Friday, December 4, 2009

Being Wrong about Being Right and the Mystery of Being

Clearly St. Thomas was correct to stress the importance of teaching a subject "according to the order of the subject matter." I have soberly quoted that remark from the Prologue to the Summa Theologica before, and before I go on, let me stress that I have tremendous respect for the Saint's work, even where I think he got it wrong. That said, a funny thought occurred to me this morning. Theology may well be the most disputed "subject" of all time! How then can one be sure that one's own point of view is the right one with respect to God? Now, I'm well aware of how St. Thomas ordered his theology--he began with positions on theology as a science and then went directly to his famous "Five Ways" (of proving God's existence), followed by arguments establishing God's simplicity, infinity, goodness, and so on.

Well, it certainly was not for lack of effort, but neither in his time or any time since has St. Thomas' views on theology caused widespread agreement on the subject. That's a cheap shot, in the sense that his views deserve respect--and I do respect them--but it nevertheless needs to be made: What's the use of teaching theology if it never clears up anything--at least beyond the mind of the person who espouses the view? It would be foolish not to ask that question.

That spurred this further thought. Perhaps it is inherent in the subject of "God" that there cannot be agreement, for this reason: God is a mystery. Certainly St. Thomas would have endorsed that: "...[humanity] is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of[its] reason." (ST, I,I,I.) His theology--this most reasoned of theologies--is an ordered dance around a subject that cannot ever, really, be known. Real agreement requires a subject that is known and thereby supplies the substance of what is agreed.

Augustine's argument from the Confessions that we looked at, in a couple of versions in past posts, takes this a step further. What is "always before" has never entered into time (for those of you who are not practiced in such abstractions, if it had, it could not be before each and every moment of time, from everlasting to everlasting, if necessary). And what does not enter time does not enter human understanding--for reasons outlined in the argument in previous posts. Because Augustine sets up his understanding of how God's relationship with creation is to be understood in light of this point of view, he essentially makes mystery the starting point of his understanding of theology.

If you like irony or paradox, that's a fine instance of both. It's the same as what we noted for St. Thomas; just arrived at a bit differently. The genius of Augustine, however, is evident in that he shows that our understanding of this world implies a real mystery beyond it as its source. He thereby arrives at what everyone has always called God by arriving at a mystery beyond our understanding. What we know is grounded in what we cannot know. Now that's REAL paradox!

It brings us right back to our opening thoughts, only with a vengeance: How can we be "right" about our musings on "mystery?" It seems incoherent, and I believe it actually is.

If I had to pick the prototype for biblical revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments would be my choice. And as soon as that is stated, we are confronted with the prohibitions on the making of false gods and of having any gods before God. Surely it is odd to think of making something we can't understand. I think that's the point. The act of making and the fact of being false are inextricably tied with respect to God. Mystery cannot be represented. Beyond that, the Creator cannot be created. At least, the Creator conceived as the mystery that is "always before," and so cannot enter time as a creature cannot be created. These thoughts are not theology as neology; it's as old as the Bible.

Consequently, all true biblical theology is negative theology. Negative theology is the background to Job, chronologically the first book of the Bible. It tells us what we cannot know about God. Smug conceit about God is not just wrong, it's idolatrous. Moreover, avoiding this heresy of biblical heresies--idolatrous conceit about God--ought to be the starting point for any thinking about God.

There, I've said it. We have a starting point now, and I hope you will believe me when I say it's called Christianity--at least when it's properly understood, which is very far from always being the case... I arrive at that claim with a quote from Paul Tillich, which is tied to my understanding of faith in the way the writer of Deuteronomy intended when he wrote that God's commands are to be tied to our hands:

"The criterion of the truth of that it implies an element of self-negation. That symbol is most adequate which expresses not only the ultimate but its own lack of ultimacy. Christianity expresses itself in such a symbol...namely, in the Cross of Christ. Jesus could not have been the Christ without sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ. Any acceptance of Jesus as the Christ which is not the acceptance of Jesus the crucified is a form of idolatry." (Dynamics of Faith, 97-8.)

I believe that my analogy between my use of Tillich's words here and the writer of Deuteronomy's words is apt, in that the cross is the ultimate, the final, the core, the overriding revelation from a Christian standpoint, and Tillich makes the right case for understanding the cross as the final revelation: we sacrifice our right to create gods in our image when we understand what it means to have faith in God. And if we do not understand that, we do not understand God as both clear thinking and the biblical witness require us to: God is NOT what we would make God out to be. Again, that is idolatry, the core heresy of the biblical witness.

In a final point, this is tied also to the view that God is love. To think that I am right is to think that I have a standpoint against which others can be known to be wrong. From that point of epistemic privilege I can look down on others, who are not right. What better form of justification for treating others badly than to be right about ultimate truth over against which they are wrong?! There is no mystery about why religion and ideals generally are the source of much that is truly worst in human nature. But if I am looking at this question clearly, Christian faith--and I do not speak for or against the many religions I do not understand well enough to appreciate properly--ought to be the cure for that all too human illness.

To say that God is love is to say that I have no basis in the Great Mystery of being to critique you, only to love you as a fellow traveler in this world--this house for our mortality provided by that source of being that is always before us, but never understood, yet always implied in all our understanding.

I truly think Augustine and Tillich are good guides to helping us think as Christians. I think they point us to the correct starting point. But it is a starting point that ought to make us exceedingly humble about our approach to God. For though that starting point gives us more than enough for faith, we are mistaken if we think it gives us enough to judge others as wrong relative to our point of view. In that case we are wrong about being right, and the mystery of being convicts us of our conceit. There is no conceit in the Cross of Christ.

It might well have become obscured that I have been thinking about how to teach Christian faith to young people over the course of these last half dozen posts. In the comment to the last post I indicated that i would not be posting again for a couple of months. My failure to make the point of this post, about the incompatibility of conceit and Christian faith, made it imperative for me to do so. In fact, as I hope is now clear, the starting point in teaching Christian faith should be precisely that.

This may well be my final post, ever, in that once one has made the most important point, it seems rather pointless to continue. And in terms of the purpose of this little blog, it is to get a few people thinking about this crucial topic, which I will state once more: how do we teach Christian faith to young people. There are few topics more important in the minds of my Christian friends, I would think.

Best wishes for Christmas and the holidays!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Augustine's Lesson for Our Time

It's a familiar story. There are discrepancies between scripture and science; religious authorities claim scripture is true; scientific authorities claim science is true; and people who take the time to see which point of view squares with the best evidence side with science. It's the subtraction story.1

It's a story that has played a big part in my life, derailing my plans for seminary. We think of it as a story that began with the rise of science in Modernity. But in fact, it is not. It played out in the life of perhaps the most important post-canonical Christian thinker, Augustine. And it is chronicled in his most famous work, The Confessions of St. Augustine. How the much-needed lesson from Augustine's life for our time has been overlooked, I could only guess, and I'd rather look to the lesson directly.

If you've read the Confessions you know that Augustine had been a Manichaean. Comparing their writings with "true things which the philosophers have said about this created world," Augustine "could see the reason for what [science] said in calculation, in the order of time, and in the visible evidence..."2 In short, he took the time to see which view sided with the best evidence, and science won: the subtraction story.

An extended quote will be useful:

"What then was the point of this Manes writing on these subjects, which are not necessary for the learning of goodness and piety? ...all he achieved by his numerous statements on these matters was this: he was shown up by people who had an acccurate knowledge of them, and it was thus made perfectly plain how much reliance could be placed on his understanding... He certainly did not wish to be thought little of; for he made it his business to persuade people that the Holy Ghost..was personally and with plenary authority resident in himself. And so when he was caught out making false statements about the heavens and the stars and the movements of the sun and moon, even though these things are not an integral part of religious doctrine, yet it was clear enough that his presumption was sacrilegious: he was talking about things he did not know..."3

This directly prompted Augustine's decision to leave the Manichees. Yet it just as clearly applies to a large portion of the Church today, and it applied to some in the Church in Augustine's day. He continued:

"Now whenever I come across any Christian brother, whoever it may be, who is ignorant of these sciences and has mistaken views on them, I can listen to him patiently enough as he delivers his opinions. ...I cannot see that it does him any harm if he is ignorant about the situation or conditions of material objects [of no practical importance to him]. But it does do him harm if he imagines that this scientific knowledge is an integral part of the structure of the doctrine of piety, and then has the audacity to make overconfident assertions on subjects of which he knows nothing."4

In short, Augustine knew Christians who were doing the same foolish thing which drove him from Manichaeanism. The obvious question arises, why didn't he find it necessary to leave Christianity too? A portion of the quote above says it precisely: "...scientific knowledge [is not] an integral part of the structure of the doctrine of piety," in the case of Christian faith.

On first pass that seems right, and there's a simple way to show why. Believing as a Christian means believing in Christ, as portrayed in and understood through the gospels. But there is no science, modern or ancient, which is "integral" to the gospel narrative. On that "common sense" view, the subtraction story as the narrative of what modern science has made incredible about Christian belief has no traction--it is not integral to faith. Nothing needed can be subtracted by science. That was the gist of my insistence that a "worldview" cannot be Christian. If anything, being Christian means believing that worldviews are all broken.

