I consider my pastoral ministry to have been an abject failure in one important regard. I didn’t get the heart of it. I didn’t get grace. I never preached on it. Even now, as I look at my sermon notes from those years, I find virtuality nothing on that topic, zilch. I am not sure why. Perhaps I was too apprehensive of its bastardizations, those wily profanations of God’s benevolence (Jude 1:4), to the extent that I put my theological autoimmune system into an overdrive. Perhaps I saw appeals to grace as representing a lack of ethical seriousness – that is, incidentally, Iris Murdoch’s critique of grace – a failure at self-crafting and an abnegation of moral excellence. Perhaps I saw it as a crutch for wimpy Christians (sounds scarily Nietzschean?!) who are perpetually stuck in the limbo of co-dependency and atrophied aspirations. I don’t know. I am wondering, though, would have Paul anathematized me as one who proclaimed “a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-7)?
As irony, or rather providence, would have it, I began my ministry in one of the most grace-filled churches one can imagine - the Burr Ridge SDA church (Chicagoland). The pastor who preceded me, my friend and colleague Darryl Ward, was and still is a Gnadebetrunkener Mensch (a grace-intoxicated man), a troubadour of God’s evangel of the highest order. (The neologism here is appropriated from Novalis’s description of Spinoza as a God-intoxicated man). Were it that I was able to follow in his stead! My only hope is that what I lacked in my preaching I compensated somewhat in my indubitable appreciation for that amazing community of believers.
But life does its work on us. One matures and (hopefully) becomes more patient with the humanity of others and that of oneself. Or at the very least, one comes to terms with one’s own contingency, censurableness, and failure to be; often painfully and repeatedly so. As a result, grace morphs into something much more than a sin-management mechanism; it becomes life – the vitality of forgiveness, the serendipity of healing, the ground of beauty, the possibility of sanity, the sustenance in tragedy. Or as Karl Barth has it in his indomitable Romans commentary: “Grace is the incomprehensible fact that God is well pleased with a man, and that a man can rejoice in God. Only when grace is recognized to be incomprehensible is it grace. Grace exists, therefore, only where the Resurrection is reflected. Grace is the gift of Christ, who exposes the gulf which separates God and man, and, by exposing it, bridges it” (Romans, 31). God, help me live a life worthy of those words!
I totally get the pull to abandon Adventism. I’ve been there. Intellectual, relational, ecclesial, political, and communal reasons – you name them. As I see my friends and acquaintances traveling that path, I empathize with them. I feel their struggles in my bones. At the same time, I am always curious to find out what it is they think they are leaving behind; what conception and/or experience of Adventism is being dispensed with. I am wondering about that as my own journey over the years has been one of an increased reclamation of the Adventist faith. I know that for all of us that needs to take place in a different way, but personally I find myself attracted to the many subaltern artifacts of that religious edifice. Like Predrag Matvejević who in his The Other Venice explores the famed city from “below” – through its graveyards, abandoned monasteries, neglected gardens, back alleys, in other words, those variegated shreds of existence – so I too am scouring for the hidden, unappreciated, or misconstrued shreds of the Adventist ethos. Sometimes, the more maligned, the better. One of the tasks of faith and theology, I believe, is to unearth these scraps from their over- and underuse, to imaginatively and critically resharpen them, and to pray for the Spirit to imbue them with life through our verbal and nonverbal witness.
Here are but some of those elements that I find particularly fecund and intriguing:
1. Predilection for conspiracies
2. Proclaiming the “fall of Babylon”
3. Health reform
6. Religious liberty
7. Pursuit of perfection
9. Remnant sectarianism
Here is an excerpt from my paper “Unkitsching Reality” presented at a recent ATS conference where I explore the relationship of faith and the tragic vision. The paragraphs are taken from the concluding section of the paper and are preceded by an analysis of kitsch and sentimentality via Walter Benjamin’s critique of teleologies of progress.
