Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gesell- oder Gemeinschaft?

Barth and Bonhoeffer both use Gemeinde, but following Tonnies, and reading the WCC statements on nature, I'm wondering to what extent different groups desire that the church should be more gesellschaftlich or more gemeinschaftlich in its mixture of the two normal types.

The emphasis on mission from the first commentary period on Nature and Purpose have led to a Nature and Mission text that hits koinonia and mission much harder. To the extent that we might agree that its nature in Christ and in God as a whole is Gemeinde, and that the church is a Gemeinschaft, its nature on the human side (in via, as the text says) is different. If we try to talk about the one church and the many churches, there is much about the situation that leans to the looseness of Gesellschaft, and to its orientation about a common purpose -- or at least a shared one, motivating separate entities toward ideally like goals. I'm obliged to look at the WCC and Faith and Order especially as Gesellschaften, collaborative but loosely bound together, and oriented around a purpose and an idea more than their organic ties. The idea on which that society works happens to be community, which may be one of the great ironies of sin.

Perhaps that is what it means that the job of Faith and Order is to get out of the way of Life and Work.

In this work of ecclesiology, we are describing what we must think of in the ideal as resembling the house churches of the Pauline era, or the synoptic recollections of apostolic community around and after Jesus. Gemeinde. What we must also think of in the ideal according to its official beliefs (often the ecumenical councils, and therefore the creeds, and therefore the marks), and in many cases in terms of the contentious clarifications of those by later groups (the satis est of the Augustana, or Luther's much later seven marks). Or, as Bonhoeffer begins in Sanctorum Communio, in terms of sociology and what we know of community, and what we know of humanity and human existence, reflected into dogmatics. Or, as Zizioulas, in terms of patristic theological notions of personhood and community.

Kind of gives the lie to "must" -- how must we think of the church?

All in how you look at it...

God's grace overflows the church. But one can conceive of this as the Spirit being poured out into the church, and spilling over, like wine poured excessively into a goblet, in which case the church is the primary intentional means, the desired form superior to the formless excess -- even if the excess works of the Spirit outside of the church are still God's good work. Or one can conceive of this as the church holding itself as a vessel into the overflowing of God's Grace in the Spirit, like a cup in a waterfall far too large for it, in which case the church humbly submits to receive what it can from God, who is eternally prior. "Good order" is routinely invoked for the former view, but the latter seems to me better order, in the sense that we have panned out from the close view and seen that more is going on. The notion that God's grace is precious to us need not imply in any way that it is constrained by economic limitations.


Corollary: As Meropolitan Geevarghese Coorilos mentions, Nature and Mission demonstrates a great deal of church from above, and not church from below. Whether the wine is poured into our goblet, or we dip our cup into the falls, the purpose of the church cannot be containment. It must be distribution. It must be more that just distribution -- more than distribution from the top. The move to mission and koinonia must be a move to community and mission in embodied senses that break sociological hierarchy.

At the risk of sounding like Brunner...

... I'm done with Barth!

Well, no, but I finished the written exam on ethics in the Church Dogmatics for which I've been feverishly writing for a month. And you know what? I actually enjoyed writing it, and thinking on my toes for answers to some very tricky questions! I owe a debt to Chicago Theological Seminary, my home away from LSTC, where I got to take a very broad and reasonably deep 20th Century overview in 70 books. (And to Dr. Laurel Schneider, who taught said course!) How else could I have answered a question on comparative eschatology between Otto and Barth?

On to ecclesiology!

Then, utter collapse and fiction for a week!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Berufungs- und Anrufungspunkten

Going back over The Christian Life, it hits me just what it means that every moment of our calling is a moment of our prayer, in Barth's responsive language. Every moment of our calling receives an answer which cannot be "yes, I know," and cannot also agree with what we have previously decided for ourselves as the ethical course of action. We cannot know the unique command in advance of the unique situation, though we may retrospectively see the hand of God at work in our history of actions. We cannot presume to take an action which we desire and call it God's calling, asking as though to a dead telephone handset and pantomiming the answer. Once we get past that, we are well and truly stuck. Or we would be, if we were on our own. As God provokes us to the good, we invoke God asking "what is the good?" And as Barth says in CL, the moment we do so honestly and bewilderedly, demonstrating our faith and trust, we are half-way to obedience. God calls, and we pray. We are, in point of fact, obedient to the gospel and its form as the command of God when we participate in this responsive cycle -- so long as we are active agents and not merely passive. So long, that is, as our piety consists of actual responsiveness. We pray, and God calls. So long, then, as our prayer is not a substitute for action, but part of the path.

And if you find yourself existentially concerned about whether your action and your prayer, taken together, constitute bad faith, don't let it destroy you. The state of human existence is in conflict with its essence because of sin. God is changing you, and you will be changed. Receive the grace of God, refresh yourself in the Means and the Word, and keep acting and praying in Christ.

Pensée: Luther/Barth

I wonder how the spheres in Barth's dogmatics map to Luther's zwei-Reiche-Lehre. Or map from them. Community, State and Church seems an appropriate place to go, since the arguments may be from similar points to those in On Secular Authority. I have a feeling of it from the Church Dogmatics, but I think the thing itself isn't there. I think the thing itself is in the surrounding occasional writings.


Have I missed the usi legis?

Does "gospel and law" violate Luther's two uses of the law? The first, the civil use, which rules and governs behavior, and the second, the theological, which convicts each person of sin before God? I think not, even though it appears prima facie to violate the sequence of the usi legis driving one to the gospel of Christ.

I feel I have satisfactorily handled the derivation of obligation from the gospel, and its contrast with the gospel as a violation of the law environment, elsewhere. But the question that confronts me as a Lutheran is, have I disturbed Luther's sense of the functions? (We'll leave off the question of whether one or the other derivation is more authentic to Luther, as a secondary question. Also as a much longer and harder comparative slog through texts than the functional analysis.) Does gospel obligation produce law that does the usus primus and the usus secundus?