But that will seem fascile to many. What about what history and philosophy have made incredible? To respond, there needs to be a deep rationale for the inconsistency of trying to subsume the gospel narrative to ANY temporally-mediated point of view.

I believe that giving us that deep insight was precisely what Augustine turned to at the end of the Confessions. He did not just draw the foolishness of trying to turn scripture into science to his reader's attention, he provided the deep rationale for why it is not just foolish, but impossible--for any right-thinking person.

That deep rationale is crucial for everyone whose understanding of Christian faith turns on the assumption that makes the subtraction story possible--which is to say, every Christian I know and all the critics of Christianity that I know of...

What Was God Doing?!

My guess is that second to the famous opening prayer of the Confession that the ancient joke Augustine tells in it is cited most often. "And now I have an answer to the man who says: 'What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?' Someone once, evading the force of this question, is said to have made the jesting reply: 'God was making hells for people who look too deeply into things.'"5 Of course, Augustine--and we along with him--would be the butts of that joke.

But I fear that the crucial point he sets up with it is usually missed:

"...if by 'heaven and earth' we mean 'every [being that is not eternal],' I boldly declare that: 'Before God made heaven and earth, He did not make anything.' For if He did, it could have been nothing else except [something not eternal]. And I wish I knew all those good and useful things which I want to know as clearly as I know this, that before there was any [being that is not eternal] there was no [being that is not eternal]."6 (Bracketed phrases replace "creature.")

Augustine's point is simple, but it's importance for theology and scriptural interpretation cannot be overstated: Since God is eternal, literally nothing that is "tensed" can apply to God. To make the most crucial and obvious connection, the "days" of God's creation cannot be literal days, in which case God would have acted in time and would not be eternal.

How do I know this for sure? Three compelling reasons:

1. Augustine said it: "...You call us to understand the Word who is God...the Word which is spoken eternally and by which all things are spoken eternally. For here it is not the case of first one thing being said and finished, then another thing so that all can be said: no, allo things are said together and eternally. Otherwise there would be already time and change, and not a true eternity..."7

2. Augustine both poked fun at and worried about those who disagree: "Some people, for example, when they read or hear the world which we are discussing ["God created"] think of God as though He were a kind of man or else some great force associated with an enormous mass, and they imagine that by some new and sudden decision He made heaven abnd earth... Such people are...feeble little creatures... ...[who stretch out] beyond the limits of the nest where you are nourishing [them], ...I fear that this poor creature will have a bad fall, and I pray, Lord God, that you will have pity and will not allow the passers-by to tread upon that unfledged nestling..."8 I quoted more than needed to make the point, so that it can sink in that anyone in the grips of the subtraction story will fit the description of Augustine's "poor creature," in that scientific/philosophical/historic accounts of "creation" can only threaten theological accounts when the work of God is conceived of temporally. It is clear that Augustine saw, and provided for a solution for, the present crisis 1,600 years ago. The prescience of his thought can also be seen in statements making it clear that there could be no space or time before God created them.

And 3. Augustine sets up the last three "Books" of the Confessions with the argument that was presented in the previous three posts--an argument demonstrating our dependence on eternity to understand time--and proceeded to an analysis of the first verse of the Bible in the last three chapters.

Some Final Comments

I am not sure that I would like Augustine, if I had been priviledged to meet him. He comes off as arrogant in the same way that Dawkins, for example, does. And the story he tells in the Confessions, if you have read it, is not flattering--and I am not referring to stealing apples from a neighbor. Worst of all to my sensibilities, his prayers are obsequious, whereas I cannot imagine an honest prayer that doesn't include a fair element of Job's "attitude." To my mind faith includes existential honesty, or it is absolutely false--that's my inner Sartre coming out.

That said, perhaps no one loved discovering the truth more that Augustine, and in that he is a wonderful model: We can only be happy "when, with no distractions to interpose themselves, [we] will find in that only truth by which things are true."8 For Augustine the beatific vision was the consumation of the love of truth. (And his prescience even here is amazing, if we take his solution to where "truth" is found to be, "in God": What was Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature if not an exhaustive search, ending in failure, for how to cash in the meaning of how the human mind "mirrors" nature? And what was Augustine's point, if not that human understanding cannot "cash out" the meaning of "God,"; ergo... "When we see these is you who see in us."10)

The besetting sin of those of us who value truth on par with love is a tendency to be a jerk when dealing with--and Augustine's tendency comes out here--"feeble little creatures." But, in fairness, it appears that we--the Church--have played the part, intellectually. We need Augustine, and that seems plain, to extract ourselves form the subtraction story. More importantly, we need Augustine to correct our thinking about God.

I will stop here, though the entailments of Augustine's starting point for theology are exceedingly great. "See, Lord my God, how much I have written on these few words ["In the beginning God created..."]! Really how much! What strength of ours...would be enough to comment in this way on all your Scriptures!"11 I will stop here not only because I am no Augustine, but because I want to avoid obscuring the crucial starting point which Augustine set up for the Church. People who are not disposed to abstraction can be counted on to ask, "But what does that mean?" after having been given a starting point for subsequent thought. Augustine's point, his gift to us in our need today, is to have given us a solution to our present difficulty from which everything else follows. In short, it is a big gift. The Church would be foolish in the extreme not to take it.

1. Charles Taylor, from whom I borrowed the phrase, actually argues against "subtraction stories" in the sense I use it here. (A Secular Age (The Belknap Press, Cambridge, 2007) 22.) Taylor's project is to explain how ancient ways of experiencing life are replaced with modern, and he focuses on how new ways of understanding and living have changed human experience. In his view, simply put, to focus on the past is to mistakenly think that educated people today--allowing for exceptions--feel the change as loss. Surely Taylor is right to point out that a historical perspective that has moved away from earlier perspectives will not, by the very fact of having moved on, experience the past as "lost," since what is past is not present. (Yes, I take pleasure in reducing subtle points to simple truisms, but in my experience that can usually be done: hence, my "metaponderings.") But for institutions that cling to ancient perspectives--and people whose lives are dominated by them--Taylor's argument does not apply, while his phrase does, and aptly.
2. Confessions [Book 5, Chapter 3], tr. Warner (Mentor, New York, 1963) 93-4.
3. Ibid., 94-5 [Book 5, Chapter 5].
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 265-6 [Book XI, Chapter 12].
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., 262 [Book XI, Chapter 7].
8. Ibid., 308 [Book X!!, Chapter 27].
9. Ibid., 234 [Book X, Chapter 23].
10. Ibid., 345 [Book XIII, Chapter 31].
11. Ibid., 314 [Book XII, Chapter 32].

Friday, November 20, 2009

3rd Objection before Augustine's Lesson for Our Time

If there is an objection one can expect from philosophical naturalists to an argument for the existence1 of God, it would be very foolish to put that argument where those philosophically opposed to theism are going to read it--unless the reply to the objection makes the argument look stronger. That's the case with the argument from science for the existence of God that I posted in the comments on the Templeton Big Question site. But I am sorry to say that the site seems to no longer allow give and take among mere commenters. I don't blame them. The focus should be on the expert opinions. Nevertheless, it seems that I won't get to trot out this reply there, because, it seems the objection will not be forthcoming there. So I make the objection myself, so that I can trot out the reply here.

But first the rationale for focusing on Augustine's argument: It sets up a crucial lesson to be taken from his life, 1,600 years ago, for the life of the Church today. But that's for the next post. Here's the objection I so fervently want to reply to! (I'm calling it "Objection 3," since I already noted two others.)

Objection 3: No one needs to look outside what science tells us to find "being that has always been as the source of being for what is here now": it's called matter and energy, which are convertible.

Reply to Objection 3: "Matter" and "energy" are abstractions. That is, they are placeholders for a variety of forms and states. Hats and dogs and stars and cars and photons and singularities at the origin of a cosmos are all instances of matter and energy instantiated, together, in one form or another. Furthermore, the best current understanding is that these varying forms do not range over an absolute universe of possibilities. The fundamentals of the universe were forged in a singularity of near-superlative improbability. In Augustine's delightfully simple words: "See, there are the heaven and the earth. They cry aloud that they were created; for they change and vary. Whereas anything which...[has always been] cannot have anything in it that was not there before."2 But what is "always there before" does not enter into time, as it has no tense. Eternity is assumed in temporality, and a consideration of matter and energy simply drives the point home.

1. Peirce was clearly technically correct in holding that we should speak of God's "reality," rather than "existence"; it's just easier to fold to custom.
2. Confessions, Tr. Warner, Bk. 11, Ch. 4.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Augustine's Argument, Simplified

I decided to simplify the argument from the last post to post in the comments on the Templeton Big Question site, "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?" Before offering the argument, however, I'd like to note two objections and my rejoinder to teach.

Objection 1: Metaphysics is the projection of human grammar into a realm beyond where it has any knowable object.

Reply to Objection 1: The following argument is an entailment of language used in science as it engages this world.

Objection 2: Arguments for Belief in God are attempts to know something inherently metaphysical. Ergo, go back to objection 1.

