Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A New Year's Blessing

May your laughs be full and breathy, slightly embarrassing your loved ones;
may your philosophies be vital, and of diverse persuasions;
may your cup be full to overflowing and hot enough to steam your eyebrows;
may your friends challenge you to great deeds of introspection,
and inspire you to give yourself away for the neighbor's need;
may you play more than is right or seemly;
may your works of mercy arise spontaneously with very few good intentions;
may earth, wind, fire, and rain rise to greet you and leave you more soiled than your OCD desires;
may you stay off the Internet enough to live,
and on it enough to know the news and the prayer needs of others;
may your quests lead you deeper into your neighborhood,
and your domestic comforts redound to the farthest reaches of the globe;
may your children bless you;
may you be a blessing to others' children;
may you be like a child.

May your life rise to the infrequent patter of your heart,
and may your heart discover why it patters.
May you discover the extraordinary in the ordinary,
the manifold in the mundane,
the noble in the normal,
life among the lowly,
succor in the simple,
the gift in the giving,
the jouissance of justice,
the manner of mercy,
the labors of love.

May you fail to be mesmerized by the many, much, and more;
may you drop the desire for distractions and demands;
may you release relations for real realizations;
may you read and write words that set the soul on fire,
and quench it before it burns to ash,
or resurrect from ash to fly away and storm the sun.

And in every way, may you discover the image of God,
awakened and renewed, in the coming One,
the Christ, the one in and through whom all these other things
are and were and will be.
May you discover yourself, recapitulated, divinized,
made new, in the new year, born to theosis,
with a loaf of great bread and a block of aged cheese
in each hand.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

On Repetition: New Year's Again and Again and Again

In connection with the truth as inwardness in existence... the law is: the same, and yet changed, and still the same (Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, Swenson and Lowrie translation, 254)

Last year around this time, I jumped on the #mythreewords bandwagon. It was a fun experiment attempting to develop a mission statement for the year in advance of living it, but I found, generally speaking, it didn't pan out very well. Life as a dad and pastor, life lived the way I tend to live life, for better or worse, is considerably more random than three words can encompass.

But for all that, this life is remarkably repetitious in its randomness.

This year, I'm more curious about the repetition of the new year every new year qua new year. Every new year "the culture" keeps coming back around and encouraging itself in the same-old same-old. We're so predictable the U.S. government is even able to measure and blog such things (

The whole resolutions thing is entirely tiring, exhausting us in renewed commitment to the very things we attempted and failed the year prior. It is also entirely re-energizing, inspiring us to continue the same new habits we started and maintained successfully the whole year.

But why do we keep doing it? Is it simply that somewhere along the line we adopted a cyclical calendar that is also linear, cycling around the years while always moving forward?

I have noticed that, at imprecise intervals, we are all repetitious, even on the bigger themes. For example, as I sat down to write this blog, I remembered I had written a post on the spirituality of repetition a while back, and it turns out it was one decade ago, December of 2004 ( And in January of this year I blogged four mini book reviews, one of which was of Catherine Pickstock's seminal Repetition and Identity: The Literary Agenda.

Repetition and Identity offers a theory of the existing thing. A thing has identity and consistency when it has been repeated, already. Repetition also summons difference and invokes a shadow of a connecting sign. The quest for the identity and consistency of this thing leads us from the subject through fiction and history and to sacred history, to shape an ontology which is also a literary theory and a literary artefaction (adapted from

For Pickstock liturgy and writing are themselves ontological, so literary artefaction is by no means artifice. Not everyone, especially those of a more literalist persuasion, will accept this thesis, but it is a helpful alternative to straight-up post-structuralist thought.

Then, of course, Kierkegaard also famously wrote on repetition in a philosophical novel of that name.

