Friday, August 21, 2015

Sub-project: Does Election Really Break the CD?

I find myself increasingly frustrated by the view—based on Bruce McCormack's work—that the doctrine of election in CD II.2 redefines Christology and therefore soteriology in ways discontinuous with the preceding three part-volumes, or at least with CD I. It came to a head, for me, in connection with a Twitter disputation we had yesterday regarding the opening to section 18.2 in CD I.2, even though the question of the scope of salvation was (to me) clearly a side issue in discussing the meaning of the text in question. (I have a hunch that my perception of that conversation has much to do with being more instinctively the exegete than the theologian when it comes to translation linguistics. Bible folks feel this way in conversation with non-Bible theologians on a regular basis!)

So, of course, I spent most of the day reading and researching. And attempting to avoid coming off at any future point like Paul Molnar in criticism of McCormack's work—I've done that sort of thing enough in earlier "this doesn't work with my system" naïveté, and it's an approach that frustrates me tremendously when Barth's opponents do it. And I've come to a place from which I can see that the problem isn't what McCormack has correctly seen about Barth's doctrine of election. Clearly there is a "Christological redefinition of election" if we look at Göttingen and Münster as successive predecessors to the Bonn/Basel work that would go into the CD. The question is, does this redefinition really break the CD at II.2, such that the mature Barth whose opinions we are obliged to respect isn't the Barth of the prolegomena and the doctrine of the Word?

In other words, while I'm not totally convinced by everything McCormack has built on this doctrine of election and its connection to divine ontology, is he right to believe that election in CD II.2 is disjunctively novel within the Church Dogmatics? Can what he sees be seen earlier?

More to come, obviously, but for now I'll leave you with a map I drew in the very same section 18 of CD I.2 years ago:
My hunch is that this is a compatible pattern, but feedback is certainly welcome!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

What Is a Dangerous Heresy?

It never surprises me when folks reach for the "Heresy!" panic button when faced with even the best forms of non-binary soteriology. And, as happened in the comments section a few posts ago, it's usually connected to the "universalism is moral escapism" trope. (Which I'm pretty sure no amount of persuasion, however well-written, will manage to erase because it's a matter of willful ignorance.) As though we hoped in God for salvation as a way out of the moral dilemmas we constantly get ourselves into ... and that were a bad thing, rather than the entire point of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As though the real soteriological question were "Will you be weighed and found wanting by the ultimate judge and determiner of your fate?"—and there were a real possibility of answering "no."

And here's the real kicker: most binary soteriologies are riddled with moral escape hatches. And most of those escape hatches are designed to use group membership as a substitute for moral action, just like the one the Roman community was relying on when Paul decided they had to be corrected. Because the system is set up so that there can be no real escape from moral question, face to face with God. So, rather than ask penetrating questions about the system, which works amazingly well for the purpose it was designed for (allowing us to condemn others and extort compliance to our will), we simply give ourselves a "get out of judgment free" card of some sort. That's the dangerous heresy, right there. Not the studied denial that God will use condemnation to torture or destroy in eternity, but the willful denial that the morality of our actions will be thoroughly judged and found wanting, and that we merit a fate like all others on that basis. Biased grace as an outcome of biased judgment is the truly dangerous heresy.

But what is the criterion for "dangerous heresy"? Clearly, if I were a convicted believer in binary, moral-judgment soteriologies, I'd think it was dangerous to believe that there would be no damnation. Why? Because if there were I might not change my ways and thus effect my own salvation. I might miss my opportunity. Which is the entire business model of American tractarian evangelism. It would be dangerous to base my trust in God on falsehood when truth is a requirement for salvation—but even if truth is not a requirement for salvation, it can be dangerous to base our faith in God on false information. Truth is also a requirement for informed moral action in the world—something that every universalist I know of considers to be very important, opposition PR notwithstanding.

A dangerous heresy, put as simply as I can, is a belief that causes us to mis-trust God. I mean that several ways. It can cause us not to trust God for what we rightly should; it can cause us to trust God wrongly for what we shouldn't; it can cause us to trust a god that is not the God we claim to trust, putting our real trust somewhere else. Valid information about God is very important for faith! What God is like, what God's character is, is the only good reason to trust God—and also the only good reason to distrust God, if one chooses to.

We've really hollowed out the word "faith" over the last several centuries, especially by trying to make it not a morally relevant action, something we have willing control over. And we did that by replacing moral action with faith as the criterion for salvation, instead of fixing the real problem with judgment-based, morally-pendent soteriologies. And rather than seeing the Arminian bug report for what it was, we turned faith into an escape hatch keyed to right self-identification. Faith is important. Faith is a moral act. Where you put your trust matters, and it determines what you will choose to do and not do in the world.

