Sep 18, 2007

At the beginning of class I contrasted two different kinds of psychological needs that emerge as we approach the problem of pain and evil. The problem of evil presents us with a mess that needs some structure, some way to think about the situation. But what we find is that people need different kinds of structure. First, some people require non-specific structure. That is, all they need to make sense of the problem of evil is an answer, any answer. For some, this non-specific structure is enough. But for others, we require what is called specific structure. Specific structure demands a particular answer given the issues an individual considers most important and vital. That is, many people get hung up on particular issues regarding the problem of evil. Thus, broad, sweeping answers (non-specific structure) don’t tend to work for these people. Rather, what is needed is an answer that hits all the right spots for a particular person, spots that can differ from person to person.

I noted that I was drawn to Christ and Horrors because I am a person who has gotten “hung up” on different aspects of the problem of evil. And, to date, only Christ and Horrors has offered me answers to those particular hang-ups of mine. Of course, people will hang up on different issues (or none at all) and, as a result, Christ and Horrors is not going to scratch their itch. But Christ and Horrors does scratch my itch. And I proceeded to outline why.

As I have wrestled with the problem of evil I have tended to get hung up on the following issues:

1. I’ve always felt that horror, rather than sin, was the fundamental predicament of the human condition.

2. I’ve always felt that God bears the lion’s share of responsibility for our vulnerability to horror. Consequently, the burden is on God to get the situation fixed.

3. I think the issue of moral luck must be dealt with. That is, we all start in different places in life and death happens arbitrarily, ending the moral development of the person. In class I read a quote from Eric Fromm to highlight this point: “The tragedy in the life of most of us is that we die before we are fully born.” I feel that God has to somehow make up for this situation.

4.I think death, its sheer existence, is a horror that needs to be defeated. Not just ended, but retroactively dealt with on an individual basis (see #3).

5. Finally, horror defeat must be realized at the personal level. It does no good, in my mind, for God to defeat horror for the Few at the end of time. God must defeat horror in the lives of all horror participants, whether they are Christian or not.

Again, not everyone places these very particular demands on a proposed theodicy. However, many people do. And, to date, Christ and Horrors is the only theodicy I’m aware of that addresses each of these issues. The point is, if you, or someone you care about, does get hung up on any of #1-#5 then Christ and Horrors is an important formulation to work with.

With those issues out of the way, we outlined the basic proposal of Christ and Horrors. Specifically, with Christ as horror-defeater the horror defeat will move through three stages:

Stage 1: Divine Solidarity
In Stage 1 God's presence and participation in horror allows for the possibility for moments of intimacy/union with God in the midst of horror whether we know it or not. Stage 1 horror defeat was accomplished in the Incarnation. That is, by entering into the horrors, God has built a route for personal horror defeat. That is, due to the Presence of God the ability to make meaning out of horrors becomes, theoretically, possible.

Stage 2: Healing and Mothering
Although Stage 1 implies that, post-Incarnation, it is possible to find meaning in the midst of horrors, many, due to ruin inflicted by horror, will not have the capacity to make that move. Thus, in Stage 2 God must work within the individuals developmental history creating meaning-making capacities from the inside out. This involves intensive Divine healing and coaching. Or, as the church mystic Julian of Norwich says, mothering.

Stage 3: The End of Horrors
During the final Stage all the prior work in Stage 2 must be brought to fruition for every person and the entire cosmos must be reconfigured to allow for an existence that no longer is radically vulnerable to horrors.

We should again note that Stage 3 horror defeat is not at the level of the group, where horrors end for the few. Recall #5 above: Horror defeat must occur on the personal level and for all horror-participants (which, given the human condition, means all of us). Here are selections from Christ and Horrors that get after this point:

"I insist, God will be good-to each created person by weaving up any horror-participation into an unending relationship of beatific intimacy with God. In my judgment, grim realism is not inappropriately derogatory of human dignity, but rather serves to magnify the miracle of God's making good on God's cosmic project by benefiting each and every human being. (p. 51)

"Nevertheless, for an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God, a future just society isn't good enough. What about the countless individuals sacrificed on the slaughter-bench of history? An omniscient and omnipotent God Who loved human beings would make it up to them, would guarantee that there was enough positive meaning in it to defeat their horror-participation and make their lives great goods to them on the whole and in the end!" (p. 207)

"Traditional doctrines of hell err again by supposing either that God does not get what God wants with every human being ("God wills all humans to be saved" by God's antecedent will) or that God deliberately creates some for ruin. To be sure, many human beings have conducted their ante-mortem lives in such a way as to become anti-social persons. Almost none of us dies with all the virtues needed to be fit for heaven. Traditional doctrines of hell suppose that God lacks the will or the patience or the resourcefulness to civilize each and all of us, to rear each and all of us up into the household of God. They conclude that God is left with the option of merely human penal systems--viz., liquidation or quarantine!