… Apocalyptic consciousness presents a form of countermemory, a hermeneutical orientation attentive to the underside of history and the muted voices of victims, the multitude of “slain souls under the altar” (Rev. 6:9). It refuses to sentimentalize their death, to abandon them to the logic of historical necessity—think of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon appeal to the “necessity’s yoke” in order to justify the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to the gods —and “states of exception” or Ausnahmezustand (Agamben) with their arsenal of utilitarian logic. It looks askance at teleologies of progress in general—philosophical, political, and technological. In sum, Adventist apocalyptic consciousness is patently unsentimental; it is a form of tragic consciousness protesting the “unalterable bias toward inhumanity and destruction in the drift of the world” (Steiner, 291).
Such a conceptual apposition of Adventist theology and tragedy might initially appear strained. For one, the idea of tragedy is a contested concept nowadays as it smacks, in Terry Eagleton’s words, “of virile warriors and emulated virgins, cosmic fatality and stoic acquiescence”—themes that “grate on the postmodern sensibility, with its unbearable lightness of being” (ix). More pertinently, however, the invocation of the “tragic vision” raises theological eyebrows in that the gospel quite emphatically has no abode in the usual fares of tragedy—fatalistic aporias, bleak necessity, and the absence of redemptive release supposedly inherent in tragic art. Wouldn’t a thoroughly tragic theology, hence, be an oxymoron, on par with calling Stalin a “virtuous dictator”? The leaden atmosphere of Antigone or King Lear, after all, stands in a chiaroscuro contrast to the aching hope-fullness of 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8, leading George Steiner to quip: “where there is compensation, there is justice, not tragedy” (4). Such claims about the anti-tragic character of the Christian faith find their resounding second in David Bentley Hart’s brutal invective against tragic theology as one that “hovers disquietly between resignation and masochism (or even sadism),” ultimately presenting us with an “empty allure of an alien and sacrificial spectacle” (375). Tragedy, therefore, is Christianity’s true bête noir—its total antithesis.
In response, I propose a different take on the relationship of Christianity and the tragic. For one, I have little interest in pursuing a procrustean definition of tragedy centering on one or the other supposedly fundamental ingredient—an endeavor doomed to failure from the outset given the plurality of both theories and forms of tragedy. “The philosophy of art,” writes Eagleton, “always comes furnished with its own agenda, rather than obediently reflecting its object. . . . The truth is that no definition of tragedy more elaborate than ‘very sad’ has ever worked” (21, 3). (Consider what seems a reasonable definition: “All tragedies end in catastrophe.”) Though that can be seen to be true of King Lear it is certainly not true of the Oresteia, which actually ends happily with a democratic resolution of the play’s pain.) With that mind, I reject approaches such as Hart’s that reduce tragedy to a nihilist potion fixated on false metaphysical solace. Instead, I see tragedy as an exemplary of Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances” naming the following overlapping features of existence: (1) the embroiled character of human action defined by finitude, causal unpredictability, and operations of leviathan forces—demonic, ideological, structural, and otherwise (as powerfully depicted, for example, in Dostoevky’s Demons through the characters of Stavrogin and Stepan Verkhovensky); (2) the presence of radical suffering—“the sheerly intractable of life,” in Donald MacKinnon’s words —with its degradation and dehumanization of life as resistant to edifying beautification and premature closures; (3) the absence of simple correlations between personal goodness and divine protection and intervention, and with it the irreducibility of suffering to fault; (4) and, building on the previous point, the penultimate absurdity of reality that frequently denies innocent victims their voice and recompense. It is such modalities of Geworfenheit (Heidegger) or “thrownness in the world,” therefore, that I have in mind when I speak of the tragic vision.
