William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Theology (Page 4 of 7)

Von Balthasar on Political Theology and the Church's Role in God's Drama

When Jesus is tried, he is asked about his disciples and his teaching.  His answer is: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly” (Jn 18:20).  The scenes of the Acts of the Apostles take place in the same public arenas, which is why both the trial of Jesus and the testimony of the Apostles become political issues.  By opening up an horizon beyond the immediate horizon of the state, they indirectly limit the latter and subject it to an eschatological critique.  A king who is not of this world but acts in utter seriously on the public world stage is bound to be involved in the political drama.  The only question is, in what sense?  Does not Buddha too subject the whole theatre of the world and the state to a similar criticism, but in his case by projecting into onto an apolitical horizon?  And as for Judaism and Islam, do they not push the political dimension beyond itself and dramatize it by infusing it with a messianic and eschatological motive power?  Christianity stands strangely elusive between these two approaches, or beyond them both; this gives it a highly distinctive dramatic tension which is only inadequately expressed by the word “political”.  The Kingdom Christ announces as the fulfillment of history stands at the door; both individual and community have to live with all their attention fixed on it, bending all their spiritual powers toward it, but it is from God that it comes; it does not emerge from within history as the result of human effort…

The life of Jesus — contrary to [some] Jewish hopes, contrary to the messianic models of his time and contrary to the accusation which led to his death sentence — was devoid of any political claim to power, nor did it prematurely institutionalize features belonging  to the eschaton. The Christian as such may be utterly deprivatized, commissioned to act publicly as an assessor on the world stage (1 Cor 4:9; Heb 10:33) — and in this sense [she] maybe political: all the same, [her] existence cannot be classified in secular terms, and [she herself] cannot grasp it in its totality, and so the Christian cannot be simply put int o the “political” pigeonhole.

Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” under Christ, the Head, [she] is in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize that [she] has an inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live.  In this more-than-human, specifically Christian responsibility, which is rooted in Christ’s solidarity with every last sinner and poor [person], there can be no self-complacent community of Christians, no closed Church.  The Church is essentially planted in the field of the world to bear her special fruit in it and from it; she is mixed in with the world’s dough to leaven all of it; but just as the Church can only be herself in going beyond herself to the world, so, on the other hand, the world is designed, retrospectively, from the eschaton, to transcend itself in the direction of the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:25ff.).  At this very point the Church becomes the world’s substantial pledge of hope that bursts all bounds, although her leaven, which continues to ferment in society and presses for worldly power to be used in the service of justice and peace, is powerless in itself.  Or, in Paul’s paradox, it is only strong when it is weak (2 Cor 12:10).

The impotence of the Crucified in death, which remains the inner shape of even the most vigorous Christian life, can never be manipulated to “amorize” humankind.  The dramatic situation in which the Christian is consciously, and the world and its history are unconsciously, involved goes far beyond the category of politics. It complements the latter with a dimension which, depending on how one looks at it, can be described as ineluctably tragic or utopian (whether in a meaningless or meaningful sense) or as ultimately bringing reconciliation.  If the “political” is to claim relevance to the issue of ultimate meaning — and it cannot do so unless it is prepared to give up applying valid norms even within the temporal sphere — it must consent to being taken beyond itself and set in relation to this dramatic dimension of human existence, which attains its highest tension only in the Christian reality.

TheoDrama: Theological Dramatic Theory, V. 1, pp. 37-40

Learning from the Crowd: A Holy Week Reflection on How We Turn Against Jesus

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog two days ago as part of their special Holy Week Series.]

I remember learning as a child in Sunday school about how the Palm Sunday crowd welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with great enthusiasm and anticipation. It never really made much sense to me how they could turn on him so much in just a week’s time, but I was too young to strongly question this. When I got older, I suppose I just stopped thinking about it. All that mattered is that I had been taught “the gospel,” namely, that even though we are fickle sinners just like the people on Palm Sunday, God sent Jesus to die for our sins on the cross. Well, I’ve since discovered that “how they could turn on him” really matters, and so I think it’s worth revisiting what “the crowd” during Holy Week teaches us about this gospel claim.