Reply to Objection 2: To say that something is entailed metaphysically is not to say that it is known. For instance, immense gravitational fields have led physicists to posit dark matter. One does not need to know what dark matter is to posit that there is something that creates the gravitational field. The same holds for the eternal being entailed in the argument to follow.

The Simplified Argument:

To explain something scientifically requires explaining how it came to be (or how it brings something else about). Consequently, something that has always been cannot be explained scientifically. But "has always been" has two relevant meanings here: 1. "has always been" temporally, and 2. "has always been" as the source of being for what is here now. For purposes of scientific explanation, however, "has always been temporally" depends for its coherence--literally--on "has always been as a source of being for what is here now" (otherwise temporal succession would comprise ontologically discrete elements with respect to being, and there could--literally--be no coherent explanation of how the discrete elements in the temporal sequence came to be). But as already noted, what has always been cannot be explained scientifically. Therefore, either there is no scientific explanation, or there is being that has always been as a source of being for what is here now, and such a being cannot be explained scientifically. But there is scientific explanation. Therefore, there is a scientifically mysterious eternal source of being for what there is here now, which we refer to as God.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An Argument from Science for the Reality of God

In the Confessions Augustine makes the following argument to carve out room for his view that the relationship of humanity to God involves the inter-relationship of time and eternity:

"See, there are the heaven and earth. They cry out that they were created; for they change and vary. Whereas anything which exists but was not created cannot have anything in it which was not there before, and this is just what is meant by change and variation. They cry aloud also that they did not create themselves: 'We exist because we were created; therefore we did not exist before we were in existence, so as to be able to create ourselves.' And the voice of the speakers is in the very fact that they are there to be seen [observed]." (Confessions, tr. Warner (Mentor, New York, 1963) 260.)

I have updated Augustine's Argument as "An Argument from Science for the Reality of God."

1. To understand and explain something scientifically means to show the development of or cause of that object's present existence and state within the natural environment or framework of natural laws which are used to understand and explain it.

2. An entailment of what it means to understand and explain something scientifically, then, is that everything that is understood scientifically has come into being: otherwise its present existence and state would not have a development or cause.

3. But, in Augustine's words, "...anything which exists but was not created [did not come into being through development or cause] cannot have anything in it which was not there before...": otherwise something came into existence without cause or development, which is contrary to scientific understanding and explantation.

4. "There before," however, can have two relevant meanings: either "there before, temporally," or "there before, as the source of being for what is there now."

5. But for purposes of scientific understanding and explanation, "there before, temporally," depends for coherence on "there before, as the source of being for what is there now": otherwise temporal succession would be made up of descrete elements with respect to being, in which case it could not be true that one being or state in time is integral to another, as is required to show the development of or cause of an object's existence and state.

6. Therefore no temporal sequences, even if infinite in number and extent, explain the present existence and state of the world without assuming being that is "there before, as the sourse of being for what is there now."

7. But an assumed being that is logically distinct from time and is the source of being for the world's existence is Eternal Being serving as Creator, or God.

8. It is thus demonstrated that the same assumption that supports the reality of God underlies the work of science.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Modest Proposal with a Hopeful Challenge


I'll begin with a restatement of the purpose of the last few posts: to respond to the clear need for a better way to teach Christian faith to young people. The truth, purpose, and need for faith have all been called into question from voices and points of view too well known to need rehearsal. Specifically, I have claimed that "Conservative Christianity today is largely a reaction to the fact that liberal Christianity has fallen victim to the subtraction story." That sets up a classic catch 22 for someone who would like to frame their faith positively: either way, one's approach to faith is dominated by the subtraction story's negative influence.

In a post on Ben Myers' Faith and Theology blog a couple of months ago Kim Fabricious offered a spoof, warning of "two potentially fatal forms" of "divine flu." It's a fun read, and instructive. With apologies for spoiling a good laugh with analysis, I intend to note a few things that can be gleaned from the joke and more especially from the comments that followed. I think you'll find the insights worthwhile.

The subtraction story is clearly in evidence in Fabricious' "symptoms" of "neo-liberalsism": "...the omission of Old Testament readings...," "Tell us the Creeds are old-fashioned..." "Give Trinity Sunday...a miss," "Deny the divinity of Christ..." And the anti-intellectualism of Conservative Evangelicalism in response is characterized--and I think it right not to use "caricatured"--as: "Read the Bible only in the original version--the NIV...," "Hold tenaciously to the quite unbiblical...doctrine of biblical inerrancy," etc. Clearly the subtraction story and it's deforming influence on those who wish to avoid it is in play.

In the comments, however, it became clear that not everyone was amused, and I am sorry to say, not without good reason. To illustrate, I do a quick, informal categorization of the comments, and will note--what I take to be--the most significant of them.

Of the 71 comments, I counted 24 that unambiguously agreed with the gist of Fabricious' barbed spoof. Seven clearly did not agree. And in about 40 of the comments either the opinion was not clear or did not address agreement with the spirit of the spoof. Of the latter, 26 responded to a tangent in the direction of the comments: arguing that one "side" or another is better--including a "middle path" or "third way" introduced as an alternative in the comments--by arguing from history, or faithfulness to the Church, or to a tradition, or from adherents' willingness to die for the gospel, etc.

Since the spoof presented unfortunate alternatives--"potentially fatal forms" was the language--it is the "middle" or "third way" which ought to be of interest. But this comment paints the alternative as just as much under the pull of the subtraction story as the risible "flus": (anon.) "Middle ways are transition routes..." Filling in "anon's" implicit rationale, if the alternatives arise from the one being a reaction to the other, as when Conservative Christianity is to/from liberal Christianity, then it follows that a middle point between them is just what this commentator said: a "transition route" to one or the other "flu."

That said, one would expect Fabricious to write his spoof from a superior perspective outside the sicknesses he describes. Surprisingly, that is not the case, in fact, he explicitly concedes the critique: "Who said anything about a 'middle way', as in 'third way', let alone THE 'middle/third way'? fact, plenty of theologians...are out there in the BROKEN middle..." But if the broken middle is the alternative to the broken sides, there's no interesting alternative. The post portrays the very thing a Dawkins or Hitchens would expect to see!

In fact, it's not quite that bad. For instance, a commenter (anon.) noted the "Barthian" option as an "academic option," though it is clear that such is a clear step down a road to irrelevance, in the commenter's mind. Another commenter (yet again, anon.) "What precisely needs arguing, not [mere] asserting, is the possibility of a genuinely distinct tertium quid that is neither conservative nor liberal; conservatives and liberals both deny that there is such a thing, arguing attempts at it are simply inconsistent lapses into one or the other... Barthians and Co. always seem to assert this most fundamental and controversial point, rather than address the many sharp criticisms of it offered by the...[to-be-avoided]...'liberalism/conservatism' binary."

Much more hopefully, the following two comments suggest--without actually offering anything concrete--a far better way that is intrinsic to Christian faith: ("Sean") "...when I try to figure out the heart of all your critiques, it's essentially this: the Bible cuts through...everyone's...beliefs about God." And (Kim Fabricious), "Onto [my]...bulletin board...I recently pinned Jaroslav Pelikan's inspirational statement: 'If Christ is risen, then nothing else matters...'" I find these statement encouraging precisely because they imply [that possibly?] the gospel critiques us, not vice versa. More on this later.


Since (1) playing out the subtraction story, (2) playing out an anti-intellectual reaction to the subtraction story, and (3) entertaining a middle way still dominated by the subtraction story are all sure routes to the irrelevance of Christian faith, let's just admit that conservative, liberal, and neo-intellectual academic points of view that can't take on the subtraction story ARE ALL DEAD, AND DONE, AND IF NOT QUITE DONE, OUGHT TO BE.


First, an admission. I'm about to propose what I believe to be a very old way--as old as the first proclamation of the Christian gospel. But it will seem new to those who haven't realized it before. That is, it will be new to those who find themselves caught in the narrative stemming from the subtraction story.

The way out must be a way of transcending the negativity while remaining true to the gospel. Ideally, one would do this by showing that the gospel itself provides the means to transcend the negativity of the subtraction story. My recent posts try to articulate my convictions that that very ideal is true.

1. Kierkegaard got it right when he wrote, " cannot be distilled from even the nicest accuracy of [historical] detail. The historical [claim] that
God has existed in human form is the essence of the matter..."1 But I find his "explanation" for faith that "the eternal condition is given in time,"2 in the view that faith is a miracle, even if inspired by a passion for the Infinite, unhelpful. What I do find helpful is his comment--which I have noted a number of times in past posts--that "If the contemporary generation [with Jesus] had left nothing behind them but these words: 'We have believed that in such and such a year God appeared among us in the humble figure of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community, and finally died,' it would be more than enough [for faith]."3 My starting point, then, is that Kierkegaard offered a new way--a way out of today's theological catch 22--but that I find his particular offering unhelpful, while still agreeing with the crucial, core point: that in the gospel itself we find "more than" enough" for faith. Thus, though I do not think that Kierkegaard provides a helpful way out, I do think he suggests that the gospel itself holds "the way," which ought to be viewed as encouraging to a Christian who is troubled by the present dilemma, the very point I am making. And as a side benefit, Kierkegaard's view here goes far in the way of answering troubling aspects of biblical criticism: no informed critic would deny the quoted words above.

