Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Death of Adam

Marilynne Robinson is still best known for her first novel, Housekeeping , but her more recent novel Gilead has drawn attention to a more obscure title she wrote in between her two brilliant novels. The Death of Adam: Essays in Modern Thought is that rare piece of literature, theology by a non-specialist theologian.

Robinson is a theologian of a very high order, but her profession is creative writing (she teaches it, and periodically publishes a book). The Death of Adam is a great transgression of academic boundaries. One could do worse than spend a week reading the whole Robinson corpus.

In any event, I came across the following morsel while reading an essay in The Death of Adam on Dietrich Bonhoefer. When I've explained theology to "lay" people, that is, those who don't read theology, I've always been at a loss to do theology justice. But Robinson has, so here goes:

"Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling with a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to the spoken voice. It evokes sermon, sacrament, and liturgy, and of course, Scripture itself, with all its echoes of song and legend and prayer. It earns its authority by winning assent and recognition, in the manner of poetry but with the difference that the assent seems to be to ultimate truth, however oblique or fragmentary the suggestion of it. Theology is written for the small community of those who would think of reading it" (117).

Read that last sentence three of four times. Then go back to the beginning, and remember she started out saying, "Great theology..."

If only there were world enough, and time...

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Monday, September 12, 2005

Creation and New Creation

The gospel(s) and the creation narrative are completely different genres of literature. Neither are what I would call "allegory", although both contain some allegories. Genesis is what I would call "myth", although this term is used differently in popular English than it is in literary studies, so we need to be careful in delineating that Genesis is myth in a certain sense and not otherwise (the Barthian sense?).

The book of the Bible that is most clearly allegory is the Book of Revelation. It is apocalyptic allegory. One of the largest problems in contemporary American religion (Left Behind, et. al.) is due to a mis-reading of Revelation as "future" history rather than allegory and gospel.

Why are the gospels different? Well, they are eye-witness accounts, or literary performances of collected eye-witness accounts. It would have been impossible for Moses (the "author" of Genesis) to be present at the creation of all things, not to mention Adam and Eve, nor could anyone that we might call an eye-witness have been there- so the Genesis myth is by its very nature going to be different from the historical account we have of Christ's life, death, and resurrection.

I believe in and confess the resurrection of Christ because I have heard it from people who have heard it who themselves heard it from... on down through a chain to the original eye-witnesses. See Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments for an interesting discussion of this issue of believers at first and second hand.

**We might also note that this issue of eye-witnesses and the passing on of the story from generation to generation is of the very essence/reality of the church. The church is that community of people who have heard the good news of Christ's resurrection (and just so participate in it), and are passing it on to future generations.**

It has been popular in some circles (beginning with Feuerbach?) to read the resurrection as allegorical wish-fulfillment, as in- because Jesus now lives on "in our hearts" after his death, he has been "resurrected". This collective belief in Christ living on then emerges, supposedly, as an actual claim by the community to his resurrection.

But this seems patently false. The first eye-witnesses began reporting immediately these things. 1) An empty tomb. 2) Appearances of the risen Christ. 3) An Ascension. 4) Multiple witnesses to the same resurrection.

I think it takes considerable courage and faith to believe that a group could collectively cleverly devise such a "collective unconscious" and then spread it world wide. Nevertheless, to believe thus requires a stubborn self-actualized faith of almost similar magnitude to actually simply confessing the resurrection of Christ, and the promise of our participation with him in it. We can all create our own religion if we wish. I feel no need to do so.

This is finally why the resurrection and the creation narrative are of completely different orders for me. The first is a narrative of God's relation to the old creation, how it was brought about. Certainly, this is important. But it is not of salvific importance to get it "right" or to believe it in certain ways as historical. On the other hand, that Christ is raised from the dead, historically and really, is very faith of very faith, the historical reality that grounds the church as that community that proclaims already the New Creation, Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Intelligent Design

I don't have anything that intelligent to say about intelligent design. What I can say intelligently, I'll say here. For greater intelligence on the issue, click on "intelligent design" above and be linked to Paul Davies Templeton Address of 1995. He concludes with this call to conversation:

"The position I have presented to you today is radically different. It is one that regards the universe, not as the plaything of a capricious Deity, but as a coherent, rational, elegant, and harmonious expression of a deep and purposeful meaning. I believe the time has now come for those theologians who share this vision to join me and my scientific colleagues to take the message to the people."

