Friday, March 31, 2006

Ignorant Voices in Christianity

"Do NOT judge, so that you may not be judged." -- Matthew 7:1

Is anyone else alarmed by the number of belligerent voices in Christianity today? I know we've always had our loud-mouths(ah hem, Augustine), but with expanding media, it seems like every preacher, television evangelist (whatever that means), and proponent of some weird version of fundamentalist Christianity is getting far too much attention. Is this the message of Jesus? Don't get me wrong, I'm trying not to judge these people, but I'll admit, it's hard. It's hard to see the beautiful message of Jesus get slandered by people who have no idea what it means.

I tend to be a bit sharp-mouthed myself, so I really have to watch it, but really, people, what's going on? This is meant to be a internal (Christian) critique: WAKE UP AND RE-READ THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT (Matthew 5-7). It's high time to reclaim the message of Jesus and not what pop-Christianity has turned into. Jesus is a man of love, compassion, and forgiveness - not hell-fire, judgment, and damnation. Jesus loved those around him so much that he was willing to die a criminal's death. Jesus' resurrection is that which gives us hope today and for all time. The resurrection does not give us the right to determine an "in-group" and an "out-group." The resurrection does not give us the right to judge, condemn, and terrorize others. The resurrection gives us the medium by which to spread love and forgiveness in a world where concepts like love and forgiveness are almost completely dissolved of meaning. We Christians must join together to reclaim the gospel by not supporting those who purposely distort it.

What's even more sad than this cartoon is that I stood on the very spot that Patrick Hamilton was burned. He studied with Martin Luther in Germany; upon returning to Scotland, his reformed message was not received well. He was burned at the stake in St. Andrews.

Karl Barth's Christ: Process or Static?

Let me begin by defining my terms, as I know they are quite loaded. I know they may not adhere strictly to textbook definition, but what does in a Christological discussion? When I say process, I mean a Christ who is not confined as a historical event, but a Christ who continually works in human history to inspire faith in God and His Kingdom? The process Christ, paradoxically, continually dies and is resurrected in every human moment. The reality of the resurrection is a reality here and now, for all time. When I say static, I mean that Christ's death and resurrection occured some 2,000 odd years ago and is effectual for all time (effectual meaning that the resurrection reaches back prior to Jesus' life and ahead into today's world). I use the word static to mean an event that happened once and has a permanant effect on the world.

When I read Barth, I pick up on both ideas, but it seems to lean more to the "static" Christ. I say this because Barth was a Reformed thinker who adopted Calvin's view of predestination. But, as is well known, Barth turned Calvin's predestination on its head by saying that Jesus is the only elect; we may have salvation because Christ is the elect. This view of predestination leads me to think that Barth's Christ is static. However, Barth is (in my opinion) the most nuanced thinker of the 20th century, so we can't let it rest there. There is an element of a process Christ, a Christ who is dying and being resurrected today in the hearts of all Christians. This is reading between the lines of Barth (not that he left much to be read between the lines...haha), but I think for Christ to be continually effectual, His death and resurrection must grip those hearing the gospel today. Barth's christology asks whether whether we have been gripped by the gospel - and this is the process Christ.

I know I've said some controversial things here. Perhaps I'm not nuanced enough, but for me, we must understand the process and static Christ in Barth to really unlock the 14 volumes of the Church Dogmatics. What do you think?

Karl Barth and Salvador Dali

As means of introduction, I must say that both Karl Barth and Salvador Dali would be horrified if they knew I linked their names together. But, I like both for different reasons, so too bad. Now, you may ask yourself: where is this going? For me, it's all about the christological question. And, I think for both Karl Barth and Salvador Dali, it was about the christological question, too. For Barth (see CD II/1), the question of theology is the question of Christ; Christ is the means by which we ask the question of human history and God's action within human history. Theology centers itself around the christological question. For Dali's religious-based art, there is a on-going theme of the relationship betweeen christology and the cross. Notice, however, that Dali's Christ is polished, clean, and without clear facial features. I think this means that Dali's Christ speaks for humanity; the cleanliness, perhaps, (and I'm really stepping out on a branch here) represents the effect of the cross. For Barth and Dali, Christ represents the question posed to humanity; both respond in their unique way. Barth and Dali call us to respond to Christ, too. What does Barth's writing and Dali's painting evoke in you?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Karl Barth

A long-time admirer of Barth, I hope to write some posts on his theological method in the coming days. My senior thesis (undergrad) was on Barth's concept of "religion." In my master's thesis, I use Barth's method to explore the concepts of nothingness and suicide. While I am not "full" Barthian, I do admire his method and (sometimes) madness. So, from the outset, I have to admit my affiliation with Barth, my love of dialectical thinking, and my obvious bias toward Barthian interpretation.

