Theology Feed

Taking a Knee

A recent Christian Century editorial took a good theological perspective on the much discussed issue of NFL players taking a knee.  An excerpt:

one of the most vivid images of players’ humanity comes when they take a knee. During the game, this is one of several ways that players “down” the ball, avoiding being tackled by ending the play. Between plays and on the sidelines, players take a knee for various reasons. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer has traced the phrase back to a college team’s 1960 tribute to a deceased coach. It gained traction in reference to players stopping to rest. Later the posture came to signify solidarity—an expression of prayer or encouragement for the anxious or concern for the injured. In each case, taking a knee highlights the vulnerable humanity football teams are made of.

That’s what makes the NFL player protests against police brutality and racism—begun in 2016 by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid—so powerful. The sight of black players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem evokes solidarity, empathy, and remembrance of the dead. It’s a posture that represents a player stepping out of his role in the game and embracing his more fundamental identity as a person.


The Nature of Doctrine

The Nature of DoctrineThe Nature of Doctrine by George A. Lindbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of those classics I finally read. And one that was part of the milieu of other theologians who have deeply influenced my own thinking.

For Lindbeck, learning a religion is like learning a language, a skill that you develop. Take this sentence for instance, "In short, intelligibility comes from skill, not theory, and credibility comes from good performance, not adherence to independently formulated criteria."

I long ago adopted this basic framework--skill and communal practices and not propositional belief. And the non-foundationalist epistemology.

I'm glad there are people who think so deeply as this and develop the basic theory that undergirds what I do.

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On Sessions & Scripture

In my reading this week, I came across this discussion of the truth of religious statements in George Lindbeck's classic The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age.  Reading it made me think of the recent debate around Jeff Sessions's misuse of scripture and why we can call it a misuse.

Thus for a Christian, "God is Three and One," or "Christ is Lord" are true only as parts of a total pattern of speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting.  They are false when their use in any given instance is inconsistent with what the pattern as a whole affirms of God's being and will.  The crusader's battle cry "Christus est Dominus," for example, is false when used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel (even though the same words in other contexts may be a true utterance).  When thus employed, it contradicts the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffering servanthood.


Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma

Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of TraumaResurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma by Shelly Rambo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story of Doubting Thomas from the Gospel of John is the standard gospel lectionary text for the Second Sunday of Easter, and we usually approach it as a text about knowledge, doubt, and faith. Shelly Rambo invites a different reading focusing instead on the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus. What does it mean to carry wounds into the resurrection? Why does Jesus expose the wounds to the disciples and invite Thomas to touch? Why has theology failed (with few exceptions) to explore the wounds in this scene?

These fascinating questions are dealt with in this vivid exploration of the Gospel story. Along the way we encounter a contemporary French television show about ghosts, John Calvin's attempts to ignore the carnal aspects of the story, the healing scar of Macrina and her brother Gregory of Nyssa's struggle to understand it, W. E. B. DuBois in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, Delores Williams's concept of wilderness, a smudging ritual in a care group of combat veterans, and Caravaggio's brilliant painting of the Gospel story. Among others.

This is a rich theological account of how we can continue living beyond trauma. We must surface our wounds and engage them safely in community where healing touch helps us integrate the wounds into new life.

Note: This was an interesting read just after De la Torre's Embracing Hopelessness, for I don't think this book succumbed to his critiques.

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Embracing Hopelessness

Embracing HopelessnessEmbracing Hopelessness by Miguel A. de la Torre
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book challenges some of the core elements of my own theology and ministerial practice. Jurgen Moltmann's theology of hope helped me out of my deepest depression and gave shape to my ministry, particularly when I pastored the Cathedral of Hope, a predominately LGBT congregation. De La Torre considers the theology of hope a theology of the privileged that lulls people away from facing how awful reality actually is and the revolutionary praxis necessary to work for justice.

The methodology of the book is interesting. Each chapter explores a traumatic episode from history, with De La Torre traveling to a location--Sand Creek, Dachau, Charlottesville, the Border, etc.--with another theologian to explore a range of theological questions that these moments of injustice and violence expose.

At first I didn't care much for his style. I felt he wasn't engaging Moltmann in genuine argument. And that he was tilting at straw men, spending lots of time criticizing Hegel's philosophy of history, which I can't imagine many people believe anymore.

But near the end the book improved. The best chapter is entitled "F*ck It."

I am not fully persuaded by De La Torre to abandon my core beliefs and practices, but I am now compelled to hear these criticisms and revise accordingly. The book lacks any discussion of resurrection, which is the key Christian idea in response to catastrophe, which left me confused about De La Torre's overall approach.

Also, he makes much of turning traditional systematic theology on its head with this third volume of a trilogy addressing the issues that normally would be addressed first, whereas he dealt with ethics and praxis first. But this isn't new. Plenty of theologians have written this way in the last generation or two. James McClendon, for instance, in his three volume theology began with ethics.