Begin with the central notion (even to Paul) of charis. Grace, but also a word fraught with client-patron obligations. The recipient of a gift is obligated to the giver, especially as such a gift reinforces the gradient of social standing between them. (And with our "infinite qualitative distinction" ...) A gift without obligations falls into the Derridean analysis -- giving to the dead. And indeed, we were dead in sin when the gift was given, but even if you void that of its hyperbole, we are alive in Christ as recipients of the gift. If this does void the "cheap grace" problem and constitute law in the form of the command of God, does such law govern behavior and convict of violation?

If we posit the concept of calling and vocation, I believe it does the first. Our behavior has ethical implications (can be right or wrong) because of the calling in Christ and the unique vocation of every created person in their time and place and situation. We are called upon to do right as right is constituted by God in Christ and called for in our lives. And if it does the first, then it also does the second with respect to violations of our calling to be in Christ in ways particular to our existential situations. As sinners, as disconnected from God though reconnected in Christ, we miss the mark (hamartia). We fail to be that which we are called to be in relationship with God and fellow creation. If the law is the perfect mirror, as the psalmist writes, then how better than in Christ to show us who we are called to be, and what we miss?

But how depressing!

What about the usus evangeliorum? Does such a derivation rob grace and the gospel of its liberating aspects? If the gospel produces law which functions, is the gospel itself still a comfort to consciences? Or have we made Christ into a condemnation?

No! No, we absolutely have not! Remember, law is consequent to gospel, and obligation consequent to grace! There is, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We are referred by the law, not to a tribunal of judgment, but back again to the grace of God which constitutes us as human beings. We are referred by God's calling and our obligations to a life in the mercy of God who creates us. This is reconciliation. This is the action of Christ settling our drawer with the ledger at the end of every day, to borrow the financial sense of that word. And every day we begin in the place of our calling, which is the place of our prayer, with a reconciled drawer ready for a day full of transactions. We may have debts to fix with others, and others may have debts to fix with us, but we are freed from concern for "the ultimate reckoning," freed to deal equitably with one another because God is profligate with grace. This is the economy of salvation.

Why I am (not exactly) a theological realist

I find myself being a theological realist, but not in the way of certain schools of theological realism. More to the point, Barth and Luther compel me toward theological realism of the sort that refuses to be theologically anti-realist, but cannot therefore assert other realities ahead of God. I can't do process in the Whitehead or Hartshorne veins, much as I appreciate the scientific realism of their theological universes. If I confess God, if my politeuma really is from above, I am obliged to question the world's truth as it intersects God's truth. But the trouble with that perspective is that I don't see it used to go far enough. My truth is the world's truth. My interpretation of God's truth is also the world's truth. My theology is inevitably infected by metaphysics. All theology, indeed all thought of any sort, is infected by metaphysics. Theologies which claim their truths as God's truth have simply forgotten they have a metaphysic. In Heideggerian terms, it has never been revealed to them as not ready-to-hand, so they have never questioned its presence-at-hand.

Theological realism seems to be essentially incompatible with fundamentalism and foundationalism. As Barth said of the historical critics, however, it is often simply not critical enough. It seems to me that if you wish to do it, you cannot stop short of the aseity of God and its inscrutability. A Lutheran theological realist must find herself hove to by the deus absconditus precisely in the facts of revelation. The articula fidei steady us, but even they are only true in a derivative sense.

Does this make me an antirealist? No. God is true. Because God is true, then many things follow. And many other things do not follow. And I will not always know which are which. Theological language is not true simply because God is true. Its claims about the world are likewise contingent. Lindbeck is not wrong about doctrine just because God is true -- indeed, he believes as firmly in God as any man. This is related to his misgivings about theological language and its descriptiveness. The whole process of dialogical translation across sectarian barriers of religious culture is fuzzy precisely because neither of us is talking about God in terms which are absolutely true. And yet both of us are talking about our true faith in the true God. Fault linguistic relativism only when it truly is in conflict with theological realism -- don't assume that the two are in conflict.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Juuuuuuuust a bit outside.

So I'm reading Werpehowski's "Command and History in the Ethics of Karl Barth," and I'm thinking, "hey, he's nailing this pretty well!" And then we come to where I'm obliged to believe that he should follow III/2 into III/4, and where does he go? II/2. Boned.

Well, perhaps not so bad as all that, since I understand why he has to back-and-fill to reach III/4 from III/2. But II/2 is precisely where Gustafson's and Hauerwas' complaints originate. Werpehowski is answering complaints about the lack of fullness of human particularity in the responsibility to the divine command, and the problem comes from reading II/2 as though it covered more than it expressly does. One should naturally question what the role of human existence in ethical decision-making is, when one is reading II/2. But one should proceed to III and IV as the existing components of Barth's "special ethics" for the answers.

The concept of human existence as agentic history from III/2 is an excellent first answer. The basic tool of Aufhebung is an excellent component to Werpehowski's response. And I appreciate that the root of the sublated concept of "command" must be retrieved from II/2 to counter misunderstandings of "command" which ignore Barth's necessary sublation of its meaning. Without it, you get Willis and Lovin's evaluation of Barth as doing act-deontology, or situation ethics, without providing usable information about the situations involved. You get over-valuations of law and obedience in their non-sublated meanings. But if you want the full expansion of agentic historical existence, I think you have to go to "freedom in limitation" with more weight than Werpehowski does. (Says the man who believes Biggar and Kuzmic because he is embedded in the Lutheran conception of vocation.)

The counter to "intuitionism" involves clarifying the complaint that Barth says we can't know anything about future commands from previous commands. Perhaps this is hyperbole on Barth's end, to the extent that he really wants to avoid any opening toward casuistry, as well as the ability to rely on human moral logic (which Werpehowski touches on). This is one of the points I attribute to Nietzsche -- no codification of "tables of values" as though they might be universally valid, even if they should be valid for one person or group at one time. It goes to "unique" as the prime descriptor of human existence.

Plus, in contradicting "intuitionism," Werpehowski talks about the vertical and horizontal of God's command, its continuity and its intersections as ethical events, but he misses out on what could be a fruitful reference to the other half: the horizontal continuity of human existence. These two horizontal aspects are dialectically related in Barth's opening to III/4. The variability of human existence and of the divine command at intersections are vertical, but as between two horizontals. I think that the human horizontal, considered in terms of the four "orders" Barth allows, makes excellent space for the kind of character or personal continuity Werpehowski is looking to bolster.