Liberation Theology

"God's presence does not appear just in one time and place 'once and for all,' but wherever reconciliation is established and man glimpses his unity of the world with its transcendent foundation and meaning."

--Rosemary Radford Ruether, Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power

I very much liked the message of liberation theology until graduate school. It was there that I clearly saw the Marxist underpinnings of this theology. Sure, I support the "liberation" aspect of the theology (how could one disagree after reading the message of Jesus?), but I have to wonder if it's possible to "do" liberation theology without the Marxism. What was once an oversight, or ignored, is absolutely critical to thinking in a liberating way. Now, I'm no capitalist (by definition), but Marxism has been shown to be an absolute failure when put into practice. In short, I agree with the message, but I disagree with the method.

Perhaps it's time for a new "liberation" theology - liberation from today's oppressors. Any takers?

Churches of Christ - A Cult (?) (!)

I found this story absolutely amazing because it is so insane. After the recent shooting of a minister (by his wife, no less), a Baptist minister labels the Church of Christ a "cult." Not that I really respected CNN before, but this just too much. Perhaps CNN ought to pick its sources a little better (a bumpkin Baptist minister does NOT count). Click here for a full blog on the issue.

Perhaps this issue is a little sensitive for me because I was raised a Baptist. After I married my wife, I joined the Church of Christ. So, I'm coming from both angles. This issue exposes the general ignorance of Christianity within America today. Why would one pastor blast another denomination? The ignorance deserves to be rooted out. Rally here, bloggers!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

On the Unity of Christ - St. Cyril of Alexandria

I have always had an affinity for this church father because he wrestled with the dual natures of Christ. What does it mean to say that Jesus was/is completely man and completely divine? Christians are still asking this same question (or at least they should be!).

I think what Cyril has to teach us today is that there is no simple answer or clever theological formulation to explain Christ's dual nature. Rather, this is something taken on faith because it is simply absurd to human reasoning. Is it possible to be man (or woman) and God at the same time? This question gets at the very nature and mission of Jesus. But, Cyril's emphasis on the resurrection is what appeals most to me: he is resurrected for the unity of the entire human race (see quote below).

It seems to me that Christians of Cyril's day had more trouble with the "divine" side of Jesus, and less with the humanity. Church fathers place much emphasis on the divinity of Jesus (as the Christ). However, I think today people wrestle with the humanity of Jesus. The Jesus who laughs, cries, gets angry, and feels sadness is somehow foreign. In other words, the divinity of Jesus masks his humanity. We need to reclaim this humanity. We need to see the wise words of this teacher as an ethic of the right life before God. Jesus has a lot to say to us (think: Sermon on the Mount). We have human ears to listen; we need to relearn the humanity of Jesus through his teachings (which at times are obscure and require a lot of critical thought). What does Jesus have to say?

"We can gather into a true unity, though one that transcends speech and understanding, realities which were unlike one another, and separated because of their respective natures...The Word was alive even when his holy flesh was tasting death, so that when death was beaten and corruption trodden underfoot the power of the resurrection might come upon the whole human race." -- St. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

It's hard to see, but this is where I spent countless hours studying. This is the second floor of the King James Library in the St. Mary's quad at the University of St. Andrews. This is, primarily, the theological library. Many people have visited this library in its 500 year history, including John Wesley.  Posted by Picasa

This is me in St. Andrews. I'm as tall as the arch! Posted by Picasa

Photos to Follow

I've been figuring out how to upload photographs onto the blog, so hopefully I can add some photos soon. We have plenty from the year we spent in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Death of God Theology: The Shortcomings