Traditional doctrines of hell go beyond failure to hatred and cruelty by imagining a God Who not only acquiesces in creaturely rebellion and dysfunction but either directly organizes or intentionally "outsources" a concentration camp (of which Auschwitz and Soviet gulags are pale imitations) to make sure some creatures' lives are permanently deprived of positive meaning.

My own view is that ante-mortem horror-participation is hell enough. Horrors constitute the prima facie destruction of the positive meaning of our lives; a destruction that we lack knowledge, power, or worth enough to defeat; a destruction that reasonably drives many to despair. For God to succeed, God has to defeat horrors for everyone. We have all been to hell by being tainted by horrors ante-mortem. We all meet the horror of death at the end. For some, life has been one horror after another between the dawn of personhood and the grave. In millions of cases, these horrors have been spawned by the systemic evils of human societies. To be good-to us, God will have to establish and fit us for wholesome society, not establish institutions to guarantee that horrors last forever in the world to come!"
(p. 229-230, emphases in original)

Obviously, this last bit is not a common move in Christian churches. That is, Christ and Horrors will ask us to alter our notions of hell and its function. And yet, however controversial this move might be, we must note that if a theodicy is to satisfy #5 above then this is the only move available. And, given that some people do trip up on #5 it seems worth the effort to make the move made in Christ and Horrors available to those who need it to maintain theological coherence.

Sep 6, 2007

The class began with me handing out an essay from John Hick entitled An Irenaean Theodicy. An abstract of Hick's ideas can be found here. I shared Hick’s essay because his argument shares a family resemblance to the theodicy of Christ and Horrors.

Specifically, we compared an Irenaean theodicy with an Augustinian theodicy. The general structure of an Augustinian theodicy is to posit an initial perfection of man that is subsequently corrupted by The Fall. Thus, in an Augustinian theodicy the movement is from good-to-bad with the responsibility falling heavily on human free will (i.e., Adam’s choice and our own in his wake). That is, the evils of life are the fault of humankind.

In contrast, an Irenaean theodicy posits a bad-to-good movement. That is, humankind’s past is steeped in Darwinian selfishness and aggression. But God is slowly working with Creation, redeeming it, moving it toward Perfection at the eschaton. In an Irenaean theodicy, the burden falls more heavily on God as God’s efforts are required to pull all of Creation toward a state of grace.

Schematically, then, we can compare the Augustinian and Irenaean theodicy positions:

good-to-bad movement
burden/responsibility is on humans
(evil is the product of human free will)

bad-to-good movement
burden/responsibility is on God
(to perfect Creation at the eschaton)

In broad outline, Christ and Horrors follows the Irenaean rhythm.

After these preliminaries we dipped into Christ and Horrors.

At Highland, we tend to begin conversations about salvation by defining our predicament as sin. Thus, the work of the Christ is to save us from our sin. But Christ and Horrors begins in a different place. Specifically, Christ and Horrors begins not with sin but with our vulnerability to horror. Horror, rather than sin, is taken to be the Fundamental Human Predicament. Thus, the book is preoccupied with the question: If salvation is to be rescued from horrors what would Christ have to do to accomplish that work?

To begin to understand how Christ might defeat horror, we first must understand Adams’ definition of horror.

What are horrors? Adams (p. 32) centers them upon existential concerns about meaning: "horrors as evils the participation in (the doing or suffering of) which constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant's life could (given their inclusion in it) have positive meaning for him/her on the whole."

Just to be clear, Adams (p. 32-33) gives examples, "Paradigm horrors include the rape of a woman and axing off her arms, psychological torture whose ultimate goal is the disintegration of personality, schizophrenia, severe clinical depression, cannibalizing one's own offspring, child abuse the sort described by Ivan Karamazov, parental incest, participation in the Nazi death camps, the explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas, being the accidental and/or unwitting agent in the disfigurement or death of those one loves best."

These events are horrors because they furnish "reason to doubt whether the participant's life can be worth living, because it engulfs the positive value of his/her life and penetrates into his/her meaning-making structures seemingly to defeat and degrade his/her value as a person" (p. 33). Adams summarizes (p. 34): "the heart of the horrendous, what makes horrors so pernicious, is their life-ruining potential."

