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This year has been pretty up and down study-wise. I’ve had some good bursts but on the whole have generally lost momentum! Anyway, here are some things I learnt or remembered, at least things that have changed the way I write my essays this year that I wasn’t doing much of/well last year:

1) Blurt, even if it’s crap. This is probably a pretty standard tip but because I’m such a perfectionist it’s so hard for me to commit to this! I don’t want to write crap so I won’t write at all. Then after the half hour I’ve taken to produce a paragraph I get annoyed at its loose-wordedness and delete the poor guy. I’ve found it better to focus on blurting content and any thought I have, then going back to it later to touch it up.

2) Highlight shameful bits that you have no idea how to fix at the moment. If you can’t transcend the awkward gait of your grammar or spectacularly underwhelming critique, make an angry yellow note of it with the highlighter function. You might be able to ignore its monochrome glare for long enough to work on more fruitful pursuits and return to it when your mind is fresh enough to lay the sucker down.

3) Have synonyms, on hand! Sometimes starting three sentences in a row with “Moreover,” doesn’t must the custard. Organise your adverbs and other commonly used words into groups of synonyms so when your audience is expecting another “but,” surprise them with a “yet”! Moreover, the thesaurus is helpful.

4) Balance initial adverbs with abrupter beginnings. Sometimes when proofreading I realise I’ve gotten too excited about adverbs again and prefixed every sentence with one. “Similary, … Conversely, … However, … Nonetheless, … Thus, …” Then on my next day’s writing I go to the opposite extreme. When rereading it feels like I’m being pommeled with all these self-asserting thoughts that don’t want to hold hands. Find a nice medium. Make sure all of the sentences in the paragraph flow logically, but come up with creative ways to imply adverbs where you’re overdoing it. Use  shorter sentences, and semi-colons and colons.

5) Check your diction in the dictionary. Don’t use the word that almost communicates what you want to say. Before you make the ultimate faux pax, check that word you subconsciously appropriated from your bedtime sports nutrition reading and make sure it delivers as your brain advertises that it does!

6) Note your conventions and stick to them. Sometimes you need to make an executive decision. Style guide will betray style guide and some will just leave you with omissions. The world is yours, oyster. You might want to capitalise Facebook as a noun but lower-case it as a verb. Just make sure you’re consistent so if someone pulls you up on it you can point out your intentions.

7) Save every jot and tittle of notes and drafts. Hey so it’s supercool to continually save and back up your main work for safety reasons but I’ve found it helpful to also meticulously save copies of notes and drafts this year, rather than just flattening them into my single edition continuous thingy. That means that if I quote some person and think I do so clearly and contextually but then realise three weeks later I have no idea what they’re talking about or why I included them I can return to my notes and (hopefully) add some clarificaton.

8) Use Google Books and Amazon previews. Many a time my notes have also failed me. Sometimes you just need to return ad fontes, to the source. But when it’s in a library three working days away Google Books and Amazon previews can help you in your time of need. You can’t always preview everything but it’s often worth a try, and the search functions are also helpful for finding key passages in your texts.

9) Be succinct but clear. Often after giving my work a bit of a buzzcut to take down those nasty split-ending word counts, I’m a little uneven. I forget to take the hairs off the neck and leave the rest patchy. Leave it for a couple of days and come back to make sure that your thoughts still connect and flow logically are taking removing all that apparent extraneity.

10) Be spontaneously diligent. It’s easy to not do work when you’re supposed to and also it’s important to take holidays. But when you’re not on holiday keep that laptop or refill on hand so you can work in the unlikeliest places. A fifteen minute bus ride home can actually be the new cradle of civilisation.

 

I said to the oceans

I said to the oceans,
“I will swallow you.”

I said to the mountains,
“I will crumble you.”

I said to the sky,
“I will suck you up.”

I said to the sun,
“I will put you out.”

I looked to every place
and defied it.

I exceeded all existence and spat,
“You sourced me but now I source you.

“I am my kingmaker.
In me you are no more.”

The oceans revolted
and scorned their beginning.

The mountains lunged
and seized their origin.

The sky swelled
and smothered all reality.

The sun blazed
and consumed all being.

And though I looked to every place
I did not see God.

He surrendered to the ocean
and did not move for mountains.

