Monday, November 28, 2011

Publish Glad Tidings: Redemption and Release

ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν. (Mk 1:4)

"And there was John: the one who baptizes in the desert, and who proclaims the baptism of afterthought for the release of failures."

Besides the absurdity of baptism, of flooding, drowning, washing away, of the effusive cleanliness that only massive amounts of water can bring -- besides the absurdity of this taking place in the desert, there is something beautifully stirring about the words of Mark here. Words whose sense is not adequately transmitted to us by the English, "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."

It is said that the origin of the word "metaphysics" was a matter of sequence: having written the physics, the author proceeded to the next book, which came "after the physics." The Greek word metanoia has the same basic feeling, when we grasp it intently. Noesis is simply sensible, perceptive thought. Metanoesis is what happens after you've thought about what has happened -- it is reflective realization. Afterthought in the aftermath. Metanoia is that moment when it dawns upon you what you've done, and how, and the effects of your action sink in to your consciousness. It is regret, even in the face of the best of actions. It is regret because of hamartia, which simply means "missing the mark." What we have done falls short of what we must do, what we should have done, how we should have done it better.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

"These mark the commencement of labor."

ἀρχὴ ὠδίνων ταῦτα. (Mk 13:9)

Ah, the "little apocalypse." And because of that, how often we sidestep the fact that what Jesus refers to here in Mark is the coming of new life into the world! Now, with the help of skilled obstetrics, we have no reason to expect that the mother will die. But there will certainly be pain -- and in a time without epidurals, let alone all the other things we associate with modern medically-assisted childbirth, that pain could be the end of the world.

And yet, in today's gospel reading, we receive the promise that the righteous rule of God will crown, and be born, and we will live to see it and not die in labor. The days of our travail will be cut short, and we will be rescued from the labor pains. And why have the days of labor been cut short? For the sake of the salvation of God's chosen people. Because God is not in the suffering -- God is in the bringing of new life, and the rescue of the old.

This is why we hope for the advent of our God, in this time of war and death and greed and suffering. And Jesus promises his audience, in every time and place where the story is told, that this lineage, this chosen people of God will not be wiped from the earth before the coming of the kingdom of God -- even if the heavens and the earth should be destroyed, the promise will remain. As for when the labor will begin -- well, you know as well as I do, that that's in God's hands. And so we will watch for it, and endure the time patiently, knowing that when it comes, new life will follow.

And in fact God will expand this chosen people -- this nation whose righteous fruit is the fig, and not the olive. In the sweeping aside of every celestial power that could claim our allegiance, God has also sent witnesses to the ends of the earth, and Paul is one, just as Isaiah was. That new life is new life for us also, because we have been grafted into the fig tree, and await the summer with every Judean, every life that belongs to God's planting in Abraham. We live by the grace and peace that God sends us, the "pure fatherly goodness" Luther declares in the catechism. In everything we are enriched and supported by the providence of God, the evidence of Jesus Christ our Lord. We have no deficit of grace as we gentiles, too, await the coming of that day. Whatever the troubles, and however we misunderstand ourselves in the mean time -- even if the labor pains take us by surprise -- we will be upheld, and in the coming of the kingdom of God, we will find our true life.

Friday, November 25, 2011

"... to imagine a life freed from teleology."

The title is a quote from Sam Adams' paper at the Theology and Apocalyptic session about Jacob Taubes on Sunday night. It struck me as poetic -- an aphorism worth preserving. This phrase holds the key, for me, to the prior evening's confusion over Mark 13, and whether its language is literal and imminent, or symbolic and deferred -- a false dichotomy. And whether he meant to or not, Sam reveals the missed point nicely. There is always a deep difference between teleology and eschatology -- between perfect ends and terminations. Apocalyptic isn't about perfect ends. It's simply about ends.

And yet we routinely make a teleology out of ultimate eschatology -- the end for which all things are destined. The consummation of all things. Perhaps we should prefer the consommation of all things -- simmering them over heat with acid and egg until the impurities float to the top and the broth becomes clear and concentrated! Even as a joke, it has some scriptural resonance, no?

