Friday, May 31, 2013

Am I A Conservative?

Am I a conservative? Heck if I know. All I know for sure is that the good people here at The American Conservative are interested enough in what I have to say to give me a platform on which to say it. For which I am genuinely grateful.

I am not and never have been a Republican. I feel roughly as alienated from that party as I do from the Democratic Party. I hold a number of political views that strong-minded Republicans typically find appalling: I think racism is one of the greatest problems in American society today; I am not convinced that austerity programs are helpful in addressing our economic condition; I am absolutely convinced that what many Republicans call free-market capitalism is in fact crony capitalism, calculated to favor the extremely wealthy and immensely powerful multinational corporations; I think that for all of the flaws of Obamacare, it was at least an attempt to solve a drastically unjust and often morally corrupt network of medical care in this country; I dislike military adventurism, and believe that our various attempts at nation-building over the past decade were miscalculated from the outset.

So is there any sense in which I might plausibly be called a conservative? I don’t really know; I’ll leave that to others to decide. It doesn’t really matter to me whether I fit into any pre-existing political or intellectual categories. I can only say this: that I do have three overarching political commitments (or beliefs, or convictions) that are more important to me than any others.

The first is that I strive to be a consistently pro-life Christian. I am aware that many people believe that the whole notion of a “consistent pro-life ethic” is a way for liberal Christians to minimize the evil of abortion by wrapping it in a whole series of other issues, and that may well be true for many, but I do believe that there is such a thing as a consistently pro-life position and that that position involves an absolute commitment to the unborn and also to the weak, the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, and all the others who find themselves at the margins of our society, generally unloved and uncared for. My models in this quest are the Cappadocian fathers of the Church.

My second steady commitment is to the principle of subsidiarity. I believe that almost all of our social evils and shortcomings can be handled better by small, local organizations and empowered persons than by national institutions or for that matter even state-level institutions. There is no question that local communities can be cruel and indifferent to sufferings in their midst, but they are also more subject to shame and other forms of correction than high-level political systems. They can be more easily altered, turned, reformed. A great deal of suffering in America today is caused by the evacuation of intermediary structures: the church, the family, voluntary organizations. These intermediary structures are in desperate need of renewal and that can only happen if there is a systematic shift of power, wealth, and influence from state and national governments to local units. Among my chief teachers on this matter is Robert Nisbet, and another is Patrick Deneen, so let me cite the latter writing about the former here and here. Nisbet himself simply identified conservatism with this tendency: “The essence of this body of ideas is the protection of the social order — family, neighborhood, local community, and region foremost — from the ravishments of the centralized political state.”

My third leading political conviction is that the wisdom of our ancestors is both deeply valuable and tragically neglected. On this let me cite Roger Scruton:
Our work, it seems to me, consists in what Plato called anamnesis — the defeat of forgetting. We cannot ask young people to live as we lived or to value what we valued. But we can encourage them to see the point of how we lived, and to recognize that freedom without responsibility is, in the end, an empty asset. We can tell them stories of the old virtues, and enlarge their sympathies toward a world in which suffering and sacrifice were not the purely negative things that they are represented to be by the consumer culture but an immovable part of any lasting happiness. Our task, in other words, is now less political than cultural — an education of the sympathies, which requires from us virtues (such as imagination, creativity, and a respect for high culture) that have a diminishing place in the world of politics.
So that’s largely what I believe about politics. And again, whether that qualifies me as a True Conservative I neither know nor care.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Karl Barth's theological method: some analytic notes and queries

Friday, 31 May 2013
A post dedicated to Oliver Crisp, to celebrate the launch of his new open access Journal of Analytic Theology.

One of Karl Barth's most characteristic patterns of thinking – you'll find it everywhere in the Church Dogmatics – goes something like this:

(1) God has done x
(2) Therefore God can do x
(3) But God doesn't have to do x
(4) Therefore x is an act of God's freedom (the Can) and God's love (the Doesn't-have-to)
(5) By recognising God's Can and God's Doesn't-have-to in x, we understand x as revelation (i.e., a revelation of the God who loves in freedom).

