Saturday, August 27, 2011

Taking Up the Cross

It is not your job to defend Jesus. It is not your job to protect him at all costs -- he is not the President, and you are not the Secret Service. It is not your job to rescue him. It is not your job to keep him from harm. Get behind him, where he can keep you from harm.

It's as though Jesus said to Peter, "If I am the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, let me do my job. Trust me."

You can't get to the cross ahead of Jesus, you can't go there for Jesus, and you can't get in his way. Those are facts: you simply can't. It's not possible. It wasn't even possible for Peter, who was there! And yet Peter is still going to go through all the trouble of sneaking in to the scene of the trial, bluffing his way past guards and people who think he looks familiar, because he has to do something -- or Jesus is going to die! And then the cock crows, and Peter learns what Jesus was trying to tell him in the gospel today: Jesus' life is worthless, if he doesn't do what God does. What's to save? What could we conceivably give Jesus that would make up for his failure here? How could he still be what we hope and confess and know that he is: the Son of the Living God, the Messiah? How could he do what desperately needs to be done?

Theologians and Philosophers at Play

... by which I mean, at work in each other's bailiwicks. "Play" in the Heideggerian sense; "games" in the Wittgensteinian sense. What am I talking about? "Analytic Theology." David just posted about Notre Dame's Templeton fellowships and grants under the Analytic Theology Project. Which reminds me just how much I like that particular playground. And yet how oddly I fit into the usual games there.

I've taken to calling myself a "theological diagnostician." Basically for two reasons: I find the description apt to what I do, and it's just unusual enough to be a conversation opener. What I mean is that I use a form of analytic theology within the framework of theological dogmatics. But I keep discovering the ways that this does not make me into an analytic theologian -- because I do not actually do analytic theology. I do theology. But the distinction isn't intuitive -- those two statements suggest that I must therefore do some non-analytic form of theology.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Thoughts on Koine Pedagogy

Thought I'd put up some of my meditations on teaching Greek. I've been thinking for quite a while about the fact that we teach ancient languages and modern languages differently. Grammar-Translation vs. Natural Language pedagogy. Obviously, teaching Koine, there's a whole lot of concepts that it's necessary to train into the student -- three sets of declensions, five cases, gender-number-case alignment, verb conjugations, verb tenses, moods, and voices. Not to mention the basics of character and phoneme recognition in a non-Latin alphabet. But the standard approach I see, even in the newer, "glossier" textbooks, is still dumping batches of information on the student and asking them to interpret, but not to use.

I realize that in the seminaries we generally only get one, maybe two terms to teach the language comprehensively -- and the same for Hebrew. And for non-Classics majors in undergrad, two terms is a maximal expectation. And so we cheat. We can either aim for higher usage proficiency or higher concept knowledge, but not both. In other words, full grammar and limited reading competence, or better reading/speaking/listening competence and less grammar. In Bible, this always pushes us toward Grammar-Translation models, where recognition is about all we can achieve in the time given to us. And every New Testament prof is reteaching the basics, come translation time.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Shadow of Justice

Law is the shadow of justice.

This implies two things: justice, and the light of our regard.

Justice is fractal. This means that at every level its principle -- its logos -- is the same. But it also means that justice looks different from different angles and approaches. Justice has many aspects, therefore, and one logic.

Two things may be generated, categorically, from the intersection of our regard with the body of justice. The first is gospel: the proclamation of that form or aspect of justice which we have seen and experienced. The second is law: the shadow cast behind justice by the light.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Free Will and Sin

In the conversation that followed the last post, I got a good deal of correction on the nuances of Christian actualist ontology. So part 2 may be coming. And in that fruitful conversation with David, this time about ecclesiology -- which again came down to our choice among pluralisms -- I managed to say something I haven't said before, which I owe to reading more of CD III. And over the last day, including reading Eric Reitan, it's gotten bigger in my mind, to the point where it seems worth hacking out here.

Taken as given: The root of sin is separation from God. The nature of sin is action in separation from God.

Barth speaks about sin as an impossibility, and in connection with his discussion of God as Creator and consequently Lord of creation, it occurs to me that this has radical implications for our talk about sin. In common usage, sin is disobedience to God. But disobedience is possible only to the one who does in fact hear God as Lord. It is the possibility exercised in Jonah. Such disobedience will eventually be reconciled, because the subject is precisely the hearing subject. The word of God follows upon the actions of God, constituting relationship and then faith in relationship. The actions and words of God build the relationship in which obedience is possible -- the sine qua non of obedience.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Actualist Ontology? (1 of possibly 2)

Editor's note: I'm glad you've stumbled across this, but I must warn you that what I do below is not actually actualist ontology, at least not the way it's done in the Princeton school. The introduction to Paul Nimmo's book is a better description, as are the gestures in the same direction by David Congdon here and by David and others here and here. That said, I still think what follows here is an interesting grasp after it in terms of philosophical theology.

