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.
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”
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 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.
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.
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”
The story I have told has focused on the lure of history and historical theology in which this history creates something of a double bind. The theological understanding that has developed often posits a gap – on the order of the law (e.g., Anselm) or an objectifying vision (e.g., Aquinas) – in which God’s presence is to be sought in an extraordinary inward journey or ecstatic union. This theological gap is compounded with the notion that the turn of theology reflects the turn of the Church itself from an authentic Christianity (e.g. the Constantinian shift). So this authenticity is held out as a lure that needs to be reconstituted. If only we could return to the way of the first Church – thus movements of continual restoration; if only we could overcome the hurdle posed by inauthentic theology – thus the turn to a supposed Biblical Theology which would be conducted apart from the church’s theological biases. Or, as in the mega-church movement, if only we could attain the health and wholeness held out in the lure of charismatic sales-preachers. Continue reading “A Fascinating But Dangerous Story: Part II”
Let me tell you a story which is a kind of lure. While it is true, it is luring or leading you along by withholding the whole truth. You might be fascinated with the way the story works and miss the construct of the story, so I am warning you. Those who fall into the abyss which the story is leading you toward often never return. I want to lead you to the edge of the abyss so that you might recognize the entry points and the way out. Continue reading “A Fascinating But Dangerous Story”
If Jesus embodies the Peaceable Kingdom and the Church is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth, then the means and methods represented by swords and spears are to be replaced by the means and methods represented by ploughshares and pruning hooks (Is. 2:4). The people of God are to be about the work of cultivating and harvesting (the work of the ploughshare and pruning hook) new life in and for the Kingdom of God. Continue reading “The Two Kingdoms Begins with the Peaceful Subject”
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Micah 4:3
The key question concerning the peaceable kingdom portrayed in Micah and Isaiah is whether this Kingdom has become a reality in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The forging of swords into ploughshares describes a universal reality, that even in these pre-Christian passages, evokes a present tense walk: Continue reading “Is the Kingdom a Present Reality? – The Meaning of “Forging Ploughshares””