Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Readings in Race and The Christian Imagination

These days there's so much talk about ethnicity, culture, nationalism, race, and the church that I am increasingly drawn back to what I've learned from Willie James Jennings and J. Kameron Carter in this regard. Recalling that I had at one time shared excerpts and reflections from each of their works on this blog, I thought I would collect links to them in one place for future reference. Perhaps this may also serve as a primer for those who might be interested to look into these matters further.

Reflections on or related to Willie Jennings' The Christian Imagination:


Readings in J. Kameron Carter's "Race: A Theological Account"
  • Prelude

    "The ancient Gnostics thus ended up with a nonmaterial Christ ... lacking interhuman and interlinguistic Jewish flesh, flesh that was not embedded in the history of Israel.... [Here] I tell the story of how the loss of a Jewish-inflected account ... of Christian identity cleared the way for whiteness to function as a replacement doctrine of creation. Hence, the world was re-created from the colonial conquests from the late fifteenth century forward in the image of white dominance, where 'white' signifies not merely pigmentation but a regime of political and economic power for arranging the world."

Monday, November 21, 2016

Bonhoeffer on Truth-Speaking

Today I found this bit of Bonhoeffer both personally challenging and theologically illuminating. It calls for truth-speaking with attention to the particulars of the relationship rather than out of some kind of principled idealism that ends up being an evasive moral superiority.
"Where 'the truth is told' without regard for the person to whom it is said, there it has only the appearance of truth but not its essence.

The cynic is the one who, claiming to 'tell the truth' in all places and at all times and to every person in the same way, only puts on a display a dead idolatrous image of the truth. By putting a halo on his own head for being a zealot for the truth who can take no account of human weaknesses, he destroys the living truth between persons.

He violates shame, desecrates the mystery, breaks trust, betrays the community in which he lives, and smiles arrogantly over the havoc he has wrought and over the human weakness that 'can't bear the truth.'"

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English) 16: 683.
In context Bonhoeffer seems to be suggesting that our approach to (or avoidance of) confrontation needs to be enfolded in a theology and actual practice of Christ-confession.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Kierkegaard: A Single Life

available here from Zondervan
A few months ago I realized I did not know Kierkegaard well enough. I'd read Fear and Trembling and Works of Love but I kept on picking up other volumes in used bookstores only to regrettably never quite get to them. All along there's been this nagging desire to go back and explore this nineteenth century thinker some more. Kierkegaard always seems to say something you haven't quite thought of that way before.

This brand new biography of Søren Kierkegaard by Stephen Backhouse hit the spot. It came to our door on Friday and I devoured it by Sunday night. It is immensely informative, insightful, and readable.

Rather than duplicate the denser intellectual biographies that already exist (on one hand), or offer up the life's story without reference to it's work (on the other), Backhouse gives us Kierkegaard in two parts: a telling of his story and an overview of his works. The first reads like a gripping novel, the second opens up inviting windows into texts both famous and unknown.

The 211-page 'life of Kierkegaard' which makes up the bulk of the book is nothing short of riveting. (And for those who wish to just do some beach reading, it could be happily left at that). The research that stands behind it is impeccable. Not only does Backhouse have a command of Kierkegaard's thought and of his historical context, he has also scoured the journals of Søren and his peers in order to give us a view of his life from inside-out and outside-in. This is sewn together not like a patchwork quilt or a dry historical treatise but almost like a psychological thriller. (Okay, 'thriller' might be too strong a word, but the drama of Søren's inner and public life is pretty intense).

Kierkegaard seems to have been hounded controversy. Just when it lets up he chases it again. One simultaneously admires his resolve and cringes at the pain he puts himself (and others) through. Backhouse gives a sympathetic account that does not cover up Soren's faults and quirks, but puts them in perspective and (thanks to his journals) reveals in them an intent that is better than many might have guessed. It would be easy to write Kierkegaard off as a controversialist, but through this insightful biography we see him as somewhat restrained given the burning of his conviction, the sincerity of his confession, and the sharpness of his vision.

Even though Backhouse highlights the work Kierkegaard was doing as it occurs in his life, I was thankful for the 54 page overview of his publications which rounds out the book. The pithy summaries have focused my understanding of books I have read, and given me a concise encapsulation of books which (let's face it) I probably never will.

More than that, Backhouse has put some books on my radar which need to go high on the reading list not just because they seem interesting, but because the thoughts expressed in them seem as important and challenging as ever. A few choice quotes (all Backhouse's words) will make this plain:

'The Romantics rightly accuse modernity of trapping people in a slavery of social customs, materialism, and shallow religiosity. Yet the Romantics also condemn people to a slavish devotion to their own subjective passions and immature whims. Irony, urges Kierkegaard, is a necessary moment on the way to exposing a lie.... Significantly, at the end of his life Søren would employ Socratic irony by claiming not to a Christian, thus exposing the Christianity of Christendom as no Christianity at all.' - on Concept of Irony
'The first-hand disciples faced the same challenge as did the second-hand disciples. The incarnation was as offensive to reason one second after it happened as it is thousands of years later.' - on Philosophical Fragments
'In an age overtaken by reflection, talking about doing something important replaces actually doing it. The crowd likes the appearance of decisiveness more than it tolerates the reality of it... Levelling is the process of abstraction, whereby decisive choices are stripped of their power by being morphed into "ideas" or "worldviews," and persons are subsumed into groups... One of the public's most potent weapons in the war to defend itself against individuals taking their existence seriously is an endless stream of celebrity gossip, manufactured ideological conflict, and opinion presented as facts no one owns but everyone has.' - on The Present Age
'In Kierkegaard's view, "discourses" denotes open-ended discussion whereas a "sermon" suggests the speaker is speaking "with authority." The book's four parts ... reflect Søren's deepening mistrust of Christendom's self-satisfaction.' - on Christian Discourses
'Christianity has forgotten this ['Come to me' from Matthew 11:28] is a hard saying, because the citizens of Christendom have forgotten to live in the present with Jesus ever before them.' - on Practice in Christianity
'The reformation betrays itself when it simply allows one form of anaemic cultural Christianity to replace another. Instead, authentic Christianity is ever new, reforming itself with every generation and every individual.' - on For Self-Examination
'The present age thinks the more people rally together about something the truer it is or becomes.' - on The Book on Adler
What comes to life in this book is not just the person of Søren Kierkegaard but the ethos of nineteenth century Copenhagen and its churches as well—an ethos not far off from our own. Read against the vividly painted backdrop of his context, one cannot help but feel Kierkegaard's work coming into clearer focus and still having lots to say.

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Conversation Waiting to Happen

first written in 2008
The following excerpt comes from Oliver O'Donovan's A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy. It puts quite perfectly what has been my conviction about the similarly problematic gender roles debates in my home denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada (about which you can read more here). There's a vision of the church offered here which is as vital as the content of the controversy itself:

"On the one hand, obeying one's conscience is, apparently by definition, something it is always right to do. On the other hand, a mistaken conscience is, again by definition, a conscience that instructs you to do the wrong thing. So doing what a mistaken conscience tells you is to do right and wrong at the same time. 

There is a lesson to be learned from the deft way Aquinas, confronting this paradox of 'perplexity,' thrusts it aside. 'One can withdraw from the error,' he tells us [ST II-1.19 ad3]. Commentators have expressed bewilderment at this, for it is, of course, not an answer to the question, but an evasion. It does not tell us what to do when our conscience is mistaken; it tells us not to have a mistaken conscience... 

[Aquinas] means that there is something that the framing of the question has left out of account; the alternative is wrongly posed. It beguiles us into imagining a helpless innocent pathetically trapped between the devil of dutiful wrongdoing and the deep blue sea of guild-ridden right-doing. Moral reality is simply not like that. The perplexed actor always has a further recourse: she or he can reconsider....

Just as Thomas cuts the Gordian knot with the proposal, 'one can withdraw from the error,' so we [as churches] may suggest, 'one can address the disagreement.' 

Communion should not be broken, but that does not mean disagreement should be ignored. There are ways of addressing serious disagreements that affirm and renew communion by proven willingness and determination to resolve them. And the very attempt to reach a resolution transforms our experience of the disagreement. Disagreements ... are openings for those who share a common faith to explore and resolve important tensions within the context of communion.

This kind of proposal is, of course, easy to mishear. It can be taken to mean that parties to disagreements must be less than wholly convinced of their position, ready to make room for possible accommodation. When really serious issues are at stake ... urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other's interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure.

But all of that is a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for an agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church's authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape---a shape I presume will be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how.

I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think---and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!---is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.

Every approach to resolving disagreements may turn out to fail. In the end God may have so hardened our hearts that we can see no way through our difficulties and simply find ourselves apart God may in his judgment scatter a church that lacked the common will to search for its unity in the truth of the gospel. And then there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression. Nothing can exclude a priori the worst possibility that certain persons or groups, or even whole churches, may be declared to have left the communion of Jesus Christ. 

But it must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result. The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time."


- Oliver O'Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin (London:
SCM Press, 2009), 31-33, emphasis and paragraph spacing mine.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The Tourist (according to Cavanaugh)

This term a few of us got together to read William T. Cavanaugh's magnificent 2008 book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire -- which I highly recommend. In it there's this excerpt from chapter 3, 'The Global and the Local', which I can't get out of my mind:

'The tourist stands detached from all particular times and places and surveys them all from above, as it were. The tourist craves what is different and authentic, but when particular locations make themselves available to the tourist, authenticity and difference are lost. Particularities, especially from the past, are invented for the tourist, but the tourist cannot participate in them. The tourist can go anywhere, but is always nowhere.  

The tourist is a type of consumer, a consumer of places. Consumerism is marked by desire with no telos other than consumption itself. Particularities are interchangeable. Above all, the consumer consumes; rather than being drawn ecstatically into a larger drama, the consumer empties things into the self.  Both the tourist and the consumer try to transcend their own limits by adopting a universal stance detached from and consuming particularities. But when they do so, the self becomes a kind of empty shell, itself dependent on the constant novelty of the particular for its being, yet itself simultaneously destroying the particularity of the many, and thus negating its own being' (74-75).

This is interesting to me on many levels--think church, society, globalism, identity--but the hardest to put my finger on is the personal. Maybe I'm supposed to be learning not to be a tourist. Not easy.