I'm wrestling at the moment with something I'm not sure about: "actualist ontology." It came up in the discussion of David Congdon's very interesting proposal on the Evangelical idea. Part of me wants to say, "well, of course, if we're talking about Barth, we mean that theology proceeds from what is (including and especially the content of God's self-revelation and the scriptural witness to same)." Which is, from the analytic philosophy perspective, a very interesting sort of "actualism" -- granting actual existence to things that cannot be epistemologically warranted on empirical grounds. Granting, in fact, a superior epistemological warrant to them, in such a way as to determine the structure of what is empirically observable and readily warranted. Which is not to make any claim, of course, that what is so readily warranted is not in fact actual -- it is simply to exert a structurally interpretive framework for the actuality of the empirically observable.

Now, this is some ways distant from what I hear David actually claiming -- which is more along the lines of Barth's definition of human existence in terms of a history of moral agency. That our being is our doing, which is to say that our existence is constituted by that history of things we have actually done, rather than by that set of possible deeds from which we have chosen, wittingly or unwittingly. It is constituted by the choices to actualize this and not those in given circumstances. But this seems more to be an agentic ontology, than an actualist one. (Stressing the nature of what becomes actual, and the path to actuality, rather than ontological assertion from what is presently actual alone.)

(Obviously I'm open to clarification, here, and I plan on asking for it, but I'm going to at least attempt a first-principles reconstruction from what I do understand so there's something to correct.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Virtue of Humility

It may be said -- and today's Gospel reading is a magnificent example -- that Matthew is a sustained presentation on the virtue of recognizing Jesus as God's messiah. Knowing who he is. Edgar Krentz suggests that the virtue shown in the trial in the wilderness, greatly expanded by Matthew, and in the entry into Jerusalem is the same: humility, in Greek praütētos. That this is not meekness or lowliness or any other sort of wimpy virtue, but purely and simply that Jesus knows who he is, and who he is not. That he acts only on the basis of his self-recognition as God's messiah, and that passing the trial by Satan in the wilderness is a demonstration of his correct understanding of this identity. Humility in Jesus consists of knowing who he is, and acting like it.

What difference would it make if Jesus was one of the prophets? I've argued before that he is a prophet, in Mark -- that he performs a prophetic role in teaching. And clearly, in Matthew, Jesus also performs this prophetic role in teaching. And what do the prophets do? The prophets are those sent by God to call the people of God to account. To account, not for the letter of the law or for their obedience to teaching, but for the root of the law: for their relationship to God, and their corresponding relationship to one another. A prophet tells the people the uncomfortable truth of where they have gone wrong in their relationship with God and one another as God's peculiar people, and calls them to turn back to God and behave justly toward one another.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Barthian Exegetical Praxis (aka "Preaching")

Since about the middle of summer, I've been trying actively to follow and respond to the pericopes of the church year. Now, I wouldn't call most of what I do here "preaching" in the proper sense -- there's too much of instruction in it to be wholly words of life (much less holy words of life). But it is what comes before preaching, as reflection and attempted application practiced upon the texts. And in it I try to do what preaching must do: be of service to the church as it goes about living into and out of the gospel.

As a lay doctoral student I do not belong to the order of the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I rejoice in the service of those who are so ordained, but it is not my calling. As a theologian (even if a journeyman at present), I belong to those who are so called, as much as both I and they belong to the body of the church as organs of it. To the extent that there is a clerical division of labor in the church, it is my job to serve the laity, and to help the clergy serve the laity likewise. Because the "laity" are nothing but the laos theou, and the servants of the people of God are likewise laïkos.

And so when I went about getting seriously into Barth, I discovered that I could not do it without learning something in which I had not yet been trained: preaching. (I thank Gary Dorrien for watering the seed of this realization in me.) Because it is not intuitive, this intentional proclamation of the Word of God for the people of God. It is not, as it appears, a matter of getting up and talking about the Bible. I had been trained in that. I had taken classes in hermeneutics, and exegetical method, and done a good deal of self-study beyond them on that end. And yet the first time I got up to preach, no one was fed. Teaching Bible is not proclamation. (And teaching Bible without proclamation might not even be good teaching!)