Adventist apocalyptic consciousness commends itself to all these point, I believe, with considerable vigor. Not only does it affirm the tragic tropes with which the Bible abounds— most notably Christ who, in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s words, is the “heir to all tragedy”—but also its indebtedness to the Great Controversy metanarrative that makes it recoil at easy identifications of God and history, i.e. those naive renderings of divine providence where every causal nexus is ultimately traced back to God’s intentionality. In truth, if the book of Revelation teaches us anything it is the fact that God is not the only agent in the cosmic domain. We see God’s purposes repeatedly thwarted by the mendaciousness and folly of both human and angelic freedom—the hubris of Lucifer, the rebellion of Adam who was “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (Milton), the apotheosis of Babylon, the surreptitiousness of the lamb-like beast from Revelation 13. There is certain fittingness, therefore, of speaking about “the weakness of God” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer); not in order to make God impotent and complicit vis-à-vis human suffering, but rather to account for God’s self-limitation in the face of human freedom. Yes, we believe that Christ is the Victor and that God will one day be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28); such a redemptive credo is at the heart of apocalyptic consciousness. At the same time, the symbolism of “Holy Saturday” strikes close to home; that liminal space/time between death and resurrection, filled with unresolved tensions, perplexing cul-de-sacs, and struggles with the hiddenness of God that is ever with us. We hope, but don’t trivialize; we trust, but live in suspension; we are certain, but carry the thorn of unanswered questions. As Wendy Farley puts it: “A tragic sense of life burns with a desire for justice, but, unlike theodicy, burns even more with anger and pity at suffering. In tragic vision, unassuaged indignation and compassionate resistance replace theodicy’s cool justification of evil” (23). In that sense, the book of Job belonging properly to the tragic genre entails a deconstruction and rejection of theodicy.
Which makes me return to my initial question in this paper: What then is kitsch? Or perhaps more precisely: What are some of the kitschified thought patterns, customs, and practices that present a flight from the tragic vision entailed in the idea of apocalyptic consciousness? With both a sense of caution and a touch of tongue-in-cheekness, I suggest that kitsch is pat consolations and empty “God is in control” reassurances. It is the “she died so he might come closer Jesus” and “blessings in disguise” logic offered as a panacea for radical suffering. It is “I pray that God is not too picky” and “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper stickers. (Many Christian bookstores are veritable shrines of kitschy art). It is the aw-shucks grin of prosperity preachers and their serpentine aping of verses such as Jeremiah 29:11 (“I have plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”). It is the blasé “the week might have been horrible but let us now rejoice” pitch favored by worship leaders as they escort us into realms of compulsory joy. It is contemporary Christian worship songs with their swooned references to Jesus as the “lover of my soul,” “where Jesus as object of loving devotion can slip into Jesus as fantasy partner in a dream of emotional fulfillment” (Williams, 231). It is the “we need to embrace one another” and “loving unconditionally” dictums that have patently nothing to do with embracing and loving and have everything to do with forestalling difficult and hard thinking. It is seeing ourselves as American Adventists instead of Adventist Americans. It is “cheap grace” theology and “you can fly” sermons and “give and God will bless” promises and “claim it to have it” spirituality…
Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Malden: Blackwell, 2003).
Wendy Farley, Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990).
David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).
Rowan Williams, “A History of Faith in Jesus,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, ed. Markus Bokmuehl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
June 27, 2006. St. Ignatius Church, Chicago. My friend Victor M. and I hauled ourselves to a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers by the Grant Park Chorus (read the review here). I am sitting, completely spellbound, silently gasping for breath. The numinous euphony of Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece washes over me; I feel eternity at hand. At one point Victor leans towards me and silently whispers: “Antonio, I am ready to die. I am ready to go right now.” I nod. And as the sublime Nunc Dimittis (Nyne otpushchayeshi) based on Simeon’s stirring song of praise (Luke 2:25-35) rises to its crescendo, I can barely contain my composure. I want to see the face of God. I, too, am ready to go.
I will never forget that afternoon. Life continued, of course, but I keep coming back to this (fifth) movement from the Vespers, one that ends with a descending scale for the baseline containing an impossibly low B-flat (the third B-flat below middle C). I stumbled there and then, quite unexpectedly, into one of those “thin places” – those “locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine” that profoundly impregnate life with meaning and longing. Simply put, I encountered grace. And for that I remain grateful.
Here is a beautiful rendition of the Nunc Dimittis as performed by the “Accordance” Men’s Choir at the Smolny Cathedral in St. Petersburg.It starts at 1:05.
Lord, now you dismiss your servant in peace,
according to your word; For mine eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of your people Israel.
In Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship there is this perceptive observation concerning the relationship of faith and works. In borrowing from Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer notes that it is one thing for a retired professor to say, “Now I know that I don’t know anything,” and quite another for a freshmen student to make the same pronouncement (presumably as an excuse to justify laziness). Similarly, it is one thing for a committed disciple to claim that works cannot justify us before God, and quite another for someone to use the same teaching of justification by faith as a medium to forge a self-referential religion.