I think he's right about navigating between "intuitionism" and an ethics of "rationally inferring moral prescriptions from religiously grounded beliefs." (310) I also think that those two positions are part and parcel of the Euthyphro dialogue: attentiveness at all moments to what the deity might convey in that moment, as "immediate discernment," or its opposite, human rational discernment without divine involvement. But trying to do so on the basis of a "basic validating norm" built out of divine authority ("We ought to do what God commands, because God commands it.") leaves much to be desired, even though he immediately goes back and sublates it. It remains command-because-of-authority, even when the authority is explained, even when its "character," the character of both the command and the Commander, is qualified. The "character" of the human being, its horizontal quality, isn't touched. And the "objection" that there might be an epistemological gap between the two is no strike against Barth -- it's a feature! What else does the vertical bridge?

I still think he hits it solidly enough, and faithfully. But the farther Werpehowski goes, the more I find myself asking, "where is preaching in this scheme?" Dogmatics is judgment of the behavior of the church, and therefore of human beings, in light of its proclamation. The Word of God is also received in that proclamation, as the preaching of the church, as the gospel message and its implications. (Which is an ethical event in itself, the intersection of the horizontals in the vertical particularities on both sides!) What are we listening to? If we keep envisioning the command of God as some God's-mouth-to-my-ear event, in the hyperbole native to both Euthyphro and philosophical theism of no particular belief, we miss the ethical role of the church as institution, within the ethical schema for all of humanity in their individual particularities. We, in our vocations, are ways the Word of God comes to others.

Vocation as runtime modification

It hits me, reading Kuzmic's "Subversive Klesiology," that the difference between the first three orderings, WRT God, fellow-humanity, and fellow-life respectively, are like the way we compile a binary from source for distribution. The creation is a distribution with known runtime dependencies, and we link them in the right order. Following Barth's first three "orders" of creation is simply describing the environment in which all human programs will run. But the fourth, freedom in limitation, allows that God makes runtime modifications to every instance of running code in its unique span of processor time, and that these modifications may differ from the original compiled instructions. We are applied, and reapplied, within our slice of time as God calls us (indeed, we "call" and "invoke" programs, too!). In this way, we need not think of ourselves as "born" to any long-running and consistent purpose in the Thomistic sense. We are capable, flexible, and intelligent code designed for our environment and time, but designed also to adapt. God's ongoing creative action (this is still volume III, remember, ethics of God the Creator) moves us to those good purposes which appear in our time, for our gifts, as we are in Christ.

As Kuzmic distinguishes them, it makes good Barthian sense: our Beruf in the sense that we commonly talk about vocation is always subject to the same white-knuckled grip we apply to maintaining the dry stream bed that is the church. It is likewise always subject to the Berufung that summons us away from there and into something new. And so we sublate Beruf by extracting it from that fierce grip and making it into an over-conception of our life in Christ, subject to Berufung in any time and place of our Beruf.

Ah, but there's more. At every instance where we receive Berufung, as we do the work we Anruf back to God in prayer. Every Berufungspunkt is also an Anrufungspunkt -- which will ring true to all of us who spend long hours praying over our vocational discernment, as well as our vocational performance. Very much in line with the reading done by Nigel Biggar in The Hastening that Waits. The understanding of klesis/Ruf in the Church Dogmatics seems like a rich vein for understanding.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

One vocation?

It's been bothering me since I said it that we have only one obedience. If you see that as one vocation, it must be "be in Christ". But that isn't particular enough to fit one limited human span. It is not, in short, a true vocation, even if it is that toward which all vocations point. Barth is ever so strenuous about making use of the time, but he is ever so open about what you are to do with it. Indeed, he wishes you to be open about it, so long as you choose what it is that you will do rather than being stymied by the range of options, and choosing none. For then you are open to none of them truly becoming yours, and you will be "in Christ" in none of them.

But Barth isn't interested in locking you to any one vocation, either. It may be your limited span, but it is also freedom in limitation, and it is responsibility in particularity. You may, and indeed Barth thinks God will call you to, do many things in the course of that span. Barth lives in a world Luther and Calvin could not, a world without estates, losing its rites of vocational predetermination. God's freedom is especially sovereign over such a world and its changes. As Mary Catherine Bateson suggests, our lives look more like spirals; zig-zags seen from the side, circles seen from the top. Frustrating in the latter two images, seeming directionless for people stuck in a progressive society, but the spiral is direction in a world where we redefine ourselves based on what the next thing will be that we do for a living. "I was ... I was ... I was..." can become "I am" as we write a narrative for it, and this rhymes with Barth's insistence that God will call us to new callings, though they will not be such that we cannot see them from where we have been.

Be in Christ. Trust in your baptism and in the grace given and received. Believe the gospel. Respond to God and your neighbor. Be at peace on your ways as God's good creation. Remember: both sin and the calling are directed, purpose-driven. The law is never so, and truly respects neither in the ways that the gospel does. The gospel brings you from the one to the other. You will live, and you will die, and in the mean time, you will do all sorts of things which glorify God in your being. And you'll also screw up. But you can't shake what you are, and whose. At the end of all things, you can lean into that and know that God is good, and unshakably for you.

The real difference between the command and law

"The command of the Commander is a permission, and in this it is fundamentally and finally different from all other commands.

It cannot be said of any other commands in themselves and as such that they are permissions, releases, liberations; that they give us freedom. On the contrary, their commanding is in every respect a holding fast, a binding, a fettering. Each of them constitutes one of the many powers and dominions and authorities which restrict the freedom of man, which, under the pretense of their own divinity and in the supposed best interests of man, are not at all willing to allow him to go his own ways happily and peacefully. They all mean that at some point man is interrupted and even jostled; that at some point -- and worst of all when he begins to command himself -- he is vexed and tormented. In one form or another they all express to man the suspicion that it might be dangerous to free him, that he would certainly misuse his liberty, that once liberated, he would only create trouble for himself and others. From the most varied angles, they fill him with anxious fears: the intellectual fear of spiritual isolation; fear of the possibility of a world food shortage; a moral fear of his own possibilities; political fear in the face of his own weakness. They use these fears to appeal to him, instilling them into him and holding him in their grip. In essence, their bidding is a forbidding; the refusal of all possible permissions. This is what distinguishes the sphere of these commands very sharply from that of the command of God. Commands which are only ostensibly and allegedly divine, and misunderstandings of the real command of God, always betray themselves by the fact that they create and restore and maintain this sphere of distrust and fear.

