The great reversal instituted by Christ is expressed in the New Testament as the move from law to grace, from shadow to substance, or from promise to fulfillment. John describes it in cosmic terms as the displacement of one world for another and Paul describes it as the displacement of the principalities and powers and the dominion to which we were all once subject. He works it out in detail in his description of how we are freed from the law in Christ. The metaphors used to describe this are adoption into a new family, redemption from slavery, entering a new kingdom, or being made righteous. The language of marriage, new birth, and transfer of citizenship gets at the impact of this reversal. I would argue that what is being described is not a series of reversals worked out in different realms but one great reversal which applies to every realm. To miss it at the universal level will mean a misunderstanding of the particulars. There might still be male/female, slave/free, and Jew/Gentile, from the perspective and logic of the world but in the Church these categories mean something different. The slave is now the position to be sought, Jew is no longer an exclusive but a universal category, and female or bride describes those joined to Christ. Gender, class, and ethnicity, are not dissolved but a different logic applies and an alternative grammar transforms their meaning. If one has missed this deep grammatical shift (and it is missed and obscured both by the closed economy of this world and a theology grounded in this economy) it is to miss the transvaluation (in Nietzsche’s phrase) of Christianity. Continue reading “Beyond Complementarianism, Slavery, and Bigotry, to Truth”
Harvey Weinstein, Hugh Hefner, Donald Trump – the list of prominent men who abuse women could be added to from every walk of life: comedians, athletes, political figures, and of course prominent religious figures. Harvey’s brother describes him as an abusive bully who regularly insulted and hurt those around him. He said he is unrepentant for his actions and is incapable of remorse. The figure that came to mind with Bob Weinstein’s description of his brother was the administrator at the college where Faith and I worked. His open misogyny and abuse of power will continue, as with Harvey Weinstein, because grievance and complaint were squelched by the institution. While his forte was not private sexual assault but open cruelty and abuse, the wall of silence is the same. Continue reading “Is Christian Complementarianism Helping Fuel The Abuse Reflected In #Me Too?”
The brain drain within conservative Protestantism is a trend with which those in a position to know are well aware. There are many factors which may lead to this disaffection: reduction of worship to entertainment, irreverent humor and general lack of depth, an absence of certainty, unity, and authority, a stunted history and tradition, a counter-liturgical casualness. . . Among intellectuals all these factors may play a part but ultimately many find themselves in something of a homeless condition – the shallow intellectual tradition of evangelicalism means they are without any sort of organized or institutional support. Especially among those who would devote themselves to theology, many soon discover they have educated themselves out of their own communion. Continue reading “Halting the Brain Drain by Creating Space to Think”
I met G.R. hepped up on coffee and a late night of reading Hebrews. Glen and I had been discussing the necessary finitude of time as a delimiting factor in evil. The insight we arrived at – which we considered quite significant (too much coffee) – has been obscured by the more than 40-year interval. We assumed that there was a consumptive element – thanatology – connected with God which is itself an effect of God’s presence. Alone that early morning, reading Hebrews 12:29 – “our God is a consuming fire” – I felt I had hit upon scriptural verification of this principle. I entered Glen’s room after 1 a.m. with, “OUR GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE.” G.R., Glen’s roommate, had only recently returned from refueling helicopters for the Army in Vietnam. . . Continue reading “Curing Despair Through a Community of Love”
Hans Urs von Balthazar has formulated what he calls the “theological law of proportionate polarization” in which “the more God intervenes, the more he elicits opposition to him.” Love and sin, intervention and opposition, work in reciprocal relation: sin escalates in the presence of love and ever-greater mercy arouses ever-greater anger.” What is most holy and pure, such as the Tabernacle and the Temple, will draw to itself—like a magnet—what is least holy and what is least pure. This is why the day of atonement requires two goats, this is why evil accumulated in direct opposition to Christ, and this is why the Church is peculiarly conducive to the growth of both wheat and tares. Great evil and great good will grow up together and tend to accumulate in one time and place. It is the story Scripture tells and it is a life principle which calls for a peculiar discernment. Continue reading “The Story of Frank and Two Goats”
The place where Faith and I found God’s people is, I suppose, where they are always to be found – at the very bottom of things – the low point – the pit. There are people who put you in pits and there are those who rescue from the pit. It is sometimes hard to know which are which until one group has thrown you in the pit and the other is pulling you out. Faith and I were choking on the dirt until this fine group of saints dug us out. The resulting ministry is something of a pit rescue team. A Christian community has come together (I cannot determine exactly how) which is seeking to do life together and to share love and learning locally and beyond. Continue reading “A Friend Who Sticks Closer Than a Brother”
Stephen Long, in his commentary on Hebrews, describes the YouTube video entitled “Jesus Loves You,” which brings to the forefront the contradictions inherent in a theology focused on guilt. The video begins with Grey Bloke (a sort of grey blob) telling us he received an anonymous e-mail saying, “Jesus loves you.” Grey Bloke then says, “Well I thought, that’s nice. But then I read the rest of it which says, ‘If you don’t worship him, you’re going to burn in hell forever.’”