A similar logic is at work in Barth’s response to the gripe that his theological work – in this context his Romans commentary – unnecessarily complicates things; what we need instead, the charge goes, is genuine Christian simplicity. Here is Barth’s repartee from the preface to the same book:
The simplicity which proceeds from the apprehension of God in the Bible and elsewhere, the simplicity with which God Himself speaks, stands not at the beginning of our journey but at its end. Thirty years hence we may perhaps speak of simplicity, but now let us speak the truth. For us neither the Epistle to the Romans, nor the present theological position, nor the present state of the world, nor the relation between God and the world, is simple. And he who is now concerned with truth must boldly acknowledge that he cannot be simple. In every direction human life is difficult and complicated. And, if gratitude be a consideration that is at all relevant, men will not be grateful to us if we provide them with short-lived pseudo-simplifications (5).
Which in turn reminds me of Thomas Kelly’s observation from his A Testament of Devotion that “the last fruit of holy obedience is the simplicity of the trusting child, the simplicity of the children of God. It is the simplicity which lies beyond complexity. It is the naiveté which is the yonder side of sophistication” (45). In other words, simplicity not as a synonym for acedia - that form of boredom known as the “noontime demon” -or false humility, but as maturity and wisdom.
o give up passing judgment on a fact, to assume that all one can do from then on is to yield to it, to adjust to it, that is precisely and totally to abandon the Christian life entirely. There is no position more radically anti-Christian then to give way to a fact. It is to accept the fate. – Jaques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom, 62
evgeny Zamyatin famously observes in his “Literature, Revolution, and Entropy” that “heretics are the only [bitter] remedy against the entropy of human thought.” Which to say, true to dialectical reasoning, that every positive needs its negative. The “negative” disrupts closure and its corollaries hubris, inertia, and decay. (Isn’t even Adventist history a good exemplar of the ultimate beneficence of dialectics?) Jacques Ellul, who embraces this Hegelian formula of positive negativity, notes that “an uncontested society, a force without counterforce, a man without dialogue, an unchallenged teacher, a church with no heretics, a single party with no rivals — will be shut up in the indefinite repetition of its own image. It will live in satisfaction at what was produced once, and will see no reason to change” (Jaques Ellul: Interpretive Essays, 295). The condition in which the status quo is not allowed to be challenged by the negative resembles the anteroom of totalitarianism.
ecause knowledge is power, total transparency scares us. We are aware of how a piece of information, a secret shared in confidence or procured by other means, invests us and others with power both to heal and destroy. And so we cherish privacy and secrecy, the fact that some things are known only to me; and rightly so. The retreat of thoughts, those strategies of inward migration and silent resistance, those acts of physical retreat and immersion in solitude, are, after all, when properly understood, instances of freedom. We readily understand the horror of the situation in which those things are systemically denied to one; the asphyxiating claustrophobia of Orwell’s 1984, for example, is hard to shake off. Without doubt, the condition of a total Panopticon, the disciplinary regime of an all-seeing eye, were it to take place, would present the erasure of the self.
It is for that reason that the symbol of the New Jerusalem, that translucent city of glass, is so horrifying to Giles Deleuze. In it, as he interprets it, there is no private space, nothing that is concealed. Through its spatial and architectural arrangement, affording total control and absolute heteronomy, the City, in other words, signifies the ultimate sublimation (Aufehebung) of power. That is why for Deleuze such totalitarianism is way worse
than the open dictatorship characterized by. . . the all-encompassing control of society by the state. Its subjects are ruled from inside by a power that seeks to permeate all pores of reality, to enter every corner and every dark niche until it has filled the whole universe. Moreover, one can make no appeal to higher gods; the one God is the final judge over all other powers. In the New Jerusalem there is no place to hide and no higher court to which to appeal; God sees and judges everything. People are immersed in a field of total visibility (M. Volf, Exclusion and Embrace).