Monday, August 15, 2011

"You are not expected to understand this."

Some long chain of internet wandering this morning brought up this classic comment by Dennis Ritchie: "You are not expected to understand this." (Follow the link for context, if you get programming; otherwise, you might want to skip most of what follows and just read the end of this post.) Reading dmr's explanation, it reminds me of a great many instances of arcane code in theology. Spots which are hard to believe, until you get down to trying to hack around them, and discover that it is reality which is bent, and the code is just following the hack in the world. Which is just as much as to say that the machine and the language don't line up, like in any paradox. It's not the language's fault. But it's also an indication that the language is built for flaws in a very specific model, and when the model changes, so do the flaws. Old ones disappear -- not always because they've been fixed -- and new ones pop up in unexpected places. New language, new code, is required.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Arguing with Atheists

I don't like arguing with atheists, as a matter of course. It's not my job. They aren't my competition, even if they compete with me. It reminds me of growing up around Philadelphia radio, and the lengths to which Howard Stern went to compete with John DeBella. Why? DeBella had something: position. Stern wanted it, but he was "up-and-coming." He'd do anything to get it -- some seriously dirty stuff, too, and nobody who knows Stern's "shock jock" reputation is surprised -- but the major tactic was simply to get DeBella to respond to him. To take him seriously. Because at that point, he'd win: he would have his entrée into the top tier of the industry.

Pop atheism is about cultural cachet. Position. It sells books. It's "number 2 with a bullet," or it would like to be, and number 1 is Christianity. Atheism sells, not by being a position, but by being a negation. Whatever else an atheist will claim, the thing that makes them not simply a non-Christian is the assertion of a particular kind of anti-Christianity -- frequently in the form of refutations of philosophical theism on the basis of Christian doctrinal propositions. An atheist is bound up in the disproof of theistic religion, but not on the design of any other supposedly theistic religion. That abstraction belongs to the Western cultural hegemony of Christianity. Atheism simply cannot hold the top spot -- it would cease to exist. It remains wholly subsidiary to Christianity. But it succeeds by getting Christianity to argue with it on its own terms. It demands response to justify its responsive existence.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Nomos and Pistis

With thanks to Adam Braun and Karl Barth, for their assistance so far. I've posted on this topic already, but this is an attempt at an abstract for it.

"Nomos and Pistis: The Freedom of Trust with Respect to Ways of Life in Romans 5-8"
Matthew A. Frost
The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago


In Romans 3:21-26, Paul makes a crucial break in his argument before the Roman audience. With the words CWRIS NOMOU, he sets Christ adjacent to Torah, and fashions divine justice into a space distinct from any given way of life. This follows his exposition in Romans 2, in which Paul fashioned divine judgment according to deeds into a space distinct from any given way of life. Since trust does not negate Torah, or other ways of ethical living, Paul is able to work from these points toward a goal of common ethical life in the Spirit. This is the overarching rhetorical goal of Romans 5-8: leading the mixed Hellenistic Judean and gentile audience from the realm and rule of sin, through the role of Christ in their respective adoptions by God, into the present realm and rule of the Spirit. In this way Paul sets right alignment with God (dikaiosunen) in terms strictly of God's own action, incorporating and transcending differing ways of life by removing that justifying function from the Hellenistic concept of nomos, with its implications of cultural identity, and establishing it strictly on the concept of pistis. This frames Paul's subsequent ethical exhortation.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Two Rules -- a Caveat

Rule number 1 is:

"If you want to state a given argument, you may, but listen to the answer."

To do otherwise is to demonstrate that you are wasting my time.

Rule number 2 is:

"Don't get cheap."

It won't get you out of the argument you've made, and if persistently deployed, it further cements the opinion that you are wasting my time.

If you violate rule number 2 and aren't being an ass, please follow rule number 1, and try to say something intelligent of your own between instances in which you break rule number 2. This shows me that you are not only capable of learning, but that you are willing to learn. That, I can work with.

When in doubt, I will argue you into the ground, on the basic presumption that you can learn. If you follow rule number 1, and keep arguing, I will be confirmed in this opinion of you. This means that even if you keep violating rule number 2, I will take a certain joy in the event of arguing with you -- because it suggests to me that I may learn something. I will take you at dead earnest, and play the game out as far as rule number 1 allows. I might even start to like you.