First, that God sent Jesus:

It is crucial to remember that before sending Jesus, God sent others. There’s a story behind the story. Most importantly for Jewish memory, God sent Moses, through whom God liberated Israel from slavery and gave to them the Law. This was their primal narrative. Life in Egypt was marked by the politics of oppression, much like in Rome. Pharaoh’s gods were at the head of the religious establishment, which was synonymous with economic affluence. Like the ancient Israelites, first-century Jews were subjected to the emperor’s reign of domination and awaited one who would “command peace to the nations” (Zech. 9:10).

The Israelites began to forget where they came from, that they were once slaves in Egypt. They started looking more and more like the Egyptians themselves. After Moses, God also sent the Prophets. They had to issue a warning. Liberation from slavery is a good thing – the most original meaning of the word “salvation” – but it can so easily develop into a new form of tribalism and violence. Their fear and anxiety led them to desire once more the security of Empire. They wanted their own king and kingdom. Before long, this also meant they needed their own slaves. In other words, the formerly oppressed were becoming the oppressors. Israel was being recreated into the image of Egypt:

“[Jerusalem] that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers! Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves as bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:21b, 23).

Jerusalem was “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). Making his way to Jerusalem, Jesus knew though that the “chief priests, the elders and the scribes” neither wanted nor understood his sort of peace. This is why “[a]s Jesus drew near and saw Jerusalem, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41). Unlike Pilate’s triumphal entry on the west side of town, Jesus processes on a donkey, with no army behind him, and no news of conquest. While they’re not sure what to make of this, the people still chant, “Hosanna!” Maybe he really could be their deliverer…

Second, To die for our sin:

During Holy Week, we see in Jerusalem the same social system that was condemned by the prophets, the same one that Jesus confronted, and the same one that killed him. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was engaged in the dangerous business of challenging the Jewish high-priestly collaboration with imperial control. His teachings about the Kingdom of God were perceived as, and in a real sense were, a threat to the political and religious establishment. The day after Jesus’s arrival, he harshly and publically criticizes the temple and its complicity with the system of Roman exploitation in yet another street theater-styled demonstration – by driving out the buyers and sellers. This was an extraordinarily adversarial act.

Palm Sunday signals the beginning of the recurring journey of God’s people from Exodus to Exile – in one week. In first-century Jerusalem, the jobs of the high priest Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate were tricky and difficult. They had to both please Rome and quell the frustration of the Jewish people so as to prevent civil unrest at the same time. Was this the same crowd as before? Some scholars doubt it, but this wouldn’t change the lesson. The crowds did not really understand who Jesus was. They had seen him perform signs and wonders, but his teachings were scandalous. Just like the Israelites wandering in the desert, they were still scared because of their insecure material circumstances and easily swayed by the influence of their society’s scheming leaders.

When we figure out that Jesus is not going to give us what we want, and not in the way that we want it, whether we’re in a position like Pilate or the crowd, we easily turn against him. This “turning against” is the opposite of belief and repentance. It’s that tendency in all of us to let the ego take over, to be driven by fear, shame, and anger, and to close off our hearts. It is because of (“for”) the crowd’s sin of “turning against” him that Jesus dies.

Finally, on the cross:

Caesar, called “a son of the gods,” and “lord,” brings peace through conquest and the cross. Jesus, the Son of God, and Lord, brings peace by bankrupting conquest and the cross. Walter Brueggemann says this about the cross in The Prophetic Imagination:

“The cross is the ultimate metaphor of prophetic criticism because it means the end of the old consciousness that brings death on everyone. The crucifixion articulates God’s odd freedom, his strange justice, and his peculiar power. It is this freedom (read religion of God’s freedom), justice (read economics of sharing), and power (read politics of justice), which break the power of the old age and bring it to death” (p. 99).

Thus, the twofold theme of Holy week is this: radical discipleship in an unjust world means following Jesus 1) to a place of non-violent confrontation with the powers of domination and exploitation, and 2) on a path toward personal transformation through death to self (“deny themselves . . . and follow me.” – Mark 8:34). For “death to self” is basically open-heartedness that extends forgiveness even to enemies, just as Jesus extends it to the rulers and fickle crowd that shouts, “Crucify him!” In truth, we are all like the rulers and the fickle crowd.

In our post-Christian culture especially, but in any culture, the appropriate response to Jesus’s week in Jerusalem is not a proud victory cry that rushes to Easter morning for relief from a guilty-conscience and the fear of punishment. Nor is it for bold propositional assertion about the “truth of our belief.” But this is what we’ve frequently made it. Instead, for Holy Week, the charge to churches is bold embodiment of and deep trust in Jesus’s alternative practice of peace – not Caesar’s – one that is both humble and subversive, that liberates us from anxiety about worldly security and false narratives of certainty and instant gratification.