In it, although it is a strange little book, Kierkegaard offers some hints as to why we ought to give more considered attention to repetition. He writes, for example:
Who could want to be a tablet on which time writes something new every instant or to be a memorial volume of the past?Who would want to be susceptible to every fleeting thing, the novel, which always enervatingly diverts the soul anew? If God himself had not willed repetition, the world would not have come into existence. Either he would have followed the superficial plans of hope or he would have retracted everything and preserved it in recollection. This he did not do. Therefore, the world continues, and it continues because it is a repetition. Repetition — that is actuality and the earnestness of existence. The person who wills repetition is mature in earnestness. (132-133)
Repetition isn't an abstraction to consider, it is actuality itself. Back up a bit from life and it is easy to see why this is so. It is rather remarkable, when one considers it, that we are consistently the same person from moment to moment. Our identities have a kind of perdurance that is extraordinary. In middle age, listen to an old VHS tape of a speech you gave in high school, and you will still hear some inflections, key themes, still see some facial tics and mannerisms endure from then until the present.

So too, if one thinks about it, given the laws of physics, it is remarkable that anything holds together from moment to moment at all. We rely on the repetitious same-ness of the planet, the solar system, molecular particles, etc. I'm reminded of some concepts in Jonathan Edwards summarized well by Paula Cooey, footnoted in Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination: Jonathan Edwards and the Making of Modernity:

In this sense we might say that repetition is Spirit. But this repetition is not the identical repetition of Kant, repetition keyed in to time as a straight line. Nor is this repetition of the circular same, repetition cycling through mythic time. Instead, repetition must be, somehow or other, more akin to the Deleuzian concept of repetition, where repetition does not take place in time but rather is itself the form of time. 

For Deleuze, repetition is a kind of eternal return. Things as identical unity will not return, but instead, for Deleuze, "Difference inhabits repetition" (76). Sometimes this is called non-identical repetition. In theology, it is sometimes spoken of as recapitulation. It is a selective repetition, where difference itself filters what is repeated. Or something like that.

One great example of recapitulation is the relationship between the gospel of Luke the narrative of Acts. The life of Jesus is repeated in the new community in Acts, often remarkable even seemingly identically so, and yet this is also repetition with a difference.

So what does all this have to do with the shape of our New Year's resolutions? For one, it frames what we find repetitive, even tiresome, in new ways. It is, as Kierkegaard says, "The same, and yet changed, and still the same." Even if we recommit in 2015 to resolutions we failed to fulfill in 2014, the resolutions are the same, and changed, and the same, because they are now resolved again... or again and again.

If nothing else, the repetition is marked by the stalwart nature of our commitment to repeat what is repeatable.

Christian faith is also like this, in nuce. Martin Luther liked to say of baptism (although I can't locate the source right now) that it is once... again and again... and more and more. Which is to say that baptism makes us holy, completely alive in Christ, the first and one time we are splashed into it. But it is also something we can return to again and again each time we fail to live the life of the baptized. And as something we return to each day, it is a resource to deepen faith and holiness more and more over the course of a lifetime.

That also is repetition inhabited by difference. 

In a similar manner, the life of Christians is indelibly itself repetition, recapitulation, of the life of that one who revitalized the image of God in humanity, Jesus Christ himself. Which is to say our lives together as Christians are a kind of non-identical repetition of the life of Christ. In the Spirit we keep repeating Christ's life, if differently. 

I kind of wonder if this helps make better sense of that very strange line in Paul, Col. 1:24: "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. "

And I wonder a bit (imagining there are Trinitarian resources in the tradition for doing so) whether this is also a way of thinking about the life of God. We tend to think God endures, perdures, is changeless, continuous, immortal. Yet we also consider God to be alive, vital, three in one. So the life of God must be in some way, as the perichoretic relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a kind of repetition inhabited by difference, the Father always becoming more of who the Father is because of his relationship with the Son, the Son always becoming more of who the Son is as the one begotten of the Father, and the Spirit always becoming more of who the Spirit is by its mutual differential inhabiting of the space between them.

Or something like that.

So, for 2015, rather than develop a set of three words to offer a mission for 2015, I'm simply going to attend to the difference I find in the many repetitions I will, well, repeat this year. This will be a year like any other year. It will not be a year like any other year. Somewhere in there will be the glory of God.

