Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Modest Natural Theology?

Natural theology has always been viewed with suspicion by Protestant theologians, and this was particularly true of neo-orthodox theologians like Barth and Bultmann. The latter remarked that natural theology is "impossible" for Protestant theology because it "ignores the truth that the only possible access to God is faith". God is simply not knowable to man by the light of reason, and the mere attempt to know God in this manner is a sinful act. When people try to 'think their way to God', they always end up producing an idol.

Due to the prevailing influence of neo-orthodoxy, natural theology diminished in importance during the 20th century. However, in Science and Theology, Polkinghorne remarks that "a contemporary revival of natural theology is taking place, more at the hands of the physical scientists than at the hands of the theologians." He remarks that this newer version is more modest in its claims that the medieval Catholic version:

"Its discourse is of insight rather than proof. It does not assert that God's existence can be demonstrated in a logically coercive way... The new natural theology looks to the ground of all science's explanations, the laws of nature that it has to take as the assumed and unexplained basis for all its explanation, and it asks whether there is more to be understood about these laws beyond their mere assertion." This approach leads to "the God whose steadfast will is held to be expressed in the laws of nature that science discovers but does not explain."

Any constructive engagement between science and theology will require a robust (albeit modest) natural theology. Without it, the two fields will either remain completely isolated or one will be consumed by the other. But can Barthian theologians reconcile themselves to this modest natural theology, or will they simply toss aside any insights that science may provide regarding the nature of the Creator? Is revelation possible through reason, or is it always a miracle - an "impossible possibility"? It seems to me that a major theological challenge is to reconcile the "miracle of faith" with the "miracle of science"; namely, the astounding fact that humans are capable of understanding the physical universe through reason. As both miracles are gifts from the same God, they should not be kept apart forever.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

"Food Does Not Bring Us Near to God"

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live (1 Cor. 8:4-6)

After hearing this reading in church, my wife whispered in my ear, "That was a strange one." And indeed, the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols is not one that we frequently encounter in 21st century America. However, this text deals with serious matters, and it almost begs to be "demythologized" in the style of Bultmann. And guess what? In 1934, Bultmann delivered a sermon on this text that was later included in Existence and Faith. The sermon, entitled "Faith in God the Creator", is a great example of Bultmann's extraordinary ability to preach the Gospel in context. He notes that the central thrust of Paul's argument is that "Christian freedom has its own limit in loving consideration for the anxious brother." He goes on to say that:
"Paul knows very well that there are many gods and lords; that there are many powers in the world which claim us and whose claim is accepted by men as divine. Ancient men generally thought of this world as the realm in which gods and demons hold sway... Now have all of these ceased to be powers for us? Certainly for us the images of bands of demons and divine figures have come to an end. But have the powers also come to an end whose efficacy and claim once found expression in these images? By no means!

"The gods and lords still hold sway. This is true whether the power in question is the unbending action of natural laws or the vital impulse of the life of nature... It is true whether the power be the world of ideas and ideals, of timeless spirit. Wherever the ultimate reality that gives meaning to our life and demands our worship is seen to lie in these powers, the many gods and lords still hold sway.

"But Paul says of all these powers that they are nothing in the face of the one and only God. He does not say that they are simply nothing and that therefore they could have nothing to do with us; rather he says that they are nothing divine, that they do not have anything decisive to do with us, that they are not what constitutes the basis and meaning of our life."

Friday, January 27, 2006

Heaven, Souls, and the Resurrection

A follow-up on my earlier post regarding salvation:

The real sticking point, for me, regarding heaven and eternal life is the concept of "the soul". While thoughts on the soul differ widely, it seems to me that the most popular notion remains "the ghost in the machine" model, in which the soul (or spirit) is viewed as a quasi-physical entity that leaves the body upon death. This concept of the soul makes me uncomfortable, primarily because it reminds me too much of the Gnostic "spark of divinity", which has a lot in common with New Age nonsense.

The soul is also problematic scientifically, since it assumes a mind/body dualism that simply doesn't exist. As J.C. Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican priest, writes in Science and Theology, science views humans as psychosomatic entities; that is, as animated bodies and not incarnated souls. Incidentally, "this was the way in which the ancient Hebrews seem to have conceived of humanity, and a psychosomatic account of human nature is the dominant, but not exclusive, way of thinking to be found in the Bible." In other words, the concept of the soul is more Hellenistic than biblical.