2. Taking Kierkegaard's lead as we move on, focus our inquiry into the gospel as "the way out" by means of asking how the paradox "that the eternal condition is given in time" is resolved in the gospel. The gospel, that is, must provide a substantive way to illustrate, in Augustine's phrase, "that all times past and future are swallowed up in your eternal stable permanence..."4 The point is that an eternal difference in a historically mediated understanding of truth would have to be by way of transforming the meaning of history itself. It's a big "difference," but nothing less is sufficient to the gospel, as the Church preaches it.

3. Thus, I have argued that to avoid contradiction, as the eternal transforms the meaning of history, it must break the immanent frame, not be an element in it. (Fabricious' bulletin-board quote seems to imply this.) And certainly the Christian gospel must "break" the salvation story out of which it arises to be seen as good news: a man hanging on a cross does not look like a messiah, or a Son of God, etc. We know then that it breaks "salvation history." That's a start. The important point for our purposes is that such a starting point cannot be taken to fold into a narrative that does not include it. I have noted this to be a fascile way to avoid the problem with which we are dealing, unless it facilitates a deep understanding in its wake. If so, it is a powerful fascility for today's Church to be able to say, "A true understanding of the gospel cannot be subject to the subtraction story."

4. So, though 3 gives us a negative criterion, its provision is a necessary starting point. The need in its wake, however, is for a positive criterion. To that end, I argued that agape requires a person to be committed to transcending their limited personal perspective, since agape implies reaching out to others and the world in love (love implies a desire to know--which when embedded in time means know better: hence, agape love is a positive transformative commitment intellectually as well as morally/spiritually).

5. But 4 would weem to be possible without religion generally, or Christian faith in particular: Can't one be good and loving without faith? A great many people are quick to make that assertion; in effect, out of the pan and into the fire. In reply, I have argued that claims to humanity's goodness are naive, unless one has asked some hard questions and given some good answers. With the help of Sartrian analysis to clarify (see last post), what looks very much like a Christian commitment is in order before any claim to being "good" or "loving" can be credible. In fact--and it is ironic in the extreme, given Sartre's overall project--it is by means of Sartre's analysis of "bad faith" that Christian faith can be clearly framed as a "good faith" answer to humanity's core existential question. In fact, Sartrian analysis not only squares with traditional notions of sin and human nature, it frames the view that Jesus is "truth" in an interesting light, both of which are important in making the connections between Sartrian analysis and the current need to frame theology in a new (old!) way.

To be sure that the point is not missed, it is because Christian faith offers a way to tranform human nature that it offers a way to read human history from a perspective which transforms it, and so cannot be folded into a narrative which explains it away (our subtraction story). Thus, the gospel is itself a way of answering how, in Kierkegaard's phrase quoted above, "that the eternal condition is given in time."

6. As I have noted, Tillich's analysis of faith resonates with and informs my approach here. His conceptual centerpiece is seeing faith as ultimate concern; seeing ultimate concern as an abstract presentation of the Great Commandment; and seeing the cross as the crucial symbol expressing the need to reject false ultimacies and to thereby serve as a guide to the true ultimate concern. It's a neat circle, and Tillich's analysis is indeed crucial in my view, but it does not answer the question posed in 6 (restated for present purposes): "Why not just take the moral from Tillich's analysis without reifying the solution, via faith?" The critique of human nature alluded to in 5 makes salvation necessary--that is, human nature needs a real answer, a real transformation, not just a symbol that understands human nature at the depth Christian thought (ought to) critique it.

7. As I have also noted, Augustine's approach to scripture can be used to reinforce the approach that I advocate. (Augustine's approach--in a coming post--is to make room for multiple ways and ongoing reinterpretations, not just a third way.)


I don't mean to suggest that the outline for my view should be followed, though I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't think I can produce excellent arguments in its favor. What I do want to suggest is that the gospel does address the core question about what it means to be human, and answers it hopefully in the person of Jesus Christ: Behold the man.

Surely an amateur shouldn't be unpacking the theological implications of that point of view. I would apologize, if I knew of someone else doing just that. Now, I am delighted and amazed at the wonderful work Ben Myers shares on his blog, as a pertinant case in point. But if the analysis above is at all accurate, our theologians have not yet formed a vision for how to respond to the subtraction story. I hope that it is encouraging to see that the answer is simply: with a competent rendering of the gospel. I would be extremely pleased to hand this work off to those who are professionally qualified. And I should add, that if this work is being done, I would be ecstatic to be so informed.

A last point. I agree with the spirit of St. Thomas in his aproach to theology; the crucial thing is to get the starting point right, so that everything else can flow from it "...according to the order of the subject matter..."5 In other words, first things first. Accordingly, Christians should give the most attention to the most basic things, because they turn out to be the most important. It wouldn't do to take up this challenge and forget that.

1. Philosophical Fragments, tr. Swenson (Princeton University Press, 1936) 87.
2. Ibid., 53.
3. Ibid., 87.
4. Confessions, tr. Warner (Mentor, New York, 1963) 310.
5. Summa Theologica, Prologue.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Criterion of Eternal Truth--Part 2, Addressing Humanity's Tragic Predicament

"You don't have to be religious to be a good person." Comments to that effect make it abundantly clear not so much that that Christian faith, but human life is in great need of being understood. For one cannot understand Christian faith without understanding the tragedy embedded in human existence to which it supplies an answer. To that end we look to the personal challenge at the heart of Christian faith, a challenge that applies the criterion of eternal truth set up in Part 1 to an individual human being's life.

In Part 1 ("The Criterion of Eternal Truth: An Abstract Challenge") we noted that it doesn't make sense to talk about the eternal entering human history unless it transforms all of history, and I used the first gospel--historically--to construct a simple model of the gospel that shows us that "If we aren't transformed by the good won't be good news to us." That was the abstract point. The substance introduced by Christian faith--I claimed--is this: " be committed to the principle of love is to be committed to transforming ourselves with respect to the unfolding of the world in history. ...[it requires] an unchanging approach to an ever changing reality. Love, that is, meets the criterion of eternal truth with which we began." The object of today's post is to make the general point of Christian faith relevant to individual human lives.

When we hear, "You don't have to be religious--meaning Christian, here--to be a good (or loving) person," who decides what's good, and how? The simple fact is that anyone can be good in their own estimation, if everyone decides how "good" is determined. But everyone has their own circumstances and preferences, so based on one's own circumstances and preferences everyone is justified. Even if a person is committed to "moral goodness"--based on cultural norms and expectations--ambiguities run deep, ambiguities that allow a person to get out of just about any moral judgment that is deemed unfortunate. I have used Sartre's analysis elsewhere to establish how ambiguities obscure responsibility to act in situations that contradict an underlying wish to avoid an inconvenient responsibility. Say that a correct choice puts a person's job in danger, and the ability to obfuscate arises. One can either accept alternatives which are unfortunate or obfuscate in an attempt to escape them. To be presented with an opportunity to ask with sincerity, What is truth? would be an ultimate instance, as the writer of the Gospel According to John must have seen, as I have argued here.

But what if the core choice were very simple, with just two alternatives? First, the option of ambiguity and obfuscation, of maintaining one's ability to seek good by one's own standards for one's own purposes and when desirable to hide the fact that one does so by putting the many alternative versions of "good" to use: the option of ambiguity includes your goods, my goods, the law's goods, my in-group's goods, my community's goods, ecological goods, aesthetic goods, state goods, the goods of society now, the goods of future generations, even the the goods of taking a holiday from worrying about the good, or concerns about the goods of those who might impose their standard of good on me, or us, or society, and so on till one just gets tired of the question and asks, "What is good?" One can then find a satisfactory answer by--of course--appeal to one's own standards. After all, whose standards should you, or I, prefer? It's all very messy, and convenient for implementing what Sartre called "bad faith," evading responsibility for inconvenient choices by obfuscating. In Paul Tillich's words, "Is not the split in one's conscience the end of the authority of one's conscience? If one has to choose between different authorities, not they but oneself is ultimate authority for oneself, and this means: there is no authority for him."1

And second, the option of clarity: Committing oneself to framing good by the best overall determination in any situation, including your goods, my goods, the law's goods, and so forth through all of the same kinds of goods that are used to muddle the search for a defining sense of good in the first alternative. The difference is that the search is in good faith and that it is not done to preserve a single person's goods as the determining factors--the covering up of which motivates the first choice. One cannot help but think of how the story of the fall illustrates this very thing.

Though the alternatives are complex in their ramifications, we are familar with them. They identify complexities embedded in our interactions with other people. Navagating complex political situations using one's own preferred goods as the primary goals makes it necessary to conceal that fact to other person's who expect good faith cooperation in a common goal. Alternatively one can try to genuinely navigate complex interpersonal situations in good faith seeking to determine the best overall plan.

But seeking the best overall plan over seeking the plan that best suits one's personal goals and values means putting others' good above one's own. That is the meaning of Christian agape love. And it requires a willingness to sacrifice one's desire for others' to sacrifice themselves for us. Stated more simply, it requires us to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others when the greater overall good is at stake. In the domain of human interaction, to love and to clearly seek a path of truth rather than obfuscation are inseperable. For one cannot love what one does not know.

