Did Barth fail? Responding to Matthew Rose

Matthew Rose’s respectful indictment of Barth’s theological failure is engaging, but in the end unconvincing because it tells us more about Rose’s theological and philosophical commitments than Barth’s.

The essence of Rose’s argument is put simply enough: Karl Barth’s genius is that he used epistemological categories of modernity to dismantle the modern liberal theological project itself. But increasingly, Barth found himself unwittingly trapped in the prison of his own critique by having to capitulate to modernity’s limitation of the use of reason in attaining to knowledge of God. Therefore, where Barth may have managed to provide a devastating critique of the rational prison of modernity, he failed to find a key that would free himself from that same prison.

How do we assess Rose’s argument? At one level, Rose’s argument is hardly new, if by making it Rose is claiming that Barth was a modern theologian who somehow never stopped being modern. If that is all that Rose is saying, his article would be rather unremarkable, not the least because he fails to mention the many scholars in the past decade who have insisted that though Barth may have undergone a radical conversion from liberalism to orthodoxy, he remained a thoroughly modern theologian from beginning to end. Here Rose would have benefited from making Bruce McCormack an important interlocutor. In his book Orthodox and Modern, McCormack makes the extended argument that Barth is best understood neither as a theologian  trying to return to a pristine “premodern” orthodoxy, nor a pre-cursor to the so-called “postmodern” commitment to non-foundationalism. Rather, Barth was a theologian steeped in liberalism who nevertheless rejected liberalism by seeking a way to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity.

But of course, Rose is not simply saying that Barth always remained modern (most everyone familiar with the field of Barth studies already knows that).  More significantly, Rose insists that Barth ultimately failed to escape what Rose calls Barth’s “flirtation with novelty.” Rose doesn’t expand on what he means by this, but the implication is clear: Barth failed to remain orthodox because in adopting modern categories, he was unable to keep his theology from jettisoning the deep traditions of orthodoxy. But what is Rose getting at here?

As we read on, we soon discover Rose’s main indictment against Barth: Barth fails because he adopts a fundamental Enlightenment epistemological axiom, mainly, incapax Dei–that human minds are incapable of gaining knowledge of God through the exercise of speculative reason.

At a basic level, I suspect that Barth would indeed concur with Rose: It is true, Barth would say, that human rationality is incapable of coming to a knowledge of God. But that would be to uncover only half of what Barth has to say. Thus, at another level, Barth would resist Rose’s charge that incapax Dei somehow functions in his theology as a fundamental axiomatic commitment. For example, in CD IV.2, Barth insists, “It is a complete—if common—misunderstanding to attribute this protest to a barren intellectual zeal for the axiom: finitum non capax infiniti, and therefore for the impassibility of the divine essence. In older Reformed dogmatics this axiom did not play the outstanding role attributed to it in later presentations” (68)–a later category of presentations among which Rose’s presentation must now be counted. In other words, even if Barth would agree with the axiom, it is a mistake to assume that the main point of Protestant theology was to defend incapax Dei with “intellectual zeal,” as if in defending it, everything else falls into place. So, Rose rightly identifies Barth’s (and the Reformed tradition in general) rejection of some kind of natural capacity for humans to come to a knowledge of God in and of themselves. But what Rose chooses to ignore specifically is Barth’s (and the Reformers in general) own explicit identification of what he would call a fundamental axiom for Christian theology, mainly, that apart from God’s own free self-revelation, knowledge of God is impossible. 

Rose critiques Barth for adopting incapax Dei, but fails to attribute to Barth his own self-identified fundamental axiomatic starting point. So what is Barth’s starting point? The basis of Barth’s dogmatic reasoning can be located as far back as his Göttingen Dogmatics (GD) where he suggests that the first and most important starting point for theology is not an anthropological assertion about the capacity of humanity, but a theological presupposition about the nature of God.

As Barth liked to put it, theology begins with the assumption of Deus Dixit–God himself has spoken. Indeed, after giving some brief prolegomenal reflections in the GD, Barth launches the dogmatics proper with a chapter entitled, Deus Dixit. To paraphrase Barth’s fundamental commitment outlined in that chapter:  “Christian preachers dare to speak about God only because they assume, in faith, that God has first addressed us and made it possible for us to have real knowledge of himself given in this self-address.” (See GD, 45-68). And it is here that Barth, without ceasing to be modern, nevertheless refuses to play the dogmatic game governed by the rules of modern epistemology. Theological knowledge is not defined first and foremost by a philosophical commitment to the limits of anthropological capacity but by theological reflection upon divine initiative. Whatever capacity we may or may not have as humans finally does not matter if God has not freely communicated himself to us and enabled us to receive that communication, whatever epistemological mechanisms might be at play.

So, Rose’s reading of Barth itself makes a fatal misstep: It assumes that all modern theological discourse necessarily starts from the assumption of an epistemological axiom and builds up from there. (And of course, that sounds very Cartesian, doesn’t it?). The problem is, Barth, in fact, does not proceed in this way at all–and never did. He does not start with a bedrock epistemological axiom from which all theological assertions stem, but rather deliberately refuses to build upon a philosophical prolegomena. In contradisitinction, Barth starts not with epistemology, but with the action of God in history as the “starting point” from which all theological knowledge comes. Even if Barth, as a modern, would accept that humans are incapax Dei, this is not to something known a priori but only a posteriori because God has revealed it to be so.

So in short, Rose’s reading of Barth tells us much more about Rose’s commitment than Barth’s. That is to say, Rose is apparently committed to the necessity of establishing a fundamental epistemological starting point for theology and that the particular starting point which he says Barth adopts is a starting point which Rose rejects. But in rejecting the incapax Dei principle, Rose necessarily commits to the opposite, capax Dei, which he calls the “classical synthesis of faith and reason” and thereby the fundamental epistemological starting point Christian theologians must assume in order not to fail. But does this not tell us much more about Rose’s epistemology and anthropology than Barth’s? And does not Rose’s essay falter because he fails to address Barth’s own explicitly stated starting point? Thus, in my mind, Rose’s essay could have been much more fruitful if he could have shown evidence why Barth’s commitment to Deus Dixit is ultimately the point at which Barth’s theology fails. But such an argument remains to be made.

Rose’s essay is unconvincing because it makes the argument that Barth fails because he is a Protestant who is following through on the deep Protestant cry of sola fide–that there is no knowledge of God apart from a gift faith in hearing the Word of God. In other words, Rose’s argument is not really against Barth, but against anyone who rejects the classical synthesis of faith and reason deeply imbedded in Thomistic Christianity.

Posted in Karl Barth, modernity | 6 Comments

Do Humans Possess the Image of God?

“What man does not possess he can neither bequeath nor forfeit.” Karl Barth Church Dogmatics, III.1, 200.

So says Karl Barth on the question of whether the divine image (imago dei) is something that humans can either pass on or lose. No, he says, on both accounts. Why not? Because the image of God in humans beings is not something we possess and so cannot be passed on to our descendants. Nor is it something that we can willingly dispose of, which would be true if it were somehow our possession.

So what then? It is something lost? No again. The image of God is neither something that is a long lost posession in a past ideal state or history, nor is it something that can be, by human failure, be something which can be obliterated beyond recognition by our own volition, whether evil or good.