Faith requires knowledge. Faith requires awareness. Faith is an act of will. It can be well-informed, or poorly, and it doesn't need to be fully-informed to begin—faith, after all, seeks understanding—but you cannot trust, or distrust, what you do not know at all. Faith is trust that moves from knowledge to greater knowledge. And it can be lost, and rightly so, if the knowledge it receives proves the object of faith to be untrustworthy.

A dangerous heresy is therefore one that feeds bad information into this process—not good information about a bad reality, but bad information itself. Which means that claims of heresy are never stopping points. You want to claim heresy and denounce me, what you've really done is asserted your information against mine, your authority over mine, with no possibility for argument. And if you're going to do that, chances are good it's a sign I shouldn't try arguing with you. Chances are good it's a waste of time, because you're not open to persuasion. The rest of us, however, get by on actually turning our disagreements into discussions of how we understand God, what we think we know and why we think we know it, what we don't know, and where we might go from there.

The truly dangerous heresies don't just feed in bad information; they lock down discussion in order to restrict the possibilities for growth. Don't put your faith in the church, or the tradition, or any subset thereof. Put your faith in God, if you will, and question God, and question the information you receive about God. Question the sources. A faith that cannot risk this is no faith at all, which is the real danger.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

OK, So What IS Hope?

Meanwhile, in random thoughts carried on from previous posts...

So I think I made myself pretty clear about "hopeful" or, as Moltmann more appropriately names it, "open" universalism. There's nothing of genuine hope involved in keeping open the possibility that God might redeem every individual, especially when that redemption is posited as unlikely due to the eschatological coming-in-judgment as the gateway to the binary afterlives. "God might, just possibly, send all of us through the same door—and not the one we deserve!"

And, of course, I'm a universalist. I don't merely hope that God will finally decide to save every individual, however unlikely it may seem from here. I have a theologically grounded expectation, on the basis of the gospel, that God has in fact seen to the redemption of the whole creation, as the basis for the covenant, and that God is therefore accomplishing its reconciliation—both to Godself and between fellow creatures—as a constant and pervasive intervention against our designs for world history. This is the basis for genuine hope, because what has been promised is being effected, and will continue to be effected, by God—in spite of anything and everything the world presents to the contrary.

Now, I think that as a Barthian, I think that having drunk deeply and critically of Barth's own thought, but it is far from clear that Barth thinks anything like that. What Barth does think is a far muddier matter.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Back to Work-Blogging

The inadvisability of blogging one's developing thesis has left this site relatively spare for a while. But with one last loose-end-tying-up course in the fall term and examination readings to go through, I'm about to return to form. I'll be reading through important sources in the present state of Barthianism, particularly on election and its weird not-quite-Barth bondage to trinitarian ontology. I've done most of this reading before, but I didn't have the grounds to argue with it, or differentiate it from Barth. (Mostly I complained about it then because it didn't make proper sense in my system, which is a separate concern from whether it makes sense vis-à-vis what Barth actually wrote.)

Of course, there's another kind of inadvisability possible in this kind of writing. I don't aim for this stuff to be popcorn-worthy; this isn't theological fight club. But I am about to make a lot of statements critical of or in direct contradiction to the opinions of well-regarded and influential scholars in a field from which I'm not looking to alienate myself. And I'm already getting a few "no serious scholar thinks what you think" readings. (Which I know; it's why I'm the one filing the bug reports and writing the patches, because I'm the one seeing the problem.) That's good, it's important. And I've done the same, in a review that might better be left in someone's drawer, to a recent book that didn't manage to provide proof of its own assertions counter to the best current work in the field.

It's not that I don't like theological fight club; it's that, for lack of a better word, chivalry is advisable. Honorable combat, sparring not for the takedown but for the good fight well-fought against a worthy opponent. (Wow, there's a lot of gender-role garbage back of that.) Put another way, it's the difference between Barth and Brunner arguing with Schleiermacher. The notional busts of Bruce McCormack, George Hunsinger, John Webster, and many others are going to stay sitting on my notional desk for a long time to come.

So it's about time I started putting up argument demonstrating my engagement with the field. What they have done well, I have to do at least as well. And what they have done poorly, I have to be able to spot and do better. I'm obviously going to make my own errors; I'm as subject to this process as anyone else. But I have at least one advantage, which is that I'm still significantly an outsider. I've worked hard to gain familiarity and currency within the field, but especially when it comes to the assumptions of Reformed theology, as embodied by readers who take Barth as a Reformed theologian, a cradle Lutheran has a different enough lens for what may be better differentiation of Barth's own claims.

First on deck, while I considered a couple of Hunsinger bits (four views of hell, or the one in which he manages to hypostasize periods within eternity), will be McCormack's "Grace and Being: The Role of God's Gracious Election in Karl Barth's Theological Ontology," from the Cambridge Companion. I've never had a stake in the battle between pseudo-Chalcedonians and so-called-Revisionists, and I've been asked to claim a position numerous times over the years. But if I'm going to claim land here, it's going to be Barth's, and it's going for that reason to be my claim and not theirs. So, anyways, a start on that is coming, after I finish wading through this piece carefully.

