Friday, November 23, 2007

The Economist and a Defense of Christendom

I recommend taking a look at the November 1st issue of the Economist, which features a number of articles on the role of religion in the coming century. The magazine points out that religious observance is rising worldwide and that "faith will unsettle politics everywhere this century." The approach the Economist takes towards religion is refreshingly fair and neutral - it is not blind to the dangers of fundamentalism but, at the same time, it understands the amazing complexity and vibrancy of the world's religions. It also understands that faith is flourishing, in part, because of globalization - something the Economist vigorously supports:
"The idea that religion has re-emerged in public life is to some extent an illusion. It never really went away—certainly not to the extent that French politicians and American college professors imagined. Its new power is mostly the consequence of two changes. The first is the failure of secular creeds: religion's political comeback started during the 1970s, when faith in government everywhere was crumbling. Second, although some theocracies survive in the Islamic world, religion has returned to the stage as a much more democratic, individualistic affair: a bottom-up marketing success, surprisingly in tune with globalisation. Secularism was not as modern as many intellectuals imagined, but pluralism is. Free up religion and ardent believers and ardent atheists both do well... From a classical liberal point of view, this multiplicity of sects is a good thing."
The issue also contains an article on the state of Christianity in Europe, which may not be as moribund as most people think. In many parts of Europe, smaller churches of evangelicals, charismatics and Pentecostals are growing rapidly. But the state churches are still hurting, with active church attendance reaching new, pathetic lows. But the empty pews should not necessarily be interpreted as a lack of faith. Grace Davie of the University of Exeter argues that many Europeans regard the state churches as a sort of "'public utility': there is one state-backed supplier, and most Christians follow their religion vicariously (in the sense that somebody else does your churchgoing for you). For instance, around 75% of Swedes are baptised as Lutherans, but only 5% regularly go to church. The church pockets a staggering $1.6 billion in membership fees, collected by the state through the tax system. It has been rare for Swedes to opt out, though that seems to be changing."

This situation in Sweden (and other Scandinavian countries) is interesting because, while active religious participation is rare, the state church itself is not unpopular or discredited. It still plays a welcome, albeit small, role in the lives of the Swedish people. Most people still pay their church fees, baptize their children, get confirmed, and have a church funeral when they die. But otherwise they rarely set foot inside a church.

Of course, the notion of "vicarious Christianity" is exactly what Kierkegaard was railing against in his Attack on Christendom. And it would be tempting to say, with him, that the Church of Sweden (or Denmark) is a sham, no more than kulturprotestantismus at its worst. But that judgement might not be entirely correct. The fact that people still turn to the church in "life changing" moments - birth, marriage, death - is significant, I think. Indeed, it may be that the states churches, by encompassing the entire nation and not just a small group of "true believers", are a testament to the sovereignty of God over all Creation. As the Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren writes in Creation and Gospel:
"By their very existence the national churches of Europe represented a form of faith in Creation, even in those times when the Creation faith was neither theoretically articulated nor the subject of reflection in university theology. Parishes with geographical boundaries are purely external arrangements, it appears; but built into this arrangement is a profound faith in Creation: the place of work, birth, death, matrimony - everything is encircled by the church and therefore by the Father of Jesus Christ."
Whether the state churches of Europe will be able to continue to play this role in the future remains to seen. It may be that they're merely "running on fumes"; after all, no church can survive for long on mere tradition and convention. Most damningly, the national churches may be serving as obstacles to a genuine revival of faith, since they encourage the complacency of "vicarious Christianity." Christianity on European soil might have to begin anew, and this would entail the demise of the national churches. But I'm not sure. Would Swedes miss the national church if it was gone? Would anything take its place?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Sacrament as Christ's Availability to Himself

In case you missed it, First Things posted an interesting commentary last week on Bill Bryson’s science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. The article, written by Frederica Mathewes-Green, discussed the fact that our bodies are continually exchanging atoms with the environment, such that "every seven years all the cells in a human body are replaced." Moreover, as Bryson writes, “every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms—up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name."

This result certainly has theological implications, and Mathewes-Green explores some of them. For instance, the "resurrection of the body" cannot be understood as the simple reassembly of the same atoms that comprised our bodies at death, since these atoms are not essential to who we truly are. Our continuity over time lies in the pattern of our bodies, not in the identity of their physical components. Thus, speaking of the resurrection of the dead, John Polkinghorne can write that "it is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern that is me will be remembered by God and its instantiation will be recreated by Him when he reconstitutes me in a new environment of his choosing."

This concept also raises interesting implications for the sacraments. Most of the controversy surrounding the Lord's Supper has focused on the meaning of "is" in Jesus' statement "This is my body", i.e. should "is" be taken literally or does it really mean signifies. Comparatively little thought has been given to what "body" means in this context, perhaps because it is assumed that everyone knows what body means. But, as Bryson's book makes clear, the body is a more dynamic concept than previously thought. So how are we supposed to understand the true presence of Christ's body in the Eucharist?

