Getting Political

Preached 2016/11/13 at Newtown Christian Church (Connecticut)


The ancient church was growing. From several thousands on Pentecost, the Christian movement spread rapidly, east to Syria and into the Persian Empire, south to Egypt and across North Africa, north and west to Asia Minor and to what we call Europe. As it spread geographically, it grew numerically. By the time of Constantine I’s accession to the throne in the early fourth century, the Christian communities within the Roman Empire, scattered unevenly, had come to comprise approximately six million people—one tenth of the imperial populace. According to one scholar, this represents a growth, on average, of approximately 40 percent per decade. Christianity was an illegal cult, subject to an imposing variety of disincentives, so its early growth is formidable and question posing. Why did the early church grow?

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How Should We Then Live As Peaceable Christians?

A Virtual Round Table Discussion with Ryan Hemmer, Jason Rodenbeck and Frank Dugan III.

I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas.” Stanley Hauerwas (speaking at Duke Divinity School on election day)

Paul:  I am writing this on Wednesday after the election results came in early this morning. This political season has not only brought out the division in the country but a division among Christians.  The approach of Ryan, Jason, and Frank represent three notions of how to negotiate this breach.  Ryan suggests that we not succumb to the cycle of seeking short-term solutions to long-term problems but asks, as Christians, what practical political action we are to take.  Jason describes his personal response to the situation and concludes that the solution is only in rightly understanding the cross of Christ. Frank agrees with Jason but suggests we may be expecting too much of the principalities and powers to ask them to follow the Sermon on the Mount. Continue reading “How Should We Then Live As Peaceable Christians?”

Scholars Claim Shortest Biblical Text an Impossibility

This is a guest blog by Professor Emeritus Vincent Pauro.

Dr. Klaus Schmidt, an expert on ancient funeral rites, has recently raised serious doubts regarding a key New Testament text. In his book, Rites of Passage, Schmidt questions the historicity of the shortest text of the New Testament describing Jesus response to the death of Lazarus. Continue reading “Scholars Claim Shortest Biblical Text an Impossibility”

Freedom from the Compulsion to Repeat

Part of what it means to forge peace is to arrive at the promise of the peace of mind offered in the New Testament. This is not a project isolated from the overall peacemaking effort. It is integral to peace but it is also a distinct realm with its own peculiar manifestations of the disease that disrupts peace.  The next series of blogs will walk through (in the spirit of “Walking Truth”) the realities of the disruption of the mind identified in both psychoanalysis and theology and will propose both diagnosis and a potential cure from a psychotheological perspective.  I am working in the basic framework laid out in my research and book which will not be repeated here but which will be applied to particular forms of the human predicament most clearly explained in this light.

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Theology, Community, and Friendship

Christian theology is a dialogue through the ages among mostly friends and sometimes enemies. However, the best and longest lasting theological perspectives were among friends. Would we have the works of Irenaeus, and dare I say the canon, if not for his friend and mentor Polycarp? How would we understand the Trinity apart from the friendship of Gregory Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea? Of course, there are great antagonistic relationships in Church history as well. Augustine and Pelagius come to mind. However, Augustine was not at his best arguing with Pelagius, and perhaps he was at his worst. Thus, in my opinion, it is a fact of history that theology is best suited for friendly and critical discussion. 

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The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity – Part III: The Quest for Certainty and the Promise Of God

To arrive at a New Testament understanding of certainty one has to pass through the Old Testament’s full acknowledgement of mortality and death (see Part II).  The various death denying systems of certainty presume either an innate immortality (e.g., the platonic or Cartesian rational soul) or access to the absolute (a Babel like ability to storm the heavens or Buddhist notions which reify death) which would nullify the need for a sure and certain word from God.  The difference between the two kinds of certainty is captured in the contrast between Abram (in Genesis 12) and the Babelites (in Genesis 11). The Babelites would create a city and tower which would secure their name while Abram is given a promise that his name would endure. The tower ascending to the heavens is aimed at transcending and preventing scattering and dissolution.  As Paul spells it out in Romans 4, Abraham was as good as dead, Sarah’s womb was dead, and Abrahams entire life journey is a prolonged scattered condition (leaving his family, home, and country) of facing the reality of death.  Hebrews, in describing Abraham’s offering of Isaac, concludes along with Paul in Romans that Abraham’s death acceptance constituted his resurrection faith. Continue reading “The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity – Part III: The Quest for Certainty and the Promise Of God”

Reading the Bible Together

A few years ago I had the honor of contributing an essay to a collection of essays in honor of my teacher and friend. That collection was published as a book called Theology in the Present Age: Essays in Honor of John D. Castelein. My essay, “Reading Scripture Together: How it is that Acknowledging Ignorance Can Restore us to Community” was an application of Peter Candler’s book Theology, Rhetoric, and Manuduction, in which Candler argues against the notion that has been prevalent in so much of Western Protestant tradition, that it is each person’s mandate to “read the Bible for themselves at home, apart from the clergy and other Christians.” Continue reading “Reading the Bible Together”

