Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why not natural theology?

[editor's note: hopefully I've done myself and the topic more justice since writing what appears below.]

I don't mean that question the first way you're likely to read it -- I have no intention of passively surrendering to natural theology. Rather, the question put to me as a Barthian is, "Why not natural theology?" And I respect the man that put the question to me -- besides the fact that he's my boss -- because the question bears heavily on what he does for a living: religion and science. But at the same time, I wonder why he needs it. (And for all my respect, I'm going to go unceremoniously about my thought process because it's what this place is for.)

Barth's opposition to natural theology is quite well-known. He told the Gifford Lecture folks "no" repeatedly, and when they insisted, he did natural theology the best service he could: he presented the most solid case for theology based on divine self-revelation possible. He presented it based on the Scots Confession, in two parts: Gotteserkenntnis und Gottesdienst. The knowledge of God, and the service or worship of God. Why is this the best service he could do for natural theology? As he put it, natural theology is always a reaction against revealed theology. The strength of the one is directly related to the strength of the other.

And yet that's only the case for one kind of natural theology -- what I'm calling Protestant natural theology. I'm sure there's a more precise way of putting that, but the natural theology Barth reacts so strongly against is an Enlightenment product, and a break that is only conceivable after the Reformation. One break with the church paves the way for another. On the other side, for Catholics after Aquinas, the words "natural theology" have a different ring to them. They are utterly dependent upon revealed theology because Catholic natural theology describes God's revelation as it remains visible in the natural world, in our senses, etc., after the fall. While the Protestant variety can easily turn against God, the Catholic variety makes no sense without God.

He suggests a third option, philosophical natural theology, but I'm hard-put to see it as a genuine third. It is obviously not Catholic. And perhaps my language of "Protestant" suggests a sort of basic religious outlook, but the best of modern irreligious theology falls after the Reformation, pushing along behind it. It is what Barth opposes - knowledge of God from creation, known cleanly without God's giving Godself to be known. Knowledge of God that can be had, not only without the church's help, but without the consent of the Subject. Objective, naturwissenschaftliche knowledge of a subject that cannot evade detection, a subject naturally epistemologically available because nothing can escape being so. Hubris! (And besides, what a silly place to look for a deity! The only things you'll find there are things that disprove that there is a supernatural being bound within the systems of nature.)

What can be read from the book of nature is not equivalent to what is told by the witness of scripture. We learn a great deal about the ways the systems in which we are embedded function - and the ways they break. But without prior knowledge of the God to whom creation is ascribed, nature speaks no unambiguous word of God to the observer. God is not a component of the systems arrayed about us. As Tillich said, God is source and ground of the figure/structure - present around and within it, but not bound by it. As Barth said (III.1), creation exists separate from God, and this is God's intention, so that God and the creation should be in relationship. But as such, God is rightly hidden from our controlling grasp. Of all the things we can do with our God-given powers and gifts within creation, revealing God is not one of them.

Here is the trouble I see with natural theology: either it cheats, and knows the answer it wants in advance, or it makes a god of nature. (Or of the necessities thereof, the "fingerprints of the creator" ... but so often that, too is cheating.) By cheating, I mean many things -- there's no reason for the Christian God to be its desire, though in the Christian West that is often the model for the shape filled in by natural theology. But any of them are still cheating in the same way that any clean-room reverse-engineering process cheats: we have an objective, someone else's finished product that we desire, and we abstract the relevant attributes of that product because we can study them and know them in advance of our "discovery", and then implement them somewhere else. So deism, among many others. There is an operating assumption there that the truth of a religion can be abstracted from its particulars -- that it can be universalized in ways that allow one to evade the sticky details. The only honest natural theologies of my experience are aboriginal. (I'm not sure that's quite the word I want, but it'll do to convey the idea.)

The thing the Bible has going for it, is the simple fact that it is not self-evident. It cannot be derived from the natural world. Neither, therefore, can it be reduced to the natural world, even if the witnesses it preserves are witnesses to events that happened within creation. This is not to deny that, for the believer, all of creation declares the glory of God and shows itself to be God's handiwork. But it only does this for the believer, for the one to whom God has already been revealed in relationship to that one and all others. This is the result of faith understanding the world. And this changes in no way the basic functions of all the systems in which we are embedded within creation, except that we understand that God is Lord of them. This has always been something we ascribe after the fact -- the doctrine of creation is not derived from observation of the world, followed by a Newtonian insight that God must have made all of this stuff I see. (The Cartesian assertion that the creator is the second most basic logical element of the world, after the self, is no exception!) In the Bible, creation narratives are spread all across the historical development of the theology of the people of God, from the Psalms to the Deuteronomistic History to the intertestamental literature. But inevitably they are later developments, developments that follow the creation of the relationship of the people of God to God by God's great works for them. The people who live into this relationship grow in faith until they see and believe that all things are within the power of God, and declare by faith that all things come from God and return to God.