But if the soul doesn't exist, than what part of us survives death? Instead of souls, Polkinghorne prefers to speak of the self, which "is composed of the immensely complex 'pattern' in which our matter is organized." He goes on to say:

"It seems a coherent belief that God will remember and reconstitute the pattern that is a human being, in an act of resurrection taking place beyond present history. Thus the Christian hope centers on a real death followed by a real resurrection, brought about through the power and merciful faithfulness of God. Christianity is not concerned with a claim that there is human survival because there is an intrinsically immortal, purely spiritual, part in our being. The ground of hope for a destiny beyond death does not lie in human nature at all, but in divine love."

So to be faithful to both the Bible and science, we should abandon all notions of the immortality of the soul, and focus our Christian hope on the resurrection of the dead. But where does this leave heaven? Should it be downplayed or eliminated in Christian thinking? I'm not sure, but it's an interesting question to ponder...

Thursday, January 26, 2006


It appears that I'm not the only one blogging about the theologian Rudolf Bultmann lately. Chris Tillman, a New Testament doctoral student in Tubingen, Germany, has recently written a couple of interesting posts on Bultmann's theology, which then prompted Dr. Benjamin Myers in Australia to give his thoughts on the matter. Small world, isn't it? Myers' post, in particular, nicely explains the eschatological character of Bultmann's theology, which is a subject that I neglected in my series.

After this discovery, I may have to retract my earlier statement that Bultmann's "presence on the Internet is scant, to say the least, and almost non-existent in the blogosphere."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Nature of Salvation

As Christians, what do we mean when we say "salvation"? The word is certainly commonplace, and naturally everybody wants it, but what exactly is "it", after all. Are we all thinking about the same thing when we say that word, or is everyone's conception of salvation a little different? Of course, the most widespread notion of salvation pertains to the afterlife - heaven. "If I die today, will I go to heaven?" wonders the anxious Christian. But is heaven consistent with the biblical concept of salvation? The New Testament does talk about eternal life, but it also places emphasis on the bodily "resurrection of the dead" and "a new creation". For Paul, salvation is decidedly in the present - "now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (1 Cor. 6:2). And in the Old Testament, salvation has an undeniable "this-worldliness" that was much admired by Bonhoeffer. So does salvation encompass all of these motifs, or none of them?

Regardless, everyone desires salvation, even if they're not exactly sure what this means. Thus, the concept easily degrades into a form of wish-fulfillment and escapism. People speculate about how to obtain this incredible salvation, and they wonder about who's saved and who's not. And it's quite a conundrum, leading to really hard questions like: Is salvation predestined or do I have a choice? Do the saints persevere until the end, or will some fall away? What about those who have never heard the Gospel, and what about my uncle who never goes to church?

I don't have any decent answers for these questions, and I confess to being confused about the nature of salvation. Heaven would be nice, but I have trouble believing that this gorgeous world that God created is a mere proving ground for the afterlife. And I certainly wouldn't become a Christian just to punch my ticket for the hereafter.

Recently, I came across the following description of salvation, written in an article by David B. Hart. I don't know if I agree with it completely, but it hits close to the mark:

"Salvation was not understood by the [Church] fathers in that rather feeble and formal way many Christians have habitually thought of it at various periods in the Church's history: as some sort of forensic exoneration accompanied by a ticket of entry into an Elysian aftermath of sun-soaked meadows and old friends and consummate natural beatitude. Rather, salvation meant nothing less than being joined to the living God by the mediation of the God-man Himself, brought into living contact with the transfiguring glory of the divine nature, made indeed partakers of the divine nature itself (2 Peter 1:4) and co-heirs of the Kingdom of God."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Beneficial Greenhouse Effect

I've been working my way through Joakin Garff's recent biography of Soren Kierkegaard, and it has been a real treat so far. Garff does a magnificent job of placing Kierkegaard's life in the wider context of early 19th-century Denmark, and he makes the streets of old Copenhagen come alive. This was the so-called Golden Age of Denmark - a time when that little country made abundant contributions to Western culture. Copenhagen was only a modest-sized town of 127,000, but as Garff describes it, the high concentration of talented people "developed a sort of intellectual greenhouse effect. Anyone and everyone was there, the major and the minor figures rubbing shoulders with one another."

The vibrancy of Kierkegaard's Copenhagen naturally makes me a little envious. Very few of us live in places that are so culturally and intellectually stimulating. However, we have a significant advantage over Golden Age Denmark - namely, the Internet, which serves as our intellectual greenhouse. I'm convinced that if Kierkegaard were to return today, he would immediately establish several blogs (most of them under pseudonyms, of course). At their best, blogs mimic the wide-open, give-and-take approach that was so characteristic of the literary scene in Kierkegaard's day. People write, ideas are circulated, others comment and debate, and everyone is engaged in the process.