Some observations and queries about this pattern of thought:

a. This might be called a theological method, but it is the furthest thing in the world from a generic method for producing knowledge. It would be more accurate to call it a distillation of Barth's doctrine of God, which is organised around the two mega-attributes of love and freedom (see Barth's definition in CD II/1: God is "the one who loves in freedom"). The content of theology is already written into the theologian's method.

b. This method of thinking would not get anywhere without (1) – that is, without God doing something. Method alone does not generate information about God. Method generates information only as it is applied to (1), to the fact of God's having done something. Specifically, in any given instance of God doing something, method is used to infer from that instance certain things about God's freedom (the Can) and God's love (the Doesn't-have-to). These inferences supply the content of theology. It is in this sense that Barth understands all theology as obedience, as thought following after God. His method is inferential abstraction from the facts of revelation.

c. Yet in (1) – "God has done x" – the word "God" already has content. The God who does something in this instance is already assumed to have a particular character, to be "the one who loves in freedom". It is only this assumption that gives the ensuing method any traction. For example, if God were not already assumed to be free, then instead of (3) we might simply posit that "God must have needed to do x", and the rest of the chain of reasoning would be aborted.

d. Does this mean that the method is incoherent? That in fact the Can and the Doesn't-have-to are supplied not by revelation itself but by the theologian? If so, it would mean that the method is in fact functioning as a revelation, since God's freedom and love are prescribed in the method and not derived from God's doing x.

e. Or does this reflect a recursive pattern that is proper to theological knowing? That the theologian's reflection on God's doing x will be a means of participating in the reality that x itself has brought into being? If so, then the method of theological knowing is itself one of the effects produced by revelation. The theologian does not initiate a process of knowing, but begins to think out of a participation in the God who has been revealed in x as the one who loves in freedom. In that case, what happens to the knower in the event of revelation supplies the method by which the knower begins to appropriate revelation as knowledge.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Project versus Presence: Leading Our Churches into Engaging the Neighborhood

 by David Fitch
May 28, 2013 davidfitch

Recently Life on the Vine and other churches  gathered as a group of church planters to discuss how we might lead our churches into our surrounding communities. I started the discussion with describing the difference between “Looking for a Project” in the neighborhood  and “Developing a Presence” in the neighborhood. We discovered just how fundamental the question of posture is to incarnational presence in the neighborhood. Here’s some of our takeaways.

The Difference Between “Project” versus “Presence”

Often a church seeks to engage the community by “looking for the Next Project.” We seek a “need” in the community where we can help, bring resources and the love of Christ. What can happen though with this mentality is we A.) come to the project out of a posture of “pretending not to need.” We come with resources from a distance, not listening to the lives of people very well. We come out of a posture of power, control. B.) We thereby unintentionally make the people/issue we are helping into a client/object. These dynamics work against the Kingdom.  C.) We often turn this into a volunteer effort/program where we contribute a few hours a week and it is separated from our everyday lives. D.) Since it is mainly “us” doing something, this approach eventually leads to church burnout. It leads to a continual diet of “projects” and we never get to developing a “presence.”

“Developing a Presence” on the other hand, A.) enters a space out of one’s own needs. We come to be “with” the people in our context. Think of how different the dynamics (to use a suburban example) are when a new parent joins a parents group in need of a place to share the loneliness/ tediousness of caring for a new born child versus a church that sets up a day care center, B.) We come out of a “mutual” relationship sharing in what God is doing, C.) We do not come into a context as “volunteers” offering a few hours a week. Instead, the hours we spend with people, working for justice, come from places we inhabit regularly as part of our everyday life. We hope to spend years together living life in the Kingdom, D.) We become conduits of God’s work, pointing out what God is already doing, or where there are already resources right here to help. We therefore never run out of gas. We are truly energized. Of course we will offer our own resources not as a solution but because we are friends, part of this social reality God is bringing into being.

When “looking for the Next Project” churches will often look for places of need in the local context. But that need will be seen through our eyes. We might even create a project or a program. When “Developing a Presence”  we seek to understand “need” and the dynamics surrounding that need from the eyes of those we are “with.” We look from within for what is happening. We ask a lot of questions, spend hours/days/weeks/years listening. We in essence then attempt to hop on to something already in motion. Development follows justice relationally.