One theologian who has taken up Davies call to take the message to the people is John Polkinghorne. The book he edited together with Michael Welker, The End of the Universe and the Ends of God is without a doubt the best science-theology co-authored piece I've read, not that I've read as thoroughly as some others in this field.

I find arguments from physicists on this issue more compelling than biologists. Stephen Hawkings, maybe the most famous of astrophysicists, uses the term "mind of God" at the end of his popular book. Freeman Dyson, another astrophysicist, famously declared that it is almost as if "the universe knew we were coming." Their arguments for a "designer" rest on complex mathematical systems that I am not qualified to evaluate. What I do know is that they have a basis for their conjecture.

Intelligent design taught in a biology curriculum seems to make less sense. Evolution is a helpful scientific theory that guides and directs progress in the field of biology. The argument for intelligent design, though natural (I mean, who isn't so amazed at things in the natural world enough to think it couldn't have been all by so-called chance, that is, natural selection), cannot really be taught as an alternative scientific theory because, as I understand it, it doesn't stand up as a theory. This is not to say that it has been disproved, just that it makes less sense of the available evidence.

I mean, I guess you could teach in geography classes that there is a debate about whether the earth is flat or not, since there are still flat-earthers around, but... see how silly that sounds.

As a Christian, I don't have any problem with teaching evolution in the schools, nor do I see evolutionary theory (and by theory, I mean the scientific, not popular, definition of theory) as undermining the foundations of the Christian faith. God works within and through creation, all things came into being through Him, so it is not surprising that God may have created mechanisms that function in one we can call scientifically observable ways.

In fact, I find it to be much more like the Christian God to create in such a way that our existence and life as humans came about through an intimate process that involves all of creation, beginning with the interaction of giant stars to create the needed elements for life, continuing with chemical interactions on a watery planet formed from the detritus of countless stars, continuing with slow processes of development and evolution, and culminating(?) in the creation of "praying animals", that is, us, creatures part and parcel of the created order, but created in the image of God, and renewed by the coming into our midst of very God of very God, Jesus Christ, God's new image for us.

We are a part of this thing called the universe, the created order God has called good. Why must we fight so hard to convince ourselves we transcend it, or God took some kind of special, separate track to create humans apart from all the things God is about the business of creating and sustaining by God's Spirit?

Sam, was that intelligent enough for now? :)

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

On the Church

I’m one of those Protestants for whom the invisible/visible church thesis used to but no longer cuts it. That is to say, whatever the church is, it is more than or different from an invisible entity of which some visible parts are visible in the visible church.

This is not to say that I equate the church on earth with the church triumphant. Certainly, the church’s eschatological reality qualifies what we can say and what we believe about the church on earth. The church is not yet what it will be. That is an article of faith.

Furthermore, I cling to Augustine’s dictum that the church is a mixed body (corpus mixtum) because of the church I experience on a daily basis. The church is made up of saint sinners, individually mixed up, and so it is no surprise that the church as institution is itself a mixed body.

But the adage that the church is a mixed body is different than the old saw about the visible and invisible church. The invisible/visible distinction invokes a metaphysics foreign to our creeds and Scripture. To say that this body, this very body, is a mixed body, simply describes the reality we’ve known ever since the mixed up bodies of Adam and Eve, continuing with the patriarchs and matriarchs, the mixed up group we call the Israelites, and the mixical apostles.

God hasn’t secreted a perfect church around some place that peeks out here and there around corners and in window reflections. Rather, God establishes “New Creation” in the midst of the old. This very church, the one we know, is being made and created by God holy, catholic, apostolic.

