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What Extreme Theologies?

January 23, 2009 2 comments

I’ll attempt to highlight some strands of theology that might be seen as extreme or have extreme implications. But first, let me suggest that the word extreme is completely perspectival. If I am standing the New Jersey side of the the George Washington Bridge, I might squint my eyes to see over on the Manhattan side and point to the other extreme. But either the New York side of the bridge or the New Jersey side still crosses the Hudson River. So both sides cross the same river even while resting in different states.

Two ideas that may seem extreme opposites when they make explanations from different times and places but they may be more similar than two ideas that never traverse the same river of thought. I sometimes struggle with the joy of sitting in the center of many different bridges, because something in me wants to connect everything. And some people don’t think everything should be connected. Does that sound overly mystical? Hopefully not. Oddly enough I think the world needs connectors and dis-connectors. Somehow we all help each other out.

As I think about 20th century theology or better yet, nineteenth century theology (that found popular expressions in the 20th century), I see some theologies moving toward a “fundamentalist position.” The word fundamentalist is not from a group of terrorists but a group of theologians in the early 20th century who feared the direction some theological ideas were headed, so they drew up what they called the “Fundamentals.”

These fundamentals defined what they considered to be essential Christian theology. As the term has popularized, it has been attached to everything from a way of dressing to a way of thinking that appears to reject the modern world (which is not wholly accurate). There are two doorways of insight that might be helpful here. In the 19th century, Enlightenment thinking continued its progression into multiple fields of thought including theology in ways that seemed to threaten the foundations of Christianity.

Particularly in German schools of thought a method of applying critical sciences to Scriptural study began to grow in popularity. Applying historical tools and language tools to the text, scholars began approaching Scripture in new ways, some of which questioned the historicity of the stories. This movement accompanied by the growing popularity of Darwinism in the natural sciences (and emerging social sciences) disturbed some Christian theologians because it seemed to lead down a road that would call into question some essentials of Christian faith.

The Fundamentalists circled around fundamentals of Christian faith that could not be rejected. Liberal theologies were not afraid to question some of those fundamentals like the virgin birth of Christ, the historicity of Scripture, the divinity of Christ and so on. From what I’ve read, I tend to think the liberal theologies weren’t necessarily an organized front. They represented a variety of ideas and approaches. Some focused on social service, others focused on critical study of text, some focused on history and so on. Oddly enough, thinkers sometimes moved between the groups.

Karl Barth was trained in the liberal German school of thought. But then he watched his liberal German professors wholeheartedly support the Great War. In disgust, he responded to their tendency to make God too closely aligned with this world (too immanent) by articulating a renewed theology of transcendence (God as Wholly Other). The marks of Kirkegaard are strong in his thought, but he also made room for some liberals and non-fundamentalist to embrace doctrines like the Trinity. Interestingly, he was not embraced by many fundamentalists even though he seemed to be defending many of their ideas. While all these early 20th century strains cannot be simplified this easily on a broad level their were groups that leaned more toward believing in Biblical revelation and those who believed more in human invention.

Now this may sound strange but I think both groups were like two sides of a coin. They were both essentialist rationalist in that they tried to reduce their theologies into a containable set of ideas. One applied their “rationality” to the text as it is received. The other applied their “rationality” to the origin of the text and/or doctrines surrounding texts.

Then suddenly the post-modernist ideas begin emerging that suggest every rationalist is still subject to some kind of narrative. So pure objectivity is a myth. Alongside this kind of questions, a whole sphere of writers begin thinking about rhetoric in terms of narratives, symbol systems and so on. By mid-twentieth century there are all kinds of voices coming to the table. Marxist readings of the gospel that suggest the story about Jesus is the overthrow of powerful rulers. Feminist readings that highlight Jesus’ interaction with women and the church’s crushing abuse of women.

As the floodgates began opening, universities were and still are trying to find ways to hear the minority voices that modernism silenced, thus the emergence of African American studies, Gender studies, Native American Studies and so on.

With all this opening up, a strange thing happened to fundamentalist Christians and liberal Christians. They both were influenced by these changes in philosophy and suddenly the lines were less clear. Some liberals started sounding like conservatives. Harvey Cox, a liberal Harvard theologian, wrote a glowing tribute and exploration of the highly emotional form of fundamentalism: Pentecostalism. Some conservatives started championing social causes.