That is the core point: One cannot love what one does not know. Clarity in human interaction only makes sense from the perspective of personal motivation when love is valued over personal success. In personal interaction, one seeks to know when one seeks to love. Alternatively, it is obfuscation that makes sense from the standpoint of human motivation when one seeks personal success over love (or it should be added, the success of a group a person identifies with over other groups).

What, then, should be said to a person who claims that it is possible to be good without being religious? Just this: Then you do not define good by narrow self-interest, but are committed to an ever-wider understanding that makes an ever-growing love for others possible? A person who sees the need for that commitment will see the prototype for that commitment in the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

A commitment to the ideals of seeking truth and love cannot be combined with self-seeking or seeking the advantage of a group one identifies with. Hence the gospel narratives portray Jesus as rejecting personal temptation before the start of his ministry and refusing to fulfill the expectations of a nation awaiting its Messiah to take them to national ascendency in the sequence that set up the passion: goodness brings tragedy. The resurrection in turn answers this tragic truth. It affirms that even when one understands the true nature of the tragedy at the core of human existence that the pursuit of truth and love, which usher the tragedy into human life, is not foolish. It is that hope which motivates faith.

Faith, then, is a full commitment to the highest human ideals of love and truth in full view of the nihilating human predicament which requires us to be willing to trade the goods we have in order to remain true to the ideal. This is a tragic, nihilating predicament for anyone who has not taken the time to be honest with themselves about their "goodness." No one's opinion that it is possible to be good as a human being can be taken seriously, until they understand that to be good is to court tragedy in this world. This is the meaning of the cross and the resurrection as its correlary: it is the statement of and answer to the tragic human predicament.

It is the glory of Christian faith to protray the tragic truth, to understand its entailment in the very best of human motives, and to offer through faith a perspective that transcends it. Positing a dimension transcendent to the reality we can sense--whether an infinite, or eternal, or holy, or spiritual--is not important as an abstract exercise. Theology is important because it cuts to the core of what it means to be human. At its most basic, the question of God and the question of man are the same question, and that question is brought to a head in the cross of Christ. "Behold the man!"

Paul Tillich tells us that all we can do, and all scripture can do, is to "...point the Crucified--as does the Baptist, in the tremendous picture by the old painter Matthais Grunewald. ...his whole being is in the finger with which he points to the Cross."2 (Italics added. This is the quote that I said I would add to the end of Part 1, and left off because I could not find it at the time--it works better here to help tie the two parts together.) All of one's being captured in a pointing to Christ on the cross, or not. Either the tragedy is contained and transcended in God, or not. Those who do not understand the ultimate tragic nature of human existence do not understand faith, or its denial. They are lost in what Sartre called "bad faith," the very nature of which is to keep us lost with respect to the tragedy Christian faith addresses.3

1. "By What Authority?" in The New Being (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) 86.
2. Ibid., 88.
3. By this I mean that bad faith as Sartre explains it applies to the core human tragedy that Christian faith addresses. That is not to say that Sartre ever understood Christian faith at the level where his term applies to it; he did not. But if true, there is no citation that can establish the negative. :-)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Comment on "The Criterion"

There are perspectives which fail to convince us not because they aren't reasonable, but because they are almost too reasonable, and whatever we think, out instinct is that the world just isn't THAT reasonable. Theology has a few. The ontological argument, for instance: that than which nothing greater can be imagined is not that than which nothing greater can be imagined unless it exists, and that than which nothing greater can be imagined must be called God. You won't find a flaw with that reasoning, but you will find yourself doubting whether reality is quite so reasonable (which is the essence of Kant's claim against the argument, that existence is not a predicate).

Another for instance: St. Thomas' view that God's creation consists of giving being to creation, whereas evil is a privation of being. Hence, God should not be faulted for the evil found in creation. The neat categories obviously make the logic work, but it comes off as almost slick, and no one can be faulted for objecting to a slick response to a complaint as ultimately serious as the reality of evil in the world.

I note these examples, since my explication of "the criterion" in the last post can be faulted for possessing the same slick framework: God's eternal (or infinite, or holy) reality cannot be expressed in time (of finitude or unholiness), therefore the subtraction stories told about faith in the secular world cannot have force, and a right thinking Christian would never have taken historically mediated understandings of the world as binding for an understanding of God or revelation.

But just because such slick reasonings are not sophisticated enough to make us feel that they do or even can mediate reality to us does not mean that they are without value. Mortimer Adler, for instance, in How To Think About God, demonstrates how the ontological argument can be used as a premise in a convincing argument (it ultimately convinced him, at least). And anyone who has read Gilson or Maritain, for instance will no longer think that the use of Thomistic categories condemns a person to a simplistic intellectual framework.

In that vein, I am arguing--using Augustine and Tillich as models and sources--with the goal in mind of setting up a starting point that will be helpful for framing further thinking. In fact, as I hope was made clear, I am arguing for a point of view that insists on a continual--I put the word in capitals, if you recall, in the last post--reshaping of our thoughts to make them adequate to the Christian commitment to love of God and neighbor.

With that in mind, it is a virtue, not a fault, to have a framework that is "slick." The whole point is to facilitate thinking within a framework that is conducive to thinking as a Christian without falling into a static, and SIMPLISTIC, "worldview" trap. To be fascile in pursuit of that goal, I think, is good, because the goal is to fascilitate further thought.

Let me apply this to the--not directly stated--situation that motivates these thoughts, generally. I am trying to come up with a way to communicate a compelling Christian framework to young people that does not fall into the trap of, basically, saying "Think like this." Whether conservative or liberal, Thomistic or Reformed, etc., I want to say, "That static approach is too lazy for love!"

I've met with a couple terrific young youth pastors in my community recently. Both minister at conservative churches. Both to one degree or another feel a tension between the desire to teach their young people to think as Christians and the need to conform their teaching to traditions that are static on one way or another. The old wineskins just aren't holding, and they know it and the kids--most of them anyway--either know it or suspect it, and their churches are is denial.

I can't solve the church politics for them, and I am deeply troubled by the fact that association with me may even further their distress. But the least that I can do is provide them, and to the extent I can a few people in churches beyond my personal sphere of influence, with a way to fascilitate rethinking how to think as Christians.

Let's be frank. Conservative Christianity today is largely a reaction to the fact that liberal Christianity has fallen victim to the subtraction story. Secularists see in this a progressive sickness unto death of God. Can anyone blame a conservative--who experiences through her faith a sense of salvation that scholars do not account for--if she dismisses such "progress?" (To push back the other way, it is a scandal of attempts to understand faith scientifically and philosophically, that such experiences are not given more serious attention. In fact, if I have anything to say, it is--I believe--precisely because academia has failed in this respect...)

The Church needs a way of framing its understanding that insists that--and here's my "bumper sticker"--stale ideas: too lazy for love. Fascile? I hope so!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Criterion of Eternal Truth--Part 1, An Abstract Challenge

Let's begin by acknowledging an abstract problem that the question of revelation faces. If there is an eternal perspective, it cannot be mediated to us temporally, and yet there must be positive content to an eternal perspective, if it is to be meaningful. The criterion of an eternal truth, then, is that it be something definite that can avoid being mistaken for something temporally mediated.1 But everything we know is mediated through our temporal existence. How then is any helpful understanding of God possible, for humanity?

Against this abstract challenge a Christian will want to affirm that the concrete historical narrative of the gospel, which proclaims God's entry into our world, meets that challenge. We should waste no time in looking to the gospel, then. A brief overview of the first gospel, historically, will be helpful. I abstract from it only the narrative's thematic contributions to an understanding of the core message that constitutes Christian belief--the "kerygma."

1. Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the gospel, the "good news," and it has a definite, simple content: "'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand...'" (Mark 1:15, RSV)

2. Jesus orchestrates the spread of his fame as the Son of God who will usher in the kingdom, beginning with the death of John the Baptist (Mk. 1:14) and culminating with ther triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the Passover week (Mk. 11:10).

3. Jesus orchestrates the passion sequence--arrest, trial crucifixion--thereby contradicting the expectations of the masses and disciples (a man hanging on a cross certainly does not look like a Messiah). (Mk. 11:11-15:37)

4. The resurrection, thereby contradicting the contradicted expectations, albeit with this added moral: our expectations of the good news are not a good guide to understanding it. (Mk. 15:38-16:8--I see the transition to resurrection narrative starting with the miracles which attented Jesus' death.)

There is a clear moral to this story: Our understanding of the good news needs to be transformed by the good news, or it won't be good news to us.

But, there's a catch. If we take that to be a once-for-all transformation, then the good news has been mediated into time, once for all, in which case it ceases to be an eternal truth. If we want to think about the eternal entering into time, that won't work. The eternal must transform our understanding without being reduced to it, or the abstract challenge that the idea of revelation faces has not been met. This is the "negative" side of the message; the "rule" we can't break, if we take the challenge with which we began seriously.