There have been numerous (and sometimes cheap) attacks on Death of God theology. Some criticisms are rightly posed while others beg the question: what are you (the one criticizing) really afraid of? Below are some of my personal conclusions. As aforementioned, I do not buy into Death of God theology's final conclusions. I do not believe in the "death" of theism, but I believe in rethinking ancient Greek, classical theism into something more relevant for today. Here goes:

1) The God of the OT and NT is a personal being, a being who (unlike Plato's God) feels and exhibits emotion. This God is a personal agent. In Death of God theology, this God has died and been reborn into humanity. This takes a pretty simple, narrow view of the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration. Certainly it is far more complex. While the "spiritual" may remain hidden in earthly life, there is a powerful force underlying existence. Is this the realm of God? If so, is death possible for God, even if God wanted to die?

2) Altizer's writing is sometimes incoherantly prophetic. He rants more than he systematizes. This makes things confusing: he is a well-trained scholar; why does he not utilize these skills? Hamilton's writing is often horrifyingly pessimistic. If it all amounts to love, what does this say for the complexity of human life?

3) Death of God theology amounts to a rejection of metaphysics (perhaps a clear precursor to what we now call "post-modernism). Metaphysical rejection of theism is a rejection of western philosophy; if Hamilton and Altizer were serious about this rejection, they would not rely so heavily on using western theistic logic to 'disprove' what they are intending to prove; this reversal is simply nonsense.

Are these valid criticisms? What do you think?

Death of God Theology: The Benefits (!)

Strange as the title may be, there are some theological benefits (i.e. advancements) from the pop-theology of the 1960's. While Death of God theology has been ignored (for the most part) in recent times, I think there are some things that need to be re-evaluated. I list them in no particular order.

1) God is not necessarily like you conceive of him/her. God is a lot bigger than your imagination. God cannot be put into a box. You cannot manipulate God, so get over it.

2) There is an indominable spirit that has been put into humanity. We struggle and survive, despite terrible odds and horrendous evil. Humanity has the duty, no the obligation, to take care of one another. While prayer is certainly beneficial, we also need to take action and contribute to the world's healing process.

3) Jesus ACTUALLY died. Jesus went through something that you and I have not experienced. Jesus suffered. Jesus cried in unbelievable pain. Jesus believed in social justice, so much that he was willing to die for it. Jesus poses the question to us: what are you willing to die for?

4) Jesus was resurrection into human history. Jesus' humanity is reaffirmed in his new life, not as some spiritual being, but as a human, with human form. Jesus's humanity is just as important as his divinity.

5) The only real thing is love. We pose metaphysical questions, but the only real binding thing in the universe is love. However you may conceive of God, that conception is ultimately flawed if it does not contain radical love.

These, I think, are the real, tangible benefits of Death of God theology. Though they may take some of my slant (for believers today), I think the message is comparable to the theological movement. These are provocative statements. Let me know what you think.

New Links

As you may have noticed, I've put some new links up on the sidebar. The first three blogs are my favorite on the internet. Faith and Theology is a blog I began reading last year; it is updated daily and contains a plethora of theological thought. The New Testament Gateway is a tremendous resource for the latest research in New Testament. PaleoJudaica is updated daily by Jim Davila, a professor of early Jewish history at the University of St. Andrews; I met him last year in the course of my studies. The resources I've posted are links to parallels of the 5 gospels (including Thomas, of course). Additionally, for hours of entertainment (or boredom, depending on your taste), check out the Early Church Fathers and Review of Biblcial Literature. It appears to me that I'm slanted in my links and recommendations: the cutting edge and the ancient resources. Any suggestions for Reformation resources? I hope to build the links page to be a one-stop resource similar to Mark Goodacre's tremendous NT Gateway.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Interview With Mark Goodacre

Goodacre is one of the dominant voices in New Testament today. I first read his Case Against Q at St. Andrews - it is spirited to say the least! I recommend this interview to understand Goodacre's approach to faith and scholarship - which is tricky for all of us to walk sometimes.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What I Am Currently Reading