For those who believe in a benevolent God, however, the God of Jesus Christ, such translucency is profoundly inviting. Its character is defined by the story of Jesus, by the one who said: “Where are your accusers? Is there no one who condemns you? Neither do I condemn you.;” by the one who will not break a “bruised reed.” The City of God presents an intensification of that merciful all-knowing, one that offers healing by means of radical uncovering. There rays of divine mercy will illuminate everything – the blinding light of Dante’s Paradiso!– and it is in that experience of infinite safety that we will encounter gemuine freedom. In the words of Paul, “then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12); meaning, I will arrive at true knowledge of things precisely as I realize myself as known. That, pace Kierkegaard, will be the ultimate leap into light.
n my interest to explore conceptual and ethical connections between apocalyptic consciousness and critical utopias – here understood as imaginative practices of resistance (P. Ricoeur) – I found John Collins’s The Apocalyptic Imagination to be quite illuminating. The book examines various forms of Jewish apocalypticism and concludes with the following précis on the character of apocalyptic imagination:
“The apocalyptic revolution is a revolution of the imagination. It entails a challenge to view the world in a way that is radically different from the common perception. The revolutionary potential of such imagination should not be underestimated, as it can foster dissatisfaction with the present and generate visions of what might be. The legacy of the apocalypses includes a powerful rhetoric for denouncing the deficiencies of this world. It also includes the conviction that the world as now constituted is not the end. Most of all, it entails an appreciation of the great resource that lies in the human imagination to construct a symbolic world where the integrity of values can be maintained in the face of social and political powerlessness and even of the threat of death.” (283)
Those familiar with the “apocalyptic turn” in contemporary philosophy and theology will appreciate the rich intertextuality of Collins’s words.
dvent pulls the imagination in two directions. We turn our minds to the universal longing for God that is given voice in the Jewish scriptures, the yearning towards the “desire of all nations.”… And at the same time, “Woe unto you who desire the day of the Lord” and “Who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire.”…. [The incarnation] is a beauty that is the beginning of terror: the Burning Babe, who has come to cast fire upon the earth. Before his presence, the idols fall and shatter.
In other words, Advent is about the essential ambiguity of our religiousness. We live, as human beings, in an enormous hunger to be spoken to, to be touched, to be judged and loved and absolved. We live – at some level – in the awareness that there are things we cannot do for ourselves. No human being alone can teach himself or herself language; no human being alone can know himself or herself loved. And the whole human race alone cannot assure itself of its worth or interest, its dignity and lovableness, its responsibility. When no reality over against us pronounces a word of judgement or a word a word of affirmation, how do we know we are worth judging? The twentieth century has been in full flight from certain conceptions of personal morality, but what age has ever suffering from so acute an awareness of collective responsibility? Who shall absolve us from the guilt of the Holocaust? Colonialism? The Enlightenment? The failure of the Enlightenment? Who could absolve us from the guilt of a nuclear catastrophe? The appalling moral anxiousness of our age is an oblique recognition that the human being as such waits to hear something; and when we have collectively denied the possibility of hearing something from beyond our corporate culture, we expose ourselves to deep worries about our humanness….
Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralyzing unhappiness and anxiety. And these longings are also fraught with the danger of illusion, the making of idols to meet our needs. The Israelites pour their treasures into a mould and out comes the Golden Calf; as if surprised, they cry, “Here is God”, as if they had not themselves determined the shape of the outcome.
“In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats.” For the people of God in Jewish scripture, loyalty to the covenant meant above all the forsaking of idols: the task is not to make sense of the world, beginning with unaided human resource, but to let ourselves be given sense purely by the summons of God. This was Israel’s own story: being led out of slavery and given shape and solidarity by the unexpected presence and pressure of God. Israel’s hostility to idols is a measure of the recognition that what I make to meet my needs cannot set me free, cannot give me a new and assured reality. The eyes of the idol are my own, looking back at me; I am still incommunicado….
The Christian in Advent needs to listen to that, listen to such a degree that this season becomes both a season of joyful expectancy and a season of poverty—the knowledge that we cannot talk and touch ourselves into life, the deep poverty of the imagination which can only stand helplessly before the outrages and miseries of our world, utterly at a loss for a word of meaning or hope to speak. We are here at all, celebrating Advent, because there has been a word spoken, a word of unexpected interruption, a word that establishes for good the difference between the God we expect and the God who comes, a word that shows us once and for all what an idol looks like in the face of truth….