Of course, the situation is rarely so "golden". Recently, Lutheran Zephyr and lutherpunk bemoaned the lack of good-natured and moderate Lutheran blogs. They have a point. For whatever reason, the "confessional" Lutherans have a bigger presence on the Internet, and many of these blogs feature rough and nasty commentary. But I don't think we have cause for despair. What the ELCA blogs lack in numbers they make up for in quality. The blogs I frequent are produced by intelligent, lively, and considerate people, and I'm continually amazed by the quality of their writing. It was these blogs that encouraged me to start my own.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Of Light Bulbs and Myths

One last look at Bultmann, before he fades away...

The impetus for Bultmann's demythologizing program was his firm belief that "the world-view of Scripture is mythological and is therefore unacceptable to modern man whose thinking has been shaped by science." While he believed that his theology provided a cure for this dilemma, it appears that the church didn't want to take the medicine. Demythologizing caused a big sensation in the 1950's, but it has largely been forgotten since then, relegated to a theological footnote. Was Bultmann wrong about the incompatibility of the Bible and modernity? Or are today's religious people being intellectually dishonest?

Bultmann once remarked that a person becomes a "demythologizer" by the very act of turning on a light bulb. Naturally, his theological opponents disputed this claim because they were all avid users of light bulbs, not to mention radios, telephones, and airplanes. Bultmann's point was that the widespread use of technology already implies a scientific world-view, which we cannot shed like a piece of clothes. It is axiomatic for Bultmann that a person does not pick their world-view, and that the world-view of Western man is scientific, regardless of one's religious beliefs. Moreover, this scientific world-view is incompatible with the mythological world-view of those who wrote the Bible.

At this point in the debate, Bultmann's opponents often suggested that he was embarrassed by the Bible, and that he wanted to edit-out the offensive, supernatural stuff (much like Jefferson did with his Bible). They claimed that he was trying to rationalize faith in order to make it compatible with science. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Bultmann makes no value judgments with regards to world-views, as no world-view is absolute or definitive. But he thought it was ridiculous to expect a modern human to adopt the alien world-view of 1st-century Palestine as a precondition of Christian faith. Such a sacrifice of the intellect is neither possible nor necessary:

"To demythologize is not to reject Scripture or the Christian message as a whole, but the world-view of Scripture, which is the world-view of a past epoch... Christian preaching, in so far as it is preaching of the Word of God, does not offer a doctrine which can be accepted either by reason or by a sacrificium intellectus. Demythologizing...will eliminate a false stumbling block and bring into sharp focus the real stumbling block, the word of the cross."

In this respect, Bultmann's position is very close to Bonhoeffer's prison theology. Both reject all attempts to "think in two spheres" by applying radically different standards to religious matters and everyday life. And both were intent on eliminating the false stumbling-blocks (or sacrificium intellectus) that obscure the Word of God. Moreover, their ideas have shared a similar fate - both "demythologizing" and "religionless Christianity", while embraced by some theologians, have failed to materialize in the broader church.

Why? Perhaps it's because modern man was never as scientific as Bultmann assumed, a fact that seems clearer now. Post-modernism beat Bultmann to the punch, so to speak, by knocking science off its pedestal and by relativizing all world-views. Thus, the conflict that Bultmann worried so much about, while still present today, lacks the urgency that it once did. Despite this, we can still learn a lot from the old Marburger.

Let the Cheese Curd Debate Begin!

Being a Wisconsinite to the core, I've always had a passion for cheese curds. While the "squeaky" plain curds are mighty tasty (especially at the Farmer's Market in Madison), I'm partial to the deep-fried variety found in bars throughout the Badger State. This love goes way back to my childhood days in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where I often sampled the exquisite cheese curds available at the Camaraderie Bar (which has since burned down, sadly). A couple of close high-school friends of mine also shared this passion, and we always planned on taking a grand Cheese Curd Tour of Wisconsin. This would involve sampling the curds at various bars and restaurants, and then writing a guide book afterwards that would rate the curds and also provide some local color.