The command of God sets man free. The command of God permits. It is only in this way that it commands. It permits even though it always has in concreto the form of one of the other commands, even though it, too, says, "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not," even though it stands before man, warning, disturbing, restraining, binding and committing. The command of God and other commands do the same thing, but it is not really the same. No matter in what guise the command of God meets us, in accordance with its basis and context, it will always set us free along a definite line. It will not compel man, but burst open the door of the compulsion under which he has been living. It will not meet him with mistrust but with trust. It will not appeal to his fear but to his courage. It will instill courage, and not fear into him. This is the case because the command, as we have seen, is itself the form of the grace of God, the intervention of the God who has taken the curse from us to draw us to Himself -- the easy yoke and the light burden of Christ, which as such are not to be exchanged for any other yoke or burden, and the assumption of which is in every sense our quickening and refreshing. This is what God prepares for us when He gives us His command. The man who stands under the jurisdiction of all those other commands of God and is not refreshed is not the obedient man but the man who disobeys God, who, instead of living according to the determination of the image of God, and therefore in conformity with the grace of God, has succumbed to the temptation to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is forbidden him for his own good, and in this way to exalt himself to a spurious divine likeness." Karl Barth, CD II/2, 585-6


This is why, when situated properly before God, with fellow humanity, and among all created life, the command to human beings is vocatio. If you have come to discern such a vocation, a call from God toward, you know that obedience is hard enough under the gospel. Hard enough without the imposition of other commands, especially those which are misunderstandings of the command of God. Especially those which would use a theology of orders to bind you, not only from yourself, but from God's calling. This is why you have only one obedience, and I love the Roman use of that term for what we so bureaucratically call "assignment".

Friday, August 20, 2010

Orders of creation: what are they good for?

Barth gets down on both Brunner and Althaus for describing orders of creation as distinct elements of divine command. I've been trying to reconcile his horizontal/vertical notion, and his complaints against orders, with his sublation of them in use. Here's what I've got so far:

The command of God and the human existence form the constant contours of any ethical event. They are the horizontal in which such events are vertical. It is necessary for us to respect the command of God, and to act according to it as we understand ourselves to be free in it. To act without fear or subjection to condemnation. It is necessary for us to respect also the synchronic state in which we are called to act -- the state of the world in which ethical action is inscribed, the state of the game in which we move. Respect, but not revere. Ethical action happens in the world conditioned by that state, and it is with respect to others conditioned by that state that we act.

Now, I'm reminded of the Matrix, but only to the extent that under the gospel, we are called to play the game without believing the game. To know it's a game, and treat it as such. The world likes law ethics. Authority, rule, power, hierarchy -- it's the game. We have a great deal of trouble conceiving of freedom. But we are not constituted by the game. We are not made by its rules, and will not be unmade by them in any ultimate sense. We are constituted by God's economic actions, in creation, reconciliation, and redemption. We are essentially sanctified as human beings and moral agents when seen through these constitutive relationships.

A few Sundays ago, I had the notion, watching the procession to and from communion, that this is the order in which we exist. Worship is not a thing we do, a game we play -- though the forms of the liturgy may indeed be things we do and games we play. The actual work of leitourgia and diakonia in koinonia involve human beings as God constitutes them, working as such in situations which are constituted by the world.

What business have we calling those situations divine mandates?

And yet Barth goes about trying to find elementary ways in which human existence is conditioned by its creation. We get 4: freedom before God, freedom in relationship, freedom for life, and freedom in limitation. As Barth sees them, these are human existence in relationship to God, first, to fellow humans, second, and within the sphere of all created life, third. I can't fault the ordering, even if I can fault some of the consequent positions (my least favorite being the notion that human beings of the same sex are not existentially "other," and that homosexuality is therefore idolatrous love of self). Barth nests what would otherwise fall into "orders" underneath this situation of human existence, so that any cultural constructs fall into much lower places than the theological priority of the order of relationships from God on down through creation. And fourth, given the properly situated human existence, we get vocation, what to do with the unique nature of your human life in its time and place and environment.

The command of God doesn't change for all this. It still is what we understood it to be in I/2 and II/2. It is Jesus Christ as God for us, and as us for God. It is the conviction that we truly are what God calls us, and therefore not under law, not subject to homo homini lupus est, as Hobbes would have it. We don't need a social contract to take away our vicious nature and rule and direct it for the good of all. In Christ, we are not vicious. We are free and responsible -- that is, responsive -- creatures. For it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, and this makes true, ethical human being -- which is human doing.

The problem with the theology of orders is that it presumes that we need law. It presumes that our human being -- and therefore doing -- is utterly defective. It denies the truth Luther affirms, of humanity in Christ as simul iustus et peccator. It presumes that sexual expression, for popular example, will inevitably go toward the bad, and must be ruled toward the good. That freedom is always libertine, and never Christian. And so the command of God is naturally invoked in support of whatever orders keep us in line.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"What is the greatest commandment in the law?"

The more I read Barth's Church Dogmatics, the more I find myself drawn to this question and its rabbinic understanding. So often, I see Barth's ethics being discussed in terms which he does not himself find valid: in terms of non-theological ethics. The quest is to find some hook, some peg, on which to securely hang Barth's system -- a point or at most two on which it reliably balances. Something like the ideal gas law, an elegant and compact statement from which all else neatly falls out in consequence. Matthew 22:40, "The entire law, and the prophets, hang upon these two commands." -- ἐν ταύταις ταῖς δυσὶν ἐντολαῖς ὅλος ὁ νόμος κρέμαται καὶ οἱ προφῆται.