Characteristically, Barth insists that the image of God in humans, therefore, is not something either passed on or lost in some way, but something which is continually and freely given as a grace of God to every male and female human. The image of God in us is pure gift, the possibility that in you and in me, others encounter a being who, by definition, is what he or she is strictly by virtue of a relationship to God.

To be human is to be related to God by his initiative–no more and no less.

 

 

Posted in Genesis, Image of God, Karl Barth, theology

Christmas Story Redux

I’ve been working on Luke 2:1-20 for a Christmas sermon. My study of the passage led me to consider the response of Mary in verse 19: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” If we ask how it is that we should respond to Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, it seems to me that he is saying that the right response is going to be something similar to Mary’s: to treasure up all these things and ponder them in our heart.

But as I thought about Mary’s response (and ours),  I asked myself: What exactly am I supposed to treasure and ponder from this story? I think if we are honest, it can be easy to assume that Mary’s pondering of the events which had just unfolded was somewhat sentimental and nostalgic. Yet when I read both Mary’s own song (the so-called “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55), I am convinced that Mary’s ponderings were anything but sentimental. I think here especially of 1:52 where Mary declares, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” This isn’t the language of sentimentality. Mary was beginning to perceive the monumental event which the birth of Jesus was.

However, I think that we have actually ended up far too often sentimentalizing the Christmas story. It might in fact explain why we have gradually embellished the narrative with details that serve well to fill out the story but actually detract from (Luke’s, at least) biblical narrative. And so I ask,  Might the traditional embellishments to the Christmas story (Mary riding on a donkey, the grumpy innkeeper, the animals in the stable, etc.) actually work against Luke’s simple telling of the story? Is not the birth of Jesus according to Luke to be understood as nothing less than the culmination of OT history (Cf. Luke 1 and the long story of the birth of the Baptist prophet) and the invasion and inversion of secular history (cf. Luke 2:1-3 – Caesar’s global census)? All the details we add to Luke’s account makes for entertaining Christmas plays but might actually unwittingly undercut Luke the historian’s (Cf. Luke 1:1) main point: That history serves Jesus and not the other way around.

Isolating Luke 2 from Luke 1 and then proceeding to embellish the story with details to meant to fill out the sparseness of Luke’s natal account may actually serve to defang the cosmic and political force of the story. For in doing so, we make the birth narrative into a comfy tale or legend rather than the earth-shaking, history-altering, divine-invading event that it is.

Posted in Christmas, history, Jesus Christ, Luke | Tagged , ,

If God is so rich, why are there so many poor?

A sermon I preached at Briercrest College chapel, September 18, 2012

—————————————————————————————

If God is so rich, why are there so many poor? September 18, 2012 – College Chapel

I begin this morning with a confession. I grew up in a time and place where, frankly, I was pretty sheltered from the reality of poverty in our world. It’s not that I grew up in a privileged, rich family. My dad was a farmer who had to work a second job just to make ends meet. That said, I never remembered a day when Mom and Dad said, “Sorry, kids, no supper tonight because we ran out of food today.” So though we didn’t have a lot of cash, we never went hungry. I usually had something new to wear to school in the fall, we always got Christmas and birthday presents, and Mom and Dad always gave their tithe to the Church and to missions. I don’t think anyone would have confused us with the poor but neither would anyone have mistaken us as rich.

Fast-forward to the mid-90’s. While attending a conference in San Francisco, I had opportunity to walk around the streets in the downtown core. I was struck by all the panhandlers and their creative signs designed to empty my pockets of spare change. (My favorite was the guy who had a sign that read, “Spare some change for a beer?” as he shrugged his shoulders and said, “No use lyin’!”) Oh, sure, I had seen panhandlers before, but I had never seen whole streets full of them, many of whom were living in cardboard boxes…or less. So by then, I thought I had seen poverty. I think it was then that I finally began to ponder the question of why it was there were so many poor people and how it is that God allows that.

Eight months ago, I was privileged to spend a week together with a dozen or so students from Briercrest in the little country of Ecuador, South America. I had gone, along with Myra Daughtery and a couple of the leaders from Compassion Canada, to learn about children’s development ministry first-hand.

Ecuador is an amazingly beautiful country, but it is also a country where there are many, many poor people. We visited some of the little brick houses in which these people lived, sometimes with 10 or 12 people (and sometimes a few chickens or other animals to boot) living in a house barely the size of my own living room. Surely, I thought, I had now seen some of the poorest people in the world! So I asked Aaron Gonyou (who, by the way, I can be proud to say, was a former student of mine way back in the first class I taught in Briercrest in 1993) if he could rank the villages we were visiting on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the “best” of the poor and 1 being the utterly destitute. I knew that Aaron had seen poverty the world over, and that even though we probably weren’t seeing the world’s poorest yet, I was hoping that he would say something like these people rated a 4 or 5 on the poverty scale. You can imagine how my heart fell when Aaron said, “Oh, these are about 7’s or 8’s!” And so, even now, I feel like I know so little about what poverty is really all about, or what it is really like to live in such desperate situations.

When I was growing up in rural Alberta, we used to sign a chorus named, “He owns the Cattle on a Thousand Hills.” It goes like this:

He owns the cattle on a thousand hills
The wealth in every mine,
He owns the rivers and the rocks and rills,
The sun and stars that shine,
Wonderful riches more than tongue can tell
He is my Father so they’re mine as well
He owns the cattle on a thousand hills
I know that He will care for me.

It hadn’t occurred to me why those in our church liked that song so much, but it makes sense now, especially since I married the daughter of a cattle farmer! To say that God owns the cattle on thousand hills is a pretty impressive and poetically compelling way for farmers to grasp that God is rich beyond our wildest imaginations. As for me, that song gave me warm comfort that God would take care of everything that I needed, even though in reality, I didn’t ever feel like I was in deep need. But there is something utterly true about that song, isn’t there? God is the Creator of everything and as Creator, owns all that there is. So, I don’t have to worry; God will provide. But as I gained gradual first-hand introduction to poverty, I am now sometimes left wondering: If God is so wildly rich, why are there so many who are so utterly poor?

So now I have a second confession to make. The fact is, the more I have contemplated this question, the more the answers I would have been satisfied with before seem to fall flat.

As a theologian, as I read Scripture I tend to move quickly to the fall of humanity into sin as giving some important insight into this problem. Consequently, it is easy for me to say that it is because of human sin and evil that there are so many poor people in the world. There are so many poor people in the world because there is so much sin and evil in the world. Right?

Now make sure you hear me correctly: I am fairly confident sin and evil has at least SOMETHING to do with poverty. There’s little doubt in my mind that a good portion, if not the entire problem of poverty, stems back to the first sin of Adam and Eve, a sin which could be characterized as a failure to live in gratitude for that which God has already given. In fact, Karl Barth argued that pride was not the first sin, as many have argued, but ingratitude. And where there is ingratitude—thanklessness—there the sin of greed is close behind. And where there is greed, poverty is not far off, as one group of people hoards more than they need, leaving another group with not enough. And so, in that respect, we shouldn’t be surprised if God takes the question we’ve put to him and turns it straight back to us. We ask, “God, if you are so rich, why are there so many poor people?” and it is as if Jesus says right back to us, “Yes, indeed, why ARE there so many poor people?” It causes me to swallow hard to think that God is in fact waiting for me to answer my own question…

But despite the truth that the Fall is at the root of poverty, I am not yet convinced that even an appeal to sin and evil settles the question. Maybe there is more to it. As I reflect on some other scriptures, I think there just may be. For just a few moments, turn with me to James 2:1-7. Let me suggest that we need to take two things away from this passage.