And which church, you might ask? Good question. But the answer to that question is the same as the answer to this question- Which Jesus? There is only one Jesus, fully human, fully divine, born of the Virgin Mary, eternally begotten of the Father. Of course, if you survey the masses of humanity and ask who Jesus is, you’ll get a pantheon of figures, all claimants to the title. But just because they say so doesn’t make it so. It is a confession of faith that there is “one Lord”, not many. Getting right who Jesus is is a central task of the church in any age.

So, back to the question, which church? Obviously, many churches claim to be the one true church. This claim can no more be true than the claim all those who think Jesus Christ signifies this or that make, and then claim this to be the one true Jesus (see how all ecclesiological concerns are ultimately also Christological?) Jesus is who Jesus is, regardless of your or my personal views on the matter. This is what it means that Jesus truly is personal. The church is what the church is, regardless of our denominational differences, and it is a matter of considerable concern whether we know in faith who or what the church is.

So, not all who claim to know which church is the true church are correct, and yet there is one true church.

But I seem to be writing in circles. You can see why the invisible/visible church solution is so popular. It allows one to say that a) there is a “one true church”, but b) that we can’t see it, although it may manifest itself here or there by the grace of God in various denominations, churches, etc.

I’m afraid the problem with this approach is that since the church is invisible (or hidden?) then the actuality of the church and its importance becomes of no account. It doesn’t matter much what the visible church is like, because we all know its invisible. Never mind all those (Catholics, Orthodox, etc.) who are concerned about structure, ecclesiology, and visible unity. Or, alternatively, lets all get together and feel all right, because actual structures and denominations aren’t that important really, anyway. We all know what the church is, don’t we? Invisible.

All of this, then, is a long pre-amble towards my saying that when I put down Wallace Alston, and picked up John Meyendorff (an Orthodox theologian) I felt more at home. Although my training and practice are in Alston’s camp, my understanding of the relationship between Christology and ecclesiology puts me more firmly in the mix with Meyendorff and others who believe the actual structure of the church (as defined by history and gasp tradition) are matters of faith. The visible church matters, and this because the full divinity and humanity of Christ matters, so too the complete holiness of the catholic church on earth matters.

And on this point in particular, the Orthodox church has much to teach us about what it means to be church.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Wallace Alston Jr.

Wallace Alston's book, The Church of the Living God is the second in a series of books I'm reading representing various ecclesiological proposals on the nature of the church. It is, in a way, a short catechism on the church, especially oriented out of and grounded in the Reformed tradition. It also reads like, and is, the work of a parish pastor.

It is also thoroughly Protestant in tone, quite a switch from reading Leonardo Boff. Strong emphasis on the visible/invisible church distinction, so that the marks of the church (one, holy, catholic, apostolic) only make sense as confessions of faith when the visible/invisible distinction is upheld. Wallace also adds a fifth mark of the church- missional.

Reading books about the church, I'm struck by just how diverse approaches to the topic tend to be. It's like picking up five books about prayer. Each one will come at the subject so differently that in the end, the concept remains as nebulous as it began.

Maybe one point of continuity runs so far throughout these works- all the writers love the church. As do I, for all its shortcomings. Alston and I share this with Augustine; the church we love is a corpus mixtum , but just so we love it, for the sake of Christ.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

From the Comments

God can be known as the God of history, the God of creation, etc. This is true. But outside of the church (not necessarily the institutional church, but the church as the people of God), there is inadequate preaching as to who God is. Who is God in the hurricane? Whoever God is in nature, it's my rather independent interpretation of what is happening that ends up being the definition of God. Certainly you won't come up with the gospel of Christ by wandering the forests.

The church is "necessary" in the sense that it was established by Christ for the clear proclamation of the Gospel, the good news. Sure, the church is, as Augustine said, a "corpus mixtum." But so was Jesus' body, fully human and fully divine. So too "the holy catholic church" is the extension of Christ's body here and now on earth, fully human, and fully divine. You can't get that anywhere else, which is what the old adage extra ecclesiam nulla sanctus attempted to say (Cyprian said it, it needs considerable commentary to be understood correctly).