Alas, it never came to be (which was probably the best for our cardiovascular systems). But after eating some excellent cheese curds yesterday, it occurred to me that this blog could serve as the guidebook that never was! Thus, starting today, I will provide brief reviews of any and all cheese curds that I come across, and I encourage others to write-in with their cheese curd memories. Here's my first submission:

The Glarner Stube (New Glarus, WI): Glarner Stube translated into English means "Living Room of New Glarus", and this restaurant/bar certainly captures the Swiss spirit of the town. It has a cozy dining room and a graceful wooden bar. Most importantly, the cheese curds are tremendous; indeed, the best that I've had in all of South-central Wisconsin. Lightly coated with a beer batter, and filled with golden cheddar cheese, these curds practically dissolve in your mouth. I savored each one, and I'll definitely be back to this little Swiss hamlet for some more. Grade: A

Saturday, January 21, 2006

"Oh if there's an original thought out there, I could use it right now"
-- B. Dylan, "Brownsville Girl"

Although I've only been at it for a few weeks, blogging has changed me in some significant ways, and not all of them positive. For instance, I used to read solely for learning or entertainment, but now I find myself reading for blog material. I "talk back" to the page, formulating little essays in my in head instead of truly listening to the writer. I've essentially become a desperate columnist, always searching for controversy and "angles". Of course, this is attitude is ridiculous, as the meager amount of traffic my site attracts means that I'm primarily talking into an abyss, with my words rarely seen by anyone but myself. But I still have this irrational urge to produce.

Regardless, there are real benefits to blogging. It has allowed me to sort-out my thinking on various matters, as writing always provides clarity. Most importantly, it has forced me to consider what other people might consider interesting and meaningful. I now realize that my early posts were too long and bookish - mere regurgitations of stuff that I had read. I've tried to be more concise and topical recently, and to provide something original. But as Dylan's quote suggests, originality is not always easy to come by, even for a genius like himself.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson.
Joltin' Joe has left and gone away

Joe Dimaggio was perplexed and a bit hurt by these lines from "Mrs. Robinson", and deservedly so. After all, he hadn't gone anywhere; he had merely retired from baseball and returned to private life (although the story may not be true, I heard that he once confronted Paul Simon at a New York dinner party and demanded an explanation). Regardless, the line is not about DiMaggio per se - it's about our yearning for greatness, and the vacuum we feel when it's not there. It's my opinion that these lyrics could easily apply to our own time, and perhaps to any time in history. The public figures of the present always seem small and pathetic compared with the greats of the past (and that's doubly true for today's baseball players).

But there's little doubt that we're suffering from a lack of leadership in the church at the moment, and it's primarily a lack of theological leadership, in my opinion. Sometime I feel like singing, "Where have you gone Karl Barth? The lonely Protestants turn their eyes to you." But Barth is just as gone as Joltin' Joe, and nobody has taken his place. The theological titans of the mid-20th century - Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr - were true public figures, commanding the attention of not only the entire church, but of the culture as a whole. There is not a theologian today that can compare.

Due to this void, theology has been pushed from the town square, and now resides in various ghettos on the edge of the town. We have both liberals and conservatives to thank for this situation. The former never liked doctrines, and the latter were more interested in fighting extra-theological battles (abortion, homosexuality, and Happy Holidays). Sadly, the result is a profound lack of theological clarity, not on social issues, but regarding eternal matters like the Trinity, christology, and nature of sin and salvation.

As Protestantism lacks a hierarchy (and I'm not in favor of changing that fact), we're always in need of towering figures like Barth, since they have a steadying effect on the church. Due to their influence and personal authority, they mediate between the various centrifugal forces that are always threatening to pull the church apart. Most importantly, they keep the church's focus on the Gospel, and prevent it from becoming consumed by secondary matters.

Coo, coo, ca-choo, Mrs Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know (Wo, wo, wo) God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson Heaven holds a place for those who pray (Hey, hey, hey...hey, hey, hey)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Greeks (and those with Ph.D's) Look for Wisdom

The most recent issue of the Atlantic arrived yesterday, and it contained readers' thoughts on David Bloom's article "Is God an Accident", the subject of my last post. Of the five letters, four are favorable towards Bloom, and these "pro" readers argue that religious concepts are "infantile", "nutty", "cruel", and "irrational". The only voice of dissent is Michael Brunner, whose letter is rather short and petulant. Yet he does manage to call attention to the blind-spot in Bloom's approach: "To Bloom and his ilk, if it isn't quantifiable, it isn't true. And since science is in the business of quantifying and measuring, it naturally follows that if it isn't science, it isn't true. "

As a scientist myself, I'm very aware of this temptation to believe that everything "real" lies under the purview of science. As Bultmann wrote: "Hidden by the claim of natural science is actually the human claim to exist by oneself and to understand and shape one's life in terms of what one can control, what by thought and by application one can master." The issue is control. It's not so much the idea of God that scientists object to, but the fact that we cannot study him scientifically. Indeed, all scientists would believe in God if he would simply "sit still" and let himself be examined. Then his actions could be understood and predicted, and we could utilize his awesome power for ourselves, just as we harness the mighty Columbia River for electricity and irrigation.