Only then will we be close to loving our neighbor.

Leveling the Field: Rohr on "Subverting the Honor/Shame System"

I’ve always thought the story of the woman caught in adultery is one of the most powerful in the whole Bible, and perhaps the most illustrative of Jesus’ posture toward sin and forgiveness (and for Christians, therefore God’s “posture” as well).  Here Rohr touches on the key points, which I take to be basically encapsulated by the paradox of “there is no condemnation/go and sin no more”:

Some form of the honor/shame system is seen in almost all history. In such a system, there is immense social pressure to follow “the rules” (almost always man-made). If a person doesn’t follow the rules, they are not honorable and no longer deserve respect. And anyone who shows such a “shameful” person respect is also considered dishonorable. (A certain US president, and one Pope, could not even talk about people with AIDS, much less help them.

Jesus frequently showed respect to “sinners” publicly (John 8:10) and even ate with them (Luke 19:2-10; Mark 2:16-17). In doing so, he was openly dismissing the ego-made honor/shame system. He not only ignored it, he even went publicly in the opposite direction. That preachers and theologians have failed to see this is culpable ignorance.

When Jesus was confronted with the dilemma of the woman caught in adultery, he masterfully leveled the playing field of the “honored” and the “shamed.” To the men accusing her, he said, “Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7), and to her he said, “I do not condemn you; go now, and do not make this same mistake again” (8:11). What a marvelous consolation for people in all of history who have felt shamed or put down or defeated by others! Yet Jesus holds us to personal responsibility for our actions, too. This should please every fair-minded person.

At the same time, it was an opportunity for the self-righteous accusers to face their own darkness, their own denied and disguised faults. Hopefully they would learn from their ego humiliations. Truly holy people are able to embrace their failings and have no illusions about being better than other people.

Adapted from Francis: Subverting the Honor/Shame System and The Path of Descent

E. Frank Tupper on Reading with Second Naivete and the Priority of the Biblical Story

The story of Jesus is the decisive self-revelation of God; accordingly, the canonical Gospels, each distinctive, has priority.  Gospel primacy does not require an abdication of holistic critical consciousness, for the postmodern interpreter has a reflective commitment to the scriptures, contrary to a naïve precritical literalism or to modern “historical-critical” reductionism…

Second Naiveté

9780881462609In the second naiveté the interpreter “adopts provisionally the motivations and intentions of the believing soul. [She] does not feel them in their first naiveté, but ‘re-feels’ the in a neutralized mode, the mode ‘as if.'”  It is a re-enactment with sympathetic consciousness.  The interpreter suspends critical judgment and “re-reads” the text in naïve innocence, but rereading with a non-critical posture never corresponds exactly to reading in narrative innocence. Subsequently, the postmodern reader reactivates her critical consciousness — from subservience in the background — and attempts to account conceptually for the possibility of living in the symbols o the believer’s world.  Since the symbols indigenous to the world of the narrative cannot be abstracted from it, reading “as if” in the second naiveté enables the interpreter to appropriate the biblical symbol and the new possibility embedded in the narrative.  Only the retrieved symbol and the new possibility embedded for living in the modern world, which is inaccessible apart from reading with the second naiveté.  However, she cannot literally “suspend” critical judgment to reread the story, for only “the double reading” of the narrative with critical analysis intentionally subdued permits a literal reading.  She remains aware of the problems identified earlier but reads with genuine openness to a literal interpretation to enable her to discern its intrinsic symbols.  Thus bracketing out critical consciousness requires a double reading of the text with critical analysis held in the background but still alert to difficulties.

The Priority of the Biblical Story

Narrative theology essentially affirms the priority of the biblical story in its irreducibility and unrepeatability.  Hence, the interpreter does not find her story in a biblical story that can “use” for illumination.  Otherwise, the priority of her story encircles and comprehends the scriptural story, elevating her story above the biblical story. [This is the mistake of Bultmann, sometimes Tillich, and other modern readers in my view.] Rather, narrative theology intrinsically affirms the priority of the Biblical Story over the interpreter’s story: When the reader encounters an illuminating story, she relocates her story inside the biblical story, and it becomes the interpretive context for understanding her “story.”  The creative act of “living in the Biblical Story” enables her to participate in its narrative world…

