a few words

Month: June, 2008

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 2 of 4)

(Back to Part 1)

Hart’s positive expression of God’s infinity opens the space to speak about divine pathos, not as a deficiency, but as another modulation of his unconquerable and incorruptible love. The fullness of divine revelation is found in Jesus Christ and as the gospels tell it, God’s life as a human being progresses inexorably, almost magnetically, toward the cross in Jerusalem where God joins humanity (and all creation) in suffering, alienation, torture, death, and in the very depths of hell. Suffering and pain are not thereby to be understood as an attribute of the unchangeable God, like an incurable affliction, but as yet one more expression of divine openness and sharing of life. The cross is God’s glory (John) precisely because it makes visible the fullness of God’s triune openness and love. The same self-giving love by which the Father begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit (and receives the joy of his life in their return) is the self-giving love that knowingly, willingly, freely, and obediently swallows the suffering and death of creation because it pains God to see his creation languish. God’s pathos is an amplification of his love rather than the weakness of a God subject to the violence, control, or coercion of others. The resurrection shows that even in stretching to encompass pain, death, and the depths of hell, God’s peace is unbroken, God’s love is unconquered, God’s infinity is undiminished. The persistence of Christ’s wounds on his Resurrected body demonstrate that wounded-ness is no diminution of God’s life and that God’s bliss cannot be etiolated by exposure to violence. Nor can it be said that death is a necessary player in this drama, or that suffering is the attribute of God whereby his love is eternally demonstrated; death is exposed as nothing, suffering is revealed to be only the short darkness of a night bounded by endless day. To recognize that God genuinely suffers in Jesus Christ is not to subject God to change because (1) this suffering is not imposed upon God but freely borne, and (2) because God’s immutability is not a flat stasis, but the tireless repetition of a fathomless generosity found both in the Trinity and in the history of salvation.

(On to Part 3)

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‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 1 of 4)

Over the next few days I’m going to post the verbal fruit of my wrestling with Hart on the issue of divine impassibility. The reflections here are meant to be experimental—to see whether this line of thinking might be successful, or whether it will fall flat.

Thesis: David Bentley Hart’s strong advocacy of a positive and determinate understanding of divine infinitude provides the framework for an affirmation of divine pathos (in fidelity to scriptural descriptions of divine emotion and pain) that does not negate the traditional ascription to God of impassibility (apatheia). Unfortunately, not only does Hart pass this opportunity by, he also scorns it as he does so.

One of the central tenets of The Beauty of the Infinite is that the infinity of God’s triune life cannot be understood as something like a lack of finitude, or a negative sort of transcendence cognizable as absence from everything immanent. God is not infinite in a way that is bland and indeterminate—like an endless powerful fog—but in sheer abundance and excess. Moreover, God does not suffer from a failure to be finite, nor can infinitude be defined in dialectical opposition to created finitude—God and the universe are not opposites divided by any boundary. In other words, God’s infinity pervades the finite and always exceeds it. God’s transcendence crosses all borders and overcomes all limits. The freedom of God’s love is expressed ever anew in unspeakable creativity, transformed and transfixed in the endless self-giving exchange between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The surfeit of God’s life is marked by an infinity that cannot be exhausted or circumscribed, but repeats itself in endless modulations and harmonies on the theme of love. Far from standoffish loftiness, God’s infinity is closer than we can dare to think, yet beyond simple capture in any concept, picture, or image.

(On to Part 2)

William Cavanaugh :: differentiating soteriologies

“Modernity is unaccustomed to regarding political theory as mythological in character. The modern state is, however, founded on certain stories of nature and human nature, the origins of human conflict, and the remedies for such conflict in the enactment of the state itself. In this essay I will read these stories against the Christian stories of creation, fall, and redemption, and argue that both ultimately have the same goal: salvation of humankind from the divisions which plague us. The modern state is best understood, I will attempt to show, as a source of an alternative soteriology to that of the Church. Both soteriologies pursue peace and an end to division by the enactment of a social body; nevertheless I will argue that the body of the state is a simulacrum, a false copy, of the Body of Christ. On the true Body of Christ depends resistance to the state project. The Eucharist, which makes the Body of Christ, is therefore a key practice for a Christian anarchism.” (182)

“The dominance of state soteriology has made it perfectly reasonable to drop cluster bombs on ‘foreign’ villages, and perfectly unreasonable to dispute ‘religious’ matters in public.” … “As Raymond Williams and others have argued, war is for the liberal state a simulacrum of the social process, the primary mechanism for achieving social integration in a society with no shared ends. In a word, violence becomes the state’s religio [binding together], it’s habitual discipline for binding us to one another.” (194)

____________________
From Cavanaugh, William. “Beyond Secular Parodies.” In Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, 182-200. Ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward. New York: Routledge, 1999.

theologians on television :: irony and testimony

Here is an interview of N.T. Wright on the Colbert Report. The good bishop manages to get a remarkable amount of content out, while simultaneously trying not to sound “too serious.” It’s both heartening and intriguing to watch someone speaking of the gospel in “public” space. Welcome to pop-culture’s gauntlet for serious theological thought. We’ll listen to whatever can be uttered full speed between the ironic and irreverent interruptions of the interlocuter. Colbert never breaks out of his character and therefore appears more “solid” on camera. Nonetheless, in an effort to maintain the humorous distance of irony, he doesn’t remain for long in any substantial position; Colbert’s TV persona is not serious enough to either pray or believe.

Wright is trying to communicate something very important, and makes a valiant effort (in his shoes, I’m sure I’d melt down completely), but the language about “two stages” of salvation probably isn’t all that helpful an improvement on the common-sense conception of “heaven.” Eschatology in six minutes or less—anyone up for the challenge?

H/T flying.farther

of memory and story

Below is a short piece that I’m putting in our church newsletter. Enjoy. 

When does a church die? When does faith slink away to its grave? When is a religion reduced to a cultural trinket, a slowly fading pattern of entrenched habits and gatherings? The answer and antidote to such troubling questions, I think, has to do with memory and with story.

If I ask a friend, “Who are you?” and encourage a full reply, I will inevitably be invited into a rendition of her story, learning about where she is from, the people who have shaped her life, and the experiences by which her identity has been formed. Identity-who we are-emerges from memory, the re-presentation of our story in the present. When someone among us begins to lose his memory, the community around him remembers with him, and eventually even remembers for him, just who he is. Memory is shared; it is a function of a whole community just as much as it is a faculty of the individual. And so, the story we tell as a nation, as a city, as a church, is what binds us together in common understanding and shows each of us our place within the whole. Our common story enables us to communicate with one another. In fact, when we argue, it is often because we disagree about where some event or character fits into the story that we already share.

So when does faith die? Faith is diminished to a hollow shell when the Christian story is no longer the story in which we understand our lives. When going-to-church is only one more event in the story of loyal citizenship, success in business, or just “being a good person,” then God’s story is subordinated to another tale-it becomes a sub-plot in our memory. When the story of creation, redemption, and hope for resurrection is no longer the framework in which I buy groceries, greet the neighbor, and brush my teeth, then my identity is shaped by some other story-I have mis-remembered who I am. Loving our enemies, becoming servants of the least, and opening our homes to those who seek hospitality, are actions that only make sense within the story of the God who opens his life to the world and joins in the plight of the hopeless. Every other story finds a prudential limit for our generosity, a threshold of acceptable risk for our love.

Is this “religious” story a political and economic story as well? Most certainly! Loving every neighbor as ourselves (because we love God with all our hearts) is the first and most important political act. It is the only real foundation for politics at all! The story of our faith in-forms us that God is at work in Jesus Christ reconciling the whole world to himself through the Spirit-the whole of it, from barstools to bulldozers! Once we remember ourselves within that story, enmity melts as an illusion in the face of love, forgiveness for grievous wrongs becomes “natural,” and even death itself loses its sting.

The Church, First Lutheran Church, is the community where God’s story embraces each of our individual stories. It is the place where we gather to purposefully remember the good news together through liturgy and over doughnuts, amidst the howling of many competing narratives that would lead us off into distraction and discord. The story of the God-made-man, whose Spirit still haunts the world, holds the power to narrate our lives and our community toward healing and peace-if only we do the sometimes difficult work of remembering aloud who we are within the new story we’ve been given by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

George MacDonald on the proper length of stories and the anatomy of reading

“And that is all my double story. How double it is, if you care to know, you must find out. If you think it is not finished—I never knew a story that was. I could tell you a great deal more concerning them all, but I have already told more than is good for those who read but with their foreheads, and enough for those whom it has made look a little solemn, and sigh as they close the book.”

George MacDonald, “The Wise Woman or the Lost Princess” in The Wise Woman and Other Fantasy Stories (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 108.

Elizabeth Johnson :: gendered language about God

In a passage exploring the difficulty of gendered vocabulary used in naming God, Elizabeth Johnson rejects as inadequate two approaches before moving forward within the parameters of a third. Neither attributing female traits or characteristics to God (who remains primarily “male”), nor speaking of a female dimension within God’s life is finally adequate. Rather, she argues that male and female images of God are equally fitting (and equally inadequate) and therefore ought to be used with greater parity, breaking the dominance of patriarchal imagery. 

