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Archive for June, 2013

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Romans 1:16 is the standard, apparently rebellious text to cite in contemporary social contexts increasingly ambivalent to Christianity:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

(NRSV).

Just a couple of days ago I read Romans again, as  my interest has been piqued in reading through Cambridge Companion to St. Paul and preparing for my course in 1 Corinthians next semester. I don’t have access to commentaries at the moment but would like to ask: What reason did Paul have to be ashamed of the gospel in the first place? A few contributors to the Cambridge Companion have pointed out the significance of this passage Galatians 3:10-13:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, “Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”.

Apart from the obvious audience of the Galatians, Paul’s critique here is probably guided by his own experience in Pharisaic Judaism. Jesus in many forms of 1st Century Judaism would have been rejected on the basis of God leaving him to die on a cross. The curses of the law were for those who transgressed it, so Pharisaic Judaism in this case would have found it difficult to accept him as Messiah. Hence Paul refers to the crucifixion as a “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23; cf. Rom 11:9ff).

Perhaps this is why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, not so much because he and a bunch of his friends believed in six day creation, held off having sex until they were married, and tried not to say the f-word when they hurt themselves… but that God Almighty surrendered all power to become human and suffer and die as a criminal, calling rich pagans and righteous Jews to put aside their honour and religious achievements to share tables, suffer together, and live as the scum of the earth.

Against what reasons should we shamelessly embrace the gospel in our contemporary contexts?

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Guilt may be good or bad or both or neither. I’m often of the opinion that it’s good, at least my own personal guilt. Maybe its a punitive fascination. I know I’ve done something bad so feeling bad about that something serves as punishment. But this is not ideal. The something disappears into the consequent feeling of guilt. Alternatively, guilt may be more practical. The bad feeling that follows some unsavoury action moves the offender to focus on their offence and attend to any damage they have done.

But I’m here especially interested in the feeling divorced from any restorative action. Part of the problem is to call feeling guilty about something and not doing anything about it a problem. If I’m guilty and become fearful of attempting amends then I develop a second order guilt: Guilt for feeling guilty. The offender indulges in the feeling of guilt to punish their self for their actions, but, then, realising the selfish orientation of their guilt, plunges into more guilt and inaction.

Of course, action which has been lost in the process of guilt can be recovered at the point of realising this, but it requires a decisive break with the current cycle of accumulative guilt. The problem with this is that an offender familiar with their selfishness cannot source their subsequent action from the hurt of the offended; it inevitably rises out of a response to inner self-oriented guilt.

Well! I haven’t written anything so dark and existential for a while. Enjoy! Perspective matters. I’m probably completely wrong so let me know!

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One of my recent posts explored the possibility of God’s particularity. With some more time to think about it, I was assailed by a host of further thoughts yesterday at the laundromat. I’ve never had so much fun waiting for my undies to get clean. Before starting, I should mention that this is really just a bit of fun, although it would be awesome to explore it properly one day. I’m constrained firstly by my classical approach, employing Greco-German categories. If anyone can figure out a way of looking at this sideways then I heartily welcome you. Secondly, although research would undoubtedly be helpful, this is a lazy attempt to create my own solutions and problems to problems and solutions I have come across where I may very well be misrepresenting the concepts so much that I am in actuality saying nothing. Onwards!

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Is God particular or universal? Clearly it would be helpful to first define these two terms. If I’m right, a universal is that which encompasses a set of particulars. So I can say that a particular friend is a friend only with reference to the concept of friendship, though that friend is only a particularised expression of that universal. They are not equal to friendship but occupy some part of it. However, friendship is not the universal, that is, not all things can be defined as a part of friendship. It is therefore necessary to find a universal which encompasses both friendship and that which is not friendship. This is probably an imperfect suggestion but we’ll roll with it for example’s sake: Love. Is it possible to say that love is a universal as all things friendship and all things romance, though they cannot be completely referred to each other, can both be completely referred to love? (For example’s sake just say yes. Thanks). And onwards until all things are under one universal. It might be being. All things are. So love and hate, for example, are particulars of the universal being because they both exist.

The problem with being as the universal (and here’s where some Heidegger or Hegel would have probably helped me!) is that it excludes non-being, that which is not. But in that case, how can non-being even be referenced? If there is nothing then there is nothing to reference. Being is the universal for all that is. It sounds too simple. Non-being, paradoxically is being. It is potential being, possibility. Non-being exists, for example, as that which can be thought or posited though it does yet exist. But not only is its possibility in human reason but in all that is becoming. When being through becoming moves towards non-being then that non-being is actualised into being. Thus being is a universal insofar as non-being is exists within it as possibility.¹

In sum, being is the universal; all else, in reference to being without exhausting its totality, is particular.

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God, then, must be defined in terms of the universal as he encompasses all things and all things have their being in him. The first difficulty with this is that if God is free and sovereign then is he constrained by his being, thus negating these, or does he choose it freely, which apparently would first require being…? In other words, to define God in terms of being is to reduce him to something, so that this designation is always provisional.