Obviously, this matter of control over God is not limited to science. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor., "Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom." The first group says to God, "Prove yourself to us! Do something to impress us. Make good by our standards." The second group says, "Our knowledge is God's knowledge, and when we seek knowledge we seek God." The latter position has been adopted by modern science, which attributes God-like status to its own conception of reality. But many religious people are in the first category, since they expect their worship of God to yield real benefits like prosperity, good health, or a ticket to heaven.

For both the Jew and the Greek, God's actions in the world remain hidden. As Bultmann points out in his excellent essay "The Question of Wonder", God's hiddenness is not an intrinsic property of his deity, but arises from human sin. God is accessible and present to us. The problem, however, is that we tend to look for God not where he actually is, but where we think he should be. We want proof in the form of miracles or knowledge, proof that will give us more security and control. But this is an attempt to turn God into an object to manipulate. For Paul, the only way forward is a faith that surrenders all ultimacy to God; a faith that understands that the entirety of human knowledge and culture is provisional. This faith is not sight and it's not science, but it knows the wonder of God the Creator and Redeemer.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

"Is God an Accident?" A Response

Unlike the media and those Christians determined to wage a perpetual culture war, I try to expend very little mental energy on the evolution/creationism (or ID) debate, which has always seemed like a false conflict to me. I have often thought that if both sides simply understood the respective roles and limitations of science and faith, then we could all live in relative harmony. Usually, it's Christians that cannot abide by this uneasy truce, but there are also plenty of examples of scientists who cross the line. A prime example of the latter is found in the December 2005 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

The very title of the article, "Is God an Accident?" by Paul Bloom, alerts the reader that trouble lies ahead. Bloom is a psychology professor at Yale, specializing child development. The article begins by noting that just about all humans everywhere believe in God (or gods, or angels, or something else supernatural). This is the case not only in the developing world, but is also true in "advanced" countries like the U.S. Even in so-called secular Europe, most people pray and believe in an afterlife, although most have fallen away from organized religion. Moreover, recent studies of infants and young children seem to suggest that they are born with a crude belief in God, even if their parents are atheists. For instance, "four-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose... When asked about the origin of animals and people, children tend to prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism - and belief in God - is bred into the bone." (at this point, a theologically-minded person like myself wonders if this is the "point of contact" that Barth and Brunner debated in the 30's).

Up to this point, Bloom is on solid ground. In fact, a religious person could be quite pleased that their beliefs are so ubiquitous. However, Bloom now takes a startling leap. He says that "enthusiasm is building among scientists for the view that religion emerged not to serve a purpose - not as an opiate or a social glue - but by accident. It is a by-product of biological adaptations gone awry." There you have it! God is an "by-product" of natural selection, much like the useless appendix. Blooms explains that, early-on in life, we develop a mind-body dualism that makes it easy for us to believe in souls, an afterlife, and a creator, and we retain such notions even when they are no longer useful later in life. Thus, the idea of God is an accident, but we are not likely to shed this useless idea anytime soon because it's part of human nature.

What amazes me is that Bloom is entirely blind to his own presuppositions. As science cannot legitimately invoke God (a position I support), the origin of religion and of God Himself necessarily lies within the human being. The outcome is determined in advance. What makes Bloom's argument different than other atheistic explanations of religion (like those of Marx and Freud), is that he doesn't think religion serves any practical purpose, and thus it's purely an artifact. But here's the thing - where a scientist like Bloom sees only an accident, the eyes of faith see the work of God. The fact that belief in God is so widespread maybe means that there's something "real" about this God. Bloom never entertains this possibility.

While the arrogance of this article initially made me angry, it gradually occurred to me that Bloom's article actually works in favor of God and religion, although Blooms doesn't realize it. Science has apparently proved that, from the moment we're born, our hearts are restless for God, as Augustine would say. And this "restlessness for God" will never go away, no matter how technologically advanced we become or how much the culture changes, because "the universal themes of religion are not learned. They are part of human nature." This last sentence was written by Bloom but, properly understood, it's fully compatible with Christian teaching. For as Paul said, "what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made."

