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.

Friday, March 21, 2014

No Property of the Church: Eph 1:15-23

Well, with my theology work all going elsewhere (or nowhere yet), I seem to be in full-on Biblioblog mode lately. And today is no exception. Having run the translation for Ephesians 1:15-23 for Ascension, I'd like to comment on it, and that's something that readily lends itself to blogging. So I'll start by giving you my translation of the text, and we'll jump into it from there:
"Because of this, having heard about your trust in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of the saints, I also do not stop giving thanks on your behalf, making mention of you at my prayer meetings, so that the god of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, shall give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in His recognition, the eyes of your heart being enlightened so that you see what is the hope of God's calling, the wealth of the glory of God's inheritance among the saints, and the sheer hyperbolic magnitude of God's power for us who trust, according to the activity of God's mighty strength, which has been active in Christ since God raised him from the dead and seated him at God's own right hand in the realms above the sky—above every leader and authority and power and lordship, above every name that is given, not only in this age but in the one to come—and subordinated everything under his feet, and gave him as head over all things in/to/for the assembly, which is his body, the complement of the one who fulfills everything in all times."
This is a fun text, especially in that its excellent Greek often makes for very poor English. In the Greek, this is all one long sentence, which is how I've given it to you. And "one long sentence" is really just a thing we say, having added our own punctuation to it, when all it means is that nothing here breaks from carrying forward the main idea. In this way, a good, high-level Greek sentence is like a good English paragraph.

It's no exaggeration, therefore, to say that there's a lot going on in this sentence. And not all of it is, I feel, adequately captured by the NRSV. (Or the NIV, or the ESV, or the NET, ...) So, rather than dive into one critical issue, I'm going to walk through the passage bit by bit. Along the way, we'll find more reasons to distrust the "objective genitive," as well as some heavy historical questions about what the Church has assumed from this passage. Come on along!