Participatory narrative interpretation recognizes the similarities and differences in the narrative world of the story of Jesus and the modern world of the interpreter, which involves translating the perspective and conceptualization “from the biblical world” into “the idiom of the postmodern world.”  Beyond the literary, historical, and conceptual dissonance between the biblical world and the contemporary world of lived experience, therefore, the essentials of a biblical worldview must be distinguished from the relative elements in the ancient biblical worldpicture… 

The changing worldpicture not only applies to the new scientific understanding of the human situation, but also to the plausibility of thee interpretation of historical traditions of antiquity.  These historical traditions require a [I would say sometimes] nonliteral interpretation with a discerning critical consciousness in assessing their historical character.  Nevertheless, the relativizing of the ancient worldpicture does not exclude but allows for a particular worldview — a perspective on reality shaped through the self-disclosure of God.  Yet the changes in the modern worldpicture inevitably impact the configuration of a Christian worldview, for it must take into account postmodern scientific explanations to clarify “how” the world operates.  Since the first naiveté fails to distinguish worldpicture and worldview, the breakdown of the first naivete requires adaptation to the radical differences between the archaic biblical worldpicture and the essentials of the biblical worldview accessible through the second naiveté.  Contrary to the premodern and modern scientific interpretation, the biblical worldview can transcend the worldpicture of biblical antiquity.  The relative biblical worldpicture must not be confused with, but distinguished from, an enduring biblical worldview.

Jesus Loves Everyone but still "Takes Sides"

Taking sides does not imply a lack of care about the other side. When Jesus took the side of the common people against the side of the privileged of his own day, he cared about the salvation of both sides, knowing that true harmony can only be achieved if the tensions are addressed and overcome rather than suppressed.  His impassioned speeches against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 provide only one example of this: accusing them of having neglected “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23) implies not so much an ultimate rejection but an invitation to conversation and a new beginning. — Joerg Rieger, No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics and the Future, p. 53

How (not) to Speak (about the Power) of God: Some Christmas Reflections on Divine Action

Nativity scenes

Nativity scenes (Photo credit: Boston Public Library)

[With a few revisions, the following is a partial cross-posting from an entry I made last week at Homebrewed Christianity in response to this podcast episode.  The main purpose of what I wrote was to call into question what struck me as a discourteous representation of how Christians have talked about the nature of God’s power for the vast majority of church history.  Bo Sanders kindly pushed back, and then Tony Jones responded to both of our posts and the podcast by asking some follow-up questions for process theology, echoing at least some of my concerns.  Finally, my friend and former classmate Austin Roberts gave these pithy answers for Tony.]

As finite beings, all of our language is only fit to describe finite reality.  This leads some to conclude that all attempts to say anything positive about God are in vain.  But those like Thomas Aquinas for example, and Pseudo-Dionysius, insisted instead that one could indeed ascribe certain attributes to God by following a process of affirmation, negation, and remotion, emanation, or re-reaffirmation when talking about God (e.g., “God is like a parent in some respects, but only in limited correlation or proportionality — not directly or univocally”). This method of theology became known as the via analogia, or the “analogical predication of divine names.”  Thomas also has an account of God’s agency in the world in terms of secondary causality, which is a non-zero sum way of granting freedom to creation and human agents for participation in the purposes of God without infringing upon natural ends.

In other words, while it is fitting to say that God loves us like parents love their children, this love, and this parenthood, are not im-mediately comparable to our finite and human experience of love and parenting.  All the more so when we get into specific human experiences like kids playing in traffic.  The idea that God could intervene to stop traffic is not the same kind of intervention that Christians hope for in the resurrection or in the eschaton (I would not even call it “intervention” — more on this below).  The same goes for talking about God as a “ruler,” or as anything else.  Thus, when assessing and the nature of God’s character with respect to God’s power, we cannot rely too heavily on any one human analogy.  Only in the resounding overflow or of a plurality of names does the nature of God become even partially revealed.  Thus, whatever one makes of traditional accounts of God’s omnipotence, it does not equal “arbitrariness” or Caesar-style trumping power.  I know this doesn’t make things any easier or solve our God-talk problems.  The point is, while I think Christians can and even need to disagree with and reform classical theism in certain respects, we must remember to preserve the integrity (not infallibility!) of the intentions of the best of the tradition rather than dismissing its doctrines as necessarily having distorted the character of the God of Jesus Christ for all the centuries before ours (though I’m not accusing anyone in particular of consistently doing this, despite the polemical tone).