I would suggest that’s where we are now. There’s a great big mixture. Some theologies that emerged out of fundamentalist evangelical worlds are questioning things like God’s knowledge of the future. If we really read the Bible at face level, the future appears open-ended. Maybe we really can change God’s mind? Some liberals have begun to embrace liturgy so seriously that they are returning to high appreciation of the Trinity and a liturgical worldview.

It seems there is a new springtime of exploration in Christian Evangelical theology accompanied by a renewed commitment to social causes on everything from poverty to AIDS to the environment. The leading popular Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today was formed in the 1950s as a response to the liberal magazine “The Christian Century.” Today, both magazine are routinely running articles by the same authors. And recently, the Christian Century recently ran an issue by liberal theologians about the doctrine of hell and why it’s important.

All the traditional categories of modernism have broken down in theology. Some ministers are terrified that this implications of this open-ended shifting is dangerous. And in some ways, it does mirror that chaos of the Medieval Europe when Reformation thought would sweep through an area. When King Charles was executed in England and the Puritans first came to power, there was a springtime of theological thought there. All kinds of wild and strange theologies were appearing. Some sects thought the end of the world was at hand and they were the specially appointed prophets. Men like George Fox appeared and began prophesying by the Spirit. Many movements died away or went into hiding (but the George Fox’s Quakers are still here).

The results seems to have been both chaos and renewal, social upheaval and a traditional resistance. Today some of the conservative theologies are questioning traditional as too Greek and not Hebrew enough. All the categories seem messed up. Writers and movements are questioning church buildings, musical style, doctrines such as predestination and God’s Sovereignty and even traditional readings of the Jews. There is one large group of theologians that suggest our understanding of Paul is skewed because we fail to understand the second Temple Judaisms that were prevalent during Jesus’ life were not inconsistent with justification by faith. Their objection to Jesus may really have been that He (and later Paul) kept suggesting that the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies opens God’s salvation to the Gentiles.

Okay, thus far I’ve done a desipicable job of summarizing and have even managed to confuse myself. So let me cut this short by highighlting the implications of emerging theologies without listing because there are so many divergencies. In spite of some folks suggesting that post-modernism is dead. Actually modernism continues to be challenged and redefined. What is really altered is the dominance of a Western European understanding of rationality and empiricism. It still plays a role, but we might speak of a humbled epistemology (or way of knowing). In this humbled way of knowing, theologies and philosophies that have been built upon distinctly Western forms of logic/reason and experience/empiricism/observation must recognize that not all people used the same categories of thought, rely on the same forms of knowing (epistemology), or make the same either/or distinctions, and even ask the same questions.

As communication opens the way between east and west and north and south, we will be challenged on every level. The West seems to have been caught off guard by the response in the Islamic world. There are more conversations and questions and challenges to our whole notions of reality coming from all directions, including the native peoples who lived in this land before us.

As an Evangelical Christian who believes that the Gospel is God’s revelation to man, this does not terrify but excites me. Because they will open doors of revelation and thoughts that we have yet to consider. And as we learn to talk and listen to each other, the possibilities are exciting. Right now the Gospel is experiencing revival and growth in Latin America, India, Africa, and China. All these peoples are raising new questions that will join in the conversation with the Western form of Christianity to open a new door.

While I can’t begin to summarize all of the variations, I’ve included links to a few that are provocative: the changing center of Christianity, open theology, African theology, Hispanic theology, Asian theology, emergent theology, Radical Orthodoxy, New Paul Perspective, and so much more! As I wrote in my other post, at times it will seem like there is little in common with these varieties of Christian theology, but I see a conversation taking place that will always have fringes in all directions. And yet, there may be some exciting possibilities for common ground as well.

Emerging Theologies

January 22, 2009 5 comments

Reading Alister McGrath’s “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea” bring to mind some of the tensions in the theologies of our present era. McGrath writes about the range of Reformation theologies (which I’ve  also head referred to as Reformation vs Restoration movements). While Luther was conservative in his appeals for reform, focusing on the what he deemed as essential while protecting the historical rhythm of the church others rejected church tradition entirely and anything connected with it: rejecting everything from infant baptism to the Trinity.

Luther recognized the dangers of these extremes (and rightly so I think). Where do you stop and how do you end up with anything unifying truth that connects the people of God? In the beginning of the transformation, everything was up for grabs and all sorts of ideas and extreme expressions emerged. These may have had value in driving the question and helping the move as a whole seek for common unifying themes against the extreme dangers.

