of humanity. This is the one position he chooses to serve as foil for the rest. The important question to ask is, why does he oppose it? (And really, what is it that he opposes when he does so?)

Obviously, the way to answer these questions is to go reference by reference and understand what's going on in each. And the first references come in CD II.2, sections 34 and 35, on the elections of the community and of the individual—specifically, 34.4 on the passing vs the coming humanity, and 35.3 and 35.4 on the determinations of the elect and the rejected respectively. I'm only going to hit the first one, and not promise to come back to the others here, but this is at least the crucial one for this volume.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Favorite Barth Quote

There's a quote from Barth's dogmatics, part of which I might someday stick on a mug or something, but which I find particularly appropriate to my own practice. I don't like the standard English rendering, and the cheap slogan versions do no justice to the fact that this is a section on the divine perfection of joy as an attribute—not, y'know, about simply being happy.
The fact may certainly be emphasized, at this point, that theology as a whole—in its parts and in their correlation, in its content and method, distinct from all other sciences if their tasks are only seen and attacked correctly—is a uniquely beautiful science; one might even say the most beautiful among all the sciences.

It always implies barbarism if someone can find science boring. What extreme barbarism would it take for theology to possibly be boring? There is no reason to be a theologian at all, if one does not yearn joyfully to be one.

Especially in this science, it is impossible to tolerate dour faces, peevish thoughts, and tedious rhetoric. God protect us from what the Catholic Church listed as one of the seven monastic sins, tædium, in the great, spiritual truths with which theology has to do!

But we must indeed know that only God can protect us from it.

–Karl Barth, KD II.1, § 31.3, S. 740
Now, don't mistake this statement. Barth isn't telling you that if you find someone's exposition of theology boring you're a barbarian. Barth isn't demanding that you enjoy your molecular biology textbook, for that matter. This isn't about finding discussion of science boring; it's about (not) being a boring scientist.

(The standard English uses "Philistinism" where Barth says "Barbarei"; I can see why the British translators might have gone for that, but this is far stronger a claim, and not in any way related to residents of Philistia.)

Why should we not do boring theology? Why should we not be peevish, dour, and tedious? What makes that possibility of all sciences particularly inappropriate for this one? Why are we committing "hyper-barbarism" if we subject theology to our own moody and unpleasant dispositions? Why can only God keep us from such sinful tædium?

Simple: God is not boring. God is not grim-faced, irritable, and long-winded. To contemplate the object of theology, to speak about this object to others, and to be so opposite in attitude to God who is in Godself joy? Only the fallen creature can do such a thing! Only the creature that would rather its own self-incurvature, its own joy in self, can morosely contemplate God who is an wholly other joy for us. God is a way out of this, indeed our only way out.

All sciences, Barth posits, have a beauty and a joy in the contemplation of their objects. The pursuit of knowledge is a pleasurable one, or we would not do it. And yeah, there's a touch of "queen of the sciences" here, but theology should be more beautiful, more joyous, more profoundly interesting than even the most interested and joyous contemplation of the beauty of the creature in its detail and complexity. This isn't anything against the other sciences; they should also be done well and joyously, and if you don't find them joyous pursuits you should do something else that you do enjoy. God doesn't call us to boredom; God calls us to interested and engaged struggle. But if we are so to submit to one another in joy and just engagement as creatures, how should we do less in engagement with God?

This is not a command to be obeyed in order to be saved; like all other true commands, it describes a life to be striven for because we are in fact saved, and the tide has in fact been turned for us. The gospel makes this possible, and it is the only thing that does. This is why we preach the gospel—and if you can do that with "dour faces, peevish thoughts, and tedious rhetoric," chances are very good you need to go back and hear some more gospel yourself.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gehenna is for the Church

