Monday, December 8, 2014

In Favor of Adjacency

The best we ever do, it seems to me, is get halfway to somewhere. Every time I'm frustrated with scholarship that looks like it only gets halfway to somewhere, I need to remind myself of this. What we can walk away from, wasn't ours to begin with. And what we can't walk away from is always what keeps us from going all the way there. But we aren't meant to get anywhere; every second nature of ours will become something another walks away from. We are meant to journey together faithfully.

Some put all their effort into walking away from things, because they see somewhere they need to go but can't get. This path is fraught with needless violence and self-deception. Some put all their effort into insisting upon the things they cannot give up, and this path is also fraught with needless violence and self-deception. If there is a middle path, however, it is a hard balance to find. If we cannot hold on to things that are useful, who are we? If we cannot change things that are harmful, what good are we? But what will we hold on to, and what will we change?

True freedom does not begin with destruction—that's just a path into exile, even if you lead your way down it willingly. True freedom begins with the release of the captives, yourself included. This always involves walking away from things, many of which deserve it. And, in a world full of things in every direction, not everything will get out of your way obligingly, either. Some things will have to be fought, along with some of the people that serve them, for good or ill. Many things, and many people, however, are simply where they are, in our way. There are no straight lines in nature. Our ways must yield to at least some of these, our neighbors. We cannot fight them all, nor are we meant to, any more than they are meant to follow our paths.

This, oddly enough, sums up my problems with both the wide variety of religious hardliners I encounter, and also a particular array of religious readers in critical theory. They leave no room for ease, for adjacency, for the holding of valid difference when it does no harm. (On the other hand, this is only ironic in the second case.) One fears the death of its cult(ure), the other anticipates it eagerly, and between them the tradition becomes a monolithic thing, to be used or eschewed. One cannot be a good Barthian, or indeed a good many other things, and think this way.

The tradition is a field of difference, sometimes playground and sometimes battleground, and there are many things outside of it. What you can walk away from is not yours, and you should not boast against it; some of it may be bad, or badly used, but most of it is simply there to be learned from. What you cannot walk away from, what is part of you, is also a mixed bag of good, bad, and misused things. It would be easier if it were not so, and for many people it is easier simply to believe that it is not so. But ethics does not consist in this sort of pretense. Ethics, in the end, is about our neighbors more than the places we come from and seek to go toward. Build what you can, go where you can, and fight where you must, but be good to your neighbors.

This is as much a word to myself, as to anyone else.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Revelation Positivism: Reasoning with Faith in #KBCDIII

In the last post, I insisted to you that Barth blows away the assumed conflict between faith and reason as modes of knowing, replacing it with a surer ground in the difference between the two objects of theological and natural sciences: God, and the non-God world. But the next thing I'm going to tell you, as he goes on in CD III.1, is that we only know about creation as an article of faith. That we cannot reason our way to knowledge of creation. Is this a contradiction? Not really. The important question is, on what basis can we reason about creation?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Faith and Reason: Non-Competition in #KBCDIII

Barth is killing some sacred cows in Church Dogmatics III, and one of the biggest is the presumed conflict between faith and reason. It's fair to say he's been doing this from the very beginning, but since CD III.1 opens Barth's attempt to write a workable theological metaphysics for anthropology, it comes up again in exactly the place we always presume there should be conflict. The world vs. God. Creation myth vs. verifiable science. Two great magisterial canons, set up to fire at one another. And for what?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Tackling Creation: A Flying Leap into #KBCDIII

Over on Twitter, there's been a 5-page-a-day reading group going on, marching through Barth's Church Dogmatics volume III under the hashtag #KBCDIII. I chose (possibly to the detriment of my followers!) to "live-tweet" my way through each day's page count in order to get a more detailed sense of what is going on in my favorite volume of the CD.

I've since fallen off that discipline a bit (because real life), but I've learned a good bit from it, and I intend to get back on the horse. Still, given a bit of breathing space, I want to go back and highlight the most interesting points. Barth pounds the nails in on some very controversial coffins here, declaring quite a few of the perennial (bad) arguments in Religion and Science stone dead, as well as several in the philosophy of religion. I'm going to run a brief series, just on the first section of material, to show off some of those decisive moments. Today, the introduction.

Monday, May 5, 2014


It's recently struck me that I've been using this word incorrectly. Or, rather, that I've been attempting to use it correctly, but in a sense far broader than the one in common use. "Apologetics" has been defined in common use today as the defense of the Christian faith. But what that most often means is the defense of a set of theological opinions from those on all sides who disagree. Usually, the angry and aggressive defense of said. Apologetes are men fighting a war for what they believe. (And occasionally also women.)

The Westminster set defend this usage (though they will deny that there is anything of "opinion" about their dogma) by reference to a forensic definition of apologia. That apologia belongs to courtroom defense, the testimony of those who are being prosecuted. (Or is it persecuted?) And I won't deny that the Greek term does apply to that circumstance. That one does in fact render an apologon, or engage in apologēsis, in court—and under specific constraints because of the situation. But I will deny that the forensic case is in any way exhaustive of the lexeme invoked here. Though one apologizes in court, apology is not essentially forensic.