First of all, notice this: James doesn’t actually deal with the question as I have posed it. In our politically correct ways of looking at things, we have been taught to see inequity between rich and poor as a good occasion to shout, “Injustice!” But here James seems oblivious to what we see as obvious. Indeed, James doesn’t seem to take it as odd at all that a rich man might come into the Christian assembly and unlike so many Christians today, he certainly doesn’t berate the rich man for being rich. On the contrary, he lets everyone else have it for how they treat the rich man. He chastises the church—which would have likely been predominantly made up of poor people—for caving in to what the rest of society already believes: That the rich are somehow better than the rest and to be given a place of deference, even in the midst of the Church. So James doesn’t see injustice as the existence of the rich over against the poor; rather, James calls it unjust—discriminatory!—when the church behaves as if the rich are those who have been especially blessed by God and need to be honored above everyone else. Such thoughts, he says, are the thoughts of self-appointed judges who perpetuate the world’s view of riches.

So what then, IS the answer to our question: If God is so rich, then why are there so many poor? Well, unfortunately, James refuses to give us an answer—at least not in the way that we might hope. Fortunately, he does go on to tell us something quite significant. In verse 5 we hear the following: “Listen my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?”

As I prepared this message, it was here that I got smacked between the eyes with something I am still struggling to understand.It seems to me that as long as we keep asking, Why are there so many poor people? we still assume that being poor is something inherently bad, inherently evil. That shouldn’t surprise us, of course, because that is the economic gospel we are taught over and over again in our Western world: Salvation comes to those with thick wallets, and damnation has already come to those who have no wallet at all. As long as I assume that the poor are at a spiritual disadvantage, it is unlikely that I will ever understand that they may have a kind of advantage that I do not have. And the advantage the poor have, if they have one at all, is simply this: Those with nothing have everything to gain in Christ; but those with everything fear little else but losing that which they already have.

Of course, it would be an entirely inappropriate exegetical and theological leap to conclude from this that rich people are in every way barred from the kingdom of God. Jesus never says that rich people will be barred from heaven, but he does point out just how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. And here, I think, James picks up on that very point that Jesus makes: For some reason, people who are poor by the standards of the world are the very ones who are able, much more easily than the rich, to be full—to be rich—in faith. Is it any surprise, then, that it is the economically poor of the world who are, in droves, entering through the doors of the Kingdom, while droves of the rich stand by in our comforts, or worse yet, are dragging the poor into courts and throwing them into the jails (v. 6-7)? It is these poor who we have discriminated against, James says, thinking that somehow they have little to teach us and that we have something to teach them. I’m just starting to see how very wrong we are!

Last January in Ecuador, I met a giant of the faith. This giant physically measured a towering 4½ feet in height and was chronologically a ripe old 15 years in age. But spiritually, I estimated her to be about 10 feet tall and an elder in the faith. Her name is Nelly and I had a chance to meet her with some of her family in their home together with some of your fellow Briercrest students. As Nelly talked to us through a translator, we heard her tell us not so much that she was grateful for the help that Compassion Canada was giving (which she was grateful for!) but moreso for the fact that through Compassion and the Church she attended, she had been introduced to Jesus and His Word—and that this was the most important thing for her, the greatest treasure she had!

I think it was here that I finally began to understand what James meant: God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith. Nelly was so rich that I began to feel spiritually impoverished in her presence. I have so much yet to learn. I went to see poor people, but discovered just how poor I am yet in my own faith. Who, then, is the rich and who, then, is the poor?

Posted in James, poverty, sermons, sin

Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Final Day

On this last day of the Karl Barth conference, two papers were delivered. The first was by Dr. Gerald McKenny (University of Notre Dame) on the freedom of the human agent as evidenced in Evangelical Theology. (Sorry, I missed the title of this one).

McKenny opened by reminding us that for Barth, human agency is made possible only as it arises out of and inheres in prior divine action. However, this raises the question of whether Barth’s understanding of the ethical subject precludes the possibility of growth in virtue. As is well known, various Barth interpreters have criticized Barth for what appears to be a ruling out of such growth in the human agent independent of the moment-to-moment divine action. Thus, the question critics have asked of Barth is, “Does the agent defined as he or she is by divine decision and action allow the agent to be fully human?” Or to put it another way, “Doesn’t the human agent need some ‘virtue’ in and of her or himself to be able to respond to the divine command?”

McKenny went on in his paper to show, through broad attention to the structure of Barth’s argument in Evangelical Theology (ET) that human encounter with the command of God creates an “ethos” whereby the full humanity of the agent is ensured as one given freedom by virtue of prayer, existence, exposure to threat, and active work.

In this regard, McKenny points out how part 1 of ET is concerned with the “place” of theology, not defined in terms of the relationship of theology in the university or relative to other academic disciplines, but relative to the object of theology’s inquiry—the living, speaking God. Theology, and by implication, the theologian, is constituted in the first order by God’s Word spoken to the human agent. Further, the human agent is only able to respond as the Spirit enables. Consequently, the human agent is enabled by God from the outset to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit in order that the human might continually be freed for service to God.

McKenny argues that parts 2-4 of ET move to a description of how theology demands that the human agent engage in genuine human work. In part 2, “Theological Existence,” Barth describes wonder, concern, commitment and faith as the defining characteristics of a theologian, all of which demand of theologians a free response to God. Further, in part 3, Barth describes the threats to which the human agent is exposed—solitude, doubt, temptation—all of which the human must come through successfully by hope in the object of theology, the God of the Gospel. Finally, in part 4 Barth describes the activity of the agent engaged in theology—an activity which requires prayer, study, service and love, each of which is indicative of ethical demand. McKenny thus concludes that Barth’s theological description of the human agent is one which in response to God’s Word, the agent is constantly an existing, threatened, acting human being, but a human being which remains free in light of these demands, not in light of an ongoing growth in virtues of the agent in and of her or himself.

The second and final paper of the day was delivered by Dr. George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary” and was entitled, “Karl Barth on what it means to be Human: A Christian Scholar Considers the Options.” For this paper, Hunsinger focused on Church Dogmatics III/2 where Barth both provides a formal description of theological anthropology and considers alternative non-theological anthropologies of his day. Hunsinger noted at the outset that Barth distinguishes in his anthropology between the “real” and the “phenomenological”. In this regard, Barth insists that any non-theological anthropology may give genuine insight into human phenomena, but apart from a theological perspective, there is no possibility of gaining full insight into the reality of the human constitution.