Two further comments about horrors are in order. First, even if we do not participate in horrors (either as victim or perpetrator) we are all complicit in horror. Adams (p. 35-36, emphases hers) makes this clear: "Virtually every human being is complicit in actual horrors merely by living in his/her nation or society. Few individuals would deliberately starve a child into mental retardation. But this happens even in the United States, because of the economic and social systems we collectively allow to persist and from which most of us profit. Likewise complicit in actual horrors are all those who live in societies that defend the interests of warfare and so accept horror-perpetration as a chosen means to or a side effect of its military aims. Human being in this world is thus radically vulnerable to, or at least collectively an inevitable participant in, horrors."

A second point that Adams makes later in the book (p. 207) is that "death itself is a horror!" She continues (p. 208-209): "Death proves that there is not enough to us to maintain integrity, to hold body and soul together...It is in our nature and our calling as human beings to strive against the forces what would undo us, and it is in our nature surely to lose...Death mock our personal pretensions...If death is a horror, and death is natural to human being, then to be human is to be headed for horror. In cultic conceptuality, human being is a prima facie cursed kind of thing to be."

In sum, this is our Condition: God made a world where we are radically vulnerable to or complicit in horrors. The world is saturated in horror. Thus, the Work of Christ must be, fundamentally and foundationally, involved in horror defeat (p. 52): "If non-optimality is construed in terms of God's setting us up for horror-participation by creating us personal animals in a material world such as this, then the Savior's job is to be the horror-defeater. Our next question is: Who would Christ have to be, what relation to God and humankind would Christ have to have, to accomplish this saving work?"

Aug 26, 2007

Before starting Christ and Horrors we took this class to lay some groundwork. The class had two main sections:

First, we noted that Christ and Horrors is a work of theodicy. Stephen Davis, in his preface to Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, defines theodicy narrowly and broadly.

Davis's narrow definition: A theodicy is a demonstration that God is righteous and just despite the presence of evil in the world.

Generally, this narrow definition is focused on reconciling the following propositions:

1. God is omnipotent (i.e., all-powerful)
2. God is perfectly good (omnibenevolent)
3. Evil exists.

The classic articulation of this perspective comes from David Hume: "Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil?"

But that is a narrow and logic-centric view of theodicy. Most theodicies are more existential in nature. Thus:

Davis's broader definition: "Any response to the problem of evil from the perspective of Judeo-Christian religious belief."

That is, theodicy doesn't have to focus narrowly on propositions but can be broadly construed as any attempt--existential, personal, epistemological--that confront the problem of evil from a (for our purposes) Christian perspective.

Davis points out that different facets of evil create different kinds of problems. I'll simplify by calling these the problems of existence, degree, and surd evil.

The Problem of Existence: For some, the very existence of evil is the problem.

The Problem of Degree: For some, it is not the existence of evil, per se, that is the problem. Rather, it is the amount or degree of evil in the world.

The Problem of Surd Evil: For some, it is not the existence or amount of evil that is the problem. Rather, it is the senseless, random, and inexplicable nature of evil.

Overall, then, theodicies deal with these questions and problems. Christ and Horrors is a part of this strain in theology.

Before beginning any study of theodicy we need to recognize the differences among us. Specifically, people are "satisfied" at different points in theodicy conversations. To illustrate this, I trotted out a model for describing people at church to describe how we deal differently with theodicy issues. I call the model First-, Second-, and N-Order Complaint.

To start, everyone, at some point, confronts the issues of theodicy. We all suffer and we need to understand. Sometimes our questions are acute and personal (e.g., personal trauma). Sometimes our questions are historical (e.g., the Holocaust). Sometimes existential (e.g., pain in the human condition). Thus, believers are particularly keen to hit upon a suite of answers to all these questions. How can a good and all-powerful God allow these things to happen?.

The first round of these questions I call FIRST-ORDER COMPLAINT. Thus, the answers that arise to meet this first round of questions I call FIRST-ORDER RESPONSES. There are a variety of first-order responses. Typical ones include free will, human sinfulness, Satan, or how the relational potential inherent in love implies the dark side of possible pain.

At this point in the conversation people start to sort themselves into two different groups. One group is generally satisfied with these first-order responses. They see the first-order responses as, generally speaking, adequate. However, there is a second group (and I am among them) that looks over the first-order responses and is partly or wholly unsatisfied. All these responses do is succeed in creating another round of questions. This second round of questions, in response to the first round, I call SECOND-ORDER COMPLAINT.

There are responses that can be offered at this second level of complaint. We can call these SECOND-ORDER RESPONSES. However, and I bet you guessed this, the process can continue. We can have another wave of THIRD-ORDER COMPLAINT with THIRD-ORDER RESPONSES. And forth-order. And fifth-order. And so on.

