Blog

A Friend Who Sticks Closer Than a Brother

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”

Dueling Theologies: Choosing a Theology of Life or a Theology of Death

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”

Introducing Modernity and the Secular, A Theological Narrative

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.

Sources:

Simpson, Christopher Ben. Modern Christian Theology. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Milbank, John. Beyond the Secular Order. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.

Are Christians and Christianity Shameless?

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?”

Is There No Shame: Or Is Christianity Inherently Evil?

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.[1]  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?”

Beyond the Postmodern to Christ

I have no label to describe my present understanding of Christian Truth and its function.  Twenty years in Japan taught me that my own static (“modern” ?) apprehension of Christ could not be made to address the Japanese heart and mind.  When it occurred to me how the Gospel does address Japanese, it did not leave me with a new static truth but with an understanding of how Christian truth is necessarily dynamic, as it unfolds only in its engagement of the world. Continue reading “Beyond the Postmodern to Christ”

The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump

Organized acts of evil, such as those witnessed over the weekend in Charlottesville, demonstrate the unleashing of ethics turned on its head. Organized evil driven by an ideology endorsed (with a wink and a nod) by the Commander in Chief means evil serves in place of the good. This is not the lawless evil of a random act; rather it is “radical evil” in which a perverse moral law is officially endorsed.  The drive toward a pure race, the perfect socialist revolution, or making America great again, may not overtly promote genocide, mass murder, and white supremacy, but the latter is implicit in the former.  The walls must be built, the foreigners expelled, and the “inferior races” subdued in a world in which the ultimate good is a moral law constituted in the reigning ideology.  The neo-Nazis and the white supremacists are at the service of an ethic that has now been voted into place and which indeed hearkens back to an earlier era.  The American electorate has created the space, through the election of this administration, for these groups to do the dirty work of maintaining the very atmosphere which we breathe[1] – the implicit presumption of white supremacy which is at the foundation of the American idea. Continue reading “The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump”

Looking for the Church

Driving on the interstate with my wife tonight, we passed another giant church billboard advertising for a church which, prophetically and almost literally, meets at Six Flags here in Atlanta.  In bold letters next to a picture of the preacher in a slick suit, it said something to the effect of, “[name of church] Feels Just Like Home.”

In the darkest recesses of my mind I found myself thinking, “Then why not just stay home?” Continue reading “Looking for the Church”

Can Theology Save Science?

Rupert Sheldrake’s banned Ted Talk describing how science has fallen into a dogmatism from which it cannot, at present, extract itself, points to the necessity of a more primary form of thought. I would argue that theology, rightly done, is a mode of inquiry that precedes and grounds our understanding of all else, including science. As Sheldrake describes it, many scientists, generally those with an atheistic, materialistic bent, presume that they “know the truth” while other people – especially the religious – deal in belief.  This naïve presumptuousness is not only a failure to take into account the historical dependence of science on theology it is a failure to understand how science might free itself from itself. According to Sheldrake, scientific dogmatism has halted modes of inquiry which would allow science to progress beyond its reductionist tendencies.  The notion that theology might be a resource to science might seem outrageous to one unaware of the early symbiotic relationship between science and theology.  At the same time, this relationship also points to the sort of theology that has proven fruitful in spawning a scientific mode of inquiry.  Theologies and sciences are not all equal and one way of ascertaining a degraded or superior form of each is to judge the fruitfulness of their interaction. Continue reading “Can Theology Save Science?”

Breaking Free of Failed “Religion” Through a Practical Salvation

Religion as a projection of man (philosophy, psychology), as a sui generis essence (religious studies), or as a sacred canopy (sociology) all partake of a singular mistake.  It is the same mistake found in the various Christian approaches to non-Christian religion (pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism).  The problem with “religion” is with the category itself.  There is the mistaken assumption that religion can be separated out from culture and practice and studied or theologized about as an entity or essence unto itself.  The Bible does not make this mistake in that it does not address religion per se (more on this later).  This raises the question as to whether Christianity is religion? Or should Christianity distinguish itself from religion? Continue reading “Breaking Free of Failed “Religion” Through a Practical Salvation”