Hunsinger then outlines what he calls Barth’s basic criteria for establishing a theological anthropology, each of which must be present to legitimately be called “theological anthropology.” Not surprisingly, each of the elements is also christologically focused for Barth. The six criteria are: 1) Divine presence – God is not generally present to humanity, but concretely present to humanity in Christ. All human creatures are thus conditioned by Jesus. 2) History – God exists for humans in a history of redemption—a covenant history which humans cannot be understood apart from this history, most specifically as they relate to the history of Jesus. 3) Glory – Divine glory is not compromised or lost in Christ who is God for man and man for God and in whom all humans are included and exist therefore for God’s glory. 4) Sovereignty – God’s lordship is seen concretely in and through Jesus, especially over the death of Christ on the cross. 5) Freedom – Freedom is substantive (freedom to decide for God), not merely formal (freedom of choice). Any human freedom is understood only in light of the substantive freedom to decide for God. 6) Service – Humans don’t exist for themselves, but for God. Such service to God is thus shown in prayer and praise to God, and witness and service to fellow humans.

Hunsinger then went on to delineate four types of anthropologies (three non-theological and one alternative theological) that Barth assesses. They are 1) Naturalism – typified by A. Portmann’s 1948 book on Evolutionary biology; 2) Idealism – typified by J. G. Fichte; 3) Existentialism – typified by K. Jaspers; and 4) Neo-orthodoxy – typified by Brunner.

Observing how Barth assesses these anthropologies, Hunsinger sees a helpful pattern for the development of a theological anthropology today. First, Barth examines contemporary voices attentively but assesses them normatively using theological criteria. Barth refuses, in this regard, to de-theologize his assessment on the terms specified by the anthropologies under consideration. Second, Barth always engages in description of the anthropology before giving assessment, and when he does assess, he is willing to provide both internal and external critique. Third, through it all, Barth maintains a consistent christological focus in the assessment of other anthropologies. This is not to say that he rejects the findings of non-theological anthropologies, but insists that such findings are only partial unless coupled together with a theological center in Christ.

 

Posted in anthropology, ethics, Holy Spirit, Karl Barth, theologians, theology, Word of God | 1 Comment

Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 2 – part 2

Two papers were given this afternoon, both of which sought to bring Karl Barth into closer conversation with theologians who have traditionally been understood as representing theological contrasts, namely, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolf Bultmann. [Disclaimer: Both papers presented were quite dense, and even then, due to time, were both shortened. I think most of us in the audience look forward to the day when the papers will be available in print form so we can follow the arguments a bit more closely, but I'll do my best to give as short summary of each to whet your appetites for what is coming down the pipe in Barth scholarship! I'm fairly certain I will not do justice to the argument of the papers without making the post unnecessarily long, but hopefully readers can catch the gist of both. Exciting stuff!]

The first paper was given by Dr. Kevin Hector of the University of Chicago and was entitled, “Theology as an Academic Discipline: Reconciling Evangelical Theology and Theological Encyclopedia. Hector introduced the paper as an extended commentary on Barth’s own statement in the opening pages of Evangelical Theology where he says: “I wish to forgo any special explanation of the word ‘introduction,’ which appears in the title of this work. At the same time, I wish to refrain from any discussion (which would be both polemic and irenic) of the manner in which a similar task has been conceived and carried out by Schleiermacher, as a ‘Short Presentation of Theological Study,” and by various others, as “Theological Encyclopedia…” (ET, p. 12). Hector thus introduces his own paper as an attempt to show how Barth’s theological approach, despite Barth’s self-distancing to Schleiermacher, is nevertheless compatible with Schleiermacher’s approach. The failure to see this compatibility to date has been, Hector argues, at least in part, because Barth himself (amongst others) misunderstood what Schleiermacher was proposing as a valid approach to the task of theology.

The first section of the paper briefly outlined Barth’s view of the task of theology, which fundamentally, Barth says, is the task of the Church in clarifying, criticizing and, when necessary, correcting its own speech about the Word of God it has heard. Hector advocates one amendment to Barth’s view of theology which he thinks is consistent with Barth, but which Barth did not otherwise explicitly state, mainly, that not only is the Church’s speech tested by the normative Word of God, but also its doxastic, practical and emotional commitments (i.e., its commitments in belief, practice, and emotion).

From there, Dr. Hector went on to note that Barth’s worry is that Schleiermacher has essentially collapsed divine transcendence into human piety (i.e., Schleiermacher’s notion of Gefühl  or “feeling”), with the result that Schleiermacher’s theology has become entirely subjectively, rather than objectively, based. However, Hector argues that what is needed is a corrected, fuller account of what Schleiermacher meant by Gefühl, especially in light of the fact that the word “feeling” used in English does not accurately convey what Schleiermacher intended. (Hector observed that  Schleiermacher explicitly rejected the use of the word “feeling” as an adequate translation.)

So what does Gefühl mean for Schleiermacher? At this point, I can’t even attempt to replicate Hector’s exposition of Gefühl. But suffice it to say, Hector argued that Gefühl for Schleiermacher represents a nexus of beliefs, practices, and emotions which are pre-reflective harmonization of oneself to one’s surrounding circumstances. Gefühl is, to use Hector’s terminology, Schleiermacher’s way of specifying how one finds oneself in atunement with others in a community.  It is this Gefühl that Schleiermacher argues needs to be evaluated against the norms of Scripture. Consequently, for Schleiermacher, the task of theology is one in which the community of faith constantly seeks to make explicit not only the ground of its speech about God and his Word, but also the whole nexus of speech, beliefs, practices and emotions (including accounting for the sinfulness of the Christian community) toward God for the purpose of submitting it the assessment of Scripture’s description of the original apostolic community and its Gefühl. 

At least two implications of this, Hector argues, follow: 1) If one were to follow this rendering of Schleiermacher’s account of Gefühl (and the corresponding idea of God-consciousness wrapped up with this concept), it is apparent that there may be greater affinity between Barth and Schleiermacher than has previously been thought. (This is not necessarily to fault only Barth for his reading of Schleiermacher, but to recognize that the “traditional” understanding of Schleiermacher that was contemporary to Barth’s day has been increasing come under question and thus begs the question of whether Barth and Schleiermacher are as different as many have assumed.) 2) If one were to follow Schleiermacher’s theological vision, then it implies that some form of ethnographic study of the Christian faith community would become a vital component of what it means to subject the communities nexus of faith to evaluation in light of the Word of God.

The second paper was similar in intent to the first, but with a different theologian in mind. David Congdon (PhD candidate, Princeton) gave a paper entitled, “Theology as Theanthropology: Barth’s Theology of Existence in its Existential Context.” Congdon began by noting the remark Barth makes in CD IV.2 about the “quiet conversation” that he announced he had been having with Bultmann. In this light,  Congdon demonstrated how much of what Barth wrote in the last years of his life was an implicit response to the concerns and concepts raised by Bultmann. Even Evangelical Theology can thus be read as an indirect response to Bultmann! Or, to take another example, in 1957 Bultmann wrote his famous article, “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?” Bultmann’s answer, of course, was “no,” but Barth,  made it famously clear in ET that theology cannot have any presuppositions, but must ever be ready to respond afresh to the new Word of God spoken to us.

Congdon’s then paper went on to juxtapose Barth’s notion of “theanthropology” (introduced originally in Barth’s essay “The Humanity of God”) and Bultmann’s notion of “anthrotheology”. As Congdon argues, Barth’s complaint with Bultmann, while multi-fold, had primarily to do with Bultmann’s starting point in existential philosophy and moving from there to the Gospel. One can understand how for Barth, this certainly would have smacked of the same problem he saw earlier in his life in the liberal theology which he resisted. There, too, the methodological approach started in anthropology and was, in Barth’s eyes, ever in danger of making theology nothing more than anthropology writ large.  