Secondly, The problem of evil has troubled me deeply, and still does.  I do not feel resolved about it at all.  My dissertation is largely about this very subject.  It is one of the main reasons people reject traditional understandings of God’s power, and again, there may be some grounds for rethinking the tradition here.  But I think our refusal to tolerate a fair amount of mystery when it comes to explaining suffering has as much to do with our anthropocentric view of reality as it does with any possible deficiency in God’s character or power.  Much as I want it to, God’s goodness does not necessarily depend on what is good for humans and from our point of view right now (I realize this argument could be turned around and used against “interventionist” theologies as well — I mentioned this ideological risk in the podcast episode).  I say this as someone who is as existentially disturbed by meaningless horrors in history as the next person.  I do not mean this to be a pious refusal of all speculation. I just think it’s an important check on speculation.  Some contemporary theologies characterized by process and postmodern thought are good about critiquing modernity’s “turn” to the human subject, but we still have some modern arrogance to shake off.  The classical tradition was far less anthropocentric than we are — they were more theocentric — even though their universe was thought to be infinitely smaller and ptolemaic!

Third, process theologians like to recite the Philippians 2 hymn, but only the first half of it.  Yes, God’s power is most demonstrated in the self-emptying love of Christ on the cross.  In this sense, God can safely be called a fellow-suffer who understands.  And on this same cross, the power of Caesar is judged, criticized, and exposed as fraudulent.  But only in the resurrection is the power of Caesar truly undermined, which Paul attests in “part two” of the Philippians hymn.  And according to Paul, the power of God is disclosed not as weakness, but in weakness – in becoming weakness, namely.  For without decent, there could be no ascent (metaphorically).

Similarly, the reign of God is known not as much by non-coercive power, as by power from below – power from the margins.  There is a difference here. I am weary of any dualism between nature and super-nature as well, but if the resurrection isn’t meant to be a coercive rupture of the “as is” structure of reality, I don’t know what is.  I suggest, therefore, that Christians are better off not primarily by taking issue with the idea of God having coercive power as such, but with God having top-down power.  It’s a false binary if we’re forced to choose between a Caesar-God and a strictly persuasive God who can’t accomplish her purposes apart from human consent (i.e., as if God asks for permission to redeem…).  God’s top-down action is weak, but bottom-up, it’s strong, transformative and quite forceful.  This doesn’t need to mean it isn’t loving.  Nor does it imply violent retribution, despite what some ahistorical readings of Revelation would have us believe.  Somewhere herein lies an all-important distinction that might just make a way for a real eschatology without giving up the integrity of the physical universe.

So in the spirit of Christmas — given a major theme is the meaning of the incarnation and the picture given in the gospel narratives’ of Jesus’ poor, insignificant, outsider and genocidal birth setting — I propose we think of resurrection and eschatology (how Christ will finally “reign”) as emergent consummation.  The word “consummation” is a fairly traditional way to talk about the fulfillment of God’s purposes in time, but without the patriarchal baggage carried by other words like “triumph” or even “return” (e.g. “return of the king”).  “Emergent,” on the other hand, signals the idea of bottom-up and non-violent force that can nonetheless hardly be stopped.  Maybe this could be a better way then to talk about divine power without relinquishing the effectiveness of divine action.

Inclusivism Revisited

This is a cross-posting of a guest entry I made at Roger Olson’s blog on Monday.]

I still remember the first time I started to wonder about the possibility of salvation for non-Christians.  I was about nine-years-old when I asked my mom about it.  She told me that we Baptists believe in an “age of accountability,” and she went on to express a firm expectation that God could be merciful to those who have not heard of Jesus or who are not old enough to understand their own sin and need of forgiveness.

A few years later the pastor of our church, who was also my uncle, preached a sermon that essentially affirmed the same idea.  I’m truly grateful that my faith was formed in a home and in a church that gave me an open-ended answer to this question.  I think it made a big difference in the development of my understanding of God’s character.

So for me this issue has never been a major hindrance to my belief in Christ as Lord and Savior.  From time to time, however, I’m reminded how much of a stumbling block this belief is for so many non-Christians.  I remember seeing an episode of Oprah where, after acting appalled by the narrow claims of Christians, she insistently asked, “How could there only be one way?” On the other hand, some restrictivists or exclusivists Christians – those who believe that salvation is only available to those who explicitly confess faith in Christ – are completely scandalized by the possibility of inclusivism (the view I’ve just described above that I was taught growing up).

