Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Wittenberg Institute.

More good news this week: I was told that I'm the newest "Faculty Fellow" at the Wittenberg Institute:

I will be guiding graduate studies of people interested in earning M.A.s from the institution. It's a great program. You study independently and are directed by a faculty advisor, much like in Europe. Check out the website here: 

So, anyone interested in this means of study, I would highly recommend you apply.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My Talk at CTSFW is on the Web.

Here it is. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed giving it!

The Bible and the End of Mythology

I've been reading Helmut Thielicke's systematic theology The Evangelical Faith (BTW, you can get the whole set for about 6-8 bucks on Abe or Amazon- it's really cheap). Any how, he's spending most the first volume dealing with the modern theology of consciousness (he calls it "Cartesian theology") and also the claim on the part of folks like Bultmann that the Bible is mythological. He deals with this claim in a number of way (he mostly does a good job, I won't go into all the details), but his best argument is that the Bible is not mythological, but the end of mythology.
One of the major problems with claiming that the Bible is mythological, is that a "mythological" worldview is somewhat difficult to define. Mainly when Bultmann and others in the mid-20th century used the term, they meant beliefs people had prior to the 20th century that didn't fit all that well into the boring, naturalistic, scientistic view of the world held by Marx, Freud, and Darwin. Thielicke correctly points out that a better definition of the mythological is a view of the world where reality is composed of a concert of personified powers (the "gods" perhaps) that compete with one another for power. In this worldview, there really is no transcendent horizon of existence because there is no creation ex nihillo. Hence, everything is cyclical. The eternal stuff of the world inevitably recycles itself. There are only so many possibilities for this recycling. Hence, reality will necessarily repeats itself over and over again.
The world one finds in the Bible is actually quite different and therefore not mythological. When one reads Genesis 1, the first thing to notice is how empty creation is. In other words, there are no gods, ancestral spirits, woodland spirits, or Jinn one might find inhabiting the world of the earlier cultures. Moreover, since God pre-exists creation and calls it out of nothing, God is not a being among beings. He therefore is free from the competition of the gods that one finds in the mythological worldview. Being infinitely free, he does not fear human freedom and therefore he can give humans their freedom by his word of grace. Lastly, the cyclical view of history is broken by the doctrine of creation ex nihillo. A God who calls all things into existence out of nothing, can very well create again. Human being therefore are not trapped in an endless cycle, but can trust in God new eschatological possibilities. There need be no continuity between their earthly efforts under the law and God's new possibilities of grace given from without.
A couple of things are clear from this comparison. First, it's obvious that for most human beings (under the power of the law and the compulsion of self-justification) the mythological view of the world is actually much more appealing. If the gods are beings among beings, they can be manipulated (magic and sacrifices). Nevertheless, as Thielicke points out though, it is also a deeply enslaving view of the world. Human beings must endlessly self-justify, but without the end of the law and the possibility of new creation it will ultimately be a sisyphusian struggle. Our best attributes and efforts will inevitably fail, die, be reborn, and fail again.
The second thing to note is that contrary to popular opinion, the modern view of the world is actually quite mythological. Though Christian civilization has definitely left its mark on western consciousness (unlike the Japanese, our world is empty of gods and spirits), materialism lends itself well to a mythology. Whereas the ancient world had gods and spirits that could be manipulated, modern people prefer to talk about the "laws of nature." These laws can never be broken by something like a miracle. Though there is little logic to this position if one believes in an almighty God, even religious persons in the modern world often discount the possibility of miracles. Why? In order that they might be able to control these quasi-personified powers of natural law. Instead of magic and sacrifice, modern humans try to manipulate their gods through technology. Of course, this cycle of manipulation is also unending as well, just as the modern quest for autonomy and self-assertion is also unending. There can only be endless recycling and an eternal return (as Nietzsche rightly points out) because there is nothing but eternal matter reconfiguring itself.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The HHS Ruling and the Boundaries of the Secular

The HHS ruling is highly problematic (to say the least!) and perhaps a bad political move on the part of the president. We could analyze this if we were on a political blog. I'm very proud of President Harrison for taking such a strong leadership position during this time of crisis. I believe he is testifying before congress as I write this.

In any case, my friend Adam and I were talking on the phone yesterday and he brought up a deeper issue in the entire ruling. Namely, that what the HHS ruling is actually doing is trying to define the Church. What most people don't recognize is that the administration is not eliminating the religious conscience clause totally. Rather, what they are doing is defining religious institutions is very narrowly. For them, a "religious" institution must necessarily be an institution that explicitly deals with worship.