If God is universal then whence cometh creation? Creation is a collection of particularities which occupies a space on God’s universality. The problem with this is that creation as finite occupies the spatio-temporal whereas God occupies the eternal. If creation operates within time then when in eternity did God create? If creation operates within space then where in eternity did God create? In creation, God moves from being to becoming. God as the I am, changeless and eternal, brings change and temporality through the act of creation, birthing a history to accompany his being. God as being, all that there is, brings non-being into being, and it occupies a space. This is the pantheistic problem: That which is not is brought into being to occupy a space within/outside all that is (God). How can God, when he is all that there is, bring that which is not him into being? The only, probably heretical, suggestion I have is that God withdraws from or extends a part of himself and calls it not-God.

Both further create the problem that being moves into becoming, and becoming is a problem because it is change. If God is being then at what point (there is no point!) does he become? But if God is eternally becoming then this is essential to his nature and is not change. God’s becoming is rooted in his being, which always is, and thus he is changeless. As Anti-Climacus put it: “The being of God means that everything is possible, or that everything is possible means the being of God.”² If only being then there would be no possibility, only actuality. Possibility requires becoming. This nuances the main problem with God as particular: At any given time not all things make reference to him; there is that which is outside of him. But this is God only as actuality; as regards possibility he is a universal because all things are possibile, yet he is in actuality possibility so that, paradoxically, as regards his actuality he is both universal and particular.

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Here are some further thoughts, addressing mainly the problem of sin in terms of what has just been stated. God creates in freedom. He is under no necessity to create but enters into necessity through the act of creating. As Hosea records, the dual pain and love of God:

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

(Hosea 11:5-9).

Israel has forsaken Yahweh so he too will forsake them. But even after the hurt they have caused him he cannot give them up. In creating, God limits himself to a necessity within that creation, the necessity to care for it and even depend upon it. Ostensibly the freedom to forsake creation is ever-present, but, rather, God has already forsaken his freedom through the choice to create. In creation he loves and cannot do otherwise. God freely creates and creation freely loves him.

For creation to love freely there must be the possibility of not loving, which is not in accordance with God’s will, and therefore sin. God cannot sin because sin is that which is against his will. He can do all things but none of them are sin because he only does what he wills. In creation, however, God enters into covenant, a covenant inherent to the act of creation itself. God loves his creation and is thus obligated to it. He does not sin, but that which he does in accordance with his will is not only understood on his own terms but mediated through creation. No interaction with creation is sin yet creation may ask him otherwise. He freely forsakes his will that creation may take some part in it. This is prayer, the construction of God’s will mediated through his creation. Creation, however, sins because he has given it freedom to do so. It is not himself that sins but that which is not-God, which has been given a share of God’s freedom yet acts otherwise to this freedom.

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¹It is very optimistic of me to suggest that all non-being can be actualised. As this is all speculative at this point, this definition excludes that which can never be actualised. Yet if it cannot be actualised it probably cannot exist as possibility either (imagination doesn’t count, contra Anselm!).

²Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 40.

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So the ‘xam went well in the end. I think blogging helps too, getting as many thoughts out as possible in a short space of time. Currently I’m working on the last assignment before mum’s flying me off to Brisbane nek week. This one’s an exegetical on John 1:1-5, the being and creation history of the Word. 2500-3000 words on five verses. I’m actually so super-excited about this! Here’s the text:

[1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] He was in the beginning with God. [3] All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being [4] in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. [5] The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

(NRSV)

John has the ability to write both super-accessible, simple sounding theology yet with so much depth. I remember a friend of mine making a connection between John’s style and his, in the KJV, “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (13:23). This image of resting implies a meditative beloved disciple who clearly had some deep thoughts!

Currently I’m reading through Ernst Haenchen’s Hermeneia commentary from the eighties on these verses. It’s hard to get past his fascination with different textual traditions that John might have been borrowing from, yet I’ve been interested in his situating of these verses as a gnostic polemic, against those who denied the reality, value, etc of the material world, which is of course a very Johannine concern (e.g. John 1:14; 19:34; 20:27; 1 John 4:2-3). Through the Word, all things, not only spiritual things as gnostics would contend, came into being. This is clear not only in the statement in v.3 which emphasises this with both a positive and negative clause but in an alternative reading of the verse. The NRSV, as also the UBS standard Greek text,¹ places “What has come into being” (he gegonen) at the beginning of a new sentence leading into v.4, in line with how the Church Fathers, as well as gnostics, read the text. However, many other translations read v.3 as a whole, thus the NIV: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Ostensibly this is redundant, although that isn’t a huge problem as v.2 also seems a redundant restating of v.1. What is significant about this reading is why the gnostics chose the former.² If he gegonen completes one sentence in v.3 then John leaves no possible alternative translation: The Word made all which has been made, that is, the already made physical world. Alternatively, without this clause, it is apparently easier to read v.3 immaterially, as early gnostics did without question!