In seminary I had the chance to explore this question in a deeper way.  In one class, we read various accounts of restrictivism, inclusivism and universalism.  In another, we focused more on theology of religions and considered a number of Christian interpretations of other faith traditions.  Central to what I took away from this time was a new appreciation for the extent to which the various world religions have noticeably divergent understandings of what salvation even means.

From the Christian standpoint, salvation can be discussed in several ways.  The primacy of God’s grace extended to us through Christ’s atonement despite deserved judgment is well established in Scripture, but the gospels highlight Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God as well.  The Kingdom of God is not a synonym for what most people mean by the word “heaven.”  Nor is it a political reality obtainable in human history.  Yet Jesus declared that this kingdom was at hand, and that people everywhere should repent and believe in its arrival.

Repentance and belief according to Jesus require “death to ego.”  This death in turn suspends judgment and produces neighbor-love, the same neighbor-love commanded throughout the Old Testament.  And given there is little conception in the Old Testament of salvation in terms of afterlife, wouldn’t it be strange for the Christian understanding to completely depend on such a notion?  A better interpretation might be to say that Jesus elaborates upon the Jewish promise of salvation, rather than reverses it.

Jesus does this by incarnating full obedience to the law and the covenant with God, while also extending Israel’s election to the Gentiles.  In doing so, Jesus embodies the faithfulness that Israel could not.  This is what inaugurates Jesus’ reign — a reign that is not a straightforward overthrow of Rome, but neither is it an evacuation plan.  Rather, it’s a subversive and transformative forgiveness and liberation plan: cosmic and historic, personal and communal, spiritual and social.

So if salvation isn’t primarily a question about what happens when we die, then maybe the issue of non-Christian salvation loses some of its urgency.  Or, while I wouldn’t say it goes away, maybe the question simply takes on a different shape.  Bonhoeffer speaks to this very much, I think, in his Letters and Papers from Prison:

“Hasn’t the individualistic question about personal salvation almost completely left us all? Aren’t we really under the impression that there are more important things than that question (perhaps not more important than the matter itself, but more important than the question!)? I know it sounds pretty monstrous to say that. But, fundamentally, isn’t this in fact biblical?”

Perhaps if salvation wasn’t equated with justification, or if salvation wasn’t divorced from discipleship and kingdom-building to begin with, the problem of “who will be saved” wouldn’t be so vexing.  Arminian theologians maintain that though there is a logical order of 1) prevenient grace, 2) repentance, 3) justification and 4) sanctification in salvation, enabled by God through Christ.  Yet, while each of these steps are distinct, the logic is not necessarily chronological.  For this reason, I think we are permitted to say that someone could benefit from prevenient grace in his or her life without coming to explicit awareness of Christ as the object of faith.

Furthermore, when Jesus mentions hell and judgment in the Gospels, he mostly appears to be addressing hypocritical religious leaders, pretentious people in general, those who trust in wealth or themselves, and anyone who oppresses or just ignores the poor (which is still to oppress them).  In sum, he’s warning people not to build their own kingdoms and not to exclude anyone from God’s kingdom. In this respect, he fits squarely in with the tradition of prophets before him.

Now, Jesus’ warnings about condemnation and destruction should be taken very seriously, for surely we’re all in danger of building personal kingdoms at different times in our lives.  But something else one learns about studying the Bible is that verses mentioning hell, or Christ as “the way, the truth and the life,” cannot be read in isolation from their social and literary context. Nor are they to be taken simply as answers to questions we bring to the text (e.g., questions like “Can adherents to other religions or those who don’t know about Christ be saved?”).  First, one must try to discover the questions with which the biblical authors and audiences might have been concerned.

Thus, reducing the gospel to a transaction between humanity and God through Jesus’ death that grants access to heaven instead of hell falls significantly short of its bigger biblical vision.  Many times when a question like “how can the non-Christian be saved?” is raised, this reduction has already been committed.  Bearing in mind instead the alternative and more holistic conception of salvation briefly outlined above, one is able to move past the question of individual standing before God and begin to see salvation more as a journey of becoming and partaking.  It’s a journey that’s initiated by God and by grace through faith, yes, but faith that brings a transformed consciousness and social critique so that salvation can keep spreading!