The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity – Part II: The Quest for Certainty

The pursuit of authenticity, wholeness, and happiness, whether it be the shaping force in theology (the beatific vision, the pursuit of an “original authentic Christianity”) or the lure drawing customers to the mega-church industry, might also be described as the quest for certainty. Certainty or unmediated knowing is what the original sales preachers, the Proto-Gnostics, were peddling as a means of by-passing faith. The certainty of seeing God through the “mind’s eye” is the promise that Anselm’s ontological argument claims for itself and it is the sure and certain knowledge which Descartes claims to have captured in the cogito (I think therefore I am).  The modernist project is built upon the notion that certainty is available in the quest of reason and science. It gives shape to both theological liberalism, in which faith falls short of reason, and theological conservativism in its continual search for ever more certain apologetic arguments and evidences to arrive at a sure and certain sort of faith.  

The postmodern turn is simply the acceptance that the quest for certainty is a failed project and in this the postmodern has accepted the crisis of modernity as an epoch unto itself. The crisis inaugurated (or perhaps simply pointed out) by Kant and built on by Hegel and Nietzsche, only succeeds in fusing knowledge and mysticism, which was, of course, the original form of Gnosticism (mystic gnosis as certainty). Hegel’s notion that the Kantian antinomies are not problems to be resolved but the dialectic ground constituting reality, marks the passage of hard rationalism into pure mysticism.   Yet, this is not a unique moment, as Anselm’s turn to rationalism in the ontological argument produced a vision of God and the attainment of certainty that is precisely Hegelian in its final mystic vision of “darkness and nothingness.” Anselm, like Hegel, will equate this with having achieved the Absolute.  This rational mysticism, first systemically advanced by Anselm and found in its ultimate mutation in Heidegger, might best be understood as one prolonged permutation of Gnosticism. Here, certainty or absolute knowledge is at once a transcendent mystical sort of experience which uses the ladder of reason to ascend to a transcendent place from which the ladder might be kicked away.

The pursuit of certainty is characterized by two moments: the recognition that the body cannot attain to certainty due to its impermanence and mortality; the turn from the body and ordinary embodied language to the “mind’s eye,” ecstatic vision, the thinking thing, or pure thought or reason which achieves its own kind of transcendence.  It is precisely these two premises which will be addressed in the New Testament but it is an understanding to be had only against the background of a Jewish understanding.

To fully appreciate the biblical approach to the issue of certainty it seems necessary to “tarry with the negative” along with the Old Testament in its stark portrayal of the reality of death.  Here there is no platonic flight to the disembodied forms but lingering meditations on the realities of embodiment:

But man dies and lies prostrate.
Man expires, and where is he?
As water evaporates from the sea,
And a river becomes parched and dried up,
So man lies down and does not rise.
Until the heavens are no longer,
He will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep. (Job 14:10-12, NASB)

The Hebrew formula for approaching God entailed the refusal of the notion that one could take flight from the body, perhaps through death, to attain transcendence. As the oldest book of the Bible understood it, the realities of enfleshment were so final that judgment itself would require that God meet us face to face in the flesh:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.
Even after my skin is destroyed,
Yet from my flesh I shall see God;
Whom I myself shall behold,
And whom my eyes will see and not another. (Job 19:25-27, NASB)

The passage is remarkable in its refusal to turn away from embodiment and death, even before the conundrum that though the flesh is destroyed it is precisely from the flesh that he will encounter God. The writer longs for an unchanging word to this effect:

Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
That with an iron stylus and lead
They were engraved in the rock forever! (Job 19:23-24, NASB)

This is already a reversal of the historic quest for certainty in the transcendent forms beyond the world of human discourse.  It is an obvious messianic passage pointing to the incarnate Word.

The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ is the resolution to the irresolvable issue facing Job but it is also a direct overturning of the two premises posited in the quest for certainty.  The necessary flight from embodiment to an unchanging reality beyond language is a necessity and reality overturned by Christ.

To be continued.


Irony and the Kingdom of God

In his doctoral thesis, On the Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates, Kierkegaard writes of the ironist who approaches life as a spectator:

The ironist stands proudly withdrawn into himself; he lets mankind pass before him, as did Adam the animals, and finds no companionship for himself…For him life is a drama. He is himself a spectator even when performing some act…He is inspired by the virtues of self-sacrifice as a spectator is inspired by them in a theatre…He lives hypothetically and subjunctively, his life finally loses all continuity. With this he sinks completely into mood. His life becomes sheer mood.

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The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity

The New Testament is not written to create the fellowship of the Spirit but to preserve it. Reading the New Testament, doing theology, worship, or prayer cannot create the koinonia but can help preserve it, appreciate it, inhabit it and celebrate it. The danger which the letters of the New Testament address is not that of failing to attain the bond of unity in the Spirit of Christ but of disrupting it through false teaching, poor behavior, or simple neglect.  Every letter which Paul, along with the other writers of the New Testament, composes is aimed at preserving something which the churches already have but are in danger of losing.   Continue reading “The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity”