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Time to Rethink the War Between the Science vs. Religion

We need to rethink the purported conflict between science and religion.  In his wonderful book Unapologetic Theology, William Placher makes the following observation:

Many of the “conflicts” between science and religion result from theologians trying to be scientists or scientists engaging in speculative philosophy, and it is important to get clear on the appropriate range of each field. The defenders of creation science, and Carl Sagan in his speculations about the meaning of it all, seem to me equally guilty, from opposite sides, of confusion in such matters.  Both are claiming professional authority to speak of matters beyond their professional competence. Still, here too it seems too simple to say that religious faith and science address totally different questions and therefore can never be in conflict and need never be in dialogue.

Placher is writing from a postliberal perspective that wants to take the internal logic of Christian language with utmost seriousness.  Thus, for him and others of this perspective, it is a first-order mistake to try and do science with the language of theology, or to bend Christian habits of speech to purely scientific discourse.  Science has its own methods and language, and to co-opt that language is to do damage to both (as creation science bastardizes both science and theology).  Likewise, when otherwise intelligent scientists like Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrasse Tyson begin to wax about theology and philosophy, using the tools of science to draw conclusions on questions outside their competency, they too misunderstand the limits of their own field.

Note that this isn’t as simple as an elitist argument or a “stay in your own lane” warning, but a recognition of different modes of discourse.  This is especially true in the ongoing, overblown, conflict between science and faith.  Because if Placher is correct, the conflict consists not so much in opposing worldviews or goals, but in simply talking past one another.

And really, isn’t there enough of that already in today’s world?

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Learning to Speak Christian in Our First Family, the Church

Does it matter how Christians speak?

I recently had the opportunity to write for my own Western NC Conference blog, and this time I wrote a reflection on language and identity in the church.  My premise is that the church is our first family, and this identity is both established and maintained through language.  Just as a company, culture, or hobby has a particular language, so too does the church have its own distinct habits of speech and modes of thought.  If we give away the language, we give away everything.  To be a Christian is no less than to speak the language of the church.

Along the way, I draw on the work of Wabash theologian William Placher and his dialogue on postliberal theology with James Gustafson in this piece. You can find the full article here.  Thanks to Rev. Dr. Michael Rich in the WNCC Communications Office for the chance to join a great group of bloggers, and thanks to you for reading!

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William Placher on “Critical Retrieval” in Theology

placher retrievalWhat if there were a way to call on the best resources of the past while avoiding naïveté about their faults and simplistic rejection of all that came later? Enter the task called “critical retrieval.”

In his wonderful tome The Domestication of Transcendence, the late William Placher of Wabash College describes the task this way:

To say this – or to make any other criticism of some turn modernity took – is not to propose a simple return to the premodern. We could not go back to that world if we wanted to, and we would not want to if we could. It was a world of terrible injustice and violence, and some aspects of its theology both reflected and even contributed to these horrors. Christian theologians supported oppressive social structures and all sorts of bigotry; the male bias of the tradition is only one of its most obvious faults. if contemporary theology engages in critical retrievals of insights from premodern theology, then the retrievals must indeed always be critical, keeping in mind that what we retrieve was often embedded in contexts we can no longer accept. To engage in such critical retrievals while acknowledging our debts to modernity is to synthesize something new. As already noted, I am not much interested in whether the results should be labelled postmodernism. What matters is that we find, from whatever sources, ways of speaking about God as faithfully and truthfully as we can. (2)

What might such a ‘critical retrieval’ look like in practice?

The example that comes immediately to my mind is culled from David Steinmetz’s brilliant article “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” one of the most famous of the late Reformation scholar’s works.  He argues, among other points, that the medieval and patristic four-fold sense of Scripture offers more accurate and fruitful exegetical possibilities than the regnant historical-critical method of the 19th-20th century:

His bombshell of an article concludes:

The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted – as it deserves to be – to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.

While asserting the superiority of pre-critical methods, Steinmetz neither denies the usefulness of higher criticism nor desires a simple recovery of 8th century techniques.  This is the essence of ‘critical retrieval,’ reclaiming the best of the past while staying in touch with the insights of the present.  One party at Vatican II, that great Catholic council, was getting at something similar when they encouraged ressourcement, a return to the sources (particularly of the Patristic period).  Wesleyan theology of the last 50 years has been marked by a similar retrieval of Wesley and early Methodism after fruitless detours down avenues like Boston personalism and process theology.

But this is not a longing for the past or a kind of immature nostalgia. On Placher’s reading, critical retrieval acknowledges both the virtues of the present age and the vices of past, while seeking to bring once more to the forefront of the church the greatest gifts from her bygone eras.

And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ (Matthew 13:52, NRSV)

What are some other examples of critical retrieval? What ideas or practices ought we to retrieve today?

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Jesus: The Face of God

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.

“Who do you say that I am?” -Jesus, Mark 8:29

Who is Jesus?

I get very nervous around clergy who dodge this question.  There are all manner of open questions in life.  Questions of politics, identity, and justice are often multivalent and complex, and should be treated as such.  When Christians repeat the (well-worn but still useful) phrase, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity” the list of essentials is, for me, pretty short (not much longer than the Nicene Creed, in fact).

But for Christians, there are some non-negotiables, else the descriptor has no value.  Chief among these are the two most sacred mysteries of Christian confession: the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, and the Trinity (the revelation that God is three and yet one, without division but with distinction).

Why does it matter that the Triune God is most fully known in Jesus?  William Placher recounts:

The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance tells how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation – and how they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.”

With apologies to Tillich, there is no “God above God” other than the Holy Trinity.  While it is very much the case that the economic Trinity (God’s work as revealed to us) does not tell us everything about the immanent Trinity (God’s essence), if we trust God and what God has revealed there must at least be a correspondence between these.  God in the immanent Trinity remains a mystery human intellect cannot comprehend; Jesus, however, as the Word of the Father sent in the power of the Spirit, tells us much about who God is: he is the loving Father who welcomes the prodigal home, the one who heals, restores, and makes new, the One who would rather suffer exclusion, torture, and death than watch His creatures do so.  To see Jesus is to see God.  This is Christian confession.  This is the Good News.

Placher concludes,

“If the Holy Spirit leads us to know that Jesus Christ, as we come to know him in the biblical stories, is the self-revelation of the one God, then Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be three separate Gods. Indeed, such a God cannot be just any one God, but must be the God whose identity we have come to know in the biblical narratives about Jesus. Thus, in Moltmann’s formulation, ‘The doctrine of the Trinity is nothing other than the conceptual framework needed to understand the story of Jesus as the story of God.’ The one God thus known does not hold power in reserve, apart from the love revealed in the crucified Jesus or the Spirit’s indwelling in our hearts; there is no God beyond the God triunely revealed, a God of love.”

Incarnation and Trinity: on these twin pillars Christian revelation stands (and they stand or fall together).  Embrace them, and you have a more beautiful, hopeful, loving God than any other religion, philosophy, or worldview has ever conceived.

But to deny, forget, or marginalize these is to begin doing something other than Christian prayer, thinking, and living.  Deny who Jesus is, or deny the Trinity, and the faith “once and for all delivered” is lost. (Jude 1:3)

To see Jesus is to see the very face of God.  Thanks be to God.

 

Source: William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2007), 139-140.

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Recovering Our Mother Tongue

Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.

Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.

“…have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

-St. Augustine

Languages are best learned through immersion.  One cannot learn French by reading an English translation of a Dumas novel – one needs to hear the French, speak it, let it get inside.  Doctrine functions quite similarly to language, if George Lindbeck is to be believed.  Thus he argues that, from a cultural-linguistic perspective, Christian doctrines function much like “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.” (1)

Reflecting on the use of creeds in worship, from the ancient church to today, Geoffrey Wainwright argues they “are binding in so far as they summarize in words the primal revelation of God in Jesus Christ…and so enable the believer to declare his own life-commitment to that same God in the present.” (2)  By the words of the traditional creeds, we learn the language of faith, the language of that sacred and profane body of persons that is somehow called the Body of Christ.  Through the creeds and other forms of doctrinal instruction (in particular, if they are of sufficient quality, our hymns), we learn to speak the truth which was “preached to [us], which [we] received and on which [we] have taken [our] stand” in and through the ministry, witness, service, and worship of the church. (1 Cor. 15:1, NIV)

St. Augustine goes so far as to recommend reciting the Apostle’s Creed multiple times per day in his homily to catechumans (who would recite the Creed at baptism):

“Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed ). And when you have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before ye sleep, before ye go forth, arm you with your Creed…These words which you have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes. For have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

Only in the language bequeathed from our Mother, the church, is right praise (“orthodoxy”) possible.  This language is learned chiefly by our full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy, through creed and hymn, through homily and response, through sacrament, icon, footwashing, and stained glass.  Without worship that forms us in the language of God’s self-revelation in Christ, we are left mute to proclaim and live (for language forms lives, not merely words) the One who is alone and fully True, Good, and Beautiful.

“How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” asked the Psalmist. (137:4)

We cannot, at least not without much formation, practice, immersion.  And increasingly, we Western Christians are realizing that North America and Europe are foreign lands.  Thus for the sake of Christian mission, belief, and life, we need to recover our Mother Tongue.

1. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984), 18.
2. Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford 1980), 192.
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Start with Three, and Preserve the Mystery: Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

“So I start here with two principles: (1) Trinitarian terminology should function less to explain the mystery than to preserve it; (2) thinking about the Trinity should move from the three to the one rather than the other way round.” (William Placher, The Triune God, 121)

Trinity Sunday is one of those rented mules of the liturgical calendar; it is there by tradition and necessity, but we often don’t know how to treat it – whether lay or clergy.  The result is typically one of two alternatives: a complete avoidance of the observation (no less an option in Methodist and other semi-liturgical circles than in “non-denominational” and free church communities) or some heretical claptrap that tries to “explain” the greatest mystery of the church with some inane banalities or make it “relevant” (read: about us more than about God). None of these are good options, and both miss the point: as Christians we need to know this God!trinity shield

As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Freeman, used to say, “In the South we are all ‘functional Unitarians.'”  That is, in the Bible Belt we are great at talking about Jesus day in and day out, but we are fuzzy if not totally ignorant about the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase).  In my own preparation for preaching this day, I found flipping back through the late William Placher’s The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology a helpful exercise.

The postliberal bent to Placher’s work is evident throughout.  That is, he draws on the work of the so-called “Yale School” influenced especially by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei.  The postliberals focus on Christian language as constitutive of belief and practice; Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine puts forth the thesis that dogma functions as a kind of grammar for Christian speech, and  thereby he – heavily influenced by Barth – insists on a third way beyond the estranged twins of fundamentalism and liberalism (hence the name of the school, “Postliberal”). Barth’s Christocentrism and the centrality of the Biblical narrative come through heavily in Placher’s reflections.  Consider the following:

“…Christians start knowing God in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in Jesus’ references to the one he called “Father,” and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete Jesus promised, who forms and sustains our faith.  The task of any doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to show how an abstract one is three, but to show that these three are one, and this is not an unnecessary complication but something essential to what Christians believe.” (120)

Few things are more harmful to Christian faith and life than the confusion of the Triune God revealed in the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the kind of generic, uninvolved God that seems to be the dominant God “believed” by most Americans. (See Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian for more here.)  Because we know God first through Jesus, Placher asserts, we start with three and move to one, rather than vice-versa.  This is precisely not an academic exercise but rather an attempt to be faithful to the Biblical narrative through which God has revealed himself to us:

“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting.  We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son.  We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God.  We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (130)

Praise be to God that we are not left with an uninteresting, generic Divinity, but a God who is love itself, a God who not only calls us to love but embodies perfect love as a Trinity of persons – distinct but not different, Three and yet One – a God whose being is not other than the perfect outpouring of grace upon grace. And praise be that this is not a God we can prove through mathematical proof or scientific experimentation, but a God who is beyond our categories and above our feeble attempts at description.  What has thus far been revealed to us is amazing, but more astonishing still is how great the depths of mystery there will be to plumb for all of eternity, when we see this God with sight unobstructed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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“Don’t let them take your Jesus…”: Education and Fundamentalism

https://i1.wp.com/www.answersingenesis.org/creation/images/v19/BIBLE.JPG?w=1140

…a good illustration of what many fundamentalists think happens to young Christians who go off to “dangerous” non-Christian schools...

I keep meeting more and more pastors with the same story.  It goes something like this:

-Narrow, fundamentalist upringing

-Little exposure to the outside world and/or culture(s)

-Strongly defensive of values received from family of origin and/or church community

-Goes off to college or seminary, and gets “the speech”…

Here is “the speech”:

“You gotta watch out.  Don’t go off to school and let these liberal professors question your faith.  They are all just a bunch of atheists, and they’ll try to make you doubt the Lord.  Remember what WE taught you and hold fast.  Don’t let them take your Jesus!” (1)

I think speeches like this precipitate a lot of young people going off to fundamentalist-oriented colleges and seminaries instead of risking exposure to ideas and people different than those with whom they are raised.  Not that I see no value in Christian education.  I am the product of a great deal of such (pricey) education.

For me, the scary thought is being born into, raised, and educated solely within a fundamentalist environment.  I have dear friends – great people – who spent all of their childhood and adolescence within a fundamentalist Baptist milieu and then went off to a college that would do nothing but reinforce all of their stereotypes.  I find this sad.

As for education “taking your Jesus”…well, there is probably an element of truth to that.  I think it is a vastly overblown narrative in evangelical circles, but there is a kernel of real experience there.  Many secular departments of religion are filled with people for whom Christianity is a mere intellectual excercise, a field of study devoid of personal content or value.  Or, even worse, you find people like Bart Ehrman: ex-fundamentalists who seem to relish challenging the fragile worldviews of undergrads who strongly believe in a faith that they do not know is a house of cards.  This is the equivalent of Dan Gable wrestling 8th-graders.

Consider this an extension of my previous piece on picking a seminary: a Christian environment is a good thing, if done well.  By ‘well’, we mean Christian in the CS Lewis sense: “mere” Christianity.  Christianity defined broadly, orthodox and ecumenical, in touch with the deepest streams of the Church tradition and yet interested in living out that tradition in the present.  Such a place will not “take your Jesus,” but it should enliven your faith, deepen it,  and broaden.  Challenge it? Yes, but in the sense of “iron sharpening iron.”  No faith is true unless tested and refined.  ‘

The difference between a Bart Ehrman doing that and a Christian mentor doing so is analogous to the difference between a stabbing and a surgery: one uses a knife, the other a scalpel.  One’s intent is to destroy, the other is to help.  It makes all the difference in the world.  I am continually thankful to my own mentors who guided me, sometimes kicking and screaming, from fundamentalism to Christianity.

1. Adapted from a version of “the speech” that I received from various folks upon learning that I was going to seminary at Duke.  None of them, of course, had the theological acumen to realize the irony of this.  Now I can go back and tell them, proudly, “I am so anti-liberal that I am postliberal!”  Of course, this is funny only to a bookish elite.  Props to George Lindbeck!

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Translation or Catechesis?

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:

Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem.  One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)

The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine.  Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies.  The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:

Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation

 

The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples?  Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term).  The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics.  The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.”  The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.

I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings.  But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above.  It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to.  Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle.  And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist.    Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?  Surely it is the latter.  But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.?  Perhaps it is merely less popular.

But it seems a fine line.  I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now.  The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation.  Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc.  But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology.  It is a fine line, indeed.

Thoughts?

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