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¹That is, one of the standard agreed upon texts. This is still under debate as the original manuscripts were not punctuated.

²The Fathers did too, yet clearly for other reasons, bar probably Origen!

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Not too long ago I finished Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, a wee book with an accomplished philosopher’s take on the subject. Tomorrow I am required to write “a contemporary restatement on how the death of Jesus shows the love of God.” In defining what love is, I’ve found Badiou’s critiques of the contemporary, capitalist, individualist love to be of great prophetic value. He writes of a dating site with the slogan, “Get love without chance!”:

I believe this hype reflects a safety-first concept of “love”. It is love comprehensively insured against all risks: you will have love, but will have assessed the prospective relationship so thoroughly, will have selected your partner carefully by searching online — by obtaining , of course, a photo, details of his or her tastes, date of birth, horoscope sign, etc. — and putting it all in the mix you can tell yourself: “This is a risk-free option!” … Clearly, inasmuch as love is a pleasure almost everyone is looking for, the thing that gives meaning and intensity to almost everyone’s life, I am convinced that love cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.¹

I was reminded of this by a quote from Jürgen Moltmann in the course reader: “Were God incapable of suffering then he would also be incapable of love.” Love, as putting another’s needs before oneself, requires risk, sacrifice, and even suffering.

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¹Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong, In Praise of Love (2009), translated by Peter Bush (London, England: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 6-7.

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Two of my questions for the upcoming ‘xam (two days!) deal with relating a theological concept in a postmodern, postfoundationalist context. For me the defining aspect of postmodernism is particularity. We have lost all confidence in universals and are thus deferred to a world of humble particulars. And that, too, may very well be the crossover point between postmodernism and Christian theology. I read recently, and from a pretty conservative scholar too, that Christianity cannot stand on its own as a set of doctrines, say like Buddhism; it is inextricably bound to the narrative of Yahweh’s work through Israel, the culmination of this in Jesus, and the ongoing work of the Church. There is no Christianity apart from this story.

In the history of theology, theologians have wrestled with what has come to be called “the scandal of particularity.” This is the problem of how such a particular narrative is supposed to have universal significance. Jesus was a man; he worked as a carpenter, to the exclusion of other forms of work; he was born to a particular family, not all families; he was born in Israel, not all nations. Not that these accidentals, among others, cannot be representative of all other particulars and thus have some universal significance, but the point is that God become human inevitably took on particulars in so doing.

Now as a large chunk of the history of theology and philosophy would have us assume, there is a God of the universal behind this particular. But what if the scandal of particularity requires the theological move that there is also a God of particularity who became Jesus? Luther’s logic went: “Jesus suffered and died on the cross; Jesus was God; God suffered and died on the cross.” Outside of Jesus and the narrative already mentioned, the most puzzling aspect of particularity in Christianity for me is God entering into time. If God is in a permanent state of isness, if he is the eternal, I am, how does this God operate within the finite terms of the wasis and will be? Maybe this is one of open theism’s strengths in pointing out the immanence of God in time..?

Here are a couple of questions to ponder:

Does the act of Creation (and creating time) depend on God’s prior particularity?

Is there a change in the universality of God through all interactions with Creation, especially the incarnation?

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Here’s one of my favourite passages from Kierkegaard, Anti-Climacus on defending Christianity in The Sickness unto Death:

Now we see how extraordinarily stupid … it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of human nature it manifests, how it connives even if unconsciously, with offense that in the end has to be rescued by a champion … To defend something is always to disparage it. Suppose that someone has a warehouse full of gold, and suppose he is willing to give every ducat to the poor–but in addition, suppose he is stupid enough to begin this charitable enterprise of his with a defense in which he justifies it on three grounds: people will almost come to doubt that he is doing any good.¹

He writes later in the book:

A pastor certainly ought to be a believer. A believer! And a believer, after all, is a lover; as a matter of fact, when it comes to enthusiasm, the most rapturous lover of all lovers is but a stripling compared with a believer. Imagine a lover. Is it not true that he would be capable of speaking about his beloved all day long and all night, too, day in and day out? But do you believe it could ever be possible for him, do you not think he would find it loathsome to speak in such a manner that he would try to demonstrate by means of three reasons that there is something to being love … Is it not obvious that the person who is really in love would never dream of wanting to prove it by three reasons or to defend it, for he is something that is more than all reasons and any defense: he is in love.²

Of course, it’s important to read Kierkegaard in context. Anti-Climacus is ironically making a defence against a primarily rational Christianity which has lost sight of its core. I wonder how possible it is to read this then as a denouncement of all defences or if Anti-Climacus is more so pointing out that defence does not add anything to the love between a believer and God. Love is completely affirmed internally so that to confer dependence onto the external is to undermine this internal logic. To focus completely on justifying faith to others subverts the argument by robbing faith of its extra-rational totality.

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¹Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 87.

²Ibid., 103-4.

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