I’ve always found the story of the thief on the cross from Luke 23 to be a compelling illustration of this. The second thief on the cross there probably didn’t know that Jesus was dying on account of humanity’s sin, but he knew “divinity” when he saw it.  Unlike the two of them, Jesus was innocent, and the second thief acknowledges this.  His spirit was contrite, his soul remorseful.  Lo and behold, “paradise” would be his.  And yet, this is not a gospel of indiscriminate inclusivity, for, presumably, the first thief is excluded – and not because he failed to pass an ethical or doctrinal test.

This is not the first time Luke juxtaposes two kinds of people in order to show us what salvation might look like. Luke 18:12-14:

‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’  “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’  “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Bonhoeffer’s distinction between the question of salvation on the one hand (i.e., who’s in/out, and on what grounds) and the matter itself (new life in Christ) on the other hand, may be the all-important one.  Who is concerned about the question of salvation in the Bible?  People like those in the crowd who, after hearing Jesus make his quip about the camel going through the eye of needle, ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”  Or, people like the expert in the law who, desiring to justify himself, asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Only to get a very difficult and disappointing answer.  Also, people like the disciples when they ask, “Which of us will be the greatest?”  But see, the tax collector and the second thief are not trying to justify themselves.  They know they can’t.  Instead, they both cry out to God in the only way they know how.

The door of salvation is opened by receptivity to God’s humbling and convicting Spirit that is always already invading our space.  This same Spirit, when recognized, calls for a “change of heart.”  And if it is Christ who then leads people through the open door, who are we to be so certain about the limits on how, when or for whom he does this?

Without a sense that God steadfastly pursues and values all people, the basic human need to have clear-cut lines drawn between insiders and outsiders wins us over.  Often though we aren’t even aware of this need, because the need itself can so easily be covered up by egoistic readings of the Bible. As any self-critical reading quickly shows, however, God likes to mess with our boundaries and gives us a different map.  “The last will be first,” “the proud laid low”: insider-outsider distinctions are not just blurred; they are reversed.  The formulas serving our insatiable drive for certainty and security are ultimately unsettled.

As I suggested before though, the question of non-Christian salvation nonetheless never entirely goes away.  Obviously, we are in the realm of speculation at this point, but not outside the realm of biblical hope.  In my judgment, to play it safe or plead utter ignorance by hiding behind some seemingly restrictivist texts is to risk missing the intensity of God’s love.  This love has intensity that overflows from the center of the biblical narrative despite discrepancies.  Conversely, to believe confidently in the redemption of the world with all its condemnable sin and blindness – with a biblically qualified sobriety and peace – is to keep oneself exposed to this intensity.  In sum, Christians can go on repenting and believing, sharing and practicing the good news, trusting that, as Barth said, God’s “yes” will be bigger than our “no” – all the while letting God be God in the mission of redeeming humanity, history and creation.

The Radiance of Christ and its Effect on Human Beings: Theological Aesthetics in St. Thomas and von Balthasar

Below I’ve included an excerpt from Aidan Nichols’ little book on Hans Urs von Balthasar.  One of the chapters in my dissertation will take up certain aspects of von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics and dramatics so as to attempt to give a fuller picture of Christian social justice and the Church’s vision for striving after it in circumstances of violence and oppression — a fuller one, at least, than many modern and postmodern depictions tend to offer, in my view.  For this reason, I’m borrowing the term “transmodern” to describe it.  Of course, to whatever extent this is achieved, it will be due to the thinkers I’m writing about rather than anything original to my own thought.

Descartes was in love with what he called ‘clear and distinct ideas’.  Balthasar’s concept of clarity, however, is taken from Thomas, for whom clarity – radiance – is one of the essential traits of the beautiful, along with proportion and integrity.  This is a very different sort of ‘brightness’.  The brightness of the beautiful is something that overwhelms us, impelling us and enabling us to enter further into the depths of being than the unaided intelligence can venture.  And whereas the Cartesian ‘idea’ is, in Scholastic terms, an intuited potential essence – something that may or may not be the case about the world, the Thomistic ‘radiance’ is expressed by a form actually enacting its own existence, its being-in-act. — p. 17

St. Thomas explains that Christ has radiance through being the Art of the Father, where the Word illuminates the mind that contemplates him.  He has proportion because he is the fullest likeness of the Father.  He has integrity because his form is the Father’s form.  And for Aquinas precisely those three qualities – radiance, proportion, integrity – are the hallmarks of the beautiful.  St. Thomas was speaking of the pre-existent Son, who is with the Father from all eternity.  Balthasar, by contrast, wants to apply pulchrum to the incarnate Son, precisely in his sensuous as well as intelligible form, a form that is well accommodated to our finitude so that we may grasp it.