However, Congdon argues, even Barth in the 1950′s had recognized that the deity of God is a deity that elected from all eternity to be a God with humanity, thus the recognition of Barth to speak not merely of “theology” but of “theanthropology.” Indeed, Barth had come to the place where he knew that to speak of God one is compelled to speak of Jesus in human flesh; to avoid Jesus in flesh is for Barth to speak of inadequately of God.

Despite Barth’s recognition of the need for speaking of God from a “theanthropologic” perspective, he nevertheless remained determined to resist Bultmann’s starting point in anthropology for fear that existential philosophy (or some other anthropological construction) would overtake or overshadow God’s own speaking in of himself in Christ.

But here Congdon argues that Bultmann and Barth are closer together than Barth was able to have thought possible. Though Barth is constantly aware of the question of how the human words of proclamation can be used by God to deliver God’s own Word–an identification of the missiological problem of translation–he keeps the issue of exegesis and translation separated by relegating the problem of exegesis to dogmatics and the problem of translation to practical theology. Bultmann, however, is also aware of this problem of the relationship of exegesis and translation, but rather than relegating translation to practical theology, he brings them together such that all exegesis is seen by Bultmann as already an act of translation.

Congdon concludes his paper by suggesting that the issue is not to decide on whether Barth or Bultmann are right, but to recognize that Barth’s “theanthropological” approach to theology needs Bultmann’s “anthrotheological” approach and vice versa. They are, in other words, complementary approaches rather than an aporia in which one must be chosen over the other.

After the evening meal, we had one more presentation from the staff of the Princeton Theological Seminary library. Although a big part of Princeton’s library development is the ongoing construction of a whole new wing of the library to replace the old Speers library, an online repository of over 50,000 Biblical and theological books available to anyone with internet access was presented. Although I’ve only begun to dip in, it truly does like like an amazing and generous contribution of PTS to the wider international Christian community. See the “Theological Commons” website here: http://commons.ptsem.edu.

 

Posted in Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, theologians, theology, Uncategorized, Word of God | Tagged | 2 Comments

Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 2 – part 1

This morning’s papers were so rich that I decided I would do a quick summary before the afternoon sessions and hope to do part 2 of the day later on tonight. Our second day of the Karl Barth conference opened with a pair of papers that I will simply be unable to do justice to here, but hopefully you will get the gist. (I hope you will forgive me if these summaries aren’t as well written as they should be. I’m going for keeping up to date rather than perfect synopses!)

Dr. Katherine Sonderegger (Virginia Theological Seminary) treated us all to a homiletically and theologically rich presentation entitled, “The Theological Existence of the Pastor.” Sonderegger focused on the chapter in Barth’s Evangelical Theology (ET) entitled, “Temptation.” She noted, of course, that the word “temptation” in English does not quite convey the richness of the German word Anfechtung of which Barth spoke. In her lecture, Sonderegger sought to address how it is that pastors (and along with them, theological teachers) ought to view the failures which they will inevitably face in their ministry, despite the fact that such ministries are perennially concerned with the attention to the Word and God as their subject matter. In this regard, Sonderegger was careful to note that Barth does not so much exclude the role of Satan the tempter in an account of temptation as much as he makes Satan subject to the one work of God; Satan here is an unwitting agent in God’s hand.

But more importantly, Sonderegger points out how Barth locates the matter of temptation or trial–and most specifically, the trial faced by the pastor in those times when God is silent–directly in the context of the Goodness of God. God, according to Barth, is not only good by nature, but also in act, such that God is not only the ground of goodness (his being and nature) but also the God who in all his ways acts in goodness toward his creatures. Consequently, even in the experience of silence, the pastor must first remember that silence ought not be be equated to absence–a mode of speaking that is sometimes used in the mystical traditions and a notion which Barth would explicitly reject. For God to be silent is never to be taken as evidence that God is absent.

Sonderegger went on briefly to tie Barth’s description of temptation/Anfechtung together with his doctrine of “Nothingness” (das Nichtige), noting that for Barth, negation is not to be equated with evil. For example, a creature is not God, but this by no means implies that the creature is evil; rather, Negation in creation is the shadow of God’s good creation. Consequently, when dealing with failure, and indeed silence, in the service of God, the pastor/teacher/Christian must recognize that whether God speaks or is silent is no denial of God’s providential goodness toward us. On the contrary, the pastor must realize that both in God’s speaking and in his silence toward us, he is ever the good Judge who judges in freedom. Sometimes this means that silence is not to be regarded as a negation of our work and sometimes that silence is precisely a judgment of us as weak, sinning covenant partners, but always, whether in God’s speaking or in his silence, we must truly believe that in that speech or silence, God is truly good toward us.

The second paper, also profound beyond my ability to summarize here, came from Dr. Adam Neder (Whitworth University). Neder’s paper, “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Some Barthian Thoughts about Teaching Theology,” sought to bring some of  Barth’s thoughts in ET to bear on the matter of theological pedagogy. As Neder introduced the paper, he noted that ET can be read as good news to the theological teacher, mainly, that theological work can be one of the most important tasks a human can be asked to do and when done properly is “pleasing to God and helpful to people.” But ET is also a warning that when done badly, theological teaching  can be “the most terrible thing on earth.”  ET, as Neder put it, can be read as if were an “MRI of a sick theologian which reveals that such a malady as vain theological teaching is not only serious and contagious, but deadly.”

Neder’s outline was almost deceptively simple, yet profoundly moving. According to Barth, he argued, three things can be said about theological teaching:
1) Successful theological teaching depends on the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is so obvious that it almost needs no defence, yet as Neder pointed out, it sets before the theological teacher a serious conundrum: Whatever one does in the theological classroom will be meaningless if the Holy Spirit does not do his work, and yet, as the free Holy Spirit of God, there is nothing one can to do guarantee the Spirit’s work. Nevertheless, this does not absolve the theological teacher, as Barth says, “to sigh, cry, and pray that the Holy Spirit will show up.” This means there are no failsafe pedagogies upon which one can rely, and consequently, what works today may not work tomorrow. Whatever else we do, then, we must figure out how it is that we will ensure that at the very least, we do not fail to invoke the Spirit, in hope, into our classroom.

2) When the Spirit acts, our classes will NOT be a safe space filled with bored spectators. Neder began by pointing out how common it has become to assume that a classroom must be a place of safety for a student–a place where he or she can ask questions and not fear reprisal or ridicule. While that is a good philosophy as far as it goes, such a philosophy may lead a teacher to assume that when a student has enjoyed or felt safe in a class that it has therefore been successful. As Neder humorously put it, “If students are enjoying your classes, it may mean nothing more than that they are enjoying your classes!” However, as he points out, such a safe environment of enjoyment may not be the best place of learning. 

Here Neder pointed out how Barth insisted that theological teachers must be ever aware that the teaching of the Gospel demands a confrontation and a decision, a space in which a personal response to GOD is required (not just a response or reiteration of the class material). In this regard, Neder points out that Barth distinguishes between teaching a student about God and seeking to bring students before what God has said to them. It is only as we lead student to realize that they are recipients and addresses of God’s Gospel that we will be truly doing our duty as theological teachers. And in such instances, the classroom may be the least safe place, but it will certainly not be boring.