Oh, and I have made one simple true resolution: "I plan to make more facial expressions in 2015."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Homebrewed Christianity: Geek is the New Quintessential

Bo Sanders and Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity may be happy to know that I most frequently listen to their podcasts while crossing the portion of southern Missouri between Kansas City and Joplin. I strap on my old school Koss Porta Pros and join my tribe. The podcast is eminently suited to long road-trips. 50-60 minutes of ear-candy for theologians of all stripes.

Here's a link to their web site and a blog that features the podcasts:

Let me back up. Some readers may be asking: Is there actually a podcast out there for theology geeks? Well, there are probably many. But my favorite is Homebrewed Christianity. There's a lot to like. They host fantastic theologians as guests. They show up at spectacular events. They take their stuff seriously.

I could hardly believe my good fortune today, then, to listen to the episode they recorded live at AAR/SBL right before Advent. It starts out with Jack Caputo reviewing Catherine Keller's new book. Yes, that's right. If you follow this blog, you know these are two theologians I read closely. I read Caputo's The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) with a group earlier this year, and am in the process of reviewing Keller's new book for Word & World.

Then they tossed John Cobb into the mix. Like, where did he come from?! Cobb is kind of a like a demigod of theology. I wasn't quite sure how his voice would float with the other two, but this is how it went down.

Caputo went off riffing on Nicholas of Cusa and how he reads Cusa differently as a Catholic with Thomistic origins in comparison to Keller who reads Cusa, well, differently. This went on for a while, and then Keller was allowed to respond. Keller comes in with guns blazing. She's like a theological rapper. She plays with language the way kids play with blocks. So she offers a riposte to Caputo that boxes him in somewhat, but appropriately.

At this point Cobb enters the fray. And he nails it. He is the voice of sanity between two boxers about to take off their gloves. Cobb says at one point, "You might not like metaphysics, but there it is, you've always got one underneath there somewhere."

Cobb and Keller take a couple of more friendly jabs at each other, and then wrap up the discussion.

This is when things get even more interesting. After Bo Sanders says a few geek appropriate things fawning over Jack Caputo (JC), John Cobb (JC), "Just" Catherine (JC), and comparing them in some oblique ways to Jesus Christ (geeks always worship those they study), he then invites Tony Jones to speak up. Apparently Fortress Press has been preparing a new theological series in partnership with the Homebrewed folks, and they're calling it Theology for the People.

Because apparently most other theology is not for the people? Wait, what?



Okay, kind of a joke.

There are any number of things I love about all of this. I love that there exists a popular podcast that brings theologians I love into the ring to box. I love that my denomination's publishing house sponsors their events. I love that the podcast reawakened my interest in John Cobb. Some time long ago in seminary I had been warned away from Cobb for some reason. Clearly I need to return to him.

I love hearing Catherine Keller and John Caputo debate. I have been debating the content of their two most recent works in my own mind and heart, so it was clarifying to hear them prod each other with their own pet insights.

I loved learning that theologians, even professional ones, are prone to hyperbole in the heat of the moment.

I love that there was a crowd there, and people cheered, sometimes jeered, about theology.

I love that I have a tribe.

I love that this tribe loves books, and thinks they matter.

I love that they might be more convinced of this than is good or prudent.

Sometimes you just have to geek out.

Monday, December 22, 2014

American Christianity Without Reformation

"God did not grant a Reformation to American Christendom. He gave strong revivalist preachers, men of the church, and theologians, but no reformation of the church of Jesus Christ from the word of God. Those churches of the Reformation that came to America either stand in deliberate seclusion and distance from general church life or have fallen victim to Protestantism without Reformation. There are Americans who announce with certainty and pride that they build on principles that are pre-Reformation and radical Reformation (nebenreformatorisch) and see in this their essential nature. It cannot be denied that the dangers for American Christendom today are seen clearly by some of the leading theologians. Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, Pauck, Miller, and several others among the younger theologians speak largely in the spirit of the Reformation. But these are exceptions. American theology and the churches as a whole have never really understood what 'critique' by God's word means in its entirety. That God's 'critique' is also meant for religion, for the churches' Christianity, even the sanctification of Christians, all that is ultimately not understood." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Essay about Protestantism in the United States, DBW volume 15, 461).