Kremannumi: to hang, as of a household item upon a peg, and therefore figuratively of Absalom from the tree in which he became wedged, or of Jesus from a quite different tree.

One might justly say that the KD hangs upon Christ, but this is insufficiently clear. Dr. Schweiker wasn't terribly convinced that this was an answer to the complaints characteristically leveled against divine command ethics. The question is how. And I keep coming back to section 22, on how ethics is integral to dogmatics, and sections 36-39, on the nature of the command of God. I think if one gets this straight, questions about volume III and its human ethics take a more proper line. IV/4 and its associated fragments become more helpful. Without these first bits, exactly what Barth means by the command, and the relationship in which it exists, fails to become clear.

The more I read, and the more deeply, the more it becomes clear to me that everything hangs upon "Evangelium und Gesetz," and that the ethics of the dogmatics are properly a way of helping the church be and remain itself in faithful communion with God. The Church Dogmatics are the answer to faithful existence in the Kirchenkampf, in the insistence of culture that the church realign itself to German (Nazi) priorities. "Wenn ich Kulturprotestantismus höre ... entsichere ich meinen Dogmatik!" Or meinen Bekenntnisschriften. But the two are intended to fulfill like purposes in status confessionis. So you'd better have a dogmatic theology, or a confessional one, that helps you solve ethical dilemmas in faithful ways.

Perhaps it helps to approach Barth's dogmatics as a reasonably orthodox Lutheran versed in the ethical debates of orthodox Lutheranism. I must say it is a better starting point than philosophical or humanistic ethics -- than ethics built on a foundation Barth disavows up front. Such a person must be taught law/gospel, and may never properly *get* what is at stake in the question.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The (in)applicability of "Euthyphro", part II

So: gods as moral arbiters is the question. We've tossed out Socrates' complaint against the Greek pantheon for its internal divisions and disagreements as inapt to the Christian God. What is pious is also not impious. What God loves, God does not also hate. Des that make it apt to say that piety is what is dear to God, and impiety what is loath to Him? Is this the idea of piety for us? Would we say it, even before we get to judging whether it is an apt idea? Is Barth saying it? I don't think so. But he also isn't saying the opposite, Socrates' position that, grammatically, we can distinguish what God loves from what is pious.

The ethical implications of dogmatics already imply that we have accepted a covenantal act from God which makes claims upon our lives. Or received, at any rate; it impinges upon us, and ethical implications fall out of that contact. We are responsible to it because we respond to it, and our ethos corresponds to it. We are the normal force of God's action upon creation, modulo the effects of sin as resistance and dissipation of force. Piety and justice are what accord with that act and its consequent duties. They are gospel obedience, the performance of Christ, the Word of God.

The good is not what God loves; it is what God does (II/2). The pious is beloved of God, but only as an attribute; it is what Christ does -- which is also who Christ is as the man of God (III/2, III/4).

We are not loved because of our goodness/beauty, nor are our actions. On the contrary, Christ alone is kalos k'agathos. As Socrates will object, God receives no benefit from our actions. As Barth says, we are in God's service, and that may be a critical twist on Euthyphro's suggestion that we serve the gods. "Piety is the part of justice concerned with attending to the gods." (I am tempted to say that justice therefore consists of leitourgia and diakonia.) And if that is indeed not benefit to God (even though I can easily do without the impassivity notion), but service of God, then it produces the thing which it is God's goal to produce. Euthyphro turns at this point, reverting to a notion of mutual benefit, of client-patron relationships which are inevitably evoked as analogies here. But it is a crasser notion of benefit, of exchange rather than of koinonia, patronage toward a purpose which the patron desires and the client pursues.

We have wandered afield here from the command of God, which may be Socrates' point. To the extent that we believe in a notion of receiving the Word of God as ethical command, rather than attempting to self-derive our ethics from religious sources, we must insist on an Euthyphrian point rather than a Socratic one. But we cannot be so ignorant about it as Euthyphro himself.

Is this "the Euthyphro dilemma" as typically posed? The notion that if ethics is what God says it is, then it could be anything? I still think the answer to that question lies in the particularity of the deity in question. A generic, hypothetical deity could indeed command anything, because there is no character involved. Socrates clearly and typically disbelieves in the Greek pantheon, but the only way to do ethics from such disbelief is to posit a non-theological ethos. The Christian atheist will likewise be obliged to ethics on a priori principles, because s/he disagrees with the nature of the Christian God as moral arbiter. But the commands of this God are not unknown, or of unknown provenance or type, to either side, even if determining appropriate application of the Word of God to the situation requires serious and sustained engagement. That would be the question of what the command of God is, and how you know which action to take in a given situation. It presumes the metaphysics Socrates will not concede, and which cannot be proven to him. Two believers may debate the rightness of a course of action on Barthian grounds, just as Euthyphro might have a very different debate with a like-minded henotheist. A believer and a nonbeliever familiar with the deity in question might debate the justification of a given action, as well. But the modern, theistic "Euthyphro dilemma" or "Euthyphro objection" involves none of these. It attempts neither to discuss metaphysics, nor to presume a common metaphysic and discuss judgments, but rather to judge a metaphysic by voiding its contents and pretending nothing substantial has changed.

Barth's answer to "Euthyphro" is Anselmian. The goal of dogmatic theology is not apologetics, as though theology were incredible tout court; it is catechesis, the making-credible of the system of beliefs in order that they may be useful to the believer on their own grounds. Gaunilo may be a fool, but he isn't an atheist. The Church Dogmatics isn't for convincing the unbeliever. Barth's best answer to the sort of atheism that insists that the faith is self-contradictory and inconsistent is the demonstration of its internal self-consistency, and that means ethics right down the line as consequent of the substance of belief. You may argue whether the result is what the church actually demonstrates, and Barth will not disagree with you there. Dogmatics also judges the church in its failures. You may argue about Barth's "failure" to provide a codification, casuistic or otherwise, of normative behaviors. I think that's a feature, in the Nietzschean sense of ethics. But you cannot argue that what the Word of God means for human actions has not been explained, or that the command of God remains morally ambiguous and undefined. You may disagree with it, you may disavow it, you may ignore it, but it is not subject to the "Euthyphro dilemma" as commonly framed. The dilemma is to choose God, on the one hand, or your own ethos, on the other.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The (in)applicability of "Euthyphro"