Now this is very interesting because as my friend pointed out, this makes their move something like a version of "Augsburg Interim II." To explain briefly for those who are unfamiliar: Just after Luther died, the Charles the V took over a lot of the Lutheran lands and then tried to enforce a watered down version of Catholicism on the Lutherans. The initial attempt (the Augsburg Interim) was too harsh and none of the major Lutheran theologians would buy into it. The second (the Leipzig Interim) was an attempt (mainly) to impose Catholic ceremonies on the Lutherans. Melanchthon bought into this (initially) and claimed that the faith of the Church couldn't be determined by the state, but in external things (smells and bells), the state could impose anything it wanted to on the Church. Flacius, on the other hand, stated that the Church was free in these matters unless it needed to publically confess Christian freedom against tyranny (see Galatians). Moreover, the Church, he stated, was to in no way under the control of the state.

Flacius technically won (see FC X), but in practice Melanchthon won. At the peace of Passau (1552), the princes were given the power of bishops in their individual Churches. Later after the Wars of Religion, the secular state (conceived as living in its own autonomous realm) was born. Since then, the secular state in continental Europe has had the right to define what the Church is and where the boundaries of the Church are. This was the birth of modern. Modernity mean the birth of a new and neutral realm called the "secular." Such a realm was invented de facto by an agreement by the princes to keep religion out of the politics of the nation-state. What began as an agreement among princes, quickly turned into a way defining all reality. Since secularity defined all reality, it was something to which the Church had to unquestioningly conform to.

This can be observed in several areas beyond the realm of politics. So, for example, secular biblical studies (which arose shortly after this period) argued that in reality only non-spiritual forces could explain why the biblical texts said what they said, and not divine inspiration. The interesting thing about how modern biblical studies works is that all biblical texts must be de-coded in order to discover the power-play that underlines the author's intentions. In other words, all reality is based on politics, even religion is covert politics. Science becomes essentially defined by non-spiritual realities called "laws," that could be manipulated by human beings, much like political offices and power arrangments. Any claim to the contrary is treated with horror and charges of religious fundamentalism (see the Intelligent Design movement).

Every time religion insisted on its unique character and its ability to define reality, those who believed in the secular charged it with regressiveness. For secularists, religion can only be useful when it either 1. is harshnessed to secular ends (Liberation theology, et. al). 2. remains something interior (Liberalism, Neo-orthodoxy). Therefore, it is no surprise that Schleiermacher said that religion was merely a "feeling" at the same time as Prussia nationalism was rising and the king of Prussia was creating a Union Church in order to solidify northeran German national unity. Neither was it terribly surprising that Karl Rahner invented an essentially Roman Catholic version of Schleiermacher during the time when the II Vatican Council was embracing secularity as a valid source of meaning alongside Christian truth.

This brings us back to the HHS ruling. In ruling that religious institutions could only ones that deal directly with "worship" the administration was saying that only the interior realm of religious experience, (that is, a realm that does not interfere with the rights of the secular state to control every external mode of life and define the "real"!) can validly be accepted as religious. Much like Flacius, we cannot accept such a judgment. The Triune God is the foundation of all reality, and his Word of law and promise is what defines the Church. The realm of the state and its law possess a valid use, but only insofar as they serve their divinely appointed purposes. God and his Word define the Church, and not the secular.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Trinity, Otherness, and Supplementation

I was reading a student paper this week and the student was discussing Aristotle's biology. For Aristotle and as well as other ancient biologists (if we can call them that!), the male and female sexual organs are actually different versions of the same thing. Since women are malformed men, Aristotle thinks of the female reproductive organs as ill-formed male reproductive organs. The student missed the point of this and quoted a modern Feminist author who was trying to claim that Aristotle as a pre-Christian pagan (the author blamed Christianity for sexism), understood that men and women are really simply the same and of equal value. Actually as I pointed out to the student, his point is the opposite.

The irony of this is that if a person wants to find a text where the goodness of the otherness of the sexes is explained, one should look away from the Greek philosophers and go to Genesis 1-2. In Genesis 1-2, there is no concept of male and female as somehow superior or inferior versions of one another. Rather both are indeed the same thing ("bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!"), but not in terms of grads of human. Rather the otherness of the male and female exist as complementary. There are obviously different roles, but this does not make for ontological inferiority and superiority. For the female to be derived from the male does not mean inferiority, but rather a kind of unity and harmony in difference.