I'm sure there are responses to this position of mine, and things I haven't covered, and I'd love to hear them, so we can grow from the experience.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sittler quote for the day

From 1979, in a speech to members of the Association of Lutheran College Faculties (ALCF):

"Look at Trinity College, Cambridge. What kind of a college is this? It hasn't anything in it, even today, that most of our colleges talk about. Some of the buildings are falling apart, the food is horrible, the faculty not particularly celebrated. Yet, they turn out generation after generation of extraordinarily competent men and women. The students receive one-to-one education, learn to write English with clarity and precision, and read what they're told. That is what a college does: it accomplishes opening outward and unfolding. When we talk about what constitutes the greatness of a college, we ought to think with a certain creative bewilderment of Trinity College, which has nothing which we think we have to have."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why Sittler and Barth?

The last post drew comment from my predecessor, who is himself planning an intellectual biography of Joseph Sittler. So I respect him when he says this:
I suspect (although this is just a hunch) that, even though Sittler spoke more or less admirably of Barth when he mentioned him (which was infrequently), the well was poisoned by the mid-century Chicago school environs in which Sittler's theology was incubated. Tillich, Niebuhr, Pauck, Adams, etc. were Sittler's compatriots, and many from that school defined themselves in opposition to Barthian currents. While there are aspects of Sittler that transcend the Chicago-Yale (Barth) divide of the late 20th century, on the whole he would find himself pretty clearly on the Chicago side. This would apply particularly to Sittler's use of historical criticism of biblical texts. I know that Barth's position on HC were complex, but on the whole the late 20th century regarded Barthianism as antagonistic towards the emerging trends in biblical studies.

It's an interesting line of inquiry to push forward the query, as you are doing, as to whether Sittler's own work would cohere with concrete themes from Barth himself (as opposed to "Barthianism"). But my hunch again would be that, for the reasons I've mentioned, Sittler did not immerse himself too deeply in the study of Barth beyond what would have been necessary for him to teach the requisite sections on Barth in his lectures (which are there in the archives). Barth certainly is a non-presence in the bibliographies of Sittler's major works...

But at the same time, I think that misses the point of why I feel compelled by the resonances I find, and the bits and pieces of Barth scattered hither and yon in Sittler. It is kind of my hunch against his at this point, absent a lot of written background sources that we don't have in our collections. I have no intention of declaring Sittler to be a Barthian, exclusive of the various things he obviously is otherwise. But the deeper I get into Barth, below the surface-level "Barthianism" he points out, the more I think declaring Sittler to be a Barthian would miss the point, as so many Barthians do. So what am I doing?

Honestly, some of it is work for my own sake. I saw in Barth, from practically the moment I picked him up, someone whose work could be a model for my own interests. Someone who does Bible for the sake of theology, and theology for the sake of church, and church for the sake of the genuine people involved in it, both pastors and laity. But who does all of those things as parts of a sensible whole, and whose thought was broad and deep and systematic enough to require the whole scope and make it work. I'm an odd duck in the discipline of academic theology, because I spend half of my time in Bible. I'm an odd duck in Bible because I spend all of my time using the critical tools to say theological things. My incoming program advisor said they couldn't make heads or tails of me, because I'm something very old - a Reformation theologian. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I do have a hankering for the days when, to be called a theologian, you had to be a Bible scholar. My dream job is Systematic Theology and New Testament, with an option on teaching Greek. But it has always been clear to me that I belong in Theology because I'd have to hack off my right arm to just do Bible scholarship the way it's done. Every textual point I make goes somewhere outside of the text. Barth gives that shape of my brain a solid grounding and direction.