Thus, what I call N-ORDER COMPLAINT, is round upon round of complaint-response.

The point for community living is that there are different kinds of people in our classrooms. Some people are FIRST-ORDER COMPLAINT people while others are N-ORDER COMPLIANT people. And, if we are not careful, these two groups of people can quickly find themselves in the thick of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Specifically, the FIRST-ORDER group will see the N-ORDER group as nihilistic and faithless. Conversely, the N-ORDER group will see the FIRST-ORDER group as pollyannaish and shallow.

This outcome is unfortunate and unproductive. So, we need to be alerted to these possible conflicts. As we go forward we need to allow room for people different from us.


Aug 5, 2007

This post will summarize the third "theme" that NT Wright believes can be prominently identified within Paul's writings, that of Gospel and Empire.

This is a simple, fairly demonstrable theme that has radical implications. Here is how it works:

Dominating the world in Paul's day was the Roman Empire. At the head of that Empire was Caesar himself. At various points in time, Caesar had claimed to be the one who brings "peace" (remember the pax Romana?) , to be the "savior" of the peoples whose leaders he conquered, to be the "Lord" of the world, and to be the "son of God." Also, whenever a military victory was announced, people would ride through the streets of a city announcing "good news" or the "gospel" of his victory.

Do these claims sound familiar? In fact, they are the same claims that the writers of the New Testament generally, and Paul more specifically, continuously use to refer to Jesus. The claim that "Jesus is Lord" (a phrase which Wright interprets to be a summary of Paul's gospel) is, in fact, a political claim - it indicates that, as God reclaims his world, true authority is to be found in Jesus and not in Caesar or any other Emperor, king, dictator, or (in modern terms) constitutional body.

Thus, in Romans 1, when Paul says he is eager to preach his gospel (i.e., to announce that "Jesus is Lord") in Rome, and then follows that by stating he "is not ashamed of the Gospel," he means it. Paul intends, it seems, to march right into the seat of Caesar's power, and announce that Caesar is not - as he claims - in charge of the world.

There is a new Lord in the world, and anyone else who claims to hold authority over creation should take note.

Jul 29, 2007

This post will summarize one of two Pauline "themes" that were the focus of our third class: that of Messiah and Apocalypse. A post on the second theme (that of "Gospel and Empire") will hopefully follow in a few days.

In Paul's world, there was a belief that a Messiah would come and accomplish the task of restoring Israel and God's world. Among other things, it was believed that Messiah would serve as Israel's representative to the world, that he would defeat the pagan kings which occupied Judea, and that he would re-build the temple.

NT Wright argues that Paul saw Jesus as this Messiah, though it was necessary to "reinterpret" some of the things that the Messiah was supposed to do in light of the events of Jesus' life. For example, Wright says, Paul believed that the temple was re-established within the church, such that God's spirit is now present within and among God's people, whose bodies are now the temple.

Where our translations will generally refer to "Jesus Christ," Wright prefers to use the phrase "Jesus, the Messiah" in its place. This reduces the temptation to think of "Christ" as Jesus' last name, and puts the emphasis on the meaning of the title "Christ."

While the concept of Jesus as Messiah is not that controversial to us, by refining our understanding of what was expected of the Messiah, we can better come to understand some of the things that Paul is saying. When Paul goes out of his way to point out how Jesus' death and resurrection was a defeat of the "powers and authorities," for example, he is telling us something about how Jesus did, in fact, do the things that were expected of the Messiah.

Paul also lived in an age when "apocalyptic" literature was popular. Apocalyptic literature developed during an age where God seemed largely silent. There was no explanation as to why he was not fulfilling his promises to restore Israel. This literature assumed that there must be an "unveiling" or "revelation" of the purposes of heaven, which are mysterious to man. Often these "apocalypses" involved grand stories of great catastrophes and images of angelic warriors coming into the earth to restore God's authority.

When we think of the apocalyptic, we tend to focus on a grand, Armageddon-like ending to the world. However, Wright tells us that Paul believed the great "apocalypse" had already occurred in the events concerning Jesus. Thus, when he speaks of God's mysteries, previously unknown, being revealed in Christ, he is saying that God's "apocalypse" or "unveiling" has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In a sense, the "unveiling" is yet to come to complete fulfilment, but God's plan and purposes can now be readily seen.