There are many threads worth teasing out in this short summary like the seeds of post-modern thought are already present before the “modern’ period (ala deconstruction). But what I also see is that the movement (just like movements in art, culture, philosophy and so on) had to push to extremes during the change. But gradually a moderated version emerged as dominant. Small strains never completely died out, but a large enough middle movement remained that eventually provided a place for unity among fellow “Protestants.”

Today we are in a similar time of radical change. We are going back to the source, and in our move, everything is on the table. The drive back to the source is seen in a widespread acceptance and emergence of Biblical Theology versus Systematic Theology. Yet within the groups of those seeking chnage there are a wide range of theologies. The crumbling of modern foundations early in the 20th century, made room for a range of extreme theologies that were politicized (Feminist, cultural and other theologies), philosophized (Existentialist and such), , economized (Marxist vs. Market driven theologies) and so on.

Today we see a range of emerging theologies that once again are willing to put everything on the table and question everything, including texts, doctrines, praxis and so on). In spite of the dangerous edge that some seem to skate along, all these theologies play an important role in helping define the conversation and the crisis. But I expect that over time a middling set of thelogies will emerge once again to bring a unifying forces to many Protectant (and possibly even Catholic) churches.

Thank You Dumitru Staniloae

May 29, 2008 3 comments

There is a sweetness in the writings of Dumitru Staniloae that draws me into the love of God. This precious Orthodox theologian opened the gift of relationships within time and space for me. I was struggling to understand the problems of the West and the modern world in the way we articulate and understand time and space when I first discovered Staniloae.

Instead giving me the answers, he caused me to raise more questions. And I am grateful for that holy stirring in my soul. Like Heschel, Staniloae suggests that the modern world tended to spacialize time and invert the proper order of time over space. When writing about time, Staniloae says that time is the interval between the offer of love and the reciprocation to that offer.

But maybe I better back up a moment. Staniloae introduced me to another aspect of Maximas the Confessor beyond the four hundreds texts on love. He develops the creational vision of Maximas in his writings. Staniloae suggests that when God chose to create humans (in his image), God created time and space as to planes where humans could move (in differing ways) towards love. Thus time and space provide a plane of motion for movement toward love in relationship with God and with other humans.

At first this may be a little difficult to wrap around, but I encourage to let it simmer in your thoughts and heart. It will unfold riches of the beauty of this creation. As a way of offering some glimpses into Staniloae’s writings, I am posting a segement from his little pamphlet “The Victory of the Cross.” This 20 page treasure opens in the riches of the cross in ways that most of us completely miss.

Here is the opening paragraph from this meditation on the cross of suffering in our lives:

The world is a gift of God, but the destiny of this gift is to unite man God who has given it. The intention of the gift is that it should be continually transcended. When we receive a gift from somebody we should look primarily towards the person who has given it and not keep our eyes fixed on the gift. But often the person who receives the gift becomes so attached to the gift that he forgets who has given it to him. But God demands an unconditional love from us for he is infinitely greater than any of the gifts which he gives us; just as at the human levels the person who gives us a gift is incomparably more important than the gift which he has given and should be loved for himself and ot only on account of his gift. In this way every gift requires a certain cross, and this cross is meant to show us that all these gifts are not the last and final reality. The cross consists in an alteration in thie gift, and sometimes even in its entire loss.

I am planning to put some notes on his themes on the cross soon, and I’ll post them. But I’ll pause now simply to say thank you for the gift of writing you gave. May I move beyond the gift to love God and others more fully.

Who’s Afraid of NT Wright?

December 20, 2007 Leave a comment

I think once a week some preacher feels it is his solemn duty to warn his congregation not to read or even think about NT Wright.

Wright is an interesting thinker and figure in the church, he stirs both passionate admirers and fiery opposition. Those who oppose him feel it is their duty to warn everyone about the danger of his heretical ideas. I sometimes wonder if they might like to tape his mouth shut and ties his hands up, sort of the way Maximus the Confessor‘s enemies opposed him. (They cut out his tongue and chopped off his hand.)

I was happy to discover an irenic approach to the questions raised by NT Wright.  Trevin Wax provided a chapter by chapter commentary on John Piper’s recent work, The Future of Justification. Wax models a pattern for listening while still taking stands that could be helpful in the world of theological discussion.