He acknowledges this is a “conditional form of love,” and that most forms of love are like that, but he expected something more from Jesus since he “should be more noble” than the rest of us. He asks the anonymous e-mailer, “If Jesus loves me, why does he want to send me to hell?” The reply came back, “He doesn’t want to, but unless you accept him, he’s just going to have to.” Grey Bloke then was confused — “doesn’t Jesus make the rules? He is God after all.”
The response was, “Jesus loves you, but his dad thinks you’re a shit.” That doesn’t seem “fair,” he adds, but “at least it’s clear.” But then he was utterly confused by a response, which said, “P.S., Jesus is his own dad.” Continue reading “Dueling Theologies: Choosing a Theology of Life or a Theology of Death”
One of my early childhood memories is of an afternoon spent fishing with my father at a small lake in a park. Actually, I do not remember much about the fishing trip (and whether we caught any fish isn’t the point!), but what I do recall, most vividly, is the thought that occurred to me while I cast my fishing line into the water.
“What if this is a mere dream? What if my dreams are reality and what I take to be my reality is only my dreams?”
At my young age of six or seven years, I was not able to cope with my own thought, nor was any adult I confronted interested in pondering the concept of reality. However, some years later I now have many more books than fishing poles, and I want to revisit these questions.
Questions about reality, and our existence (or even non-existence) within reality are parts of a much larger theological story. That is the story of “Modernity” and the “Secular.” You may be suspicious that I would label these concepts as theological. Or, perhaps, you are now thinking, “Only a theologian would claim the history of the last seven hundred years is theological.” Yet, that is exactly my claim (and the claim of many others). The terms “Modernity” and the “Secular” have a genealogy that originates in the theology of the late middle ages. Now, before I explain, I need to first define a few concepts and terms.
Before the advent of Modernity, there was a Medieval Renaissance, which is now often referred to as part of the “lost world,” also known as the “classical world.” Thomas Aquinas lived during the twilight of the lost world, and provides what is arguably the best example of the classical synthesis. For Aquinas, the world was an ordered whole created by God that was permeated with God’s truth. In other words, being, beauty, and truth were real universal concepts present in humanity and the world, and these concepts had meaning because of God. God was not merely the cause of creation, but, for Aquinas, God was intimately and actively involved in the existence and creativity of creation itself. God gave order to His creation continuously. Aquinas presented reality as paradoxical harmony of God as present in every aspect of life, and humanity as truly free beings when they participate in God and, thereby, the reality of creation of which they themselves are part of the ordered whole.
When Thomas Aquinas died in 1274, the reality that he described as an ordered whole created by God was displaced by wars, plagues, and schisms. The combination of the Hundred Years War between the rulers of England and France, the Black Death, and the Great Schism between the Avignon and Roman Papacies shook the conceptual foundations of the classical world. In the midst of this chaos arose the concepts of nominalism and voluntarism as well as the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.
Nominalism is a philosophical and theological framework that has dominated Northern Europe and, later, the whole of Western Civilization even until today. William of Ockham is generally regarded as the founder of nominalism and has had a lasting impact on western philosophy and theology. Nominalism, simply put, is the idea that universals cannot be found in the particulars of existence. According to nominalism, universals are merely names that we give things out of convenience and nothing more. Thus, there is no universal concept of being, beauty, or truth.