Jul 18, 2007

During our second class in this series, we walked few multiple texts that deal with the theme of creation and covenant, both in the Old Testament and in Paul's writings. Here are the texts that we reviewed:

  • Psalm 19
  • Psalm 74
  • Deuteronomy 28:1-14; 15-19
  • Isaiah 51:12-16
  • Colossians 1:15-20
  • I Corinthians 15
  • Romans chs 1-11

The theme of creation and covenant is most succinctly seen in the Colossians text, which reads as follows:

[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

In this text, we see Christ both as the means by which creation is renewed ("firstborn over all creation") and the means by which covenant is fulfilled ("God was pleased...through him to reconcile to himself all things"). Wright tells us:

[Paul] believes that Israel’s God, the creator, has acted decisively to fulfil the covenant promises and to renew both covenant and creation. Paul thereby understands himself to be living at a different moment in the story….The new age has already begun, though the old age continues alongside it….

…[T]he twin themes of creation and covenant offer a context, an implicit narrative, within which we can grasp Paul’s understanding of what has gone wrong in the world and in Israel and how it is put right…

For Paul, God's "project" is to fulfil his covenant promise to renew creation. Everything that God is doing through Jesus serves the purpose that he has held all along - that of rescuing the world from bondage to sin and death and bringing it into new life.

Next week, we will look at two additional themes in Paul's writings: (1) that of Messiah and Apocalypse and (2) that of Gospel and Empire.

Jul 11, 2007

July 11 marked our first class on NT Wright's book Paul in Fresh Perspective. For those who missed it, or who want a refresher on what we covered, this post will serve as a quick overview of the discussion during the first class.

During this class, we introduced the distinctive ideas that Wright brings to the table when reading Paul's letters, and we then focused on the first major theme that Wright recognizes in Paul's letters: that of Creation and Covenant.

Here are some of the differences between the traditional ideas about Paul and the ideas that Wright will discuss in the book:

1. Paul's Opponents. In the past, I have thought of Paul's opponents as people who professed that you could "earn your way into God's favor." But Wright contends that no one in Paul's world - even the most self-righteous Pharisee - would think such a thing! Instead, he believes that Paul's opponents were those who believed the Gentiles should be "marked" as the people of God through the requirements of the Mosaic law (for example, by circumcision or by the type of diet that is observed).

2. Paul's Message. Likewise, Paul's extensive discussion on such subjects as faith, works, and grace are not present merely to explain the mechanics of salvation. Instead, Paul is showing how God is "marking" his people through, for example, faith - rather than through the Mosaic law.

3. God's Righteousness. Christians have often thought of the phrase "the righteousness of God" to refer to the way God imputes his righteousness on us. But Wright thinks this phrase normally (always?) refers to God's righteous act in reclaiming his world.

4. God's Future. We tend to think of God's "project" as getting people into heaven after they die, but Paul uses the language of resurrection and new creation to describe God's future. These two concepts bear some similarities, but they are dramatically dissimilar in other ways.

Wright believes that, in order to understand Paul, we must understand his world and his questions. Paul, he tells us, finds himself at a particular point in history - and it is necessary to understand the questions of his people and of his day to understand his letters.

Wright identifies three major themes/narratives in Paul, the first of which is the theme of Creation and Covenant. Here is the short version of the "Creation and Covenant" story/theme:
1. God created the world; it was good
2. Creation became marred by sin and death
3. God made a covenant with Abraham to restore creation; pursuant to this covenant, Abraham's children were to become lights to the world
4. Abraham's children failed to fulfil the covenant; instead, they decided to treat the covenant as an exclusive privilege

Our tendency is to move straight from point #2 to the crucifixion/saving act of Jesus on the cross. But, Wright tells us, Paul wrestles with #3 and #4: how will God act to fulfil the covenant now that Israel has failed in its assigned task? The need to explain Israel's "failure" and the ways that God will nonetheless move forward with his covenant are an important feature of Wright's interpretation of Paul.

Next week, we will have a look at the way the theme of Creation and Covenant is developed (a) in the Old Testament and (b) in Paul's writings.

Jun 13, 2007

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they.

--Tennyson, In Memoriam

Chapter 2 of How (Not) to Speak of God continues themes from Chapter 1: How our speech and understandings of God always fall short. And, thus, we must take note of the Lesson of the Pharisees who believed that their understanding of the Messiah WAS the Messiah. We must be cautious of making the same mistake, assuming our understandings of God (via our doctrine, theology, and church tradition) ARE God.

To illustrate this point, Rollins deploys a couple of formulations:

a/theology: There are both things we can say about God (theology) and things we cannot say about God (atheology).

the un/known God: God is known and yet God is also beyond all knowing (unknown).

a/theism: We affirm things about God (theism) yet deny that formulations of God are God (atheism).