3) Good teaching is an act of service and love. As Barth put it, “Without love, theological work would be nothing more than miserable polemics.” Here Neder addressed the temptation to vanity that theologians face, and as he put it, theologians must learn ever anew that you cannot simultaneously win the praise of God and the praise of people–with the latter category uncomfortably indicated in in pursuit of top classroom evaluations, tenure, peer-reviewed articles, etc. The vain theological teacher is an ironic affront to the Gospel we seek to proclaim. Just as it is difficult to hear the billionaire quote from the Sermon on the Mount, so, too, it is difficult for students to hear the Gospel when their teacher is self-evidently concerned more about their own promotion and comfort than that their students should be confronted and comforted by the Gospel. True theological teaching, therefore, requires self-emptying love and service, but that runs contrary to every natural impulse we have toward self-promotion and self-preservation in our careers.

Posted in education, Holy Spirit, Karl Barth, teaching, temptation, theologians, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 1

The Annual Karl Barth Conference hosted by the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary officially began on the evening of June 17, 2012, with a banquet. This was followed by a short introduction by Prof. Bruce McCormack to the conference’s theme: Karl Barth’s Trip to America: A Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Evangelical TheologyIt was in 1962 that Karl Barth made his one and only trip to America, during which he spent 7 weeks at various locations, including time for lectures given in Chicago (University of Chicago), Princeton (Princeton Theological Seminary), and New York (Union Theological Seminary). The lectures with additional material were later published in English as Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, hereafter referred to as ET.

Prof. McCormack also gave a short tribute to Dr. theol. Hans-Anton Drewes, who served from 1997-2012 at the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel Switzerland, and who is a co-editor for the ongoing project of editing and publishing Karl Barth’s collected works (Gesamtausgabe).

Monday morning, June 18, the conference began in full swing with two papers. The first was by Dr. Hans-Anton Drewes who delivered a paper entitled, “…’In the Same Solitude as Fifty Years Ago…’ The Way from CD IV/3 to Evangelical Theology. In his paper, Drewes noted that Barth’s whole theological corpus might be understood from the motif of “solitude” as expounded upon in ET. As Drewes explained, the solitude of the theologian is to be expected (even if not essential) insofar as the theologian seeks to ensure that what he writes corresponds to the one subject matter of theology, the God of the Gospel. In this regard, Drewes gave documentary evidence within Barth’s corpus of how Barth himself sought to pursue the truth of God as a matter of turning afresh each day to be attuned to the free Holy Spirit, even if it meant parting ways with friends and colleagues, and indeed, with his own work. For example, at one point in the 1950′s, Barth was re-reading an essay he had published in 1916 on theme of waiting for the Kingdom of God–an article published in Barth’s student days and some time before the emergence of the “dialectical” theology of the Romerbrief. At that point, Barth lamented that perhaps “dialectics have become stable”–signalling to him a need to listen afresh to the free Holy Spirit, even if that meant entering once again into a period of solitude similar to the one he had experienced when the bombshell of the Romerbrief exploded on the scene.

The second paper was by Dr. Daniel Migliore of Princeton Theological Seminary. As Migliore noted, Barth’s presentation at Princeton in 1962 were under the auspices of the B. B. Warfield Lectures. It will be recalled that Warfield was principal of PTS from 1887-1921 and also the Charles Hodge Chair of Theology. Consequently, Migliore gave a comparative paper  entitled, “‘Come, Holy Spirit’: Reflections on the Role of the Spirit in the Theologies of B.B. Warfield and Karl Barth.”

Prof. Migliore started by asserting that there might be initial temptation to throw Barth and Warfield too sharply into contrast and thus fail to see some of their broad similarities. For example, both Warfield and Barth were deeply concerned to see theology rooted in scriptural exegesis, both were in battle against the forms of liberal theology of their day (including their common agreement that it was important to resist Schleiermacher!), and both were in broad agreement about general aspects of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in an Augustinian/Calvinian frame, including a commitment to the filioque! (I had to get that in there!)

From there, however, Migliore sought to show some of the main differences between Warfield and Barth’s pneumatology in four areas: 1) The Spirit and the Free Science of Theology; 2) The Spirit and the Witness of Scripture; 3) The Spirit and Christology; and 4) The Spirit in the Triune Life of God. Despite significant divergences between Warfield and Barth in these areas, Migliore did affirm that the lesson to be learned is that there is significant room in the Reformed theological spectrum to stretch the theological imagination in regard to pneumatology. However, Migliore was significantly more critical of Warfield’s account, noting that Warfield’s pneumatology was either silent on some matters (such as the role of the Spirit in the activity of Christ’s life, or on the inner trinitarian life) or  unnecessarily restrictive (such as reducing the role of the Spirit in inspiration only to the production of the original scriptural autographs). In this regard, Migliore noted that Warfield’s commitment to theological apologetics (as the means of validating foundational theological axioms) did not allow him to move back into the Spirit’s role in the inner life of God, whereas Barth’s greater reticence of the use of reason in theology nevertheless allowed him to speak freely of God’s inner life. Migliore concluded by noting that whatever one thinks now of either Warfield or Barth, it is imperative to remember that the first century of Princeton’s history owes a debt to Warfield, while it is arguably Barth, who only appeared at Princeton once, has had greater influence in Princeton’s second century of existence.

After morning prayers and lunch, the conference reconvened with two afternoon papers. The first by Dr. Peter Paris (Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics at Princeton) was entitled, “The Church’s Prophetic Vision: Insights from Karl Barth and Martin Luther King, Jr.” It will be recalled that Barth and Luther King, Jr. met only briefly at Princeton, pictured below at the door of Princeton University’s chapel.

In this paper, Dr. Paris noted both similarities and differences between Barth and King’s theological approach to how the church was to respond to political matters, especially when they felt they needed to speak out against the “terror of an unjust state.” Dr. Paris suggested that both Barth and King’s theologies were deeply rooted in the particularity of the Incarnation of Jesus, not merely as an abstract ethical principle, but in obedience to Christ’s example and command. In this regard, Paris argued that King’s view of Jesus’ command to love one another and Barth’s view of the centrality of forgiveness as the outworking of the Gospel were parallel ethical constructions.

A second paper of historical interest was given by Dr. Jessica DeCou, who has just completed a PhD at University of Chicago. Her paper examined an aspect of Barth’s 1962 visit which has been under-represented, mainly, his visits to three prisons while in America. She began her paper, “Barth’s American Prison Tours, 50 years Later” by citing from one of Barth’s sermons in 1952 delivered to the Basel prison inmates in which he argued that the two criminals who were crucified together with Jesus were technically the “first indissoluble Christian community.” She noted how Barth remained committed throughout his life to preaching in prisons and how when he came to America, he was eager to find opportunity to view the American prison system.

DeCou recounted some of the conditions of the three prisons Barth visited. The first, a particularly atrocious prison, was Chicago’s Bridewell City Jail–a jail which Barth called “Dante’s Inferno on Earth.” Shortly after seeing the prison and being in New York, Barth, upon seeing the statue of liberty, spoke about the prison he had visited (without naming it) as a “contradiction to what Americans believe the statue of liberty stands for.” Likewise, in response to Reinhold Niebuhr’s criticism of Barth’s failure to speak against the communist uprising taking place in Hungary, Barth responded by saying, “When Reinhold Niebuhr speaks out against the injustices of the American prison system, then perhaps I will be ready to speak out about Hungary.”