So far, I find that the unity of persons in the trinitarian understanding of God takes away one of Socrates complaints. God doesn't internally disagree about the good. "Something all the persons of the trinity agree upon as good" is the same as something any one of them considers good. Sebeia and dikaiosunen (piety and justice) mean something different in our terms than in the civic/religious terminology of Socrates' Athens, but that's as may be expected in the Euthyphro case. The gods are different; the mores are different. This is because the Euthyphro dilemma starts from a position the philosophical discussion of it does not: there are no abstract deities. Philosophical theism as we discuss it tends to be an abstract dominant monotheism with vaguely Christian roots. It's certainly a legitimate discussion, but only in the same ways that Alston and Plantinga are legitimate discussions: in the abstract.

Epistemologically speaking, such a theism is only valid as an abstraction from genuine particular religions. Christianity is not a "theism plus"; theism is a "Christianity minus." When we pull the rug out from under a "Euthyphro objection" built on this sort of grounds, we get a more sensibly original Euthyphro. No hypothetical deities who might hypothetically demand torture and so hypothetically invert our notions of good/evil (which are, we must therefore conclude, superior to such a hypothetical deity). Even the complaint that such a problem would only be a problem if an actual deity did so, and it were actually evil, falls short by the fact that it maintains the same absolute, singular, hypothetical deity of philosophical theism. Omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good, and rational rather than real. Socrates has no such god, nor do any actual believers of my acquaintance, of whom Socrates' questions to Euthyphro might be asked.

Given that it is inapt to both Christian dialogues and Platonic ones, perhaps we should hie over to where the real action in "divine command theory" is happening. Since I'm particularly worried about Barth (for my exams, not really for his own internal validity; the man takes care of himself in that respect), we'll work with the actual Christian deity in essential Trinitarian construction and Biblical particularity, and try to work with Euthyphro as read rather than as received.

We start with a person feeling as of vital importance a command of God toward an action, a command which contradicts certain elements of received piety so as to raise the dilemma of which action is both a) truly pious (eusebous), and b) just (dikaios) for them to undertake. Classically Greek, in the Tragic sense, but also rather scientific in its isolation of the issue within a limited context. Even though the ethical life consists of minor conflicts in mostly-grey areas, we will tackle a major conflict in a major moral issue, so as to work from the greater to the lesser: death as murder/manslaughter.

So: my own father causes the death of a murderer by a combination of intentional actions and negligence. I am the chief witness and impetus behind his prosecution for this.

First, we're not talking about good versus evil; that's no dilemma at all. We're talking about a notion of higher justice perverse to gestalt moral sentiment but comprehensible as a legitimate and congruent divine command. The command does not violate the nature of the deity as known by the believer, even if it is unpleasant and inconvenient to pursue. As divine command, it becomes the better among two goods.

I see two possibilities: 1) I have determined my way out of a textual dilemma of commandments, placing "Thou shalt not kill" over "Honor thy father and mother" by my own interpretation of the exigencies; 2) My prayerful attention to the will of God has caused me to violate filial piety and my prior sense of the order of goodness in the world because God has expanded my sense of duty and justice to encompass new territory. (1) is what I find it easier to envision as a contemporary explanation; (2) is my best Barthian reconstruction of the Euthyphro position.

It seems that Socrates, the characteristic atheist, implicitly believes that (1) is the case, and that (2) stands on poor epistemological ground. The question is not about (1), but about justification of (2). So we start with the nature of the gods as moral arbiters. This is a classic Socratic point which is telling against the Greek pantheon. If we have a unified will of a singular deity (which proper trinitarian doctrines of God still reasonably approximate as the unified will of an interrelated being of persons), as touched at the top, we void some of that critique. Since this is getting long, I'll try and write a "part II" continuing this topic.

Cheap grace? Gospel, law, and obligation

So I found myself saying something like this the other day: "Law then Gospel is a Lutheran mistake." It's a much wider mistake than just the Lutherans, and we Lutherans don't all fall into it, but there seem to be two basic questions it answers. 1) What gives the gospel its savor? 2) What maintains that value? Homiletically, how do you convince your auditors of the value of the gospel?

The core of the problem seems to revolve around "cheap grace." That is, gospel without obligation, aka "antinomianism." Relatedly, the debate over the usus tertius legis: where Luther only finds two uses of the law, we want a third, one that lets us use it for the guidance of the redeemed.

If you're saved, you've got to be saved from something, right? Adding salvation to pre-existing freedom and comfort is silly. Now, to be sure, we aren't saved from the law -- the law just codifies, illustrates and condemns our sin(s). Being saved from the law would be like fixing a compiler warning by suppressing the warning message. The brokenness remains. But at the same time, a Lutheran law ethic that acknowledges the value of the law for direction of the sinner toward Christ still leaves us wondering what happens after that. If we're saved from sin, is that it? What happens to ethics on the other side?

In our simplistic association of obedience with law, we try to put the law on both sides of the gospel, so we have something to do between salvation and the eschaton. But Luther didn't have that problem, neither does Barth seem to, and I don't think you can say Paul did, either. Althaus played with the notion of distinguishing "command" from "law," and that gets us a position like we see in Elert as well, the decalogue as Christian ethos. But these are both forms, weak though they might be, of the same Lutheran error. If the gospel is an event, then the law is the environment against which it appears, and the normative environment of Christian ethics. It isn't far to the reservation of the gospel for the obedient, and the concomitant reservation of places in the Christian life, that is, the church, to the obedient.

Blatant, pretentious hypocrisy.

The word of God is gospel and law. Salvation always comes first. Salvation which requires no synergism, and accepts none. God initiates the covenant and upholds it. As Paul reminds the Galatians, the Mosaic law is subordinate to the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham may not be the first man, but he is the first man of God. (And a far more interesting character than Adam!) He is so because of God's choice, God's extension of grace with its concomitant benefits and obligations. God's determining election. I know Barth has his problems with infant water baptism, but the ground of the practice in Lutheran theology is precisely the constitutive extension of grace. It is gospel proclamation of that electing grace in the material sign of the sacrament. It is the Gospel initiating Christian life, and we push it back as far into the beginning of human life as we can so as to make it clear that we believe all of life to be under God's grace.