We noted that these formulations share similarities with the apophatic and cataphatic moves in theology. Apophatic theology emphasizes what can NOT BE SAID about God. It is a "negative theology" emphasizing God's ineffability, inscrutability, and mystery. By contrast, cataphatic theology, so-called "positive theology," focuses on what can properly BE SAID about God. American Protestant traditions have tended to be cataphatic, focusing on making claims about God. But this may have lead to pride on our part, causing us to slip into the error of the Pharisees. By reclaiming the apophatic aspects of theology, rooted in Christianity's mystical tradition, we learn that human speech and doctrine are limited in their ability to capture God in a verbal box. This is not to disrespect doctrine or tradition but to pay God our highest respect: God will not be verbally, theologically, conceptually, or intellectually tamed by us. God will stand above all our words and ideas.

These formulations reinforce each other, leading to the same point: As noted in Tennyson's poem, our theology, doctrine, and church tradtions are but "broken lights" that "have their day" and "cease to be" and that God will always be "more than they."

Jun 6, 2007

Our first class on Peter Rollins' book How (Not) to Speak of God introduced the emerging church and discussed Chapter 1 of How (Not) to Speak of God: God rid me of God.

Summarizing the class. In the wake of modernity, a situation often called post-modernity, we are living in a time where metanarratives, those universally agreed upon "big stories" about values, have been dismantled. No longer can we assume that the people in our neighborhoods, cities, nation or world share the same religious or metaphysical vision as we do. As Nietzsche declared, "God is dead" for many people. Given this situation, the emerging church is attempting to proclaim the truth of God in a world where truth is not self-evident and where people are suspicious of claims of certainty. What then is the recommendation of the emerging church?

Rollins begins How (Not) to Speak of God by noting that our speech about God is always flawed and potentially self-interested. Thus, the way to proceed as a post-modern believer is to note that "naming God is never really naming God but only naming our understanding of God." This shift of emphasis begins to elevate orthopraxy (right practice) over orthodoxy (right belief). Or, in the formulation of Rollins, the emerging church is making a shift from emphasizing "right belief" to "believing in the right way," a way that is "loving, sacrificial, and Christlke in manner."

To defend this point, Rollins warns against conceptual and linguistic idolatry, where we begin to think our current understanding of God IS God. Thus, it is important for Christians to routinely pray the prayer of Meister Eckhart: "God rid me of God." That is, we ask God to continually to rid us of all the bad notions and ideas we routinely ascribe to God. This move keeps us humble and searching, a much better place to begin as Christians in the post-modern situation.

May 30, 2007

The resurrection narratives display a dramatic change compared to the old cycles of victimage. There were two outcomes to the old patterns of victimage. In one outcome, the victim is voiceless. Thus, after the killing and violence the victim is forgotten, his/her particular story is lost to history. In the second outcome, the victim has a voice. That is, upon the death of the victim the family, friends, and/or followers of the victim rise up and demand vengeance. Thus, rounds of reciprocal, eye-for-eye violence emerges.

Both outcomes are evil. In the first outcome the voice of the scapegoat is silenced. In the second outcome violence escalates after the killing of the scapegoat. Is there a way to break these ancient patterns?

Yes. In the resurrection narrative the scapegoat returns bearing the scars of human violence. The scapegoat now has a voice. But that voice does not cry for revenge. No, the first word of the Living Lord is "Peace." This new pattern breaks the old cycles of victimage. Human violence has been absorbed by God, exposing its evil mechanisms, and God now replaces violence with peace.

The story of the early church continues to highlight the evils of scapegoating and how we are saved from its cycles of violence (i.e., by standing with the victim). In the sermon and stoning of Stephen and in the conversion stories of Paul we see violence still at work (in the stoning of Stephen and Saul's persecution of the church). But we also see the newly paved route to salvation: standing with God on the side of victims. Specifically, at his moment of death Stephen echos Jesus' cry from the cross: Father, forgive them! In Saul's conversion Jesus is identified three times in the book of Acts as "the one you are persecuting." That is, Jesus' identity is the identity of the victim. This identification saves Saul as it it saves us.

In our final reflections we turned to the book of Hebrews, the source of most of the sacrificial language in the New Testament. Two points of convergence between the substitutionary and non-sacrifical readings of Hebrews were noted. First, in Hebrews Jesus is identified as the "perfect" sacrifice due to his sinlessness. In the subsitutionary reading, Jesus' sinlessness makes him the ideal locus for God's violent wrath. In the non-sacrifical reading, Jesus is also read as a perfect sacrifice due to his sinlessness. That is, as noted in the last class, Jesus' innocence (sinlessness) is necessary to expose the wickedness of human actions. If Jesus were not sinless then humans might cite a reason or excuse for his killing. But if Jesus is sinless these excuses are exposed as lies.