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Blog-Improvement Days

Those very few souls that frequent my blog will notice a couple of changes. I've added a "What I'm reading" feature, along with more blog and news links. I've also made the hedgehog the W/O Authority mascot, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the hedgehog is a quirky and diminutive creature that is definitely "without authority" in the animal kingdom, as its habit of rolling into a ball with its quills pointed out when under attack is cowardly, albeit effective. But the selection of the hedgehog has more to do with that famous saying of the Greek poet: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." As Isaiah Berlin pointed out, you're either a hedgehog or a fox, and I'm a hedgehog. While that may sound arrogant, keep in mind that the "one big thing" I know is not mine to possess - it's "the one thing needful".

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Word and Christus Praesens

I just finished reading Melancthon's open letter to Brian McLaren concerning the latter's cursory treatment of Lutheranism in "A Generous Orthodoxy". The letter was warmly received by McLaren and deservedly so, as it's an eloquent testimonial to the uniqueness and beauty of the Lutheran faith. In particular, I enjoyed Melancthon's discussion about Lutherans' "multifaceted" view of "the Word" - a subject that has also dominated my thinking of late.

Melancthon points out that "Lutherans emphasize that the Bible is only the Word of God in as far as it makes Christ present to us." This intimate relationship between the Word of God and the presence of Christ is the subject of James F. Kay's excellent book entitled "Christus Praesens: A Reconsideration of Bultmann's Christology", which triggered my recent Bultmann binge. He states that, for Bultmann, the doctrine of the incarnation refers not to an objective claim about the mythical/historical Jesus, but to "Jesus as the Christ, whose Word is continually enfleshed as an ever new event in the act of proclamation. The paradox of faith is that a human being like myself thus speaks God's Word to me; the Logos of God incarnates Himself in him or her." Thus, it is not the historical Jesus who saves, nor the God-man construct of church doctrine- only the Christus Praesens can impart God's promising Word to me. Jesus is God's "speech act" which addresses me in the concrete present, and faith is simply my affirmation of this salvific action upon me, the answer to his Word.

Thus, despite his existentialist leanings, Bultmann has a very high estimation of the Church, which has been entrusted with the essential task of proclaiming the Word of God, thereby "delivering" Christ. Said another way, his theology is thoroughly "kerygmatic". In fact, he was accused by Barth of being solely kerymatic, because he places little emphasis on the historical Jesus. As Kay writes:

"For Barth, the transposition of the incarnation into an event of the present means that 'the real life of Jesus Christ is confined to the kerygma and to faith.' Yet, we may ask on Bultmann's behalf, where else is 'the real life of Jesus' to be found? As Bultmann replies to Barth, "Christ is the kerygma, because he is the Christ only as the Christ for me, and as such he encounters me only in the kerygma."

Put simply, to look for Christ outside of the Word and Sacraments is a fool's errand.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Brief Sketch Entitled "Where's the Stumbling Block?"

On any given Sunday, the Bible texts read in Church may contain accounts of miraculous or supernatural events. In the Gospels alone, we might hear that Jesus fed thousands of people, or raised Lazarus from the dead, or healed the sick and lame, not to mention that he was resurrected. When confronted by such challenging texts, our pastors can take their sermons in one of two directions. Let's listen in....

Our first pastor, determined to hold the line, plunges straight ahead and insists that the events "really happened"; after all, with God all things are possible. Jesus really did turn the water into wine - oh, if only the New York Times had been there to report on it! In fact, he continues, a key element of our faith is truly believing that such incredible events "really happened", regardless of what modern science wants us to think. "Do you believe it?" he pleads. "You've got to believe!" The congregation, not wanting to appear faithless, naturally agrees with the pastor, and everyone feels a bit courageous for taking such a firm stand in favor of God's supernatural activities (skeptics and Darwinists be damned!). Afterwards, they leave church, get into their cars (equipped with CD players and satellite-guided navigation systems), and drive home to watch the football game on TV. And if they were particularly impressed with that day's sermon, they can download it onto a computer and listen to it later on their iPods. Talk about miracles!!