DeCou notes that the second and third prisons which Barth visited (San Quentin in San Francisco and Rikers Island in New York) were certainly in better shape and had significantly greater attention to the possible rehabilitation of prisoners. To his credit, Barth admitted that some of what he saw at Rikers was even better than what he saw in his home town Basel.

After DeCou’s presentation, attendees broke up into discussion groups. I was privileged to be part of the group with Dr. Drewes and we had an excellent discussion about the reception of Barth in the Ango-Saxon world. Dr. Drewes lamented that the renaissance of Barth’s thought in North American far outstrips that of Europe where to this day, Barth continues to be marginalized in the continental university theological system. When asked to explain why this might be, he suggested that at least three reasons could be given. First, he noted that Barth may have been simply too familiar and suffered somewhat of the “prophet in his hometown” syndrome. Second, the European system has tended in past decades to emphasize breadth of knowledge (i.e., knowing the contributions of many scholars) over against indepth understanding of a single scholar. Since Barth is such a difficult scholar to master, his work has simply been passed over as being too difficult to summarize when so many other scholars are also expected to be mastered. Finally, (surprisingly, I think to most of us present), Dr. Drewes noted that Barth’s German is simply too difficult for most German students to understand. Consequently, even German students tend to resort to English translations which have served well to make Barth more accessible–explaining why English speakers have tended to study Barth when Germans are more apt to give up!

After dinner, we were treated to a historical paper upon the friendship developed between Karl Barth and John Mackay, third Principal of Princeton Theological Seminary. Ms. Cambria Janae Kaltwasser, a current Princeton PhD student, delivered the paper entitled, “Transforming Encounters: The Friendship of Karl Barth and John Mackay.” After outlining the early life of Mackay and the friendship developed between Mackay and Barth in 1931 (where Mackay tutored Barth in conversational English in preparation for Barth’s first visit to Great Britain), Kaltwasser noted how Mackay’s initially was critical of Barth for what he perceived as a failure on Barth’s part to make room for personal, subjective encounters of Christ–even if he owed Barth a debt of gratitude for the language of encounter which he received from Barth. Later, Mackay invited Barth to participate in Princeton twice, but Barth turned down both invitations. Fortunately, Barth  accepted a third invitation (after Mackay’s tenure as president was complete) which became Barth’s Warfield lectures in 1962. Interestingly, at that time Mackay’s criticism has already softened as was evidenced in Mackay’s 1956 tribute to Barth in an article in the journal, Theology Today, which Mackay was instrumental in launching.

Posted in conferences, Jr., Karl Barth, theologians, theology, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

On Being a Christian Professor

Some of you probably think that I have fallen off the face of the earth, but for some reason, this past year has just been so busy that my ability to keep up the blog was hindered. Hopefully I can get back to it a bit more regularly this coming year.

Recently, I was given notice that I will be promoted to full Professor here at Briercrest College and Seminary. As part of my portfolio for promotion, I included a short essay I wrote entitled, “On Being a Christian Professor.” I append it below and I hope you enjoy it.

——————–

On Being a Christian Professor

The Cornell professor of history, Carl L. Becker, once said, “A professor is somebody who thinks otherwise.” In other words, professors are, amongst other things, marked by a refusal simply to accept and reiterate that which is accepted as common sense or conventional wisdom. Thus, professors, according to Becker, are those persons whose thinking is on the liminal edge of their discipline, leading the way into thoughts which heretofore have not yet been thought.

Such a characterization of a professor as an original thinker, of course, is widely held. But it is precisely this commonly held view which leads us into a kind of intellectual conundrum. For if it is commonly believed that it is a fundamental requirement of professors to “think otherwise,” then there is but a hair’s-breadth between the professor and the madman, both of whom “think otherwise”! Who adjudicates between that which is thought “otherwise” in the mind of the professor and the mind of the madman? One can justifiably understand why the phrase “mad genius” has found its way into everyday parlance!

It is, of course, highly ironic that the idea of a professor as an intellectual contrarian has forgotten that the Latin meaning of professor, professōris (from which the English word is clearly derived) is quite simply “teacher.” And this is not even to mention the more obvious English verb, “to profess,” from which the noun is derived! Had sad it is, then, in modern times the professor has become associated primarily with great feats of cognition rather than with great feats of pedagogy. Undeniably, the professor must think; there are today too many examples of professors who have gained tenure but who have long ceased to contribute anything of worth! But thinking without teaching is akin to inhaling without exhaling!

As I ponder what it means potentially to take up the designation of professor, I am drawn to one of the apostle Paul’s aphorisms as tremendously apropos: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).

It is quite likely that the apostle, an educated man himself, understood something of academia. Perhaps he even had some of the Sophists of his day in mind as he penned these words. Sophists, one will recall, were men who travelled itinerantly, teaching (for a fee) on whatever subject was in popular demand. Some sophists prided themselves on being able to win an argument, even against the established “experts” of the day. But to be sure, the end goal of the Sophists was personal profit and public recognition rather than the upbuilding of their pupils.

Whether he had Sophists in mind or not, Paul goes on to indict “the man who thinks he knows something” when he clearly does not: Such a man is one who “does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor 8:2). On the contrary, Paul declares, it is the “man who loves God” who is “known by God” (1 Cor 8:3). That is interesting, isn’t it? Paul shifts the whole equation around, making “being known” as having greater importance than “what one knows.” And in the middle of it all, he inserts—love.

It is perhaps in this vein of thought that Augustine later argued that the primary difference between the city of man and the city of God is not a differing set of ideas, beliefs or knowledge, but the difference between what is loved and cherished. In fact, Augustine defines a “people” as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by common agreement as to the objects of their love” (City of God, 19.24). Whether a people of the world or a people of God, they are defined by what (or whom) they love. We become that which we love. Or to paraphrase the Jesus, “Whatever you cherish reveals who you are” (Cf. Matt 6:21).

While it may be that there is a distinct people group within academia bound together by their common love for a particular field of knowledge, in a Pauline-Augustinian perspective, Christian academia—and therefore the professors that supposedly lead the way—must necessarily be defined and driven by God’s love for us, and in proper response, our love for God, the highest and finest object of our love. The common object of our love must be none other than the God who has first loved us (1 John 4:19).

So what does this all have to do with the topic of “being a professor” at Briercrest? Hopefully it is becoming plain: To be a Christian professor is to profess the God who first loved us. Such a profession of this truth cannot be restricted to lofty thoughts thought otherwise, but in the inextricable combination of Christian teaching by word and deed in the name of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself up for us. To be a Christian professor, in other words, starts with holy confession and issues in holy love. All disciplinary tasks of researching, publishing, marking, mentoring, meeting, and studying aside, the base line prerequisite of the Christian professor is to point students away from oneself toward the source of all love and life, God himself the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all. The professor’s first words, then, ought to be a prayer, like unto the Baptist who cried out, “He must increase, I must decrease!” (John 3:30).