He yielded to the sky
and allowed the sun to take him.

And when I one day sought to end him
he did not fight, nor even speak,
but walked on, silently.

Bonhoeffer quotes

I know I’ve been incredibly silent recently and that might continue for a while. Nonetheless, I thought I’d record some of my favourite insights from the course I’m doing this semester on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He’s quite prolific so we don’t cover everything, but it’s been exciting to get to know someone who really strived to know Jesus and make him known in his own context and trace the development of this guy’s thought. Bonhoeffer came from an upper-middle class family and showed a greater interest in Jesus as he advanced throughout his teens, desiring to become a minister. I love this: “[His family] sought to dissuade him, claiming that the church was not really worthy of his commitment; it was, they insisted, ‘a poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’ To which Dietrich replied: ‘In that case I shall reform it!’¹ Anyway, he’s famous for his theological innovation coupled with his involvement in the Confessing Church, the German church which sought to oppose Hitler’s Third Reich, and his imprisonment and later execution just before the close of WWII for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

On the the person of Christ:

From now on we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ.”

(DBWE 6:54).

I can never think of Jesus Christ in his being-in-himself, but only in his relatedness to me.”

(DBWE 12:314).

The concept of the body as applied to the church-community is not a functional concept referring to the members but is instead a concept of the way in which the Christ exists who is present, exalted, and humiliated.”

(DBWE 12:323).

On grace abstracted from the person of Jesus:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby conveys such grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God.”

(DBWE 4:43).

On the suffering of Christ:

The fact that it is Peter, the rock of the church, who makes himself guilty [of attempting to hinder Jesus' suffering] just after he has confessed Jesus to be the Christ … shows that from its very beginning the church has taken offense at the suffering Christ.”

(DBWE 4:85).

On Christian community:

The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies.”

(DBWE 5:27).

[Christians] need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation… The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.”

(DBWE 5:32).

On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will often be anxious to realize it. But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.”

(DBWE 5:35).

On denominations:

The concept of denomination is not entirely clear. It is not a theological concept. It says more about historical, political, and social conditions.”

(Green and DeJonge, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 571).

On fundamentalism. Yes, that fundamentalism.

At the beginning of this year, the journal Christian Century published a series of essays on the topic: ‘How my mind has changed in the last decade.’ … A common thread in all these essays–with the exception of the fundamentalists, who deliberately declare that nothing essential could have changed in their thinking since they espouse the same teaching then and now–is the admission of a decisive theological turn in the last ten years.” Nonetheless, “The failure in Christology is characteristic of all current  American theology (with the exception of fundamentalism).”

(Bonhoeffer Reader, 589-590).

Although this is pretty standard Reformation theology it’s been interesting being introduced to it via Barth and Bonhoeffer:

[A]t Pentecost, too, one preaches about Jesus Christ, the one who is present in the Holy Spirit, and nothing else.”

(DBWE 15:552).

On idolatry and nihilism:

The usual interpretation of idolatry as ‘wealth, lust, pride’ doesn’t seem at all biblical to me. That is moralizing. Idols are to be worshipped, and idolatry presupposes that people still worship something. But we don’t worship anything anymore, not even idols. In that respect we’re really nihilists.”

(DBWE 8:447).

On the ethical failure of duty:

[D]uty is so circumscribed that there is never any room to venture that which rests wholly in one’s own responsibility, the action that alone strikes at the very core of evil and can overcome it. The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty also to the devil.”

(DBWE 8:40).

On ethics and Christian freedom:

[I]t is the arena of everyday life that presents the fundamental difficulties, and which one has to have first experienced in order to sense how insufficient, inappropriate, and unsuitable it is to address it with general moral principles.” Thus “[Human beings] are not essentially and exclusively students of ethics. It is part of the great naivete or, more accurately, folly of ethicists to overlook this fact willfully, and to start from the fictional assumption that human beings at every moment of their lives have to make an ultimate, infinite choice.”

(DBWE 6:365).

The ‘ethical’ merely identifies the limits formally and negatively, and thus can only become a topic at the boundary, and in a formal and negative way. God’s commandment, on the other hand, is concerned with the positive content and with the freedom of human beings to affirm that positive content.”