Things we Might Do To Train/Disciple People into Presence in The Neighborhood

In trying to lead a people into developing a presence in the neighborhood, we came up with these ‘tactics.’
  1. Individual Life Inventory: We can help each other inventory our lives and ask where we are already intersecting with people’s lives and become more aware of relationships and what God is doing around us. We can look at individual habits and locate where we are doing some things either as isolated individuals or with our church community that we could instead do in more public places, or with people in the neighborhood. The result should be that by adding no additional time or tasks to our lives we become more present in the neighborhood just out of living our everyday lives more intentionally.
  2. Third Places: Churches can look at their neighborhoods and locate third places, places where people hang out. We can locate various places where basketball games, parent groups, park district clean-ups are already happening. And we can say, instead of doing these activities ourselves as a church, let us get involved with what others are already doing. We can look for places of need, homeless shelters, domestic abuse counseling centers, etc. where we have already interested people and “send” them there to be present in everyday life. We can in essence organize people to do things in programs already going on instead of starting them ourselves.
  3. Bring the practices of the Kingdom: We must train people how to “bring reconciliation,” “proclaim gospel,” use the gifts of the Spirit in healing and renewal, “practice hospitality.” By learning how to embody these practices we are training ourselves to be present in a way that includes are being sent. Being “sent” means we witness to what God is doing and are ready, when the occasion erupts, to become the conduit by which God works to point others into the Kingdom
  4. Do it in groups of two or three. We must train people how to invite others to be present with them when God is working in the neighborhood. We need to join with other believers from all churches. We need to invite those who do not yet recognize the Kingdom. We must become skilled into how to lead u=others into the practices of the Kingdom, including reconciliation, hospitality, gospel proclamation, being with those who have less, etc…
  5. “Projects” out of our “Presence.” We must develop a mindset that projects develop out of presence and when they do we invite the larger church gathering to join in.  As a result, we must not be afraid of projects, just recognize that it is through developing a presence that projects can keep from becoming about us, and thereby resistant to Kingdom transformation in the community.
Final Comments

I hope the last point helps us see that we need not polarize Project versus Presence. Instead we see how one flows from the other.

In addition, I just want to suggest, especially for large churches, that it is best to start “developing presence” in the neighborhoods through small groups of 12. One small group of 12 learning how to be present in a neighborhood can change a whole church over time!

Blessings on all our efforts to lead our church to be present in our neighborhoods. Please tell us of your successes. What have been your hurdles? Have you any ways you’ve learned to disciple people into living their lives in the presence of the KIngdom?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Jesus: Fully and Truly Human, Fully and Truly Divine

Orthodox christology has insisted on both the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ.  In practice, however, the emphasis has fallen on the “fully divine.”  Jesus’ humanity has usually been used to anchor his story in first century a.d. Palestine and to highlight his solidarity with us viz-a-viz his human energies and emotions.  Liberal christologies did more justice to his humanity and its normative or at least insistently exemplary character.  Unfortunately, it did so at the cost of rendering the “fully God” side of the statement opaque or non-existent.  I want to suggest that if we take both the Orthodox and liberal views seriously we can fashion a more adequate and fully Orthodox christology.

The orthodox insistence on the full humanity and deity of Jesus Christ is, in my judgment, well-founded though often its execution leaves something to be desired.  Liberal christologies contribute that “to be desired” element by raising the human Jesus sans or with a heavily qualified deity to normative exemplary status.  If we take this emphasis and import it into both elements of Orthodox christology we can expand it to read:  “fully and truly human, fully and truly divine.”

To put it coarsely, Jesus Christ is a human being who is the human being as intended by God; he is also and at the same time God as God is.  Since Karl Barth a number of theologians have wrestled seriously and fruitfully with the “God as God is” aspect of Jesus.  Fewer have explored the “human being as intended by God” aspect.  But if he is “fully and truly human,” his life and teaching about life exemplify normative humanity.

To illustrate, let’s take the Beatitudes.  These “blessings” Jesus gives his followers show the kind of people he intends to have as his people in a world still-not-yet-fully-redeemed in which they face resistance from within and hostility from without.  However, if we could formulate these blessings as they would be without the elements of resistance and hostility, I believe we could capture a vision of the normative humanity God intended for us from the beginning and will bring us to in the end. Below I have given the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11 using the CEB translation) followed by my attempt to state what kind of person God intends humans to be.

3“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Truly human people live in radical dependence on God for everything

4 “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

Truly human people live in joyous gratitude for the wholeness and well-being of all God’s creatures and creation.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

Truly human people gladly live for God, with God, and by God’s will in everything.

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

Truly human people practice exquisite attentiveness to the well-being of others.

“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

Truly human people are generous beyond measure with others in every aspect of life.

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

Truly human people live with undivided hearts and indefectible loyalty to God.

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

Truly human people make harmony with God and others and top priority.

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Truly human people share God’s passion for right relations in every area of life.
11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. 12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.

Truly human people know and relish their “family” history in God and God’s people.

This, I believe, is where God intended to take us as we grew and matured with him from creation onwards.  That intent got high-jacked and turned on its head by our unfathomable refusal to be such beings and inexplicable rebellion against God.  Thus Jesus came to live out this kind of humanity in that kind of world.  And it looked like just what we find in the Beatitudes and, indeed, throughout his life and death on the cross.  Jesus calls and empowers each of his followers to live his kind of life in our kind of world too.

When redemption is fulfilled and God’s kingdom comes, we will finally experience life as God intends it, free of all resistance and opposition.  And I believe that life will take the shape outlined above. And that is what I mean by an orthodox Christology that sees Jesus as “fully and truly human”!