But, culinary humor aside, I think the teleologizing of the eschaton results from our understanding of the delayed parousia, the end that didn't actually come. The indefinitely postponed end of the world. We talk about "eschatologizing" in this context as though it meant such an indefinite deferment, the transfer of the revolution from time into its ultimate end. And in the process, we make the proximate necessity for rebirth into the ultimate death.

All this, because "the fathers have eaten eschatological grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge," to twist a phrase. And the new phrase deserves the same response as the old: "What do you mean by making this analogy? Because I live, says the Lord YHVH, you will no longer make this analogy. Know that all lives are mine -- the father just as the son -- and only the sinner will die." We understand the generations of the first century to have expected an imminent end -- a judgment and a sorting-out. And yet we believe that they did not receive it. Why? Because we're still here. The universe keeps right on going. Creation continues to exist.

But why should the end of the world be the end of creation? Why should what God has made good, what God continues to supply with infinite providence and grace, be arbitrarily terminated? The semantic confusion here is between world and creation. World, as I have argued before, is about order, and not creation -- kosmos has to do with demiourgia and not ktisis. Worlds rise and fall in creation. The eschaton is always apocalyptic, historical, and local. It is mediate, not ultimate. And in missing this point, what we so often also miss is that eschata are hopeful for the people who desire them! And they are not hopeful as ultimate last resorts, but rather as ends after which just and ordinary life can resume for the people of God.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Barth's Grenzfälle and Normative Social Ethics

Oh, the joys of AAR! (And SBL, too.) Synergy of papers coming together from different places. Last night at the Barth Society meeting, we had Matthew Puffer's paper on Barth's ethics of war -- really a paper on the right interpretation of the Grenzfall, both as term and as reality. Which had implications for me in both Jessica DeCou's paper on finding and interrogating "true words" and "natural lights" eschatologically, as well as for this morning's paper in the SBL Pauline section from Judith Gundry on celibacy and suffering in 1 Cor 7.

Now, all of this was deeply conditioned by Nate Kerr's and Peter Kline's provocative and controversial Theology and Apocalyptic paper. So you could say I was already in an eschatological frame of mind for talking about ethics -- which is never a bad thing, for a Barthian. But that delicious piece of Kierkegaardian performative rhetoric deserves justice I can't give it here. So I'm going to play the changes here on the Grenzfall in Barth's ethics, and eschatological situations. As such, what follows is not by any means objectively reportorial -- it's collaborative. It's jazz, to the extent that I can do it in theology.

So: Barthian ethics. Barthian ethics is a pain in the ass, to most ethicists. It has left a wake of confusion through twentieth-century scholarship, even among disciples. Barth simply doesn't do normative social theory. He lets it develop as a consequence of the church's right speech about God. And since dogmatics is the shop where we do maintenance on the church's speech to keep it functioning properly, it is the same place where we calibrate that speech toward just ethical action. To that end, Barth also doesn't do codified sets of rules or formal analysis of cases -- these are prescriptive tools, and they produce generic human commands. We have no moral justification for obeying (and no business proclaiming) human commands -- only the command of God, which is permission to be right creation before the creator. To become what we were made to be, created good. And our sure knowledge of that divine command comes to us strictly because -- to borrow one of Bruce McCormack's favorite tropes from election -- the commanding God and the commanded creature are one in Jesus Christ. The divine command and creaturely obedience coincide in the one creature in history who is both commanding God and obedient creature in action.

So there is one command of God -- we speak as of eternity, in which there is one God. The first key to Puffer's paper is to separate situations from that command. The command of God, in its unity, is not a new command for each situation. It isn't, therefore, an act-deontology, a situation ethic. But if the command of God is one, as God is one, it is salutary to remember that the creation is not one. Situations in time and space and history are irreducibly plural. Since Puffer's paper leans heavily on section 55 in CD III.4, I feel perfectly comfortable saying this on the basis of Barth's subsequent discussion of freedom in limitation. I think it belongs to the spirit, here. God's command is one, but human lives are always parts, each part standing in irreducible distinction from every other similar part in history. My ethical necessity is my own because I am who and what and where and when I am, and I know the things given me to know because of that. Your ethical necessity is always different from mine. And so God speaks the one particular command always to different particular creatures under different situational necessities. (Which is how God has created and provisioned us, and so is good!)