(DBWE 6:386).

On this-worldliness:

It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.”

(DBWE 8:51).

OT faith differs from other oriental religions in not being a religion of redemption… To the objection that redemption has a crucial importance in the OT as well (out of Egypt and later out of Babylon, cf. Deutero-Isaiah), the reply is that this is redemption within history, that is, this side of the bounds of death, whereas everywhere else the aim of all the other myths of redemption is precisely to overcome death’s boundary… The Christian hope of the resurrection is different from the mythological in that it refers people to their life on earth in a wholly new way, and more sharply than the OT.”

(DBWE 8:447).

* * *

¹F. Burton Nelson, “The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). The quotes are translated from Eberhard Bethge’s lengthy biography in German.

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In this next section, Barth’s focus is primarily on how to speak of God as both one and three.

Unity in Trinity

God’s unity is emphasised throughout Scripture. So, for example, the baptismal formula at the end of Matthew does not say in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the name. God is in his essence, substance, nature, etc, one. Nor is his unity collective but numerical. If he was three then we would worship three gods. However, “God’s triunity does not imply any threat to but is rather the basis of the Christian concept of the unity of God” (348).

Trinity in unity

Monotheism is much broader than Judaism and Islam so many religious and philosophical worldviews can be classified as in some sense being monotheistic. Trinitarianism is Christian monotheism. Although God is numerically one, this does not denote singularity or isolation. Rather one is a metaphor, even apophatic, so “the number 1 implies the negation of all plurality of or in God. All further deductions from the use of the concept of number are to be rejected as irrelevant” (354).

Barth goes on to enter into a lengthy discussion of one of the most disputed aspects of his doctrine of the Trinity, the rejection of the word person to differentiate between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He has mainly been criticised for depersonalising God and I think in English for the translation that suggests modalism, the heresy that God is not truly three but only appears to be so. In sum, his main contentions are that it was never clarified satisfactorily. Secondly, with the rise of the modern concept of a personality, i.e. a human subject, those who use person to refer to the Trinity cannot avoid its connotations. Three persons would entails three substances, and thus endorse tritheism. Barth instead opts for the German Seinsweisen, translated into English as “mode (or way) of being.” On the whole Barth does not appear to be a fan of Roman Catholic theology, haha. He is dismissive of the Church’s continued use of person, “as though the modern concept of personality did not exist, as though the definition of Boethius still continued to be relevant and intelligible, and above all as though the meaning of the definition had been so elucidated in the Middle Ages that it is possible with its help to speak profitably of the trinitarian three” (358).

The modes of being are distinct and non-exchangeable. In what I found a very difficult paragraph, Barth appears to make the argument that God does not just subsist in individual modes but if he subsists in one mode then he subsists essentially, that is, in his triunity as one and three. In his interaction with creation, God’s individual modes appear to be distinguished yet opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa [the external works of the Trinity are unidivided]; where one mode is at work, all three are, because God is one. All that is ultimately distinctive of the modes of being is their “relations of origin” within the Godhead, which nonetheless informs the distinctive works of these modes in relation to creation. Otherwise we would be worshipping three gods. The Father’s relation to the Son is that of begetting, while the Son’s relation to the Father is that of being begotten, and the Spirit is related to both in spiration, or proceeding from them. The modes are not entities but more properly relations. After all this, the Trinity remains a mystery and must be restated as such so “When we have said what that is: Father, Son and Spirit, we must then go on to say that we have said nothing” (367). And “Theology means rational wrestling with the mystery. But all rational wrestling with this mystery, the more serious it is, can lead only to its fresh and authentic interpretation and manifestation as a mystery” (368).

Triunity

Whether we say God is unity in Trinity or Trinity in unity, either puts an emphasis on his oneness or threeness. Triunity is to be preferred over Trinity as it better represents God as both three and one. Barth favourably discusses the concept of perichoresis, that is, each mode of being eternally participates in the other two modes of being. To say perichoresis is to say that the modes can only be known in their distinction from each other yet they cannot be known individually but only in unity. Barth now enters into a fuller discussion of the concept of appropriation, that although all of God’s attributes and external works properly belong to all modes, in revelation we may speak of particular attributes and works as appropriate to particular modes, so regeneration is properly the work of the Spirit. But this is only because God has revealed himself according to our “creaturely comprehensibility,” our epistemological limitations. In this sense, even Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not ultimately belong exclusively to any of the modes of being. Throughout, Barth has attempted to walk the fine line of God actually revealing himself in revelation and revelation not so totally encompassing God that humanity can control him epistemologically.

The meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity

Barth compares contemporary dismissal of the doctrine of the Trinity with its place in the Church of an earlier age. It is easy to judge them as heretical or misguided without understanding their interest in the doctrine:

For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that in which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints. Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every kind, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of and in this worldliness.

(377-378).

The doctrine of the Trinity arose firstly out of theological meditation on the person of Jesus and as a response to the problem which Scripture leaves unanswered. The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to answer the question, “Who is it that reveals Himself?” It is a centrally important dogma, though its measure is always Scripture.

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I’ve spent some time yesterday and today getting into Barth’s majestic Church Dogmatics (edited and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). It’s quite intimidating at first but I didn’t find it anywhere near as difficult as I thought it might be, probably because I spent all the time in the secondary literature first. I’ve just finished §8, which I’ll do a little summary of in the first part of my dissertation so here’s an opportunity for me to practice and you, if, whoever you are, are interested, to be interested in what I’m reading.

§8 is divided into three parts, “The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics,” “The root of the doctrine of the Trinity,” and “Vestigium Trinitatis”.

The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics

Barth begins this section with the threefold nature of God’s revelation to humanity: “God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself” (296). The structure of God’s self-unveiling to humanity is Trinitarian so the Father acts, the Son is the act and the Holy Spirit is the apprehension of this act in the human subject. So throughout, God is subject, predicate, object; Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost; Revealer, Revealed, Revealedness.

Barth’s structure of revelation allows him to find something like the Trinity in the Old Testament, which, despite emphasising God’s oneness also went beyond this in God interacting with his creation so “The angel of Yahweh in the Old Testament is obviously both identical and not identical with Yahweh Himself” (299).

Whereas the old Protestant dogmatics started with the doctrine of Scripture, Catholic dogmatics with the authority of the Church, and modern liberal Protestant dogmatics (at least those contemporary with Barth) with the truth of “religion,” Barth argues for the need to start dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity as a well-developed doctrine of God is first necessary to understand all else (300). Interestingly, Barth’s later interpreters have either critiqued or developed Barth on this same point in reverse, revising his doctrine of the Trinity in light of his later volumes.

Indeed, so Barth famously says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian” (301). I love this. He follows it up with a collection of quotes from theologians throughout the centuries who have said similar things. I am increasingly swayed by Barth’s argument that the Trinity is distinctive of Christianity. We do not come to theology with a general concept of God and then find the Trinity to fit somehow there. Conversely, I am wary of the triumphalism that can come from this and in relation to other ideologies such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, etc. In agreeing that the Trinity is distinctly Christian and that I love it to be so, I do not thereby want to cut myself off from the insights and challenges of those on the fringes and outside of the Christian tradition.

The root of the doctrine of the Trinity

In this subsection Barth goes on to discuss his theology of revelation as the root not of the Trinity itself, as if the Trinity only existed in our apprehension of God, but the doctrine of the Trinity. I am here a little perplexed at his earlier ambition to start a dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity before something like the doctrine of Scripture. Obviously such clear distinctions are neither possible nor desirable.

God is by nature unknowable, yet his freedom entails that he is free to overcome this unknowability and make himself known to humanity. Thus in revelation God “distinguish[es] Himself from Himself, i.e., to be God in Himself and in concealment, and yet at the same time to be God a second time in a very different way, namely, in manifestation, i.e., in the form of something He Himself is not” (316). So even anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Old Testament “are not just descriptions and representations of the reality of Yahweh; they are themselves the reality of Yahweh” (316).

Humanity cannot know God apart from revelation. Even in revelation, such as the ministry of Jesus, people cannot know this God unless he meets them in this revelation, so the confession of Peter is exemplary of this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:17). “The neutral observer who understood the events recorded in it as revelation would cease thereby to be a neutral observer” (325). Followed by a beautiful smackdown reminiscent of Kierkegaard: “the philosophy of religion of the Enlightenment from Lessing by way of Kant and Herder to Fichte and Hegel, with its intolerable distinction between the eternal content and the historical ‘vehicle,’ can only be described as the nadir of the modern misunderstanding of the Bible” (329).