A really interesting gospel for this coming Sunday, now that we're back in Mark in this year of Mark:
John spoke to [Jesus] saying, "Teacher, we observed someone casting out influential spirits in your name, and we interfered because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not interfere, for there is no one who can wield authority on the basis of my name and speak ill of me—indeed, those who are not against us are for us. Should someone give you a glass of water for the fact that you are the messiah's, I assure you they will not waste their pay! And should someone slander one of these little ones who trust in me, it would be far better for them if a millstone—you know, the kind it takes a mule to turn?—were placed around their neck and thrown into the sea. And should your hand slander you, strike it off; it is better for you to enter into life maimed than to depart with two hands into Gehenna, the unquenchable fire. And should your foot slander you, strike it off; it is better for you to enter into life lame than to be thrown with two feet into Gehenna. And should your eye slander you, pull it out; it is better for you to enter into the reign of God one-eyed than to be thrown with two eyes into Gehenna—where the maggots don't stop and the fire isn't quenched. Indeed, everything will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but should salt become un-salt, with what can it be spiced? Have salt among yourselves, and live peaceably with one another."
Isaiah 66 is the origin of this last bit, and the Gehenna reference. And in verse 5 we have this: "Listen to the word of YHWH, those who tremble in fear of his word: Your siblings who hate you and exclude you in my name have said, 'Glorify YHWH that we may see your joy'; but it is they who will be shamed." Those who rely on God will receive peace and comfort from God, but that group doesn't include those who oppress their own brothers and sisters among the people. The oppressors without and the oppressors within will receive God's wrath, and die horribly, and God will make a new world for those who are honestly faithful—but the wreck of the old will be so large relative to them that the maggots eating the bodies and the fires to dispose of the corpses will go on forever.

When your brothers and sisters who exclude you and cut you off from the body in disgust demand that you conform to them to be counted as righteous, and use the demand that you praise God as a demand that you obey their narrow religious culture, God gets pretty pissed off. This is the complete opposite of our popular American piety: the sinners whose bodies will burn forever in Gehenna are fundamentalists who unite their worldview so tightly with trust in God that conformity to their piety becomes the criterion for God's glory and your joy. This is why the tax collectors and prostitutes are among the first to enter into the reign of God!

It is not our job to cut others off from Christ. If we become the kind that do, it would be better for us to cut ourselves off from Christ, to dismember ourselves from the body, than to see the body of which we are a part burn with the delirium of our fever. We are not going to be rewarded for speaking ill of God, or the deliverance God has accomplished, or the one by whom that deliverance has been accomplished, or the ones for whom that deliverance has been accomplished. It is absolutely and entirely not our job to get in the way. Do not interfere with salvation! Do not get in the way of the power that can displace the powers of this world. Do not, do not, DO NOT get between the Lioness and her cubs!

It is far better for you to be a universalist, and to allow that God has done and is doing the work, than to find yourself on the outs with God for deciding among the saved according to your own criteria of belongingness. Have yourself a little spiritual barbecue, in which you use salt and fire upon those parts of your self that are inclined toward this kind of hubris. Because Isaiah 66 may be hyperbole, but it's hyperbole with a point. Do not persecute. Do not oppress. Live peaceably, rather than exacting a kind of "peace" for your way of life by using force against others.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Theology Needs Critical Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics are very important for theology. The set of operating assumptions governing the interpretation of theological work can dictate what a given work says even against its own text. This happens just as surely in exegetical work, most often when we sustain Christian assumptions about Jewish and Judean texts—a realization that is still dawning over large swaths of the New Testament field. Certain works, like Hebrews, are understood to be so central to our theology as Christians that we almost cannot hear them speak for the voices of tradition speculating "behind" them in order to make them more easily appropriated by Christologies and ecclesiologies they did not share.

This is always the danger of critical scholarship as a necessary aid to hermeneutics: we must submit to the text, but the text is rarely unambiguously self-explanatory in our contexts, and so we must develop interpretive frameworks that make the text comprehensible. The accusation of "eisegesis," reading something into the text rather than out of it, renders us somewhat tone-deaf to this reality. Such an accusation posits the total self-explanatory nature of the text, a perspicuity that only requires us to be equally perspicacious as readers.

Of course, this is intentional; claims for the self-sufficiency of a text are always claims for the sufficiency of a particular interpretive framework over it. The purity of a given exegetical work is its conformity to a given interpretive frame, meeting its claim to account for the text with no remainder. And yet all texts have remainders. Surplus of meaning is the nature of language. At best, a given text is already engaged in translation from context to context for the sake of its audience. When the author is already and explicitly a hermeneut, we see the acknowledgment that the original texts are not self-explanatory—and yet this tempts us to trust that the explanation will have remained so, in spite of its existence for us as a text out of context.