Voluntarism is closely related to nominalism, and is the result of a nominalist philosophy and theology. Voluntarism describes an emphasis on God’s sovereignty and power concerning efficient causality. Whereas, in the time leading up to and including Aquinas, God was understood in terms of the attributes of his wisdom and love, voluntarism conceptualized God as the primary efficient cause. An efficient cause is the cause of an effect distinguished from material, formal, or final causes. Aquinas had described God as a primary cause with reference to these four kinds of causality in the context of a genuinely humble and apophatic theology, yet with the advent of nominalist and voluntarist modes of thinking, causality was reduced to efficient causality. Thus, God was reduced to the first and primary all powerful (via voluntarism) cause of a universe that need not cohere into an ordered reality (via nominalism).
Nominalism took hold of Northern Europe, and by the time of Martin Luther was the dominant thought paradigm. Luther was, himself, trained at the University of Erfurt, which was thoroughly of the nominalist persuasion. So, it is no surprise that the theology of the Reformation is also nominalist and voluntarist in nature. For instance, imputed righteousness has no reality in the particular individual, and is only theoretically real in the mind of God (nominalism). And, the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty and predestination (voluntarism).
I contend that the turn away from the classical synthesis, and the advent of nominalism and voluntarism set the conditions for Modernity and the Modern Secular Age. The Reformation provided the occasion for the emerging nation state to create public space that either controlled the voice of the church or silenced it. Thus, a nominalist-voluntarist-reformed theology directly contributes to the both Modernity and the Modern Secular Age.
So, what does this theological narrative have to do with dreams and reality? Imagine you are in the midst of a cold winter, the only instance of relief from a long war spanning about thirty years. Imagine your entire world is turned on its head; you are Roman Catholic, but the Church’s authority is subject to criticism and speculation. You find yourself sitting in a warm room, an escape from the blistering cold outside. Then, warm and cozy, you begin to think about the nature of reality. Who can you trust? What can you trust? Because you are a nominalist you know that the real does not exist in the particulars of this world. Thus, you feel free to doubt the actual real existence of the room in which you sit. Perhaps it is all a dream. In other words, imagine you are Rene Descartes. The cogito ergo sum is often thought to be a summary description of the philosophical and theological revolution taking place in the 17th century, but it did not originate with Descartes. Instead, it had a long theological genealogy dating back to the 14th century. If Descartes is the Father of Modernity, then he is the heir of a nominalist and voluntarist theology.
If you have read my theological narrative of the origins of Modernity and the Modern Secular Age, then you have read what I hope will serve as an introduction to a planned conversation between Paul Axton and myself. In a series of podcasts, we will explore the origins of Modernity and the Modern Secular Age by discussion of the work of Charles Taylor and John Milbank. And, we will discuss theological responses to modernity in Catholic theology and Radical Orthodoxy. I hope I have piqued your interest, and that you will enter this engaging theological conversation with us.
Simpson, Christopher Ben. Modern Christian Theology. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Milbank, John. Beyond the Secular Order. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.
I suppose there are easier ways to make progress in theology, but it took me some twenty years in Japan to recognize the inadequacy of a theology focused on guilt (a concept all but lacking in Japan). There is no equivalent for the concept of “sin” in Japanese, where sin has to do with a guilt plagued conscience. There is crime (tsumi – used to translate “sin”) and shame but these both have to do with a serious corporate transgression. Sin and guilt, as we have conceived them in the west, do not get at the root of Japanese self-identity – which is group oriented and corporate. Where the group serves as the ground of identity, shame and not guilt, best describes the experience of a failed identity. The question is if there are actually two such very different modes of doing identity; one which takes account of relational reality and one in which there is a non-relational essence at the center of personhood? Or is one of these simply a mistaken understanding of the root human condition? Continue reading “Are Christians and Christianity Shameless?”
The implication of evangelicals in support (implicit or explicit) of notions of white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and the KKK raises the question/accusation that it is Christianity itself that is complicit in evil. In terms of the broad sweep of history and the core teaching of the New Testament this is, I believe, a false claim and a misunderstanding. Nonetheless, I understand the accusation and see the necessity of disclaiming any association with a faith that, in certain forms, has become evil. A passing familiarity with the New Testament seems to make it clear that oppressing, enslaving, denigrating, murdering, or doing violence to others is not Christian. At the same time, it is also clear that in various periods, such as the present time, Christians and certain forms of Christianity have been implicated in and have even been the basis for promoting these very same evils. Continue reading “Is There No Shame: Or Is Christianity Inherently Evil?”