Barth has said that the law is a form of the gospel ("Evangelium und Gesetz"), and this is a core insight for the ethics of the Church Dogmatics. Law is a type of obligation, and indeed, the Mosaic law does follow as the set of enumerated obligations concomitant with the Mosaic covenant. (With which it is not, therefore, identical!) But obligation is not a function of law, let alone exclusively of any given codification. Neither does the gospel violate law, for it to be the exception from a universal rule. (But it would be, if the law were not a form of the gospel. This is the hinge of many atonement theologies, I think.) God's freedom is fundamental. Should there be a "natural law," it is a piece of a "natural covenant" which God has made in freedom. I don't believe there is, and certainly there is no promulgation, no gospel of which it is a form, for us to know it. (Consensus of cultured human beings is inevitably a selective consensus built out of agreeing viewpoints of common or equivalent cultural descent. It is not a divine mandate by any means, nor need we treat it as such.) In any case, God is not obligated by it, nor by any law or set of laws. Nothing restricts God as a God who goes about freely saving.

Have we contradicted ourself? In denying that law follows after the gospel, and then declaring that laws often follow gospels? I believe not, precisely in the fact that I have insisted that the former is a consequence of a mistaken assumption contradicted in the premises of the latter. But all the same, this is why Elert, Althaus and Barth had a mildly famous disagreement on the subject.

If we have obligations, they are obligations of the precise sort that our gospel embodies. They are based on the particular imposition of God into the world by which we have come to be people of God. It is our Christic salvation which obliges us to God, and which determines the forms in which we obey those great commandments which seem to be constant in what God wants: love God, love neighbor. They are not Mosaic, or Noachic, or Abrahamic, or even Isaianic or Deuteronomistic forms. This is in no way to deny the value of scriptural witness to the people of God in their relationships with God and one another (imbalanced though that couplet always is); indeed, it relies on analysis of that witness and those histories. But we are not them. Only God is the same -- yet we witness to that same God in remarkably different ways than our Fathers and theirs did.

Sin, and not law, is the desired root of the law-gospel idea, but even sin must be understood in relation to the mark that we miss. We have been elected to a life in God which is a calling to be about the business of God in the world. That election constitutes us as "perfectly free lords of all, subject to none." It obliges us, as we understand our Pauline and apostolic duty, to be "perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all." Subordinate only to God, and in God's service bound to all others. In that we fail that duty, you may reprove us, for it is properly a form of our gospel. (Which, by the by, is the entire point of Barthian dogmatics: correction of the actual behavior of the church in light of its proclamation -- its gospel.)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I go to a phenomenal church!

It occurs to me in the shower, blending Barth and my ecclesiology exams (and Zizioulas and Bonhoeffer and Westhelle thereby), that the church's ontology is phenomenology, or it is idolatry. But the way the church's ontology is phenomenological is not in any way incompatible with the notae ecclesiae. The marks of the church are in point of fact phenomenological identifiers of genuine instances. We fail if we try to make them ontological attributes of an actual existent, particularly when that existent ceases to be eschatological or noumenal (when it should be both).

The WCC process is expanding the set of all marks into theological consensus, but it is not thereby building a notion of The Church. Such a process is useful for exactly what BEM was useful for: building baseline consensus and getting out of the way of Life and Work. This is Faith and Order's job -- to get out of Life and Work's way. But at the same time, it is building a consensus on who we are as church, what our genuine instances of this thing appear as. As with so many things, it is a descriptive process of the participants in dialogue, not a prescriptive process of dogmatic imposition.

Barth on Doctrine as event

"... Pure doctrine is a deed, not a thing -- not even a matter of thoughts and words. Therefore pure doctrine is not identical with any existing text -- whether it is that of specific theological formulae, or that of a specific theological system; or that of the Church's creed, or even the text of the Bible. Pure doctrine is an event.

It is the same with the proclamation of the Church as it is with revelation and Holy Scripture. We have seen that revelation as God's Word is the unity of the act of incarnation and of the outpouring of the Holy Ghost. And we have seen that Holy Scripture as God's Word is the unity of the act of God's speaking to the prophets and apostles and through them to the Church. So the proclamation of the Church is God's Word as the unity of the life-giving act in which the Church hears and speaks. At all these points, especially the second and the third, the older Protestantism of the 17th century fell into the error of splitting up the unity of this act and regarding it synergistically, with an objective divine giving on the one hand, and on the other a subjective human taking and assimilating. In this way, Scripture especially became for it an inspired text, as did also doctrine as the norm of the Church's proclamation. And the result (for we cannot trifle with synergism) was to prepare the way for what was least of all desired, viz. the transformation of the authority and freedom of the Word of God into the very human authority and freedom of those who thought they held the Word of God in the form of these texts, and in that opinion quite consistently went on more and more to control it.

Pure doctrine as the fulfillment of the promise given to Church proclamation is an event. It is the event of the grace of the Word of God and of the obedience of faith created by this grace." I/2, 768.

Very interesting move. As stated prior to this, "pure doctrine" isn't orthos doxa, "correct opinion" -- it's AC7, and the fact that the two elements of the satis est are inseparable in practice: the right administration of the sacraments, and the right preaching of the Gospel. It is Gospel and Law -- note the obedience follows from faith which follows from grace, and not from the law, which does strictly what Luther would have it do: convict of sin and hand the sinner over, bound, to Christ who releases into the custody of the Spirit. (I have Hendel's ordination sermon of yesterday night ringing in my ears still.) It is an ethos of preaching the Gospel.

