Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Apocatastasis: A Twitter Essay, Extended

I wrote this as a Twitter storm of sorts, and one piece out of the middle struck a pious note that has been repeated. But that note seems to me no less than a death knell, the annihilation of the old for the sake of the new, and so I'm putting it together here to show why.

"This question belongs to eschatology, but two delimitations may be apposite in this [i.e. non-eschatological] context." CD IV.3.1, 477.

So much of our discussion of Barth on universalism presumes that the answer that follows, on reconciliation and its end, is eschatological. This requires that we simply ignore that reconciliation is explicitly not eschatological, and does not lead to eschatology, in Barth!

When Barth speaks to apocatastasis, the question is whether, short of the eschaton, the kingdom will be actualized in mercy upon the earth. The question is whether human actors, in their impossible and absurdly self-ordered worlds, will not actually reap what they have sown.

Because we assume that judgment is the gateway to eschatology, we misunderstand Barth's insistence on giving just the immanent answer here. And the immanent answer to how the world will look when it ends is, "I don't know, and we have insufficient data to say." This is not leaving open the possibility of eternal damnation. This is refusing to assert that accounts will be settled "fairly" at last. Barth's openness to grace here is the possibility, in other words, of universal reconciliation, without making a statement on redemption.

This is what it means when we pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This is the grace we request. "Undo our worlds, O Lord, and restore creation to your order as though ours had never been."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

RFC: Researching the Kuyperians and "Common Grace"

The blog has been pretty inactive for about a year, while I've been working on projects that it's not easy or necessarily desirable to blog. But as I gear up for field exams (really, this time) I expect to be increasing my output as a way to keep thoughts associated on topic.

The first of those topics was going to be orders of creation in the Reformation strands, but I realized that there's just no way to do that justice at the level of detail I need. So—quite opposed to my initial Lutheran instincts—I found that if I had to focus on one strand, it was going to be the Kuyper–Bavinck-rooted strand of Dutch Calvinism. These folks are a key antithesis to Barth's doctrine of creation, and they have practically all of the features I could possibly want, including the political implications of believing that culture is in any way providential or natural. I'll be focusing particularly on "common grace," which as I understand it will require a bit of digging into "sphere sovereignty" and possible connections to the reaction against Modernist revolutionary tendencies (i.e. the French Revolution of 1792).

So far, I have Kuyper and Bavinck as contemporaries and roots of the tree, Berkouwer as a necessary point of interaction with Barth constructively, and Van Til as a necessary point of refusal of Barth through modification of this "common grace" tradition. Mouw appears to be useful as a present-day exemplar. I'm not learning Dutch for this; English resources will have to do. Fortunately, the Kuyper translation project has the first volume of Common Grace published, even though I'll have to do without the rest of it and Pro Rege.

This will contribute to my dissertation, to the extent that exponents and students of this tradition are practically the only ones who have reliably seen what I'm looking for in Barth—even if they see it and recoil. But I need to have a solid grasp of where they're coming from, because I need to oppose them fairly and well. They are possibly the best and most thorough exponent of what Barth rejects, and their theology works, even if in diametrically opposed fashion to Barth's own.

I know I have readers who will at the very least be more well-acquainted with this strand as members of the Reformed tradition and students or graduates of Reformed institutions. Suggestions and advice are welcome, especially on what constitutes good secondary literature. Please, help keep me accountable.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Flesh in Galatians: Correcting a Christian Perversion of the Text

This morning, in one of our conversations, Tapji Garba asked me a sidebar question about "flesh" in Paul. To which I said, "That's a huge question!" (Because, of course, it is!) But specifically, about "flesh" in Galatians, where it comes to stand opposite "spirit" in a few loci that have been taken as profoundly pejorative by the tradition.

So I had a look, because it's a good question and not one I had any solid answer to other than "well, the tradition tends to involve people saying X, and sometimes also Y…." And I hate that answer. And I like word studies. And Galatians is manageably small and sufficiently context-rich to come up with a decent answer. And I thought the result was sufficiently interesting that someone else might be able to use it, so here you go.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Research Note: Hebrews as Judean

I'm getting this out as a research note because I have to clear the decks, and it keeps coming back around in my head. So I'm going to tell you a story, as best as I have it worked out right now. I can't write the paper at present, but I will keep writing the commentary, and this is where it's coming from. Testing and feedback will be appreciated!

The New Testament text that we call the epistle to the Hebrews, which circulates in the Pauline canon for its entire recorded existence—even though it is clearly not Pauline—is not a Christian writing. But we fall back on the assertions and speculations of Christian origin and audience because it also does not fit the next natural context: the Jerusalem Temple and its priestly cultus.