Though [artworks] function within the analogical network of being whose indefinitely extended character . . . though they belong to immanent being – the realm of being that suitably proportioned to the human mind, they also participate in the transcendentals, and thus they have a relation to the transcendent, divine Being that is all creation’s source.  Aesthetic beauty, we can say, strives towards transcendental beauty, and this is a token of its spirituality.  Yet aesthetic beauty cannot spiritualize itself.  It is ordered to the delight of the embodied human mind of everyman or everywoman – toward the satisfaction of the imagination as earthed in this world.  It can, then, only receive a direction toward the transcendent, and do so, accordingly, from beyond itself.   The supreme, altogether unified, and yet interior experience the Romantics were looking for is not self-shaped.  Rather, it is shaped by a transcendent and supernatural form.  The subject of religious experience, the human self, can be, ought to be, and has been, re-formed by its transcendent object.  Human experience enters true synthesis through receiving an objective revealed form that brings it to fulfillment.  The self becomes re-formed divinely when it lets Christ’s archetypal experience form its own.  — p. 26-27


Paul Helm on Miracles: Signs of Grace, not Violations of Nature

Cover of "The Providence of God (Contours...

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It’s not often that I find myself reading a Calvinist’s take on Divine Providence, but I’m currently doing so in preparation for my PhD comprehensive exams (which will include questions about the theology of John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, among others).  Paul Helm’s discussion of miracles below is a good one, at least as far as theological determinism and much of classical theism goes (see his blog here):

It is important to note that the Bible does not employ a rigid distinction between the natural and the supernatural.  Nor does it operate with a technical and precise definition of a miracle as a violation of, or suspension of a law of nature.  Rather, ‘signs and wonders’ (some of which have no scientific explanation) function as powerful expressions of God’s power and grace.  Their meaning is bound up with the meaning of the other events and teachings to which they point, and with which they are integrated.  They do not have a scientific or magical significance of their own.

Moreover, miracles must not be regarded as divine tinkerings, as the way in which God deals with an emergency situation which has arisen unexpectedly . . . some philosophers and theologians have objected to the occurrence of miracles because they seemed to be dishonoring to God, as if the machinery of the universe were defective and God had to make running repairs.  Whatever the shortcomings of this general approach, it quite correctly recognizes the inadequacy of supposing that miracles are needed because God’s providential order is in danger of breaking down.

We may agree with Leibniz that God is perfect and that [God] does not do anything without having a sufficient reason to do it.  It does not follow,  however, that God cannot have a sufficient reason to perform a miracle; to act, that is, in a way that involves unprecedented changes in physical nature [e.g., the resurrection?].

If miracles are not metaphysical first-aid, what are they?  They are signs, signs of God’s grace, and of its urgency and power.  They do not occur apart from the history of God’s dealing with [God’s] people, but they are integral to that history.  They invariably accompany new phases of God’s redemptive activity, and their significance cannot be understood except in terms of the significance of the history of which they form a part.

As we have seen, the history of Israel and of the church is built upon covenantal promises which God fulfills by, among other things, providentially ordering the affairs of [God’s] people.  The purpose of that history is to reveal God’s grace in the redemption of men and women.  Miracles are not signs of the power of God in the abstract, or magical tests of strength, or entertaining exhibitions of divine cleverness; but they are signs of grace.  They are intended to make those who believe that God orders the affairs of nature for their good gasp — not only at the power of God in the miracle, but at power of a deeper magnitude in the revelation of saving grace which the miracles signal.

The Providence of God, pp. 106-7

What I might mean by 'Resurrection'

I appreciate my classmate Shane Akerman’s take on the resurrection in this post, and it was timely for me having just listened to a Homebrewed Christianity “Theology Nerd Throwdown” podcast episode on the same subject. Tripp Fuller and Jonnie Russell talk about two opposing accounts of the resurrection that resurfaced in a blogosphere debate between Tony Jones and Marcus Borg, as well what each of them might be missing. You can listen to the full episode here.

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