If you want previews, you can always listen to me complain on Twitter.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Why "Hopeful Universalism" Isn't Hope

There's a standard line in the field that goes something like this: we may hope that God will save all people, but we may not confidently announce this or rely on it. It's very close to what George Hunsinger calls "holy silence," or "reverent agnosticism." It's even closer to something Wittgenstein is supposed to have said at the beginning of the Tractatus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." Except the real sentiment Wittgenstein means to express is more like this: "Let what can be said at all, be said clearly; we must [only] be silent on points about which nothing can be said."

I will be absolutely blunt with you: if the redemption of humanity, God's redemption of God's creature, cannot be proclaimed confidently as gospel, then we have no good reason to trust this "god" whose freedom we are so piously attempting to preserve. We want to leave room for God to do whatever God might feel necessary at the end of the world. Room for God to be absolutely inconsistent with Godself, if need be. Only one thing could persuade us to do this, though: the defense of a doctrine by which we have always asserted that bad people (not us, but really bad people) will get what they "deserve" in eternity, and will get it for all eternity—if, that is, they aren't simply destroyed outright with extreme prejudice. A doctrine we think of as perfectly and impartially just.

A doctrine that is as perfectly and impartially just as we are.

And so, to the extent that we are willing to cognize total salvation, total eschatological redemption, as a possibility, we attempt to make it a remote one. Ideally desirable, maybe, a product of an understandable idealism, a nice idea, ... it's just such a shame reality gets in the way. So go ahead, hope for that. But don't expect it. Don't think you have any reason to trust that it will happen, or that it's even likely to. And above all, don't talk to other people about it like they should have any confidence in your foolish hope.

Why? Because in the end, God's going to do what God wants. And God doesn't care what you want. God doesn't care about "nice."

But which "God" is this? Is this god really the one we know in YHWH and Jesus? The trustworthy father of the adopted people, whose adoption grows ever larger toward the world? Whose people are always bloodthirsty and vengeful and restrictive, hating their neighbors, cousins, and even sometimes their parents, brothers, and sisters? The god whose promise is that in the end this people, and all peoples, will be subject to true justice instead of their hatreds and violences against one another? The god whose justice is mercy, who loves peace and blesses those who make peace? The god who came here in flesh to die rather than to kill? That god is eternally faithful, and needs no protection for a freedom custom-designed to permit eschatological infidelity. So what "god" are we protecting with this irreverent pretense to ignorance? What are we saving by foreclosing on speculation built on the gospel rather than the law?

"Hopeful universalism" isn't a good Christian position. It isn't even genuinely hopeful. Hope is only truly hope if it is expectation of something trustworthy, something as yet unseen but promised. We may justifiably have hope in the extremely unlikely—if we have been given reason to expect that it will nonetheless happen. If I encourage you to hope for something that I have reason to expect won't happen, and no good reason beyond my own optimism to expect that it might, I am encouraging false hope and acting in bad faith. If I tell you you may hope for something that you may not proclaim as gospel, giant warning lights with sirens should be going off in your head. An unreliable object of hope is not an object of promise, or it is only the promise of an unreliable god.

What's the basic problem? That we see a dilemma when we see gospel and law, yes and no. When we see these together, however much we might want the yes, we have more use for the no. And we believe that they stand in conflict, a conflict that must be resolved from our side. Or, rather, from your side. Or, in the rarer instance, that God will resolve this dilemma by division, by assigning some to yes and others to no—which is just what we believed when we thought morality could effect change, and why positions that truly assert God's unalterable decision are rare in practice. Justice, after all, if it is not caprice, demands that we determine our own fates, and deserve them. We don't actually want, or trust, a cruel and arbitrary god. But there is nothing we would not accept from the hands of an arguably just, if disproportionate in response to demerit, deity. Such a god makes sense to us, and always has.

"Hopeful universalism," with its sham "hope," is merely a way of wedging the door open for this damnation. A "third way" like all others, wanting the look of a nicer outcome but with all the ceremony of cruel judgment intact under the surface. If we truly cannot speak of eschatology, let us erase all of our eschatologies and leave the field. Otherwise, let us have this contest over what God is truly like, and what such a God will truly do. There is evidence from which we may obediently work, and positive things may be said without falling into nonsense. So believe in damnation, or salvation, and defend yourself in good faith, but do not come to me with appeals for "holy silence" on the subject. If you are impartial about injustice, you belong to the injustice as surely as if you believed it to be just.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Who Do You Trust?