In another church across town, the pastor decides to set aside the question about what "really happened"; after all, hasn't historical scholarship shown that much of the Bible is "just made up", for lack of a better phrase? However, she doesn't despair, because she knows that she can easily exploit the texts' "spiritual" meanings. When Jesus heals that sick, it actually means that he wants us to be "whole", and when he feeds the many thousands, it implies that he gives us nutritious spiritual food. When taking this approach, she finds that it's useful to get "inside the heads" of the story's protagonists (what were Mary and Martha thinking when Lazarus emerged from the tomb?) In this way, the stories seem less strange. In fact, she has found that, regardless of the texts, the key message is always pretty much the same: Jesus is on our side, he wants our lives to be successful and purpose-driven, and he wants us to love ourselves and others (in that order).

Believe it or not, this silly essay has a theological point, and it relates to Bultmann's program of demythologizing. The two caricatures that I've depicted can be labeled "orthodoxy" and "liberalism", respectively. While both contain some elements of the truth, Bultmann would likely reject both. His theology as a whole, and his demythologizing thesis in particular, were designed to steer a course between these two extremes. I think he was largely successful, although his critics would claim that he was always a liberal at heart. As I'll discuss later, the key concept in his critique of both positions is the "stumbling block". In orthodoxy, the stumbling block has been misplaced, whereas in liberalism, it has disappeared all together.

Author's note: By "orthodoxy" I'm not referring to the Orthodox churches or to the broader concept of orthodoxy. Instead, I'm primarily referring to Protestant Orthodoxy, which dominated Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, and still thrives in conservative denominations (LCMS included). This school of theology was (and is) obsessed with "right doctrine" and proofs of the inerrancy of Scripture.

Monday, January 09, 2006

"Let Those With a World-View Live as Though They Had None"

One of the most challenging and provocative elements of Bultmann's thinking is his negative attitude towards the world-view (Weltbild), at least as it pertains to theology. According to Bultmann, a world-view is an objective, unified, and comprehensive picture of the world which is "conceived without reference to our own existence. " He does not deny that some sort of world-view is necessary for day-to-day living, but he argues that they have a significant downside because they function as an intellectual "security blanket". In the passage below, Bultmann describes how a world-view offers false protection against the precariousness of one's existence.

"[World-views] do man the great service of freeing him from himself. They relieve him of the problem of his concrete existence, of anxiety about it and responsibility for it. That is, of course, the reason why man desires a so-called world-view. He can turn to it when he is confronted by the riddle of destiny and death. He can dismiss the problem of existence from his mind when his existence becomes shattered and precarious. He need not take the moment of crisis seriously, for he can understand it simply as a special case of a general class, fit it into a context, objectify it, and so find a way out of it.

"But this is the primary falsity and it leads necessarily to mistaking the truth of our own existence, since we are viewing ourselves from the outside as an object of scientific investigation."

Thus, a world-view never affords an adequate description of existence. Similarly, all religious world-views paint a distorted picture of God, since one views God from some vantage point "beyond" God, and then determines the precise relationships between God, humans, and nature. However, such a vantage point does not exist and God cannot be objectified, and all world-views are inherently speculative. Moreover, they are the antithesis of faith, since trust is placed in a particular "man-made" conception of God, instead of in God Himself. Bultmann never tires of saying that faith is not a world-view, and that the God of every theistic Weltbild is an idol.

Needless to say, Bultmann's critique of the world-view has not been widely embraced. Today, Christians and non-Christians alike regard Christianity as a type of world-view that directly competes with the various secular world-views afloat (hence the Culture Wars). Thus, one becomes a Christian by adopting its Weltbild, either through assent to various doctrines, by embracing a particular moral code, or through a specific type of spiritual experience. In such a way, a person can be confident that they are a Christian (and are thereby saved) because they think, act, or feel like a Christian.

Of course, this is the most sneaky type of "works-righteousness", and Bultmann's antagonism towards the world-view is simply an extension of Luther's doctrine of justification into the realm of the intellect. It's his version of the "theology of the cross", which rejects any attempt to deal with God on our terms. He makes this clear in the following excerpt from an early sermon, preached in the dark days of WWI:

"If we want to see God, then the first thing we should say to ourselves is that we may not see him as we have conceived him. We must remind ourselves that he may appear to be wholly other than the picture we have made of him; and we must be prepared to accept his visage even if it terrifies us... Has our old picture of him fallen to pieces? If so, then we must first of all be grateful that we have lost our false conception."

The God who is "Wholly Other" cannot be squeezed into any man-made world-view. But is theology possible without one? Barth thinks not, and this issue underlies all the disagreements between Bultmann and his (many) critics. More on this to follow...