There is a practical side to this rule: if we don't insist on it, we are stuck with a subtraction story with respect to our faith, for the gospel cannot be reduced to part of our historical understanding, or scientific understanding, without incredulity resulting. I am arguing that the gospel cannot be understood without a transcendent backdrop, which is to say that it recommends a story for our belief that cannot be translated into a contxt that has no room for it. That ought to be obvious, and I suppose that my frustration showed in the last post.

Allow me to add this to the moral, then: Our understanding of the good news needs to be transformed by the good news--CONTINUALLY--or it won't be good news to us.

Anyone familiar with the gospel narrative knows that I left off the transformative remark tied to Jesus' proclamation of the good news of the kingdom: "...the kingdom of God is at hand; repent..." (Mk. 1:15) If we aren't changed--CONTINUALLY--by the gospel, as the need to repent suggests, we don't "get" its transcending essence--its function of pointing us beyond ourselves and our world to the transformation inherent in the gospel.

But the pointing cannot be directionless, or we are left with an abstract point that cannot guide us. The positive side of the pointing beyond ourselves must be tied to a form that is itself essentially transformative--and therefore CONTINUALLY transformative, which entails a second reason for endorsing the non-historically mediated view of the kerygema--and that form is agape love.

Clearly, love requires a person to look beyond themselves to that which is loved. That is analytically true; true in the abstract. But it is an abstraction that insists that we look to the concrete details of this world as they unfold in time in order to be realized. That is, to be commited to the principle of love is to be commited to transforming ourselves with respect to the unfolding understanding of the world in history. To stop that process is to fail with respect to the command to love. To love as a first principle is to take it as an unchanging approach to an ever changing reality. Love, that is, meets the criterion of eternal truth with which we began.

Grunwald's picture of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus famously symbolizes this understanding of the function of theology at its best as pointing to Christ, the eternal truth entered into human history. And once we understand that theology cannot be subsumed to any reductionist view--of history or science or bad theology--we are freed from the subtraction story, the bugaboo of today's Church in the wake of so much bad theology.

Part 2 will look at the personal challenge inplicit in the gospel, the eternal "kerygmatic" revelation.

[I will add an extended quote from Tillich here, when I get time. My explanation is too abstract for most tasts, I fear, and the quote from Tillich will provide welcome details for those who would like them. Oh, for more time in the day!]

1. It should be pointed out that other exclusive categories associated with God could be used to make the same point: especially finite/infinite and holy/unholy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Can a Worldview Be Christian? No!

In the last post we noted Tillich's seperation of the eternal truth proclaimed by the Church from the temporal situations in the cultures to which it is preached. The entailment of that separation is that to mingle the eternal with the temporal is to confuse the "kerygma" with the "worldview" of the person preaching the "gospel." But confusing the things of God with the things of "man" is idolatry.

That is deliberately provocative, but with this end in mind. Perhaps you, like I, know persons--whole churchs with respect to some issues--who question whether, or more likely how, a person can be an evolutionist, or a conservative, or a liberal, or a relativist, or pro-gay, etc., and a Christian. The impression I usually get is that in fact a Christian who says that kind of thing believes that a right thinking person can't, but that some people are so muddled that they get a pass. And in my experience most Christians are mild-mannered enough to hear such things, smile, and walk away from a potential argument, even though they are bothered by such "worldview" militancy.

My point here is that we shouldn't walk away from this kind of thing. That is, we should engage in a kind of anti-worldview militancy with respect to understanding the gospel. For if we understand that there is a distinction of the kind Tillich makes, then we can't make truths bound to our historically-mediated understanding criteria of fidelity to the eternal truth we claim it is the duty of the Church to preach.

Now, despite my belief in militancy over this point, I want to be nice. But it's tough: Does any sane, informed person think that one's opinion on relativity, or evolution, or heliocentricity--or any historically conditioned belief--is part of the gospel? Well, perhaps a few; but then, they are so muddled that they get a pass. For being nice, that's the best I can do.

True, marvelous books have been written on whether there is such a thing a "Christian philosophy," and the point is well taken that we must try to think as Christians. (Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy contains an excellent chapter on the question.) But my rejoinder to those who would stop there is that you aren't thinking enough. We can't stop at any point and say, "Eureka! My view of Christian faith is final and perfect." That would be idolatrous, not to mention crazy.

We must make a distinction between the gospel which is the message of the Church--the kerygma--and the way the churches at any time express it and think about it. If not, there are a great many things that a great many Christians have thought and expressed over the last 2,000 years. Do you really want to be saddled with them all?

If not. A criterion is needed. The critirion will be the subject of the next post.

Friday, October 16, 2009

To Care for the Gospel Paradox

The first Gospel, historically, begins by paraphrasing Isaiah 40:3: "Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord..." (Mark 1:2-3) The "praeparatio evangelica," however, is broader. It views the fortuitous historical circumstances which made it possible for the gospel to spread rapidly in the first centuries, C.E., as divinely ordered: the vast Roman Empire with its roads and law, the Greek language and philosophical heritage, the Jewish diaspora, and much more, set the table for serving the gospel to the world.

The praeparatio evangelica, then, was/is a way of reading history from a Christian perspective: If God were to enter history, surely the way would be prepared, and so a Christian understanding of history expected to find, and did find, evidences of just that. I remind you of this to suggest that a correlative concept is needed today. The Church needs a "custodio evangelica," a way of surrounding the gospel with a contemporary theological interpretation of it that fits a claim of a divine revelation as a hub of history. Clearly, faith requires either that or a fierce anti-intellectual culture in the Church, to successfully fight off important questions that--given the negative supposition--are not answered.

On first blush the negative supposition will seem right to many intellectuals. Rather than rehearse the usual list of set-backs for the Church, beginning with Copernicus and reaching a crisis in the 19th Century with the arrival of biblical criticism, Darwin, and Nietzsche--what Charles Taylor calls "subtraction stories"1--let's do something simpler and more revealing; let's go right to that point in time when the explicitly Christian understanding of the world represented by the praeparatio evangelica was replaced by an explicit denial of the possibility to understand the gospel as the hub of history: "Historical study is the implacable enemy of...inspiration: when we remove the mist, we remove the mystery."2

This claim from a brilliant biblical scholar will be stunning to a church-goer unacquainted with biblical scholarship. Michael Goulder's view amounts to a negative counterpoint of the praeparatio evangelica: history is seen as removing the gospel narrative from the center around which the subject revolves--"his-story" as so many preachers have called it over the years--and placing it in the realm of myth.

That's a mouthful, and I'm not a scholar in any relevant area. How, then, do I propose to have anything helpful to say? Let me begin by stating what I do not intend to say (and if it leaves a reader wondering how there can be any means of keeping the faith, all I can say is, please read on): First, I do not intend to say that biblical scholars are uninformed or incorrect in their pronouncements, and second, I in no way intend to make an argument based on expert judgments.

Rather, I recommend a simple, common-sense argument to you. The Christian faith proposes the gospel to all of humanity as the means of salvation. Not only would it be odd if the question of faith were then only a matter that scholars who have dedicated their lives studying could judge with competence, it would effectively undercut a key background assumption crucial to the Christian faith. I will not apologize, then, for advancing my non-expert opinion. More importantly it follows that the crux of Christian faith ought to be obvious--pun intended.

And yet how can this be--if we ought to expect the crucial question to be obvious to pretty much everyone, how do we explain the exceedingly fractious nature of faith? (13,000 Protestant denominations alone.) One could be excused for thinking that faith thereby refutes itself. (If there are any atheists reading this, use this argument well.)

This problem has influenced my turn to Kierkegaard's view, given near the end of his Philosophical Fragments:

"If the contemporary generation [with Jesus] had left nothing behind them but these words: 'We have believed that in such and such a year God appeared among us in the humble figure of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community, and finally died,' it would have been more than enough [for faith's purposes]."3

One need not know how this view fits into Kierkegaard's thought to appreciate the central point, that the gospel is neither complex nor subject to the kinds of debating points that scholars occupy themselves with. Perhaps that assertion itself could be debated, but Kierkegaard pretty clearly advanced a claim that no competent scholar would dispute: A community whose roots are contemporaneous with Jesus does advance just what Kierkegaard stated. Thus, if Kierkegaard's claim is correct, the Church needs nothing more. Of course, from the point of view that I am suggesting, the problem is that the Church--at least in a great many of its manifestations--claims much more than the core gospel story. How does one deal with that?

Fortunately, Paul Tillich made it the central goal of his life's work as a scholar of the Christian faith to answer that question. He called a use of the core gospel narrative as the guide to doing his work "kerygmatic" theology (kerygema = proclaiming salvation through Christ). He described his method as "[emphasizing] the unchangeable truth of the message...over against the changing demands of the situation."4

An extended quote will point out twin dangers that this approach tries to avoid.

"Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received. Not many theological systems have been able to balance those two demands perfectly. Most of them either sacrifice elements of the truth or are not able to speak to the situation. Some of them combine both shortcomings. Afraid of missing the eternal truth, they identify it with some previous theological work, with traditional concepts and solutions, and try to impose these on a new, different situation. They confuse eternal truth with a temporal expression of this truth.5

Tillich frames the core problem as follows. By elevating "something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity," theology destroys "the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware."6

I begin with Tillich's diagnosis because it answers the question of how a simple, core truth can become fractious for the Church by suggesting this narrative: The core gospel, which ought to unite Christians, has been given expression many times over the 2,000 years of its history. But every temporal expression of its eternal truth becomes inadequate, and so needs to be replaced by another expression, adequate to its time's historical situation. That, however, means that traditions have either given up old formulations, not as false, but as for a former time, or if that is not done, outmoded versions will co-exist as news ones arise to face the successive contemporary situations. It is a recipe for factions, unless the Church universal understands its dual need to remain faithful to its "kergyma" and to continually revise its expression of it for new times and situations.7 Since that focus has rarely been maintained, for those of us who like Tillich's diagnosis, the "disease" of the fractious Church has been explained.

To care for the gospel is to avoid this disease, then. The irony is that those who may well be in the best position to help the Church get over this disease are doing the most to spread it. For example, talk of worldviews is now popular in conservative Christian circles. Here is a quote from a pamphlet that accompanies a video featuring Rick Warren and Chuck Colson:

"Worldviews will inevitably be shaped by either the media or by the Bible. Unfortunately, Christians have all too often neglected the command to love God with our minds, not just our hearts. This is a result of emphasizing feeling over thinking. We need to learn to think biblically..."8

This pamphlet is notable for explicitly recommending what Tillich warns against: failure to stick to the kerygma--the essential gospel message--as the eternal content of belief and failing to understand that any time-bound expression of what is eternal will contain an outmoded "worldview" in later times. There is an extraordinary naivete and confusion about how to relate the gospel to honest, well-informed people today. Tillich went so far as to call the elevation of "something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity...demonic...."9

We have reviewed here only the basic, starting points from which Tillich begins to articulate his theology. But from them we can understand that every generation of Christians has the renewed task of "preparing the gospel." The praeparatio evangelica is a "perpetuus praeparatio." In that sense we must make history in order to prepare the way of the Lord... That is, what the first gospel, historically, begins, we must continue.

But for that to actually work, it must be possible to identify the eternal truth in the kerygma--the gospel proclamation--which we must continually strive to adequately express, and THAT too can only be expressed in time. Accordingly, the next post addresses the paradox of finite, temporal creatures trying to adequately express what they believe to be a divine revelation.

1. A Secular Age (The Belknap Press, 2007) 22.
2. Michael Goulder, "The Two Roots of the Christian Myth," in The Myth of God Incarnate, ed. John Hick (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1977) 65. The book was a historical marker in that it collected the judgments of esteemed Christian scholars about a core Christian belief, which they rejected. Rather than consider the positions the scholars advocated, I simply note the book as a landmark against which the the confident historical view implicit in the praeparatio evangelica was lost, completely.
3. (Princeton University Press, 1937) 87.
4. Systematic Theology, Vol. One (The University of Chicago Press, 1951) 4.
5. Ibid., 3.
6. Ibid.
7. This is a simplification. Among other things, this "story" leaves out "the psychological or sociological state in which individuals or groups live." Tillich admitted that these are driving considerations in determining whether the or a church is popular at a given time. But he makes it clear that such factors are outside of the question of how to express the kerygmatic truth to a particular group at a particular time. The point is that the dynamics of what is popular can encourage a disregard for truth. It is an important point.
8. "Framing Your Worldview," taught by Rick Warren and Chuck Colson [actual authors not cited] (Saddleback Church, 2006, 2009) 9.
9. Ibid., 3.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

5 Degrees from Perfection at the Death Row Regatta

Typically this blog tries to dig into into questions on the boundary of theology and philosophy. Not this time. This time's just for fun as we look at my experience of rowing 25 K, 15 1/2 miles, upstream from the Port of Duluth to the mouth of the St. Louis River in a Rowpedo/human-powered canoe. I'll use a series of numbers to frame the experience.


The picture here is of a 54-year-old man and his daughter who rowed as a mixed pair. To celebrate his birthday every year Peter rows as many kilometers as he is years old. That's 33 1/2 miles, more than double the Death Row Regatta distance. One wonders how long he will be able to meet that challenge. I certainly hope to talk with Peter again next year at the race and hear about his 55th birthday celebration!

116/60 & 208-20=188

OK, so I'm no model and a loss of 20 lbs. isn't big news. But the picture here shows a 51-year-old man (me) with blood preasure at 116/60 and a resting heart rate of under 60 beats per minute to boot. Having gone from 140/70, boarderline high blood preasure, to pretty much ideal blood preasure and heart rate, I think that I can call the training that I did this summer to prepare for the race a success--at least by the really important measures. As a side note, 20 years go when I was training for some road races my blood preasure was not this good. I can't claim that this is more than a guess, but perhaps exercising in a recumbant position allows the body to pump blood at a lower preasure than is needed when the body is vertical, and perhaps exercising at a lower blood preasure somehow fascilitates a lower resting blood preasure. It's a question worth asking.

55 and 0

Ideal weather for a 25 K Regatta would be cool with no wind. That's what we had on the morning of September 13: 55 degrees and no wind.


Looking at this picture, give special attention to the oar blades. They're canted about 5 degrees forward. That slight tilt made for a very difficult row. Sweeping backward in the water, the incline caused what rowers call "oar dive." That is, the oar blades functioned like an inclined plane in the water, causing the blades to dive. Here's the impact:

a) Pushing on the pedals (with the force I trained at) overpowered my ability to keep the oars from diving: So I cut back on the effort directed to the pedals.

b) Pushing forward on the oars to propel the canoe would have meant that the oars dove even more, and would have taken away from the effort of the arms to keep the oars from diving: So I lost the effort of the arms that would have gone to propelling the canoe.

c) Because less effort went into pushing on the oars, the stroke rate went down.

d) Because oars that dive tend to get stuck in the water at the end of strokes, two unfortunate consequences occured. 1) Sometimes I dragged an oar at the end of a stroke, breaking the canoe's momentum, or 2) the oars were not timed exactly as they came out of the water, causing the canoe to wobble. And when a canoe is unstable, it is difficult to row effectively. Do you see a vicious feedback loop? I spent the first part of the race figuring out how to deal with this unwelcome challenge...

e) I therefore had to take extra care to prevent the vicious circle just described rather than enjoy the race and focus on the beautiful setting.

How did this happen? Well, I think I'll blame it on all the really terrific people I met while I was rigging my canoe! :-)

What was the total impact? Well, one horsepower is 550 foot pounds per second. My strokes--arm and leg--are about 18 ", and I was training at a little over 60 per minute most of the summer. Last figures: my leg imput went from 40-50 lbs. per stroke to around 35-40 (estimated), and I lost all of my arm input, estimated at around 12 lbs. per stroke. Using these numbers, the following horsepowers result.

Before 5 degree error: (40 X 2) + (12 X 2) X 1.5 = 156 foot lbs. per second, or .28 horsepower expected over the course of the race.

After 5 degree error: (35 X 2) + (0 X 2) X 2/3 X 1.5 = 70 foot pounds per second, .13 horsepower. (The multiplication by 2/3 was needed to account for a slowing stroke rate from about 1 per second to about 2/3 per second due to the factors noted above.)

Conclusion regarding the 5 degree error: It was a lot bigger than one would imagine! I'll pay a little more attention to my rigging next time...

2, 1, and 2:20

Even with my self-inflicted handicap, I was able to race OK. With my Wenonah Wilderness canoe I came in just ahead of a father and son team paddling a Wenonah Spirit II, to beat the only other canoe in the race. The competition was great fun, and my 3:13.40 time was the second best in the race's ten-year history--not that a lot of canoists have participated in the ragatta. Only seven, by my count. My point, here, is just that to sustain somewhere around 70 foot pounds per second of effort over more than three hours isn't too bad, even if it's about 45% of one's expectations going in...

So here's my commitment for next year: To lose 10 more pounds and get in even better shape. To race in a racing, rather than a recreational canoe (19 lbs. lighter, a 12% vs. a 16% aspect ratio, and much stiffer and narrower in the bow and stearn). And to make several improvements to Rowpedo. And finally, need I say?, to rig the oars correctly! Given good weather, I predict a 2:20 time in 2010. Brash? Yes. But my brash commitment to lose weight and get in shape paid off this year, so I'm just doing it again--and I'm doing it right away to prevent any feeling that I can afford to "let myself go."

Below is a picture of the father of the single scull winner--and one of the two paddlers that I was furtunate to meet and enjoy competing against. Typical of the kind of people I met over the weekend, I was being given terrific advice on how to improve my performance next race. How cool is that from a fellow competitor?!

Next is a picture of some of my family, who came to support me. I have seldom felt as loved as I did by this show of support! Thanks Sally, Tug, Carl, Nan, Maria, (and Willa, Frieda, and Walter)!

It was a fun year of rowing. Below, see the proper canting of the oars and the changing of the seasons here in Minnesota. Yea, that guy in the photo looks lost in thought--whether about his next rowing or biking design or something Augustine said 1,600 years ago is not known...

Monday, August 31, 2009

Ask to Receive A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS Chapters

I am grateful for the readers that I have. Problem is, I basically have time to blog half the year, and the last four months have not been in that half. It's showed, and to make things worse, I decided to start work on a book project that I thought would be the best use of my limited time to blog. It wasn't; for me at least the first takes on a big idea are likely to be false starts--and my first efforts at A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS were. Sorry about that.