The second convergence of the substitutionary and non-sacrifical readings of Hebrews is that both readings agree that the "perfection" of Jesus' sacrifice is manifested in the end of sacrifice. That is, both readings agree that the death of Jesus, a sacrifice in both readings, produces a faith that is extricated from bloodshed. After the cross, the Christian faith requires no more bloodshed. No more victims.

May 29, 2007

May 30
Last class for Saved from Sacrifice.

June 6-27
Study of Peter Rollins' How (Not) to Speak of God.

July 11 - August 15 (Guest teacher: Matt Richie)
Study of N.T. Wright's Paul: In Fresh Perspective.

August 22 - September TBA
Study of Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors.

May 23, 2007

This week we finally reached the cross. We shared a handout illustrating the unmasking of scapegoating violence we see in the Passion narratives. Borrowing from Girard and Heim, we called this illustration the on-stage story and the back-stage story of the Passion. The Passion narrative show both stories juxtaposed.

In the on-stage story, we see the classic scapegoating dynamic. During a politically and religiously volatile Passover week in Jerusalem, the Romans and the Jews find a scapegoat--Jesus of Nazareth--that will bring communal peace. In this, they are successful. We see in Luke's narrative Herod and Pilate, former enemies, are reconciled (i.e., the death of the scapegoat brings an "atonement" between them). Also, we see the claim of the High Priest--kill one to save many--vindicated. The "peace" and power structures are preserved by killing Jesus. In sum, the death of Jesus brings atonement, peace, and salvation.

But there is a deep, dark irony here. This is an old and wicked salvation. It is the peace and salvation that comes from bloodshed.

Juxtaposed to this "on-stage" story is the back-stage story, were we get to see the self-interested plotting and power grabs. Jesus isn't scapegoated because he's guilty of sedition and blasphemy (the two great sins across all ages). Those are the on-stage reasons, the publicly stated reasons. The real reason Jesus is scapegoated is human sin. Our lust for power and status drives us to bloodshed. These motives are exposed in the passion narratives by the declaration at each stage of the process that Jesus is innocent. This back-stage story--where we see the powers structures killing an innocent person for their own ends--is told alongside the on-stage story to expose the scapegoating machinery with its lies and obfuscations. This exposure leads to the Grand Indictment of Human Violence. And, in the face of this indictment, scapegoating violence must cease. This peace--the cessation of violence--is the true peace Jesus brings. It is a non-violent salvation. A salvation purchased with the blood of Jesus so that no more blood would be shed.

Here are the two sides of the handout illustrating the Girardian reading:

May 16, 2007

Before we can get to the cross we have to back up and confront the violence in the Old Testament. We are scandalized by the violence in the Old Testament, but we also see in the Old Testament a growing ambivalence toward sacrifice. This ambivalence is associated with the growing predominance of the voice of the scapegoat. Before the Old Testament victims had no voice. And they were categorically considered to be guilty and afflicted by the gods. Thus, sacrificing scapegoats (via religious ritual, mob violence, or war) was religiously justified. But as the Old Testament progresses, particularly in the book of Job, we find the scapegoat taking center stage. The scapegoat is now allowed to speak, both to God and against his/her accusers. And what that scapegoat clearly says is this: I am innocent.

This cry of the scapegoat—“I am innocent”—throws a moral wrench into the religious justification for firing up the machinery of violence. For violence against innocent ones is morally exposed for what it is: Self-interested and self-serving.

Thus, by the end of the Old Testament we see God explicitly rejecting the religious sacrifice of Israel and asking for “true religion”: Solidarity with the weak and marginalized. In this we see the dynamic illustrated in Class 2: In standing with the victim we are saved from the tides of human violence.

May 9, 2007

The work of Rene Girard was reviewed. The basics of Girard’s theory are as follows. Humans are susceptible to violence and that violence threatens to fracture society. Ancient civilizations solved this problem by focusing their fears and violent tendencies upon marginalized, powerless, and voiceless groups: Scapegoats. Even today social groups still maintain cohesiveness by targeting weaker persons for abuse, stigma, or violence. A simple example is how cliques of schoolchildren pick on the “weird” kid at school. A more serious example is the Nazi Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. Scapegoating violence is at the core of the human condition. It is something that we need to be saved from.

How are we to be saved from the violence? Answer: By exposing the violence as violence. The reason this is so hard to do is that God is routinely co-opted and used as religious justification for the violence. In this formulation God stands with the Crowd against the Scapegoat.