Only the newness of a new turn of history, the specific newness of new words, acts and relations, can show the God who will not allow himself to be caught in the circle of ideas alone, and so can show the God who exceeds both the fiercest longing and the profoundest speculation of creatures. Because Advent tells us to look for mystery, absolute grace, and freedom, in a fleshly human face, within the mobile form of our shared history, it brings our idolatry – philosophical and methodological alike – to judgement. Our hunger is met, we are talked and touched into new and everlasting life, our desire is answered; but only insofar as we have lived in an Advent of the religious imagination, struggling to let God be God; casting our idols of silver and gold to the moles and bats, “for fear of the Lord and for the glory of his majesty,” longing simply for our God to show himself as God in the “total and presuppositionless love” of his incarnate speech to us.
-Rowan Williams, “Advent: A University Sermon,” in A Ray of Darkness, 3-7.
o, I’ve been eyeing Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology for years, feeling its beckoning power, but never really taking the plunge. There were always other projects to finish, odd rabbit trails to pursue. Then one day Daryll Ward – my weekly Skyping buddy and fellow U of C alumni – suggested, “Let’s do Jenson.” I waffled for a while, looking wistfully at the stack of exciting books on my table, each making a case for its indispensability through that ultimate apocalyptic entreaty: “Today is the day…”
A year ago, I was interviewed by a small theological journal concerning a book of mine that had appeared a few months earlier. Near the end of the conversation, my interlocutor (a young and obviously intelligent divinity student) asked me if there was any modern American theologian whose thinking I thought especially fascinating, to which I answered Robert Jenson; he then asked if there was any American theologian with whose thought I myself found it especially profitable to struggle, to which I again answered, without a moment’s hesitation, Robert Jenson. At this, my interviewer smiled abashedly and admitted that he had never read any of Jenson’s work. I doubt the severest critic could have found fault with my extravagant show of alarm: How very extraordinary it was, I told him, that an American graduate student of systematic theology should be unacquainted with “our” systematic theologian, and what dereliction it suggested on the part of his teachers, and what a very great pity it all seemed . . . (and so on and so on, with many a rueful shake of the head).
Ouch! In any case, plodding through Jenson has been much fun. Here is a quote on God’s jealousy I stumbled upon today. Jenson perceptively notes how in the Scriptures
it is first among the Lord’s attributes the he is a “jealous God.” . . . The Lord is jealous because he is truly identified by the temporal events of Exodus and Resurrection. In time, each thing must indeed be “itself and not another” or not be at all; temporal entities must be jealous of their identities or cease. Usual gods care little for their identities just because they are not personally invested in time; indeed, their deity consists in their immunity to time, from which devotees hope they may rescue us also. If their worship is initially enabled by apparently identifying names and descriptions, these are transcended at higher levels of spiritual process in which the bonds of time loosen — as therewith, of course, is transcended also their partnership in personal discourse. Not so the God of Scripture.
Perceptive readers while note in these elucidations a subtle critique of claims that consign all positings of identity, and therefore boundaries, to an instance of malfeasant binaries. The fact that there are Others and that I am an Other should not be obfuscated by Manichean perorations about the evil of individuality. Lord, protect us from naive solipsisms (not to mention narcissisms) and misguided collectivisms!
ne of Bonhoeffer’s major gripes during his stay in America concerned the unceasing prattling about “practical implications” that he encountered in his theology classes. (Click here for my previous post on this issue). He was dumbfounded by the students’s impatience to engage in serious theological discussions concerning, for example, Christology, and saw the automatic reflex towards the practical for what it often was — not an expression of spirituality and altruism, but rather one of superficiality and lack of virtue.
It was that biographical tidbit of Bonhoeffer’s life that came to mind as I read Stanley Hauerwas’s quip about medical schools being more morally impressive than divinity schools:
A person can come to divinity school today saying, “I am not really into Christology this year. I am really into relating. I would like to take more courses in CPE [Clinical Pastoral Education].” They are likely to be confirmed in that option by being told, “Right, take CPE, after all that is what ministry is — relating. Learn to be a wounded healer.”