Vestigium Trinitatis

The edition I’m using translates the Latin as “trace of the Trinity,” that is the traces of the Trinity in things outside of biblical revelation such as nature (a spring, stream, and lake) or humanity (body, soul, spirit), going back to Augustine. When you investigate something, you look for the traces. Barth is ultimately dismissive of this, but notes that theologians throughout history were sincere in their presentations of vestigia, trying to communicate complex theological concepts in everyday language. Although theological language is itself a vestigium, the only true vestigium is God’s revelation. Theology is to interpret this, but it must not illustrate it (so e.g. spring, stream, lake) as it thus produces another source for knowledge of the Trinity, competing with revelation it attempts to interpret. Additionally, the illustrations themselves have many flaws (often leaning to either modalism or tritheism).

Pointing out the appeal to the Holy Spirit above Scripture of the radical reformers (an appeal that I open to in some sense still being valid), Barth writes “one might almost say [the Holy Spirit] became the specifically non-Church or anti-Church God” (337). Haha, I just thought that was poetic and interesting.

Finally, despite our limitations we cannot not speak of God: “theological language [is that], which even though it can only be the language of the world, must still believe at root, cost what it will, that contrary to the natural capabilities of this language it can and should speak of God’s revelation in this language as theological language” (341).

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Christianity is unmistakably anthropocentric. Right from the start it is humanity, not the animals, who is made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). It is they who are to “fill the earth and subdue it,” exercising dominion over the animals and being given the plants to eat (vv.28-29). Although the narrative attributes it to the fall, knowledge of good and evil becomes a distinctive of humanity through eating the fruit (Gen 3:1-7). And it may be rhetorical but Jesus places more value on human than animal life (Matt 6:26; 10:31; 12:12). Moreover God came to earth as a human, not an animal (John 1:14). Just as the first Adam sinned with consequences for all humanity, Jesus’ work of righteousness had universal human significance (Rom 5:18). The incarnation in itself had atoning value, and it was necessary that Jesus was fully human or we would not be fully saved. As Gregory Nazianzus famously argued, “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” Gregory’s statement is in polemical context, addressing Apollinarianism, yet it is still indicative of the anthropocentric climate of Christian theology.

Despite humanity’s centrality to the biblical story, Christian theology does not ignore the place of animals. God is creator of all. Not only Noah’s human family but all the animals are to be saved from the flood (Gen 6:19-20). It is only after the flood that God allows humans to eat the animals, possibly as a result of human violence (Gen 9:3). Whereas the other prophets imagine universal peace and worship of God for humanity, Isaiah’s eschatological vision includes animals: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6). This is in part fulfilled in Jesus’ coming. The gospel was not only for humanity but the whole of creation (Mark 16:5). Paul looks forward to a time when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), and acknowledges the universal significance of the gospel (Eph 1:7-10; Col 1:16-20; cf. Acts 3:19-21).

The problem then is not so much that Christian theology has no place for creation other than humanity, nor that this theology unanimously sanctions violence against the non-human. The problem is that humanity’s being accorded a central place in creation, revelation, and new creation implicitly maintains an anthropocentrism, even if there are resources for beginning to move beyond that. In creation it is humanity that is to represent God to the animals, and, through Jesus, again this gospel of universal significance is revealed first to humanity who are to represent God to the animals.

What role does humanity play in the salvation history of the animals?

Has God spoken to the animals apart from us?

How do the animals view us, God, and their place in the world?

What resources do evolution and pre-human existence provide for understanding revelation and salvation to the animals?

How much is biblical anthropocentrism a product of human dominion over the earth and are there alternative ways of viewing the biblical story?

On being articulate

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The Spirit of the Lord has annoyed me to bring good news to the poor.

Jesus ate sinners and tax-collectors.

Without faith it is impossible to appease God.

Love is patient, love is, kinda.

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a random for many.

Be fooled with the Spirit.

The Probable Son.

I can do all things through him who gives me steps.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still single, Christ died for us.

My power is made perfect in your weekends.

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