Unexamined presuppositions about the doctrine of God itself raise a further theological question about this [preceding] approach [namely, identifying the Holy Spirit as a female dimension of God’s being]. In what sense can it be claimed that God has “dimensions,” let along the the dualistically conceived dimensions of masculine and feminine? Such an idea extends human divisions to the godhead itself. It actually ontologizes sex in God, making sexuality a dimension of divine being, rather than respecting the symbolic nature of religious language.

We must be very clear about this. Speech about God in female metaphors does not mean that God has a feminine dimension, revealed by Mary or other women. Nor does the use of male metaphors mean that God has a masculine dimension, revealed by Jesus or other men; or an animal dimension, revealed by lions or great mother birds; or a mineral dimension, which corresponds with naming God a rock. Images and names of God do not aim to identify merely “part” of the divine mystery, were that even possible. Rather, they intend to evoke the whole. Female imagery by itself points to God as such and has the capacity to represent God not only as nurturing, although certainly that, but as powerful, initiating, creating-redeeming-saving, and victorious over the powers of this world. If women are created in the image of God, then God can be spoken of in female metaphors in as full and a limited a way as God is imaged in male ones, without talk of feminine dimensions reducing the impact of this imagery. Understanding the Holy Spirit as the feminine dimension of the divine within a patriarchal framework is no solution. [1]

Johnson’s approach in this book does two things supremely well. First, she articulates God’s transcendence patiently and persistently. Thinking and speaking about God in exclusively male terms is not wrong because God is beyond all gender and totally outside the known. It is wrong because it imposes false limits upon the God who transcends created gender in a way that encompasses both maleness and femaleness and extends beyond typological confinement in one or the other. Johnson recognizes that the plenitude of God’s inner life extends beyond the boundaries of either maleness or femaleness, while both men and women are “true” images of God. 

Secondly, Johnson recognizes that patriarchal repression of women is an aberration in both thought and practice from the orthodox Christian gospel. Correcting this error, then, does not require an overthrow of the whole tradition and a rejection of the church’s rich theological heritage. It would be naive and simplistic to dismiss a tradition in which so many women have found genuine liberation and genuine self-expression for the reason that the same tradition has been used (perhaps with a great frequency) to subdue and silence them. Johnson recognizes that the language and symbols of tradition do not need to be cast away to start again with a blank slate, but demand to be enlivened  and expanded by filling them out with the suppressed language and experience of the church’s women. When we have understood our theological heritage more fully, we will understand that the dismissal and subordination of women cuts against the grain of the gospel. 

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit remains YHWH’s first Christian name, the most prominent appellation for God given to the Church in both the New Testament scripture and subsequent tradition. Attempts to displace or discard God’s self-revelation in this form are misguided and unnecessarily divisive. Yet, there are other ways of speaking about God, appropriate for both the Church’s liturgy and theology, that rekindle the biblical practice of naming God in feminine terms as Mother, as Wisdom incarnate, as the Spirit who gives new-birth. The church’s language is impoverished and watered down where it neglects the full range of imagery available for its prayers and preaching.  

[1] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), 54. 

varieties of secularism :: an index

Here are links to all the posts I’ve accumulated in connection with the conference at the beginning of April on Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age

Notes:
Session Two
Session Three
Session Four
Session Five
Keynote Address: Charles Taylor

Comments:
Comments (1) “secular spirituality”
Comments (2) Taylor as apologist
Comments (3) Taylor as secularist

words I learned while reading The Beauty of the Infinite

David Bentley Hart has expanded my vocabulary to include the following list of obscure, polysyllabic words: 

ordonnance
parataxis
diegesis
chthonic
amphiboly
caducity
inspissated
nisus
diremption
aleatory
orphic
subtend
debile
velleity
risible
tabescence
piscine
oneiric
eidetic
indiscerptible
obsecration
temenos
concatenation
identism
crepuscular
estaminet
probatively
decortication
Taboric
foison
opalescence
porrection
persiflage
sublate
syntagma
griseous
catalectic
anacolouthic
metonymy
asymptotic
ambit
recrudescence
melismatic
apotropaic
mactate (and mactation)
farrago
galvanism
medicament
peripety
appanages
demesne
soupcon

To the first person who can correctly define 12 of these words without using a dictionary, I will mail a Snickers bar.

 

John Milbank and Catharine Pickstock on CBC :: “Ideas” interview

If you are looking for an intriguing way to put an hour of your audial energies to good service, may I suggest a podcast from the CBC program “Ideas”–an interview with Catharine Pickstock and John Milbank. It serves as an excellent introduction to Radical Orthodoxy (and brings some of its more abrasive aspects to the surface). The interview is a few years old, but I didn’t find it till last week, perhaps you haven’t found it either.

It is available here.