It is frequently asserted that the text must be Christian, because we fail to be able to imagine the sectarian environment in which its polemic could be situated entirely within Judean and Jewish concerns. But such a sectarian environment certainly existed, at numerous points, and even exists behind the texts of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings that Christians have arranged into the Old Testament. Polemic internal to Judaism and contest over the markers of Judean identity are far from new inventions in the New Testament.

The drastic and often binary reduction of that reality made possible by typically scriptural reflection on the "causes" of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 tends to obscure this plural and sectarian history. Our canonical gospels are examples of such literature. This reductive tendency is amplified by the loss of textual data that results from the destruction of a fortified city by the legions as an example to others in the region. When history is erased and memory changes through story, what existed beforehand is often unrecoverable. We are left with sources that exist only outside, or after the fact, of the event.

The question, then, is where we may find a set of historical realities, available to us and not merely imagined, that provide plausibility to a Judean and Jewish reading of Hebrews according to its text. In this note I wish to propose one such possibility for further exploration: Jericho during the years of the first Judean revolt.

Monday, December 8, 2014

In Favor of Adjacency

The best we ever do, it seems to me, is get halfway to somewhere. Every time I'm frustrated with scholarship that looks like it only gets halfway to somewhere, I need to remind myself of this. What we can walk away from, wasn't ours to begin with. And what we can't walk away from is always what keeps us from going all the way there. But we aren't meant to get anywhere; every second nature of ours will become something another walks away from. We are meant to journey together faithfully.

Some put all their effort into walking away from things, because they see somewhere they need to go but can't get. This path is fraught with needless violence and self-deception. Some put all their effort into insisting upon the things they cannot give up, and this path is also fraught with needless violence and self-deception. If there is a middle path, however, it is a hard balance to find. If we cannot hold on to things that are useful, who are we? If we cannot change things that are harmful, what good are we? But what will we hold on to, and what will we change?

True freedom does not begin with destruction—that's just a path into exile, even if you lead your way down it willingly. True freedom begins with the release of the captives, yourself included. This always involves walking away from things, many of which deserve it. And, in a world full of things in every direction, not everything will get out of your way obligingly, either. Some things will have to be fought, along with some of the people that serve them, for good or ill. Many things, and many people, however, are simply where they are, in our way. There are no straight lines in nature. Our ways must yield to at least some of these, our neighbors. We cannot fight them all, nor are we meant to, any more than they are meant to follow our paths.

This, oddly enough, sums up my problems with both the wide variety of religious hardliners I encounter, and also a particular array of religious readers in critical theory. They leave no room for ease, for adjacency, for the holding of valid difference when it does no harm. (On the other hand, this is only ironic in the second case.) One fears the death of its cult(ure), the other anticipates it eagerly, and between them the tradition becomes a monolithic thing, to be used or eschewed. One cannot be a good Barthian, or indeed a good many other things, and think this way.

The tradition is a field of difference, sometimes playground and sometimes battleground, and there are many things outside of it. What you can walk away from is not yours, and you should not boast against it; some of it may be bad, or badly used, but most of it is simply there to be learned from. What you cannot walk away from, what is part of you, is also a mixed bag of good, bad, and misused things. It would be easier if it were not so, and for many people it is easier simply to believe that it is not so. But ethics does not consist in this sort of pretense. Ethics, in the end, is about our neighbors more than the places we come from and seek to go toward. Build what you can, go where you can, and fight where you must, but be good to your neighbors.

This is as much a word to myself, as to anyone else.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Revelation Positivism: Reasoning with Faith in #KBCDIII

In the last post, I insisted to you that Barth blows away the assumed conflict between faith and reason as modes of knowing, replacing it with a surer ground in the difference between the two objects of theological and natural sciences: God, and the non-God world. But the next thing I'm going to tell you, as he goes on in CD III.1, is that we only know about creation as an article of faith. That we cannot reason our way to knowledge of creation. Is this a contradiction? Not really. The important question is, on what basis can we reason about creation?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Faith and Reason: Non-Competition in #KBCDIII

Barth is killing some sacred cows in Church Dogmatics III, and one of the biggest is the presumed conflict between faith and reason. It's fair to say he's been doing this from the very beginning, but since CD III.1 opens Barth's attempt to write a workable theological metaphysics for anthropology, it comes up again in exactly the place we always presume there should be conflict. The world vs. God. Creation myth vs. verifiable science. Two great magisterial canons, set up to fire at one another. And for what?