"Freedom [in America] entails the possibility--as a possibility for the church offered by the world--for unhindered effectiveness. But as long as the freedom of the church is essentially understood as this possibility, the concept of church freedom remains unrecognized. The freedom of the church is not where it has possibilities, but only where the gospel is truly effective in its own power to create space for itself on earth, even and especially when there are no such possibilities for the church." (449).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Analog and the Analogia Entis

My friend Jonathan Rundman, in a song about receiving a mix-tape in the mail, sings:

vinyl is so warm, digital is clean 
but tapes are something different 
you know what i mean 
i thank the lord above for things that never fail 
blessed by blank cassettes and the u.s. mail

He's right. Tapes have that steady, analog, continuous sound without the pop or sputter of vinyl. On a record, the sound is stored by the continuous texture of the surface. On a tape, the sound is store by the continuous fluctuation of the field strength of the magnetic recording. 

Both are continuous, analog. There is no crisp translation to numbers. Digital has many strengths, but it does detach in order to deepen. In analog, there always remains the rub of the vinyl, or the waver of the field.

My continuing love of analog was revived today when I sat in 3rd grade and watched the Peanuts Christmas special. I'm old enough to remember watching film strips in elementary, before there were VCRs (or at least before they were in common use in classrooms, and the battle raged between beta and VHS). 

Today, any movie is quickly sent digitally from the teacher's laptop, to the ceiling projector, to the screen. Which is great, and really far better than the cumbersome effects of film strip complications. Nevertheless, there is a loss of texture. There is an introduction of strange discontinuity.

All of which has me thinking about a class loci in Christian theology, the analogia entis.

Analogia entis is the theological concept that there exists something that analogically corresponds to the creator (of everything) that makes contemplation of the nature of that creator possible. In other words, the very being of creation offers an analogy by which one can contemplate the being of God.

Karl Barth famously rejected the analogia entis early in his theological work, only to sneak it back in later in the Church Dogmatics. It makes me wonder, given how existential Barth was in his early outlook, whether his point of view was somewhat digital. Was his rejection of the analogia entis influenced by thinking of it as a kind of math, rather than a texture or field?

I mean, if God beyond being is only approachable by distance, by complete translation from what is into that beyond is-ness, then of course any analogy of being deserves a "no" from Barth. A digitalia entis requires a completely other theological approach (and ought to be considered). But it cannot be, which was Barth's point. God is wholly other.

But if the analogy is analog, if the sound is translated to texture or field, if God as music is printed in the world, recorded by the field strength of what is known, this gives a completely different texture to the relationship between God and world.

It corresponds in intriguing ways to the mysteries of quantum mechanics, to be precise.

I don't know if these meditations are inspired by nostalgia, curiosity at the simple connection between analog and analogia, or mis-guided inquiry into things unrelated. No matter what, I don't mind, because I like the idea that the world might be an LP, and God Bob Dylan.

Of course that is also an analogy. But it is a textured one. No matter how far you play it through, there is a continuity. 

Friday, December 05, 2014

Liberal Churches, Fragile Seminaries, and Aging Social Movements

“Faith, however, returns to its Sunday school every time it nails its language into positive propositions about hat what it has faith in. For, in the cloud, in its darkness and its necessity, what we find ourselves in—‘an unknown that does not terrify us’—may be just what is coming unsaid in the saying. Perhaps it is after all not surprising that few theologians (conservative or liberal) practice such terms, that apophasis still plays a minor role in contemporary theology. Bad for business? And indeed because so much theology has practiced such an unquestionable orthodoxy those of us who question it from within do have so much, beyond mere critique, to say. Besides, when the religion-economic-political certitudes of the right menace the very possibility of that other and material world, that more convivial heaven and earth—how shall we take time for yet another round of mystery, uncertainty, ambiguity, poetry? We who would counter the anthropogenic apocalypses must must relentless clarity of fact and value, no?

No doubt. We want to muster a trusty solidarity of activating consciousness that will ripple through the relations comprising our world. But we will need to mean it. Which may be different from benign propaganda for ailing liberal churches, fragile seminaries, and aging social movements—and which may release new resonances among those and vastly more and different theologically curious publics.” (Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible,19)