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Dogmatic Theology and the World of Algebra

October 7, 2007 Leave a comment

Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes, “Dogmatic theology is the articulation of the conditions of possibility of Christian action in the light of revelation.” Reflecting on Balthasar’s idea, it seems to me that revelation is a lot like algebra. Unlike like the simple math of 2 + 2, which corresponds directly with the natural world, Algebra creates a seperate world of logic. Within this world formulas like a + b -c are used in a world that does not directly correspond to the natural world but has implications for the natural. As mathmatics continues to move further into theory and speculation, we discover a seperate world that becomes further and further abstracted from the natural.

Within this speculative world, one does not abandon logical consistancy. There is a logic within the mathmatical world that is self-containted within the argument. In Balthasar’s statement above, I see at least two worlds. First, I see the natural world where Christian action takes place. Then there is the world of revelation that is not discovered through natural observation.

The gospel makes the audacious claim that Jesus is God in the flesh. Some people may like the story but refuse to listen to logical claims within the context of the world of revelation created by the Bible. There are actually two arguments to explore here: one, the logical continuity of this world of revelation, and two, whether this world of revelation corresponds to this natural world. In other other words, is the archetect of the moral universe with the gospel story, the same architect of the natural in which we live.

Obviously, for Balthasar this world of revelation does correspond to the natural world. Working from a theology of analogy, Balthasar is wrestling with the question of a transcendence and immanence. How can man who is limited by time and space speak of a Creator outside of time and space? Space doesn’t provide a place to work through his analogy of being here, but bascially man does learn of the transcendent God through analogy.

As author of time and space, God creates a world of analogy with pointers to his character in all of creation. Man himself is created as the image of God. Yet, at the point of analogical connection, creation’s dissimilarity with the Creator is greater than its similarity with God. Without expanding on this idea further here, I suggest this idea provides the basis for that this world of revelation directly corresponds with the natural world.

Using the Bible and the Tradition of the Church, Balthasar works through the logic of revelation, which ulimately suggests that Jesus’s self-emptying act in the cross is God’s absolute expression of love. The first question one asks when facing this world of revelation might be, “Is the story of revelation satisfactory?” Does the story work? When someone says that they like the story of Jesus or that they find the story appealing, they are on some level responding to the logic of this world.

While not all Christians work through the logic of this world, they do begin with a belief in the story. As faith seeks understanding, this belief may work through the logic of the world on some level. As one makes a connection between the world of revelation and the natural world, one begins to discover the historical claims of Christianity. Thus revelation is seen as historical. It is not reached through reason but through faith. Yet working from faith, reason wrestles with the claims of revelation and the implications of revelation for action.

So for Balthasar dogmatic theology articulates how this world of revelation both creates the possibility for action and the implications for that action within the natural world. This is where it becomes difficult. In wrestling with the claims of revelation, theology explains the implications for actions in ideal terms. For example, the Christian is called to love as Jesus loved. The self empyting act of the cross is the pattern for behavior.

Yet as real human beings seek to act out these implications, their adherence to the challenge of Christian action is always less than ideal. Some people outside the world of revelation look at Christians behavior. Seeing actions that fail to reflect the image of love, they reject or challenge the claims proceeding from the world of revelation.

How does a Christian respond to this unbelief, scorn and even strong rejection and even hatred of the world of revelation? I think we continue to listen to the claims of dogmatic theology. We continue to observe the pattern of the cross. We continue acting by the power of the Spirit who helps us to translate this revelation into the natural world. In spite of our flaws, we continue seeking to embody self-emptying love revealing in some small measure that claim of revelation that love alone is credible.

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I’m poor, naked and helpless

July 5, 2007 1 comment

Listening to Sinead O’Connor‘s song “Something Beautiful” helped remind me why I am Christian. While I love to read and think and engage spirited discussions on the nature of faith and personhood and our postmodern milieu, I readily confess that I’m really poor, naked and helpless. Faith in Jesus has come to me as a gift in my own desperate weakness.

Sinead captures the voice of the aching soul encircled in God’s love,

I couldn’t thank you in ten thousand years
If I cried ten thousand rivers of tears
Ah but you know the soul and you know what makes it gold
You who give life through blood

Then she confesses her desperation in language that highlights for me my own faltering steps that stumble even when moving toward the love of Christ:

Oh I wanna make something
So lovely for you
‘Cus I promised that’s what I’d do for you
With the bible I stole
I know you forgave my soul
Because such was my need on a chronic Christmas Eve

The idea of encountering the loving grace of God through a “stolen bible” pictures the wonder of redeeming love for me. All of us are thieves seeking to steal the gift our sweet Savior so graciously offers in his broken body and shed blood.

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