But in the Old and New Testaments this old formulation is unmasked. Violence is exposed as violence when God stands in solidarity with the victim/scapegoat. Thus, our violence stops when we, like Paul, stand with Jesus (“the one we are persecuting”). We are saved from violence when we realize that we are not justified to “throw the first stone.”

May 2, 2007

Many Christians are struggling with the model of penal substiutionary atonement (PSA), the dominant and almost exclusive interpretation of the cross in evangelical churches. The biggest problem with PSA is that it seems to situate violence in the very nature of God. Yet, the bible does view the cross as a “sacrifice” that “saves” us. Thus, is there a reading of Scripture that reads the cross as a sacrifice but that does not implicate God in bloody violence? This series (based on S. Mark Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice) will seek to find such a reading.
When you attend the class we want you to know the kind of place we are trying to create. What follows are some descriptions of our class culture.

The Theologia Class Culture

The Egalitarianism of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
The two pillars of Christianity are notions of orthodoxy (“right belief”) and orthopraxy (“right practice”). Generally, orthodoxy has tended to trump orthopraxy. That is, being Christian has been largely defined by what you believed rather than how you behaved. But, interestingly, Jesus tended to see orthopraxy as the test of orthodoxy, and of faith generally (“By their fruits you shall know them,” “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven but he who does the will of my Father.”) In this class, we will place orthodoxy and orthopraxy on equal footing. Class agreement will be based on practicing the Way of Jesus and less concerned with conceptual unanimity and intellectual agreement. Simply stated, we might not always agree but we are committed to being good people, conforming to the Imago Christi ("the image of Christ"). And that commitment unites us in Christ.

A High View of Doubt
There are more lament songs than praise songs in the book of Psalms. Thus, we are committed to allowing lament, complaint, and doubt to be legitimate ways with God. Walter Brueggemann may have said it best: “It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life…Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity” (The Message of the Psalms, 1984, pp. 51-52).

God as an essentially contested concept
An essentially contested concept, first described by philosopher W.B. Gallie, is a concept/notion that all parties accept but where there is endless disagreement, argument, and conversation as to the proper understanding, realization, or application of the concept/notion. In this class, God will be our essentially contested concept. We start the conversation with the notion of God, but what do we mean exactly? Who is God? What is God doing?

But some people are frustrated by theological debate and conversation. It can seem pointless and is often frustrating. But we must argue about God because if the conversation about God is ever allowed to end we would have created an idol (a human product—linguistic in this case—meant to represent God). Only endless conversation about God protects us from idolatry and gives the prophets among us—those experts at idol smashing—the room to operate.

Xenia is the Greek word for hospitality and love of strangers. We want Theologia to be a friendly and hospitable place, both interpersonally and intellectually. More specifically, we want to be hospitable to people who believe things that are different from us. In addition, the conversations in Theologia will get pretty “deep” and jargon will be deployed joyously. But jargon can be inhospitable, marking “insiders” and “outsiders.” Thus, to commit to xenia, all our class members will work hard to translate and communicate so that everyone can get “inside” the conversation and vigorously participate.

Epistemic Virtue
Epistemic means “pertaining to knowing.” Thus, epistemic virtues are the good mental habits of the very best learners and conversation partners. Epistemic virtues are the mental attributes that create a great atmosphere for learning and thinking. Obviously, being a mean-spirited, close-minded, know-it-all are symptoms of epistemic vice (i.e., you really shouldn’t be this way and you might want to find another class). But being a warm-hearted, open-minded, curious person marks you as epistemically virtuous! Epistemic virtue is a requirement for the class. And, we should add, for all good conversation.

Costly Fideism
Fideism is the notion that human reason is dumbfounded by the transcendence of God. This makes some of us fall silent, but others of us grow chatty. In Theologia, we’ll be chatty.

This does not mean we deny the mystery of God. All of us know that human reason will, at some point along the faith journey, fail us. The final step, whenever that comes, will be taken with “fear and trembling.” But too often people deploy the word “mystery” as a way of shutting down the conversation. This often happens just when the conversation gets difficult or is making demands of us. “Mystery” in these cases is simply an excuse to stop talking or to avoid agreeing with someone (which is not epistemically virtuous). We’ll call this cheap fideism, or perhaps fearful fideism is a better term.

In Theologia, because we have a high view of doubt, we do recognize the limits of reason and we do believe in mystery. But we believe that mystery is not an intellectual escape hatch or a way to avoid the difficult question. Mystery must be costly, and the product of theological fatigue. Mystery is what you say when you are very tired, when you have pushed reason courageously to its very limit. We are fideists, but we are costly fideists. Mystery comes with an intellectual and spiritual pricetag.

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