All that said, if we keep following this procedure, I'm going to be playing the "rational arguments" game at full strength. If you want to have an engagement on some other basis, just say so, and we'll go play that game instead.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hip-Deep in Orality: Developing an Exegetical Method

So I'm hip-deep in Werner Kelber, Walter Ong, and Eric Havelock, all via Joanna Dewey, and remembering classes with David Rhoads, and it puts me in mind to think about how I translate my "author's translation" passages. What's my exegetical method? And the simplest way is to start with how I did Romans, which is how I plan to go forward through the Corinthian letters. But that has its own history, too.

When I ran through Galatians, almost 4 years ago now, I had already done Mark 11-13 for my Masters' thesis, and learned a fair bit about linguistic patterning and structure -- some of which I got from doing all of Matthew with Ed Krentz, but most of which came from being introduced to Paul's letters in whirlwind tour by Dave Rhoads. (If I had to differentiate them: Ed does technical structure in fine and historic detail; Dave does gestalt function built out of the structure.) My thesis in Mark was predicated on the theological import of linguistic structure -- that the pieces we use and how we build the system speak, and speak volumes over above the content of that system. Lexis and taxis respectively, even though I didn't have those terms yet. Structure encodes meaning.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

More Keys to Barth's Creation

So we've said that Barth's doctrine of creation relies upon a specific, developed understanding of the Word of God (and also on a specific set of scriptural hermeneutics -- which are often more about practice of exegesis than theory), and that it relies upon a specific developed understanding of the doctrine of God. That God, as God, is first of all what God does, but that that is revelation and command in Barth (as opposed to creation in Thomas). And so, when Barth touches down from the heavens to the Earth, beginning logically with creation, what follows is a discussion of this God as creator, and then as reconciler -- but unfortunately not as redeemer, though that was the plan. (Don't complain; when anyone complained that the next bit wasn't out yet, he'd ask if they had finished the rest already. I'm not worried; there's quite enough here -- an embarrassment of riches. It's like complaining about the works that Bach didn't write.)

Anyhow, on to fresh meat. It is self-evident to anyone who has looked that Barth's creation is anthropocentric. It is to the same degree Christocentric, as we are speaking about the divine-human relationship vis-a-vis the creature as creature. But these -centrisms can be mistaken for exclusive concern, which is normally what I hear when someone complains about anthropocentrism or Christocentrism. That Barth is missing the other bits, or not giving them their due, by means of his consistent bias towards man and Christ. There is some truth there; Barth is doing Church Dogmatics from scriptures and tradition composed by human beings. He is doing dogmatics as a diagnostic evaluation of the speech of the church, proceeding from its basis out toward its actions. These are human thoughts, human concerns, human disagreements, human actions. Hence human dogmatics and human ethics. We are not concerned with diagnosing or correcting the thoughts, words, and deeds of any other creature on earth or under heaven. Only ours, but therefore also ours with respect to God and all creation. Because nothing else, save God, is a relevant ethical agent, and the witness we have to God's agency is overwhelmingly concerned with God's agency for specifically human creatures. (The justification for III.2 as theological anthropology, in a nutshell.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Wind and the Sea Obey Him

What is a miracle, but a demonstration that the Creator is Lord of creation? If you told me it was impossible, what happened here on the Sea of Galilee, I'd agree with you: water does not obey me. Gravity, as I have known ever since I worked in the department where we keep all the light bulbs, is my nemesis. I am stuff, like all this other stuff, and no better or worse. Smarter, more capable, but not ultimately superior to all the matter around me. I am subject to physics. That great big mass of earth below me pulls me down, and the water simply gets out of the way.

Peter is no different. And he worked on the water from the time he was old enough to go out there with his father and brothers and the hired men and get to work. He knows what it's like when this water gets all churned up, when the wind whips it into chop as it comes down off the mountains. It's not enough to keep you from tucking up in the bottom of the boat and getting some rest with the sea anchor out, but it's not nice, and as dark falls, the disciples are still on the water. Obeying physics, while taking advantage of drag and buoyancy to keep from obeying gravity all too well. And one or two at a time, they make sure that nothing bad happens while they're out there, just to keep it that way.

Monday, August 1, 2011

How not to start your first junior pastorate...

You don't walk in and assert that people are going to start doing things your way, on the strength of the portion of the congregation that liked you for the job. You don't threaten to break the system because it continues to work the way it has for decades. You don't hold meetings where you voice your opinions to the congregation in a manner antagonistic to the council, the elders, and the senior pastors, accusing and attacking them in their absence. You don't walk into your first call expecting to "win" in some way.

And yet this is exactly what I see from the Tea Party freshmen in Congress, especially as they have involved themselves with the debt-ceiling deal.