Contrast that with a medical student who might say, “I am not really into anatomy this year. I am really into people. I would like to take another course in psychiatry.” They would be told, “We do not care what you are ‘into.’ Take anatomy or ship out.” That is real moral education if not formation. Why is medical education so morally superior to ministerial education? I think the answer is very simple. No one believes that an inadequately trained priest [or pastor] might damage their salvation; but people do believe that an inadequately trained doctor might hurt them” (Stanley Hauerwas, “Sinsick,” in Sin, Death, & the Devil, ed. by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, 9).
often have students inquiring about an “essential theology books” reading list. I did some brainstorming and comprised a provisional collection of 25 major 20th and 21st century works, either in terms of content or influence, that every budding systematic theologian (or someone with a serious interest in the field) should have under her or his belt. They are not necessarily an enjoyable read; to wit, some of them I positively dislike. Nevertheless, all of them have been incredibly influential and are a must. While I have not able to hide completely my theological leanings, I did try to be as comprehensive as possible. Note: the list is not intended as an endorsement of any kind.
Aulen, Gustav. Christus Victor.
Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Theodrama.
Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline. (A stand-in for the Church Dogmatics. Also, read at least some sections his The Epistle to the Romans to get the “syntax” of dialectical theology).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship.
Cobb, John. Process Theology (or Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes).
Cone, James. God of the Oppressed.
Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation.
Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite.
Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character (or the Hauerwas Reader).
Heim, Mark. Saved from Sacrifice (While this is not necessarily a classic, it is a good example of a theory of nonviolent atonement operating under a Girardian umbrella broadly construed).
Jenson, Robert. Systematic Theology, vol. 1 & 2.
Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine.
Milbank, John. Theology and Social Theory. (If he is too hard, which he is, James K. A Smith’s Introducing Radial Orthodoxy will be a good intro to the RO movement).
Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God (Or his The Way of Jesus Christ. Theology of Hope is also a must).
Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture.
Niebuhr, Reinhold. Nature and Destiny of Man. (Alternatively, see The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr).
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Also familiarize yourself with his Systematic Theology).
Rahner, Karl. Foundations of Christian Faith (or The Rahner Reader)
Ruether, Rosemary. Sexism and God Talk.
Tillich, Paul. The Essential Tillich
Torrance, Thomas. Trinitarian Faith. (It is hard to pick just one book from him. See also the recently published Incarnation and Atonement by IVP).
This summer I have been doing groundwork research for my book project on apocalyptic consciousness. The readings have led me back to some long forgotten places — I found Karl Barth waiting for the return of the prodigal son! — as well as some new territories. For one, I finally mustered the gumption to start working through Louis Martyn’s magisterial Galatians commentary of which Richard Hays observes the following: “Lou Martyn has written what I take to be the most profound and powerful biblical commentary since Karl Barth’s Römerbrief [i.e. Romans commentary].” No kidding! (More about Martyn and his apocalyptic reading of Paul in some future posts).
All this serves as a disjointed preamble to two quotes I wish to share from Eugene Peterson. Namely, as I was sitting in my chair this evening musing over that whole project, I remembered a chapter in Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor titled “The Apocalyptic Pastor” that I read a while back. I went to my library, located the book, and started perusing some of the underlined passages and marginal notes in it. Soon I was taken in by Peterson’s sagacious remarks:
American religion is conspicuous for its messianically pretentious energy, its embarrassingly banal prose, and its impatiently hustling ambition. None of these marks is remotely biblical. None is faintly in evidence in the gospel story. All of them are thoroughly documented diseases of the spirit. Pastors are in great danger of being undetected carriers of the very disease we are charged to diagnose and heal. We need the most powerful of prophylactics – something like the apocalyptic prayer and poetry and patience of St. John. (41)
We think the church is already the kingdom of God and, if only better organized and motivated, can conquer the world. But nowhere in Scripture or history do we see a church synonymous with the kingdom of God. The church in many instances is more worldly than the world. When we equate the church and the kingdom and the identity turns out to be false, we feel ‘taken in.’ Little wonder that anger and cynicism are epidemic behind the smiling veneer of American pastors. We need refresher courses in Barthian critiques of religion and Dantean analyses of sin, especially spiritual sin. (36)
That, in turn, immediately reminds one of that fabulous chapter in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, the one where Bonhoeffer quips about God hating “visionary dreaming” because
it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. (27)
In doing so, the pastor misses his calling, because
a congregation has not been entrusted to him in order he should become its accuser before God. . . A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.
But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God. Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray to God for understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God . . .
What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. (29-30)