This is what makes the metaphysical assumptions of the biblical worldview inherently different than the Greek. As Peter Leithart points out the Bible, all reality is grounded in the unity in difference of the Trinity. Since the other is already present in God (i.e., the Trinity), the other can existing in a complementary relationship to its source. Just as the woman is other than the man, yet not in the sense of a falling away into inferiority, so too the Son is other than the Father yet not inferior. Creation is itself different than God, but is good in its finitude. Finitude is good in itself. It is not in itself a falling away from the perfection of the God's fullness.

For the Greeks by contrast, the "other" necessarily becomes a falling away from a perfect original. For Plato, the "Good" is the archetype and the created order is an inferior copy. For Hesiod, all subsequent history is a falling away from the original "Golden Age." There cannot be, as in the Bible, a sense that the eschaton is better than the protological situation in Eden (See Rev. 20-22). Rather, for Hesiod, the only possibility for improvement would be for subsequent history to reverse itself and return to the original perfection. Tying this all back to Aristotle's biology, we can see how this effects the male and the female. If female is derivative and different, then she must be an inferior copy. And in later Christian appropriations of Greek metaphysics, we can of course see how Arianism picks up on all of this as well. The Arian concept of the Son is essentially that because the Son is different than the Father he must necessarily be inferior and cannot really be God.

What I think we see in all of this is the fallen human hatred of creatureliness. Fallen humanity finds creaturely life to be hateful because it is less than God. Nevertheless, God as the good creator wishes us to enjoy our status as different from him and live a life of gratitude for the gift of created difference. Much of contemporary American culture could benefit from recognizing this fact.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Freedom to be Insincere.

I've been reading the Albrecht Peters Luther Catechism commentaries from Concordia.  Great stuff!  I'm currently working on the Ten Commandments.  At the beginning of the section on the actual commandments themselves, Peters discusses Luther's use of the formula "fear and love God."  What he ultimately concludes is that the "fear and love" formula expresses the simul of Christian existence.  The Apostle John of course does tell us that perfect love drives out fear, but we are not yet perfect.  Insofar as Christ is risen within us, we obey God out of love for his grace in creation and redemption.  Insofar as we remain sinners, we fear God, and do his will because although we often times do not want to do so in our hearts, we nevertheless fear his wrath.

Now, this fear aspect has a bad name among many modern Christians.  Whenever I bring it up, people will dispute with me as to whether this is really a good thing.  Shouldn't we tell people that they should only do God's will out of sincerity?  I hear this a lot and so here's a couple of thoughts on the question:

First, sincerity tends to be more of a modern concern than a pre-modern one.  It is very culturally specific to us.  I personally think it's overrated.  We are obsessed with the inner life of humans and therefore we do not consider anything to be authentic that is not directly from the heart.  Christians can't take this position for a number of reasons.  For one thing, Jesus tells us that heart is the seat of all wickedness and therefore just because we have a sincere feeling, it does mean it's a good feeling.  In fact, in light of original sin, it pretty much never is.  This has had horrible consequences for our society, not least in the area of divorce.  People don't feel the spark in their marriage any more and so in order to be sincere and authentic, they end up putting their kids through hell.  One could name any number of social maladies that have arise from this non-sense, but you get my point.

Secondly, I think that the recognition that we will not always do good things for the right reason is liberating.  People forget that Luther's problem was not merely how he could find a gracious God, but how his obedience to God could be pure.  What he concluded was that he could only love God if God took away the demand for his love.  Nevertheless, sin still clings to our flesh until we die and therefore we will not always feel this gratitude and desire to do God's will perfectly in this life.  We should therefore look at God's commands and force ourselves to do God's will, trusting that in spite of our sinful attitude we are still loved by God.  This imputation of Christ's perfect righteousness frees us from the burden of having to be sincere.

What most people don't realize therefore, is how incredibly liberating this is.  Luther believed that he had to every work in the monastery with sincerity, otherwise it was no good.  But once one has the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, one can be honest with one's self about the falsehood of one's own heart.  One need not torture themselves about the fact that they are only doing certain duties out of compulsion.  In my own life, I do many things which I don't particularly like, but I know are God's will.  How much more odious they would be if I had to deal with the endlessly struggle of having to make myself really want to do them!  Therefore, although our hearts are in conflict with God's law, we are loved and accepted in spite of it for the sake of Christ.