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.


Under the Eagle's Wing said...

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.
I would love it if you would expand your thoughts on this line, Please

Under the Eagle's Wing said...

I found an online piece by Tillich called the Interpretation of History it is serving as an answer to my query, although I would love to hear your comments, I am beginning to see why you like Tillich so much!

Tracy Witham said...

Hi John,

Eternity cannot be sequenced the way time can: T1, T2, T3, etc. Therefore, the relationship of a temporal sequence to eternity is of the entire sequence to eternity (otherwise eternity would have to be considered to have changed with respect to some point in the sequence, which implies temporality, not eternity). For that reason any eternal meaning must be applied to all of time, and if it is believed to have been revealed at a particular time, it must be a revelation that changes the meaning of all time without prefering the point of view of any particular historical perspective.

I want to start with this "negative criterion" in teaching young people about the meaning of faith for three reasons. First, it makes the suntraction story incoherent as told against faith. Second, it eliminates the worldview nonsense that takes the intellectual framework of the ancient world and makes it part of a so-called "biblical worldview." And third--and most important--it highlights the gospel narrative's transformative application to all of history: The Son of
God hanging on a cross contradicts our understanding of God; the resurrection replaces it with a transformed understanding.

Thanks for the question!

BTW: I like to thing of the implication of this for prayer: if God hears and answers prayer, he must take our temporal point of view and use it in eternity to transform his entire plane for history. From this point of view the free will--soverienty question becomes meaningless: we interact with Eternity.

albix said...

Reading your profile I reminded when I was in London, young student still at college, making pizzas in a factory, and searching of God. today i'm not able to say if was me to find Him or, most likely, was Him to find me, once I stopped looking for Him.Someone says that looking for god is already believing on Him. I wish you all the best! Albix

Tracy Witham said...


I'm always delighted to meet another person on the mysterious journey of faith.