Finally, I thought he could benefit from an exploration of William James's pragmatic eschatology, meliorism, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic and was itself worked out in the crucible of the Civil War.

Here is a good summary paragraph from near the end of the book:

"When I consider the hellish conditions under which brown bodies are forced to live, I simply lack the luxury or privilege to hopefully wait with Motlmann for God's future promise to materialize. Too many dead and broken bodies obscure my view of the eschaton. Instead, I call for storming the very gates of Hell not at some future time, but now. Motlmann's theology of hope is in effect a theology of optimism based on a God of process derived from trust in a certain biblical interpretation rooted in linear progressive thinking issuing from the Eurocentric modernity project. And while such a hope may be comforting for middle-class Euroamerican Christians, it falls short and sounds hollow for the disenfranchised."

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Church as Polis

In the second chapter of Awaiting the King, James K. A. Smith discusses the political nature of Christian worship, which he describes as "a public ritual centered on--yea, led by--an ascended King."  As a corollary to this, "Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics."

One of the most puzzling things for many of us clergy is how we are deeply trained to understand church and worship this way--these are not new or radical ideas in theology or liturgics--but how so many congregants seem completely unformed to understand church and worship in this way.  How did this disconnect arise?

Smith is also making the point that politics (and many other aspects of our culture) are also religious--they are rituals trying to form us in certain ways.  So if the church cedes the political terrain, it is actually allowing forces outside the church to shape people according to narratives that are not the churches.

I like this quote from Richard Bauckham, "Worship . . . is the source of resistance to the idolatries of the public world."

What was frustrating about this (and some subsequent chapters) is that he spent much of the time simply reviewing the analysis and arguments of someone else, here Oliver O'Donovan.  

A key theme of the chapter is that "The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent."  Unlike some thinkers who focus on the church as polis, Smith reminds us that we aren't separate from the world, we are in fact sent into it to make our mark and try to influence politics and culture for God.

Smith is mainly writing to other NeoCalvinists (Reformed Evangelicals).  Some of his arguments were broadly embraced by Liberal Protestants in the 19th century.  For instance, there is this sentence, also a quote from O'Donovan, which sounded a lot to me like the Congregationalists of the 19th century who were abolitionists, temperance campaigners, suffragists, etc.--"Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God's saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin--their own sin and others."

The chapter includes a surprising analysis of Cormac McCarthy's magnificent apocalyptic novel The Road.  Smith asks, "Where did these characters [the father and son who are main characters] come from who shine like lights in this brutal darkness?"  He doesn't read McCarthy as claiming they have a natural goodness--rather, they were formed in some way.  What liturgy then shaped them?  Smith cites numerous examples of sacramentality referenced in the novel.

In a side bar on the liturgical calendar he points out "The Christian year is a political rite that invites us to reinhabit the life of our King and learn what it might look like to imitate the strange politics of his kingdom here in the meantime."

He rightly points out near the end of the chapter that worship is not directed against any specific regime but against the entire notion that politics is ultimate for us as human beings.


Theological features of the self

I really liked this analysis in Serene Jones's Theology and Grace:

I propose five theological features of the self [that] are crucial to our creativity:  1) agency: our God-given capacity to act and hence to be creative; 2) time: our God-created capacity to imagine the future and to remember the past and--within the space of these--to compose our lives; 3) voice: our created ability to articulate and embrace our particularity, our call to be individuals with unique gifts to offer in the context of community; 4) permission: God's divine gift of forgiveness that allows us not to be perfect but to live nonetheless in grace as we creatively act and express our particularity; and 5) call: the gift of Christian vocation, the reality that we are each called to live in faithful relation to God and others in this graceful dance of creation and creativity.


Trauma & Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World

Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured WorldTrauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World by Serene Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent book, introducing theological thinker to trauma theory and how it intersects with our disciplines.

The most surprising chapter is that on John Calvin's Commentary on the Psalms and how Jones has used the reading of that classic text with women's support groups to respond to trauma. I feel as if I am in the midst of a big revision of my thoughts on Calvin, based on this and other reading I've done recently.

The chapter on women and reproductive loss was quite good, providing me a richer understanding of this common trauma.

The closing chapter on "Mourning and Wonder" raised some questions for a fundamental aspect of my preaching the last few years. Building on St. Irenaeus ("The glory of God is a humanity fully alive") and the works of Catherine Keller and Wendy Farley, I've emphasized how God dreams for us to be our best selves and how that is possible for us. But reading Jones I realized that the best self may not be possible for the deeply traumatized. They've lost that future, which is part of their grief and on-going trauma.

Books that compel me to rethink some central to my thought excite me. Now I face the challenge of incorporating this into my worldview, teaching, and preaching.

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Awaiting the King

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyAwaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed thoughts about this third entry in the Cultural Liturgies series. One the one hand the book makes good strong arguments for liturgical practice as political theology. On the other, many chapters are detailed reviews of other scholar's arguments that got a little tiresome.

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