The theological implications of this stance, of course, are staggering, such that I almost tremble to recount them. Nevertheless, it is clear that that Christian professor must stands in sharp contrast to the Cartesian professor who asserts, “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.” On the contrary, the Christian professor is one who confesses, “I am loved, therefore I am known, therefore I love.” It is my prayer that this would be how I am marked—as one who in all my academic and professional pursuits is more concerned about embodying the love of God than assertion of my own independent existence and significance.

Whatever the case, it is in this construction between love and knowledge that the role of the professor as a teacher may be understood. Two things are briefly observed.

First, knowledge in this biblical framework is relationally defined. To know is to be loved. We are nobody apart from the love of God demonstrated toward us in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 5:8). But in and through the love of God in Christ, we are somebody. It is this knowledge that is fundamental to our identity: We become as we are loved. We do not become and subsequently love; we become because we are loved. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, “My egocentric identity has been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer my ego that lives, but Christ lives in and through me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who made me who I am by loving me and giving himself for me” (Cf. Gal 2:20).

It can be a significant source of temptation for a professor to see her or his students as underlings whose identity are not yet shaped and who have come to the professor to gain this identity. Somehow, professors can get caught up in thinking that they have succeeded as a professor when their students end up looking a lot like them. But a Christian professor must, indeed, “think otherwise!” Rather than seeking to make students look like us, we professors must continually remember that pupils do not gain their primary identity students or academics, but as sons and daughters loved by God. As malleable as our students are, and as intellectually and pedagogically influential as we may aspire to be, we violate our students’ primary identity when we forget that they are, first and foremost, loved by God and only secondarily and temporarily “our students.” Good professors remember that the goal is not to make students in our image, but to lead students to discover Who it is that first loved them and therein to discover their true identity. This kind of “theo-pedagogy” in which we lead students to God does, of course, run the risk that students, in the long term, will remember more about God than they do about us. But that, I believe, is a risk worth taking. He must increase, I must decrease.

Second, in the knowledge of God’s love for us, a professor must be constrained to act in accordance with our nature as those whose identity is extra nos—external to ourselves. As those whose identity is founded in the Father’s outwardly focused love toward us in Christ, we ourselves become intrinsically other-focused. “I am loved, therefore I am known, therefore I love.” In this regard, the professor is marked by sacrificial service to those under our temporary care. It is our service to our students when, above all else, we love them. Of course, the content of that love for the student must be biblically defined. We love them through the display of patience and kindness. We love them as we resist pride, boasting, envy, and anger. Indeed, the entire thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians gives abundant insight for the kind of sacrificial love we ought to have toward our students—most plainly because that is the kind of love which God has already shown to us in Christ.

But why love? Can we not teach without love? Clearly we can—if we are content to be remembered as nothing more than a clanging cymbal (Cf. 1 Cor 13:1). But the Christian professor loves, not only as an additional requirement to her or his profession, but as something vitally intrinsic to it. Rather than succumbing to the temptation to separate love and knowledge, we must be adamant that to love is to teach. Indeed, the antithesis to loving our students is to withhold the life-giving, person-defining knowledge of God revealed in Christ! Teaching, therefore, in a biblical sense, is more than the passing on of knowledge and information, but the daily life display of the fullness of life in the Spirit spoken and practiced in a community of learners called to seek first God’s kingdom, whatever the subject matter and whatever academic discipline may occupy our professional time. How tragic it would be for me to have spent my career passing on biblical and theological content, only to have a student detect in me evidence of theological sophistry! How utterly appalling and horrifying that someday I could potentially be judged—not only by my students but by God himself!—to have been a “posing professor” who had the appearance of godliness through proper use of words, phrases, paragraphs and discourses, but who had denied God’s power through a failure to love! (cf. 2 Tim 3:1-5) With God’s help, I pray this will not be me.

 

Posted in teaching, theology, Writing | Tagged | 1 Comment

Sights, sounds, smells

Yesterday (Thursday), we spent the full day at Puertolago (our hotel) while we finished up the class material on holistic child development. There’s so much to be processed in my mind and hopefully in days to come I’ll be able to do that.  The conversations around the meal tables have been rich as well.

Last night we had the privilege of meeting two students in Compassion’s LDP program (Leadership Development Program). These two, Ephraim and Anita, are first year university students who have been sponsored in the regular Compassion program since childhood. When they turn 18, they leave the regular Compassion program and have opportunity to apply for the LDP program but the selection criteria is very strict. Only one or two out of a hundred applicants are chosen! LDP students are sponsored just at the children between ages of 3 and 18, but the cost per month to sponsor the student goes up to over $300/month (compared to $41 per month for a regularly sponsored child).

Both Anita and Ephraim shared their testimonies with us of the challenges of university life while also continuing to serve heavily I leadership and service in their local church. Eprhaim is in an engineering program and is a gifted speaker. Anita is a beautiful young woman who is enrolled in a business administration program. This is quite amazing since both came from impoverished situations to where they are today. To be sure, their testimonies of their faith in God were inspiring!

After a good night’s sleep, our last at Puertolago, we headed off this morning for a two hour drive back to Quito to visit a CSP project. CSP stands for “Child Survival Program.” In this program, pregnant mothers are taught how to have a healthy pregnancy, and basic hygiene and life and spiritual skills for raising a baby. The mother and child are eligible for the program until the child reaches age 3. Each week, the mother receives a visit in her home from one of the local Compassion volunteers, who leads the mother in a lesson on hygiene, in a short Bible study and prayer time, and who does a check both mother and child.

Today we were able to observe a CSP visit in action in what was one of the poorest sites we’ve experienced. Because this was in the city, the area was much more of a real slum and the menace of poverty hung in the area. The area smelled like a garbage dump, and everywhere we look was garbage and the sound of wild dogs barking. Chickens were running in and out of the house and the door (if you can call it that) had panels missing so that there was no real way to close the door. There was, in other words, something qualitatively different, in my opinion, between the poverty of the city and the poverty of the more rural areas we visited early in the week. The mother seemed less healthy and there was much more a feeling of hopelessness in the air. Nevertheless, as the Compassion volunteer taught her lesson and prayed, it was hard  not to feel hope again. The smile on this mother’s face spoke volumes.

After sharing a snack with the mother and children (this time a tamale wrapped in a banana leaf), we returned to the Church where the project is based.  We were served a lunch of rice, chicken, carrots and potatoes and heard more stories about the CSP program. It was heart-wrenching once again–and I found myself wiping away a tear as I heard a  mother testify of her challenges, but again, also of her faith in Christ.

Now I’m writing this post back in Quito at the Suissotel where we started the week. We have a few hours to shower, to rest and prepare for our overnight flight tonight leaving at 12:30 am. Already, I feel like I’m stepping back into the “other” world where I live. The incongruity between what I experienced only hours ago and right here and now is already striking: From utter poverty in what was practically a garbage dump to a coffee maker, TV, showers, and a king size bed, all in less than 2 hours. All I can say is, Praise God from whom all blessings flow! But then again, what these people have taught me this week is that a hot shower apart from Christ is no blessing at all. Better no shower and to have Christ than all the hot water in the world and to be separated from him. The truth I need to grasp, however, is that somehow, I have been privileged to have both.

 

 

Posted in Ecuador | 2 Comments