The Confessions of St. Augustine. Somehow in my theological education, I covered the City of God quite thoroughly, but not the Confessions. So, like most theologians, I'm going back and reading all of the stuff I should've read before. I am struck by Augustine's honesty - and honesty that is rarely seen today. And, what's scary (I don't consider myself Augustinian), I see something of myself in him. I, too, am ambitious, curious, and wholeheartedly Type-A. But, where I think we're kindred spirits is when God works through our weaknesses. God has a funny way of taking severely flawed people and making them His children. So, strangely enough (I never thought I'd say this, especially openly), I consider Augustine a brother in the faith. Whereas his theological positions at times seem absolutely ridiculous, I can say I understand him better having read his Confessions. Though I'm far too Pelagian for my own good, Augustine does have a paradoxical appeal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

William Hamilton - The Death of God and the Birth of Humanity

(I share a slight affinity for Hamilton; he is a fellow alumnus of St. Mary's College at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He studied under Baillie.)

It is fair to say that William Hamilton's position on the death of God is far less nuanced than Altizer's. Hamilton's writing reflects a literal, death-experience of the divine in human time. But God's chosen death, in order to "save" humanity, illuminates not the death experience, but rather a rebirth of humanity. Hamilton's death experience is heavily laced with love - that Jesus, both a human (socio-political) messiah and the divine, died in human history to reaffirm humanity.

Hamilton's writing is, at times, rather depressing. He does not have the hope that Altizer does; but, as any good writer of the post-World War II era, he finds a slight hope in the bleak realization that God has died in our time. This is what I call humanism - or the belief that humanity can take care of itself without the help of a God. The optimism of Hamilton is found in the ability to embrace the message of Jesus - to really take care of one another. Perhaps that is the value in Hamilton's theology: his presentation of Jesus, unlike many theologians, shows a man who loves so much that his heart almost breaks. Hamilton's Jesus is radical in the sense that he is willing to undergo death on the cross, dying into humanity, for the sake of his fellow brothers and sisters. As much as death-of-God theology has some strange things to say, this last statement is something that all Christians should remember. Jesus was a very real man; he laughed, cried, got angry, felt compassion, and loved wholeheartedly. I think sometimes we forget that...

Monday, March 20, 2006

Thomas J.J. Altizer - Nietzsche and the Kenotic Christ

Altizer, a disciple of Mircea Eliade, not only advocated, but "willed" (in a Nietzschean sense) the death of God in our time. This means that when Jesus hung on the cross two thousand years ago, God actually died. Altizer goes on to say that the resurrection was not in some physical sense, but a "rebirth" into human history. Kenosis, or the constant energy of God, is forever operating in our space and time; God is perpetually dying and being reborn anew in our history. Salvation is not, for Altizer, a lofty, metaphysical, mythical occurance, but rather the Yes-saying of a God who loves so much that He is willing to die. God no longer exists "out there" but "in here." To a point, Altizer almost sounds like an ancient gnostic - God resides within. So, like Nietzsche, we must "will" the death of God (the God out there) in order that we may accept the God in ourselves (though Nietzsche and Altizer present completely different ideas of what God in ourselves means).

Perhaps this is too simple of a summary? It's my attempt to get at the sum total of Altizer's theology. It may not be nuanced enought, but it's an attempt to wrap my mind around what Altizer is trying to say.

The Death-of-God Controversy: Is There Anything to Learn Today?

Since reading Thomas J.J. Altizer in college, I have had a strange fascination with the Death-of-God controversy in the 1960's. Maybe it was because it was a brand of theology that I completely disagreed with, and yet it challenged my mind in a way that has been quite beneficial. This is, perhaps, one of the only theological movements to have gained so much popular media attention (though much of it was negatively directed). There are many names associated with the movement, but there are two thinkers that I consider the true death-of-god theologians - William Hamilton and Thomas J.J. Altizer. Names like Van Buren, Cox, and (even!) Bonhoeffer and Tillich are associated with the movement; but, I think that Hamilton and Altizer really advocated the "death" of God as an act in history, not some philosophical nuance. I will elaborate above their positions as I understand them. I hope to do several postings on this topic in the coming days.