This is therefore the necessity of critical scholarship as an aid to hermeneutics. Retrieval cannot proceed without skepticism. Credulity exercised before the text is ultimately not a demonstration of trust in the text, but in ourselves. The challenge of critical scholarship is to remain critical of ourselves and our interpretive frameworks. The text is not a reliable authority because the text does not say—instead, we say. And yet the text is the only reliable authority, and we cannot escape the interpretive task without paying our debts to it in full.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Abusus Non Tollit Usum

There's a certain class of argument I find myself having over and over again, in multiple contexts, and it always seems to begin with the deprecation of an entire genre of tool because of the tailored abuse engendered in some of its species. Historical-critical work, literary-critical work, theologians doing exegetical work, exegetes doing theology—but all these are lesser species; the most valid claimants to abusus tollit usum are post-colonial critical scholars faced with genuinely abusive (and not merely guild-non-compliant) approaches by dominant and conformant members of a field that is traditionally dominated by colonialisms to the point that they are invisible or incompletely visible to insiders.

And in response I will inevitably find myself saying that abuse does not vitiate right use, however hard right use may be to find in a field dominated by abuse. Abuse vitiates itself. Abuse vitiates the user of the tool, even as such users tend to customize their versions of that tool in ways that make it more likely to abuse when used. It may be hard to separate "right" use of such a customized tool from intended use. And yet the existence of hammers is not the problem, even if I use one kind to hit you over the head, or another to build a wall to keep you out. "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"—and yet tools may do anything; it is the master who will only do or allow certain uses of tools customized to support his existence. Nor are hammers absolutely necessary, even though versions of the basic implement have been found customized to many purposes in many societies across history.

The problem is not the tool, properly understood, but its user. And sometimes we have to dismantle the tools we find, customized to purposes we cannot share, in order to make tools like them that suit better purposes. But no tool is ultimately safe from abuse, and the manufacture of perfectly safe tools is an effort that only succeeds in making cumbersome versions of a useful thing. A useful tool in a free hand is a dangerous thing, and rightly so. It must remain so, because the dangerous possibility of a free tool-user is the hope of all projects to dismantle systems of oppression.

We may choose not to use a certain class of tools, ourselves, but this problem will follow us regardless. It is our responsibility to be sane users of tools, who seek not to abuse, and who listen to the abused in order to ensure we pursue a better course. It is our responsibility to be good human beings, in other words—for what is a tool, but an extension of ourselves? It does what we choose to do, and whatever tool we might choose for a purpose it is that purpose that must be kept sane.

Friday, September 4, 2015

"Religious Freedom" and Serving Two Masters

John, when asked by the tax collectors who were repentant, "what should we do?", did not demand that they stop doing their job, which was understood to be unjust in its application. The prophet of justice who comes to prepare the way for Jesus told them instead to do what was demanded of them in their state jobs, as it was demanded of them, without adding their own injustices and injuries to it. To perform a duty to which they had religious cause to be personally morally opposed, with justice.

And Jesus, when faced with the question of resistance to these same imperially-levied taxes, did not agree with his questioners that the state had no right to its demands, nor did he allow that those demands should be obstructed by the people of God who were offended by them. Whose image, and whose inscription, are on the coin used to pay the tax? To whom are your debts payable?

Giving to God what God is due does not prevent you from giving to others what they are due—even if you should then be wary of taking on certain obligations. Count the costs—but pay what you owe! Recompense for a justly acquired debt may justly be demanded of you. The legal codes of scripture rightly believe that God is not a servant of injustice. They are more than willing to demand that you recompense others when you force them into unjust debts, and that you be compensated for unjust debt forced upon you—but a fair deal should be fairly kept.

Of course, we live in a democracy, however twisted at the hands of the powerful, and so it must be added to this that citizens of the state are themselves the state, just as members of the church are the church. The justice that could not be plausibly demanded of the Roman Empire—but which God has always demanded of God's people—can be encouraged upon the state as justice toward its members. The state can be encouraged to deal fairly—even as we more often encourage it to deal unfairly, to benefit us over against "them," on the notion that we deserve a "justice" others do not. We citizens are responsible for our state and its injustices, even if we shouldn't be so certain which they are.