I was having a conversation on Twitter, and Marcus Borg came up, and I said that I basically agreed with his Pauline chronology, even if I don't agree with many of his conclusions in interpretive work. And that was interpreted as a statement of how far I trust him. Which is an interesting twist—because the more I get to know Borg's work, the more thoroughly I trust him. I just don't agree at many points farther down the road. And I said as much, and explained that there are many scholars I trust, with whom I will disagree profoundly; and on the other hand, many I distrust who, nonetheless, make valid points that I will not deny.

Of course, that wasn't what the initial question meant by asking to what extent I trust Marcus Borg. In a more basic sense, we use the question of trust to imply reliance, even to the extent of not questioning conclusions. And I could say, to twist that point the other way, that I trust even people with bad intent—to do bad things. There's something honest about an unpretentious crook, who knows what and why they do what they choose freely to do. But that isn't what I mean, either, when I say I trust many people with whom I often disagree.

So, a counterexample. What causes my distrust? The short answer is, epistemological shortcuts. And the biggest of those is authoritarian traditionalism, regardless of its specific form. Why do I trust Marcus Borg? Skepticism, and thorough engagement with the field as it has taken its science seriously. Of course, others don't trust me for exactly the opposite reason: I refuse to compromise my epistemology for traditionalism. (Which is ignoring the real reason I shouldn't be trusted, as an unreliable narrator.)

So, after all that, it occurs to me: I don't trust the tradition. Period. There are authors within the tradition that I trust, whether or not I agree with them entirely, but the tradition itself gets no faith from me. Well, what about the Bible? I'm pretty sure the answer is that I also don't trust the Bible. Which depends greatly on what we mean by "trust." I trust God, to whom the various scriptures we have give testimony, but the authors of those scriptures are frequently unreliable as witnesses. And as a canon, this set of writings is the bearer of agendas I am not wholly willing to cosign. But let's break those writings out, even just for the New Testament:

I trust Paul, in his seven original letters, because he is being profoundly honest about what he does and why and how, and what he will not do, and why not. He is good, and his editors are clumsy. I trust the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, in spite of their unreliability as witnesses, because I understand what they are each attempting to do with the same material. I don't trust the author of Acts, who at least had the good sense to leave most of Luke intact in his editing of the earlier composition. I know exactly what Acts aims to do, and its self-justifying retelling of history is terrible. (This is eroding my trust in the gospels, but slowly, since I work mostly on Pauline canon pieces. But none of them are witnesses, and all of them are stories well after the fact, so the gospels don't have so far to fall as they might for someone else.) I trust Hebrews, and the Apocalypse, and James, and even 1 Peter, because what they are doing makes sense, and they seem to be honest about it—even if we have not been honest about where they come from in doing it. (Again, agreement is not implied here!) I trust Colossians, but not Ephesians, because only one of those authors had a good-faith reason to write their Pauline pastiche. 2 Thessalonians, Jude, and 2 Peter get no love from me—which may be odd considering the Apocalypse does. And I feel like I'm in an odd place with the Pastorals, because they are the absolute worst forgeries in the canon, but their naked ambition is profoundly honest in its abuse of apostolic authority.

Who do you trust? Why do you trust them? Clearly, I am my authority. People have told me that as though it were a bad thing, but they usually mean that in contrast to trusting the tradition, in a kind of hyper-selective majority-rule authoritarianism sense, to know better than anyone else. Because obviously I'm not smart enough, and they all were brilliant and unquestionable, and worked on problems that were truly general and could be solved for all time.

So yeah: I trust me. I don't expect you to trust me, though. I expect skepticism, and I expect you to verify my work. Or falsify it, if I'm wrong. I need that. And so I also trust you, to the extent that you're willing to step up and do that. But I expect much from you, just as from myself.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Relief of Being Able to Take the Bible Seriously—and Not Conservatively

Not that long ago I read a Bonhoeffer quote about the relief Bultmann provided, and the renewed faith he enabled, basically by allowing Moderns to be critical of scripture without calling them unfaithful for it. And this morning over at Women in Theology, Maria McDowell provides a must-read reflection on Marcus Borg with similar effect:
I cannot possibly count the number of times I have heard someone in this parish say, “Marcus allowed me to be a Christian again,” or “Marcus’s work was such a relief to me,” or “Marcus helped me find my faith.”


I wanted to understand what was so appealing about his work. More than understand his work, I wanted to understand the love for him and by him that is so tangible among those who heard him speak, who attended his classes. When someone says, “this person helped me reclaim my faith,” I think we should pay attention. The fruits of the Spirit are precious and beautiful, and in my experience, sometimes too easy to ignore when they are not accompanied by the ‘right’ liturgy, the ‘right’ practice, the ‘right’ theology, the ‘right’ body, the ‘right’ belief. This man and his work was clearly, evidently, and abundantly fruitful.
This is a profoundly important thing to realize about critical scholarship, and one that is so rarely spoken: it serves the faith, and it does good for the faithful!