The Existential Fear

I was asked two weeks ago to prepare a short (two-minute) presentation for childrens' church. Never refusing the opportunity to speak in church, I accepted. The last two weeks have been spent trying to develop an analogy that is appropriate for K-5, yet would challenge them a little. Thinking I had this down pat, I proceeded to church yesterday morning. However, when I reached the childrens' room, I was covered in a veil of terror. I had twenty sets of young eyes looking at me in the doorway. I'm ashamed to admit it, but my first reaction was to turn and split. Now, please understand that I have spoken in front of over 1,000 people before, in many church services, in front of close friends, in foreign countries, etc. Public speaking is no problem for me. But, these twenty sets of eyes absolutely brought out cold fear. Why? I'm still not sure. I love kids, but they really intimidated me. Thankfully, I arrived early; I was able to sing songs and get comfortable in my environment before speaking. I am pretty sure the message went off without a problem (I received many compliments from the adults) , so the whole things seems pretty funny at this point. Who would've thought? Funny how God puts you in certain situations to test your mettle...

Friday, March 17, 2006

Truth and the Bible

We exist in a world that tries to distinguish (and ultimately divide) what it means to glean "truth" from the Bible. On the one hand, we have literalists who insist that every word is divinely-inspired from the mouth of God, and on the other hand we have those who see Biblical truth as nothing more than an expression of the ancient human mind. But, there must be a mediation between the two. Perhaps this is the value of narrative analysis. Both "truths" have value - the narrative is one of divine salvation for humanity while keeping the Word of God intact as a line of communication between God and humanity. Why is Biblical interpretation so devicive? Perhaps it is because we recognize our own limitations. If we deny that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then of what use (next to other books) is the Bible? Yet if we deny that the Bible is, in some real sense, an expression of the human mind, then the Bible becomes a limited mouthpiece. Mediation between the two views is essential, in my opinion, to Biblical "truth." Perhaps narrative analysis does not cover the issue completely, but I propose that it at least shows the path.

Faith and Religion

"The 'religious act' is always something partial; 'faith' is something whole, involving the whole of one's life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life."

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

I remember the first time I read this passage. It was one of those times in life where one's entire thinking is instantly reshaped. Bonhoeffer's understanding of Jesus far surpassed "religious" meaning; this means that the message of Jesus is radical and revolutionary. Bonhoeffer rightly points to the holistic message of Jesus. If Jesus' message is limited to religious meaning, or simple ethical teaching, or a philosophy of living, then his message is as good as lost to history. Jesus' message encompasses all there is to say about living, about existence, about living freely before God (to put it like Bonhoeffer). Jesus is the question of faith.

Is living religious expression if Jesus calls us to life? Here is where Bonhoeffer is greatly misunderstood. Bonhoeffer does not say that Jesus usurps religious expression, but that Jesus is the fulfillment of religious expression (note "expression," not "religion). This fulfillment is the totality of what it is be human - to live freely. Faith is trust, yes, but it goes much further. Faith is the expression of what it means to be human.

Having been a long-time reader of such blogs as PaleoJudaica, NT Gateway, and Faith & Theology, I decided to give it a try on my own. Let me introduce myself. My name is James Willis, III and I am a recent graduate of The University of St. Andrews (Scotland). My passion is theology, though there does not seem to be enough hours in the day for studying. This blog is a reaction to the state of Christianity today. It is hoped that through sorting through historical theology and responding critically, I can somehow get back to what Christianity should be. It seems to me that Christianity is essentially intertwined with state politics; if we look at the first church, its very essence is subversive to the Roman government. This is not to say that the modern Christian church should be actively subversive, but it should, at least, question vigorously. We have far too many Christian leaders who play into the hands of politics. Simply put, Jesus questioned authority; why should we be any different?

I have to admit that my theological rearing was heavily influenced by the study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. This is not to say that I am uncritical of their theological positions; but I do think they helped usher in a new way of thinking theologically. This blog, dealing with over-arching themes of truth and freedom, will ask the important questions. What is freedom? Is there truth? How can we, children of the collapsed project of the Enlightenment (or, if you prefer, postmodernism), allude to a heavily-nuanced word like "truth"? I do not propose answers, I simply ask questions. Please, get involved in future posts. Let me know what you think. Truth and Freedom exist only the public sphere.

Thank you for visiting. Please come back soon!