Robert Jenson gives a very compelling answer to this question in his Systematic Theology. He writes that, according to Paul, "someone's 'body' is simply the person him or herself insofar as this person is available to other persons and to him or herself, insofar as the person is an object for other persons and him or herself. It is in that Paul is a body that persecutors can mark him as Christ's; it is in that Paul is a body that he can be seen and interrogated by one of his congregations, or be remote from this possibility; it is in that Paul is a body that he can discipline his own self. In Paul's ontology, such personal availability may or may not be constituted as the biological entity moderns first think of as 'a body'" (I, 205).

The question then becomes: where is the risen Christ available to us, where is he an object for us? Drawing on 1 Corinthians, Jenson's answer is two-fold: "The body of that Christ that the Corinthians culpably fail to discern is at once the gathered congregation, which is the actual object of their misbehavior and to which Paul has just previous referred as the body of Christ, and the loaf and cup, which are called Christ's body by the narrative of institution he cites in support of his rebuke." (II, 211) Thus, Christ is an object for us in church and sacrament, although in somewhat different ways. The Church is Christ's availability to the world at large, while the Eucharist is his availability within the congregation. "The object that is the church-assembly is the body of Christ, that is, Christ available to the world and to her members, just in that the church gathers around objects distinct from herself, the bread and cup, which are the availability to her of the same Christ." (II, 213).

At first glance, it may appear that Jenson is endorsing a purely symbolic interpretation of the sacrament in which the Church regards the load and cup "as if" they were the body of Christ, although the remain mere bread and wine. However this is not the case, because Christ himself recognizes these objects as his body. "The church with her sacraments is truly Christ's availability to us just because Christ takes her as his availability to himself. Where does the risen Christ turn to find himself? To the sacramental gathering of believers. To the question 'Who am I?' he answers, 'I am this community's head. I am the subject whose objectivity is this community... And again: 'I am the subject whose objectivity for this community is the bread and cup around which she gathers.'" (II, 214)

To question of how this is possible, Jenson simply remarks: "All that is needed is that the risen Christ's personal self-understanding determine what is real, that is, that he be the Logos of God... As he is the Word of God by which all things are created to be what they are, no further explanation is needed or possible." (II, 215). This is essentially the same explanation as provided by Luther in his defence of the Real Presence, which I described in an earlier post. The Word of God effects what it says. The sacrament is simultaneously the body of Christ and bread and wine, just as we are simultaneously sinful and righteous in faith. In both cases, it is the mighty Word of God that holds the paradox together, that creates a new reality.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hauerwas at the University of Minnesota

Last Thursday I walked across the Mississippi river to hear Stanley Hauerwas speak on the West Bank of the U of M campus. He was giving the 12th Annual Holmer Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Maclaurin Institute (whose admirable mission is to "bring God into the marketplace of ideas" on the Minnesota campus). The event was a rare opportunity for those of us at this public university to hear from an honest-to-goodness Christian theologian and, appropriately, Hauerwas spoke about the role of theology in the modern university, the subject of his most recent book.

Since you can read a good summary of his remarks here, I won't try to recreate the lecture. I generally agree with his main point that we need to find a way to bring theology back into higher education. The university needs theology, and theology needs the university.

I had never heard Hauerwas speak before but I've read plenty of stories concerning his explosive and colorful personality. So I naturally went in with high expectations. Hauerwas, though, was surprisingly tame, using occasional profanity but never reaching a full boil. Despite this, he made a number of memorable comments, especially in the question-and-answer section. For instance, he said "I'm a theocrat but I'm also a pacifist. And I don't know how to rule the world nonviolently, but I'd like to have the chance." Also, "For a Christian college to offer the same education as a public school but say that they're educating the 'whole person', that's bullshit. That's not Christianity, that's just hand-holding." In response to a question about Bob Jones University, he said "Bob Jones, they're just dumb, it needs to be said. It's sort of a learned ignorance, but they know nothing about Christianity, that's their problem."

I enjoyed the lecture but it raised a question that perhaps some of my readers can answer: why do academics in the humanities read their lectures straight off the page? I've always found this strange and somewhat annoying. In the sciences, we speak freely in our lectures, with nothing prepared except our visual aids or a few notes. Such talks are more natural and pleasant to hear than someone monotonously reading. Thankfully, Hauweras often departed from his prepared text, and it was in those moments when he was most genuine and interesting. I wished the entire lecture was that way. If scientists and preachers can speak in public with only notes, why can't English or theology professors? Why do we expect so little from them with regards to presentation style?