Sittler gives me a way out of Barth, a way beyond him using the same tools. Two points make a line, yes, but given two examples you can begin to make usable abstractions. Most importantly, Sittler gives me a way to stay out of the trap of becoming a Barthian. A way to ask the method questions from enough distance to actually see them, rather than trying to figure out "theological exegesis" by examining Barth's exegetical work, for one example. A place to stand that isn't Barth's, and isn't Sittler's, but is actually mine to do exegesis, theology and ministry from. I doubt that someday someone will have to ask whether I was dependent upon Karl Barth - I can't imagine the evidence will be equivocal. But I pray that nobody will confuse my worldview and his. I, in my Stand, am called and equipped to see and say things neither Barth nor Sittler could have said, because this place and time and circumstance is different from theirs. And Sittler especially, as his own particular brand of constructive theologian, equips me to ask the questions about the world theology addresses here, now, today.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A piece of Sittler's debt to Barth

As the fellow of the Joseph A. Sittler Archives at LSTC, and a student of Barth theologically, I always have the question before me about how much these two figures go together -- and how much I am making up the connections between the two. Part of this problem is that we have a lot of oral records of Sittler, and not so many written pieces of background on courses and such. But it nags at my consciousness as I work with both of them, how much the one reminds me of the other.

At minimum, it is clear to me that Joseph Sittler was not a Barthian, in any way comparable to Torrance or Gunton; Hauerwas, Yoder, or Lindbeck; .... Not a man that follows the material with whatever exactitude and builds out of it in obvious indebtedness. Not a man on whose lips the name "Barth" is regularly taken. But nonetheless a man in whose remains bits and pieces of Barth pop to the surface, and more importantly a man in whom the methods of Barth's work are more seriously taken than their products. A "constructive theologian" whose work involves a remarkable depth of exegesis, church history and patristics, systematic analysis of doctrines in context, ministry and preaching, the freedom to integrate Luther and Calvin without "dogmatic" adherence to their followers, and the bonus elements of literary and artistic awareness of his surrounding culture, and a mind aware of the advances of science and technology changing the world. A theologian more worried about how what is said is to be said today, and how it is to shape preaching, than the adherence to what has been said in the ways it has been said. And for all that, a man profoundly faithful to the articles of the Christian faith. If that's not the mold of the man Karl Barth, I miss my mark. A far too curious and educated parish pastor who came up to the professorship without leaving the pastorate, driven to do theology, and driven to do it for the life of the church.

And yet this isn't all -- that makes one many things, but the bits of Barth that pop up here and there push the notion of Sittler as a student of Barth flying under the radar.

So, one point found today of the debt Sittler owes to Barth, in the first of his four 1959 lectures in the University District, Seattle, WA: the ecology of human being mirrors III.4 in its construction. The audio can be found here. The lecture opens with an excursus on biblical hermeneutics and the meaning of "the Word of God" -- an excellent choice among prolegomena. The Word of God is what God does, "the saving activity of God." (5:40) "God's self-disclosure as creator and redeemer, that's the heart of it." (6:02) Secondly the words of God given in testimony by the prophets, third the written record of these words, but all inseparable from that first meaning. Fourth, the incarnation (8:00). Then we proceed to Genesis as story. And here we have the key bit in minute 10: "When the Hebrew people wanted to put down the deepest knowledge that they had from God as to who they are, how a man's life is constituted, how he is triply constituted: toward God, toward his fellowmen, toward the world of nature, the Hebrew people ... tell a story." And in minute 12: "No amount of accumulated knowledge will ever make irrelevant what this story is talking about, because this tale is the Word of God saying to a man who he is, how his life is constituted, what is the amplitude of his endowment -- the breath of God, nothing less -- so that if he tries to cheat on his endowment, he calls it frustration; God calls it alienation. So that if he tries to act as if he were something less than he is constituted to be, he will have certain feelings of unfulfillment -- and the scriptures call it sin."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

et sanctum nomen eius

As someone whose birthday is also celebrated as The Name of the Lord -- also properly known as the Circumcision of Our Lord -- I get used to the "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" jokes for the day. But those two variations on the celebration for the day are not euphemistic, even though we might avoid the one for the other. The celebration that includes the words, "And let his name be known in Israel, Yehoshua, son of Joseph, ..." is the one that makes him a son of the covenant by the sign of circumcision. The child is given the name by which he will be called among the people, the name by which they will know him, by which he will know himself, and by which God will know him as His own child. And despite the Maccabean themes of the gospels, this one is not called Nikodemos, the victorious people. He is called Yehoshua, "God saves." This is what the people know, and what he himself knows -- that God saves. This is how Jesus is called among the people, and how God is known in him. This one, given this name, knew that his role was not to rise up and seize the name and power of God. No; being called, "God saves," he became the Isaianic servant, God's servant and the one whose obedience brings God's salvation for God's people.