Where does this leave "command ethics"? I'm reminded of Althaus, with whom Barth disagreed, but who distinguished Gesetz from Gebot, law from command. A Gospel ethos is not free from obligation -- we're constantly talking about the locus transformed from the code of law to the law in the other. Perhaps it is unwise to speak of that as "law," but it is certainly Gebot, as we follow the two great Geboten of the Synoptics. I need to go back through II/2 with this.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

general and special ethics, and the KD

I said, "Which won't preach, because it's theological generalism. But that's also why preaching is an event, and the joy and pain of the notion. When you emphasize la nature événementielle de l'église ou du prédication, you either generalize unhelpfully about the abstract, or you become quite usefully specific only for a very particular audience."

And it's certainly a complaint which has been leveled against Barth's ethics (Lovin, among others). The notion that the Church Dogmatics should be useful in an immediate sense to people in ethical dilemmas seems ridiculous to the English-speaking American reader of more than half a century later. I'm supposed to struggle through this monstrosity of translated German logorrhea and derive immediate practical use from it in my daily life? But German readers engaged in the Kirchenkampf did. Bonhoeffer and Brunner may have disagreed on certain points of the approach, but the argument wasn't that Barth wasn't doing ethics. And while studying the KD and preaching, I've found profound gospel that isn't even related to Barth working with my text of the moment. (Not that I've found a way to get much out of the more popular extraction for preaching purposes ...) The question is what kind of ethics is Barth doing -- how does it work?

"Act deontology" has been thrown out there, based on the notion that Barth can't get more specific without going into cases, and won't get specific because he refuses to codify ethical responses that will then become limits which need to be surpassed. Situational ethics presupposes that every situation requires a different response. I'm not sure that's it, since the basic response is the same: attend to God.

I'm not sure ethics-as-event really suggests itself as a different category from situational ethics, but the notion of church-as-event, following the notion of preaching-as-event, grabs me as a way to describe the basic problem with Barth's approach. General and special ethics work out as the command in its aseity, and the command in its economy. It isn't theoretical vs. applied ethical principles -- I wouldn't call II/2 theoretical, even though it is proper to say that III, IV, and the non-existent V are the applications considered by Trinitarian roles. It isn't even a division in terms of considering God before God's persons, as II is thoroughly Trinitarian. The fact that Christ is Barth's anthropology keeps realization of the command of God in some sense practical the whole way along.

The trouble is, all this talk is missing I/2. It is terribly appropriate to talk ethics-as-event, because Barth is doing Word of God theology under the rubric of Gospel and Law that he established much earlier. As he says, pure doctrine is not theoretical -- that implies man-work presented as man's own work. A theory which may or may not be bruited about in public, not a divine Word which must be spoken and must not be withheld.

koinonia and the poor, and the church

I'm not sure I can follow Vitor (and Barb Rossing) when they say that the contractual stipulation of Galatians 2 is constitutive for Christian koinonia/community/church. I know, disagreeing with Vitor is like disagreeing with Tillich. Which just means I stand to learn something, even if it's that I take him to mean something he doesn't, quite.

The basic problem I have is, how does the contractual stipulation of one bipartisan agreement become the nature of agreement itself? Galatians 2, and the conference re-presented therein, may be constitutive of Paul's operating margin with respect to the Jerusalem church and its envelope, but it is not constitutive of his apostolate or ministry. The thrust of Galatians says as much, polemically! There is ground to see concern for the poor (whether globally or for "the poor" as a particular group at Jerusalem for whom offerings were taken as a show of good faith) as part of Paul's mission; it is certainly something he was eager to do, as he says. To the extent that he goes about to the assemblies with whom he has relationships and asks for contributions in pursuit of this stipulation, it becomes a part of his work. But the letters we have (at least some of them) are posterior to his mission and those relationships, just as he says the conference and resultant contract were.

I don't mean to thwart this liberation proposal -- it is indeed a valid permutation of the gospel, and in many contexts a necessary form of the message. But I don't find this particular exegetical support compelling.

What is constitutive for Christian koinonia is the gospel, the proclamation of God's action as the Father of the Son, as the Son of the Father, and as the Spirit of holiness which proceeds historically from their relationship and its consequences. We participate in God-for-creation as creation-for-fellow-creation, in which I find there to be sufficient but not necessary forms. That is to say, necessary to the instance, but not necessary to the participation as such. Which is theological language for "yes, the church is called to help the poor, but the church is not, essentially, its helping of the poor."

It is legitimate to make the nature of the church an ethical question, as Vitor suggests (following a long line) with the church as event. The gospel leads to action, or it leads to paraenesis, which tells you what the action was you should have been engaging in because of the gospel. "Frees and exhorts." I'm reminded of Zizioulas' complaint to start Being as Communion, that much as he loves eucharistic ecclesiology, its expressions fall prey to essentialisms that make the eucharistic nature a limiting factor on the nature of the church, not an expression of its being towards eschatological life in Christ. I'm hard-pressed to think of instances where the church of my acquaintance should ever not be about helping the poor as part of their response to their gospel freedom. But I'm also hard-pressed, following Barth (and Nietzsche), to say that the ethical answer to gospel freedom can or may be prescribed in advance. I do not believe that it may, because the answer from God will always be larger than the answer prescribed. To the extent that the nature of the church is an ethical question, it must include many things but can never be limited to them in advance of encountering its actual created community. Even helping the poor will mean something in one instance that may not be relied upon in the next.

Which is awfully global and away from Galatians, but I think also goes to the point. What Paul, Peter, James, John and the other factions involved agree to as a stipulation of their koinonia in Christ does in no way violate the gospel, God's active relationship with creation, or creation's consequent self-relationships. It is a true face of the church. Had they agreed to something else equally concordant with the gospel, it would also have been a true face of the church, and matched the nature of koinonia, but not because the two share identity. The church does koinonia, and is koinonia in a variety of essential ways, but koinonia is not the church. The church is Christian koinonia. It is human social action that aligns itself to the gospel of Christ. It may therefore be "all things to all people," all possible means of Christ, without too fine a point on it, but with prayer and accountability to God and neighbor.

Which won't preach, because it's theological generalism. But that's also why preaching is an event, and the joy and pain of the notion. When you emphasize la nature événementielle de l'église ou du prédication, you either generalize unhelpfully about the abstract, or you become quite usefully specific only for a very particular audience. And this forum doesn't lend itself to the latter, since I seem to be talking to myself.