Rather than try to set up a rhythm on a project that I want to take as much time as I need to do well, I'm going to offer to send chapters out to anyone who would like to read them. But there might be months between installments.

So what about this blog? I'm going to try to set up a little club for Christian thinkers in the St. Cloud, MN, area. Something youth pastors could send youth who might be interested in going a bit deeper into Scripture and theology than is usually done in a church setting. It's a good thing for a Christian dad with a bright 15-year-old to do. If it happens, this blog will likely turn into a record of the topics and presentations done at that group. But it's all tentative for now.

To receive chapter emails of A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS, drop me a line at, and put "chapters" in the subject line.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

To Think, or Not to Think (about Faith): Introduction to A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS

Not long ago I met with a young man who is a youth pastor at a local Pentecostal church. He's very bright, and we talked through the first couple of chapters of C.Stephen Evans' introductory book on the philosophy of religion (Evans' work is excellent for an interested young person who wants to explore Christian faith: the presentation is balanced, thorough and clear, and the reader is never bogged down in jargon wondering where the exposition is going, which is crucial...). When we were about to conclude our visit I asked whether he had shared his new interest in philosophy with other pastors at his church. Since he is reading theology written from perspectives outside of his church in addition to philosophy, he indicated that he had shared his readings with the head pastor, and got two different reactions: (1) encouragement to read and understand the perspectives of other Christian denominations, and (2) bemusement (my word) at his interest in philosophy, since God has so obviously made his existence known to the world through revelation and--recall that he is Pentecostal--through healings, prophecy, etc. It's a remark that reveals an utter difference in intellectual orientation between people in the Church and educated secular people: the Church values credulity, and the academy teaches the value of skepticism. I had a professor who marked the difference by calling the University "the Church of Reason."

Before proceeding I should state two stances that I am taking for purposes of exposition: First, yes, I am intentionally sidestepping my young friend's Pentecostal claim that healings and prophesy, etc., point so strongly to God that to look to philosophy for evidence is preposterous. The point of view I want to engage is the cultural dynamic that yields Christians who think their faith is so obviously true that any need to seek for the truth about it is absurd on the one hand and adherents of the Church of Reason on the other hand who can't imagine being credulous enough to "fall" for claims such as my young friend's pastor makes. The evidence of God's grace in the world to the Church of Faith is evidence of the fall from grace to the Church of Reason. That extraordinary dynamic is worth understanding.

Second, lest my young friend's Pentecostal point of view be taken as an outlier relative to the Church generally, consider what I read at the bottom of my Lutheran Certificate of Confirmation: "We know that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, nor come to him..." Weber's Protestant work ethic immediately sprang to mind as I read that; for if faith is necessarily a miracle of sorts, one will look very anxiously to see whether there is any evidence of that miracle in one's life, when Christian faith dominates the interpretive background. And in a Christian culture where having a 'regenerated' life is socially expedient, well, the entailment of Weber's principle is obvious: a large segment of Christians will look for evidence of faith within their christian experience, as opposed to looking for evidence before taking a step of faith--and yes, my Lutheran heritage states that that step cannot be of my will or mind. That will naturally lead to a cultural dynamic within the Church in which a critical appraisal of personal religious experience is out of bounds. That the Lutheran Church does not extend that credulity to all of the elements of religious experience that Pentecostal churches do does not affect the point. A culture of credulity is born.

As a point of comparison, note that even in the strongest possible reading of the classic Thomistic tradition--and no other Christian tradition relates reason and faith as directly--the foundation of natural theology does not direct one to the articles of faith so compellingly that there is no leap of faith. Accordingly, the essence of my young Pentecostal friend's view is not an outlier, as Christians in more "mainline" or traditional churches might think, and the point can be established clearly in the negative. No church has classes in the philosophy of religion that its members must pass to show that they have sufficiently understood and weighed the evidence for Christian belief thoroughly and carefully enough to qualify as Christian. The very thought is absurd enough to strike one as funny. By default, a leap of faith is in the very least tolerated, meaning no Christian tradition stands apart from the charge of being "a culture of credulity."

Here I need to state that I write as a Christian, so that I can make it clear that the purpose of this essay is to take us beyond the critique and counter-critique offered by the Church of reason and the Church of faith respectively. That, I am certain, is an end devoutly to be wished. To do so, however, will require us to rehearse the critiques as they are typically found in an introductory text in the philosophy of religion. The basic point/counterpoint is simple and embedded in the classic expositions of William Clifford and William James on the subject:

Clifford (paraphrased): A person has no right to a belief adopted without a careful inquiry that scrupulously avoids belief on insufficient evidence: In fact, to do so is unethical and can be dangerous.1

James (for faith): "Our [passions must]...decide an option between two propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot be decided on intellectual grounds."2

It was James' intent to create an exception to Clifford's point that it is unethical to forgo responsible inquiry into one's beliefs, which we have just observed is in the very least tolerated by the Church. The details of this classic debate do not concern us here for a very straightforward reason: The thesis worked out in the chapters to come is that in the case of Christian faith a careful inquiry of the kind Clifford advocates is precisely what lands us in James' domain of an "option that cannot be decided on intellectual grounds." This is a crucial point for three reasons.

First, it impacts James' view that where the intellect ends the passions become the default means of determining a choice. As shall become apparent, faith itself becomes a means to interpret the dispositional options at the limits of human understanding. That is, the issue is bigger than the simplistic "default-to-passion" view that James is usually taken to advocate and that his opponents falsely think that by opposing they have blocked the route to a reasoned and responsible faith. To give flesh and bones to the claim that faith functions as a means to interpret the dispositional options at the limits of human understanding is the of these essays. But it needs to be said that James is usually given unfair treatment on this count. He went into "The Will to Believe" with a Kantian view of the foundational claims of philosophical theology which claims that the best informed minds see the metaphysical arguments for and against belief in God as equally plausible. Smaller minds ever since have misinterpreted him by interpreting his point from a partisan--and diminished--point of view.3 (The test case to prove James'/Kant's savvy in advancing the view of the ambiguity of the evidence for and against faith at the limit of human understanding is Positivism: Even the view that one ought not include any metaphysical content in one's view is a view about the nature of metaphysics that cannot be advanced on the basis of the principles Positivism advocates. The only possible evidence concerning whether or not to advance a faith position from the limit of human understanding is that there is no other option, except not to think at all. From that perspective the charge against theology that committed philosophical naturalists make comes from the mouths of people who have walked off a cliff and haven't figured it out yet.)

Second, this approach is crucial for anyone who wants to understand the relationship of faith to reason at the level where the connection actually happens. And it happens at the level where faith gives life an interpretive framework for understanding the dispositional options at the limits of human understanding. While James did inform his view with a Kantian background which his critics typically fail to catch in critiquing "The Will to Believe," it is a shortcoming of James' own understanding of faith that he did not draw the contours of the boundary of human understanding with the theological perspectives which extend it through faith: For an understanding of theology at its widest and deepest points must be framed by its particular interaction with human understanding at its metaphysical limits, or the most important and far-ranging elements of that understanding are missed. In fact, a core function of religion and its place in human life is simply ignored or missed.

And third, it is by making the metaphysical connections at the limits of human understanding, by seeing "the dispositional options at the limits of human understanding" as I have called it, that it is possible to trace the re-entry of those dispositions into human life via religion. Yes, in a delicious paradox, one cannot be scientifically profound about faith without becoming metaphysically savvy about religion at the same time. For with religion and faith, properly understood, one is dealing with the means to extend the human quest for meaning beyond the physical, immanent sphere. Framed a bit differently, since human beings extend their perspectives beyond nature by means of metaphysically informed faith, science cannot understand human nature unless it examines metaphysically informed perspectives that extend beyond nature, rigidly construed. But on some accounts of science--that rigidly insist on methodological naturalism--that's not possible. I cannot weigh in on the matter beyond noting the challenge and suggesting that scientists ought to at least take note of what it is that they imply if they do dismiss theology on the basis of an anti-religious or anti-metaphysical metaphysic.

It can hardly have escaped notice that I am not making friends in these essays with either fo the entrenched camps of the so-called culture wars. We live in a culture in which opinion are bifurcated along all-too-easy lines of discrimination, and that discrimination is vicious at times. By questioning religion and faith, I am an outsider to the culture of credulity that the Church has all but become synonymous with, and yet by suggesting that there is a side--and the most important side, for that matter--that the Church of Reason has not accounted for in its view of religion and faith, I am likely to be viewed as an outsider and enemy there too. So allow me to just say it, what passes for both religion and a critique of religion, even in the academy, is shallow and prejudiced. I am aware that there are historical reasons for this unfortunate mess. But rather than dwell on it, I propose to get beyond it.


1.William K. Clifford, THE ETHICS OF BELIEF, see here.
2. William James, "The Will to Believe," see here.
3. A. J. Burger, THE ETHICS OF BELIEF, see here. I chose to use this link to both Clifford's and James' essays not only because they could be compared together here, but because Burger's commentary illustratres the point just made. I encourage anyone who has not read the essays by Clifford and James to do so.