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Rudolf Bultmann - the Neglected Giant

Pick up any survey of theological history, and the list of the 20th-century's great thinkers will invariably include the names "Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, and Bultmann." However, while the first four individuals on this list are still widely-read and influential, the same cannot be said for Rudolf Bultmann, who seems to have lost his audience entirely. The number of (non-academic) books published on Bultmann's thinking within the past twenty years can probably be counted on one hand, and when he does make an appearance in a recent book, it's typically as part of a list like the one above. His presence on the Internet is scant, to say the least, and almost non-existent in the blogosphere. As James Kay writes in one of the (very few) recent Bultmann books, students of theology "today do not even go through Bultmann; they go around him."

Why is this? I've been reading Bultmann a fair amount lately, and I'm continually amazed by the richness and breadth of his theology. Not only was he a "comrade in arms" with Barth in the early days of dialectial theology, but he was also a renowned biblical scholar (who arrived at some fairly controversial conclusions), an existentialist thinker par excellence, and a captivating preacher. But he never made a big impact on this side of the Atlantic, probably because he first caught the attention of North Americans with his program for "demythologizing" - a concept with an unfortunate name that was misunderstood from the very beginning. He was thereby dismissed out-of-hand by many, who have subsequently paid little attention to his full body his work. This is a shame, in my opinion, because Bultmann has an uncanny ability to be both thoroughly orthodox and thoroughly modern, and thus his theology holds great promise for our current age.

Over the next few days, I plan to elaborate further on Bultmann's theology, hopefully justifying my high opinion of it in the process. If anyone is reading (a dubious proposition), then perhaps we can have a discussion about it. I know the blogosphere loves controversy, and Bultmann is plenty controversial (for gosh sakes, he was nearly branded a heretic by the German Lutheran Church!) .

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The White Whale and the Deus Absconditus

James Wood's recent article about Herman Melville in the New Republic has given me a new appreciation for Moby Disk - a book that failed to impress me much in high school. Wood writes that Melville was "not so much a God-doubter as a God-hater," and what made him most angry was the hiddenness of God. Melville once wrote that "silence is the only voice of our God", and this silence was apparently a great torment for him. Indeed, the great white whale itself represents (according to Wood) the "noisily silent God of the Book of Job, the Leviathan who will not be drawn out with a hook, who roars and thunders and bullies and commands, but who never answers the question: 'Why, Lord?'"

This article has fascinated me, probably because I find "God-haters" much more profound and unsettling than "God-doubters." What "God-doubters" fail to realize is that the "elimination" of God only pushes the question back one more step. Without God, the universe is abandoned to meaninglessness and nothingness, but this nothingness functions as a sort of deity itself - the "nothing-God." Of course, the "nothing-God" is not the loving God of Christianity. On the contrary, it acts as an annihilating force against humans and our attempts to gain meaning and security. My guess is that Melville's fury arose from the fact that, from the human side, there is no way to distinguish between the "nothing-God" and the deus absconditus, and thus they are identical for all practical purposes.

In light of Melville's torment, I think it's useful to remember the Lutheran distinction between the hidden and revealed God. A God who is truly God will always remain largely hidden, since a fully revealed God would become just another object of the universe, open to manipulation by human reason. However, Luther's writings always point anxious souls away from the hidden God ("Why, Lord?") and towards the revelation of God in the Word of the Cross. The remarkable fact is not that God exists, but that He exists "for me", in spite of all my sin and doubt.

Anyways, I might give Moby-Dick another try.

My first post! (or, Why am I doing this?)

After months of wavering (a fatal character flaw of mine), I've decided to make the daunting leap from a reader of blogs to a blog writer. The teaming, buzzing blogosphere demands active participation. Whether or not anyone else cares about my thoughts remains to be seen, but the very act of writing will probably prove useful, regardless of popularity.

The subject matter of this blog will likely trend towards the theological, since these issues interest me the most. More specifically, the emphasis will be on Lutheran theology, not out of loyalty to a specific denomination or confession, but because Luther's "theology of the cross" is, for me, the only viable approach to question of God and man. Hopefully this focus will not be too narrow.

A note about the blog's name: Besides the (somewhat pretentious) Kierkegaard reference, it serves to emphasize that no one should take my ramblings too seriously, least of all me. I am not a professor, pastor, or seminarian, and I have very little formal training in theology or philosophy. Thus I am speaking on behalf of nobody but myself, and everything written here is open to revision or retraction. After all, faith is "faith" and not "sight", and thus "without authority" is meant to stress the humility that should accompany all theological discussions.

Enough of this! Let the fun begin!