Fundamentally, apology is not so much defense as explanation. It is the giving of an account. That may be forensic, as when we give an account of what happened from our perspective on the event in question. It may be financial, as when we give an account of where the money entrusted to us has gone. But both of these uses assume something that may not be present in all cases. In the Greek, the opposite term to apologia in these senses is katēgoria: accusation. Be wary when you see someone defend themselves in the absence of an accusation! Self-justification often comes from self-accusation.

Monday, April 21, 2014


What is praying like, for me?

The short answer is that I talk to God. I trust that God hears me, that God will always hear me, and that God who hears my prayers will answer them.

But that leaves out a lot. That's what praying is, not what it's like, for me.

I close my eyes. Closing my eyes, I feel like I become more open, almost in a literal sense, like the space I'm in with my eyes closed opens up toward God more than when they're open. But it's still my space. It's still inside my head.

I address God. Sometimes with words, sometimes not—like when you walk up to someone you know and just start talking to them. I don't know if I'm actually addressing God; I don't really have any sense of success or failure here. But it is what I mean to do, it is the direction my thoughts are trying to go: to God. And I trust that God who is always present, and who always hears, recognizes the start of a prayer when one happens.

I try to be clear, in my mind, what the situation is that I'm talking to God about. It's not as simple as saying what it is. There's more in my head, more about what it is, out to the fuzzy and inchoate bits around the edges, than I can say in words. But I can think it, because the "this" that I want to talk to God about is in my thoughts, it's in my mind as completely as I know anything about it. And if I'm praying about it, it's the "this," and not any one request about it, that is most important for me to convey to God.

That may sound silly. God, of course, knows far more about anything I might be praying about than what fits in my mind regarding it. But that's a slippery slope. Why pray at all? Wouldn't a good God simply do what was needed in every situation? Too far in that direction, and what you have isn't a god, but a force of nature, a reality of the world that makes prayer irrelevant, because the way the world is, is either obviously what God wants, or God can't do anything about it. And since none of this is true, it matters that I convey to God what I am praying about. It matters that I am clear about it, and that it also comes with all of the fuzziness of my unclarity. It matters that I pray about it, and it matters that God hears me, and will act.

Of course, I also do ask God for specific actions. I'm not sure that's the most important part, and I am absolutely sure that God isn't a wish-granting genie—but if I'm the one praying, and it's important that I pray, then by God I'm going to give the situation the best nudge in the direction of "better" that I can possibly imagine. I know that God, who knows far better than I do, will find the best way to act. But prayer isn't about the optimal thing happening, any more than it's about what I want happening. Prayer is about God caring for us, and us talking to the God who does in fact care for us.

Being me, of course, I also keep rolling the thing over in my mind, and sometimes I take back what I've asked and try to ask something better. When it's a hard thing to pray about, there's a lot of wrestling involved in the praying about it. Not so much with God, as between me and the thing.

There's really no neat ending to prayers like this. Sometimes it's an easier prayer, and it takes very little time; sometimes it's a harder prayer, and it takes much more. And sometimes I simply don't finish praying before I have to do something else.

I also have formulaic prayers. I also do say prayers, in more obviously "normal" ways. And with those it's always a struggle for me to mean them, to make them anything like as deeply grounded in my praying as when I "really" pray. (The liturgy is much the same.) Formal prayers do help, of course. It's useful to have a form in which we say the kind of thing that, on reflection, we're supposed to want. But I feel like formal prayers are more about conforming me to what I should want, giving a shape to my life as a person who prays in this way. That's still praying, but it's a different kind of thing from what I'm trying to describe.


Monday, March 24, 2014

No Right to "Religious Expression"

As a theologian and a Christian in the United States—but not a lawyer, so I'll be glad to be corrected by those better trained in the field—I'm about to suggest to you that something you may think sacrosanct doesn't actually exist. You have no right to the protection of "religious expression."

Not under the First Amendment to the Constitution, and not even under the poorly-conceived Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993—which was quickly ruled to be such an overreach of legitimate Congressional authority that it could not be applied to the states. (At which point Congress enacted narrower laws to do what it meant to do in the first place: protect the lands and practices of First Nations peoples.)

But the freedom of "religious expression" is exactly the line being pushed today, and for the past several years, as though Christians had an unquestionable Constitutional right to express and act on their opinions without threat of censure or punishment. It's a popular idea, and I get the popularity, but it's one successfully refuted by the struggles of generations of conscientious objectors. There's a reason why it looks so much like trying to create a new right that doesn't actually exist: it doesn't! And that's exactly why it keeps getting smacked down in the high courts.

Let's have a look at what you do have, instead—and what, in point of fact, every other citizen regardless of their religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, or political alignment also has, to the exact same degree. Let's look at what the saeculum in which you exist is designed to protect for everyone in it.