around our dining room table, cindy and stumbled our way into an interesting conversation while we picked at our dinner of salad greens, polish sausage, microwave-baked potatoes, and yogurt. cindy is taking a summer class on the modern catholic novel (e.g., graham greene, flannery o’connor, etc.) that has led into a lot of discussions about grace, revelation, creation, and natural law. between this and my recent interest in barth, we’re lucky our dinner conversation doesn’t become a food fight.

on monday night, the connection between ontological and hermeneutical assumptions was at issue. somehow paul ricoeur functioned as the jumping off point for the whole to-do, but i can’t quite remember how. it ended with the two of us washing dishes and making some tea while i pontificated on the difference between what, for lack of better terminology, i call the abstract stance and the narrative stance. cindy eventually handed me the dish towel and politely excused herself on the pretext of reading for class.

still, i think i’m on to something (that’s probably already been said). i should credit barth (and, indirectly, von balthasar’s treatment of barth) with directing me to the happening character of God’s relationship to us. most emphatically in Jesus, but in God’s history with israel too, God comes to us in events, in actions, in moments of time. the word history itself betrays this event-like, actual character, and it provides an excellent entrance into story or narrative as the conceptual framework that structures our theological and doxological reflection.

this sort of active, happening understanding of our relationship with (or, perhaps better, relating to) God seems to pervade the new testament, or, at least, it promotes a better reading of many passages. mark, matthew, luke, paul, and john of patmos all embrace an eschatological vision that waits for God to bring all things together at the parousia through the final intervention of Jesus. debatably, john can be added to this list too. what this story-shaped stance produces is an openness to God’s continued action, the conviction that he exceeds every particular revelatory event (with the exception of Jesus, who in turn superabounds every formulation of his identity–why else do we have four Gospels?), and hope, a hope in God finishing the story he started.

the alternative is to abstract. this impulse develops early in church history, finding full-bodied expression in the work of the second-century apologists. in place of the unfolding action of narrative experience, theology becomes static, synchronic. one might blame the influence of hellenistic philosophy, the cultural play-dress-up that christians use to gain some intellectual capital. one might blame a lot things. in this view, God quickly moves from person to principle, the event of God’s breaking into our world become theoretical points, and hope becomes a conclusion. things are much more manageable (albeit pagan).

the way i see it, relating to God is not something that can be developed a priori (like marechal, de lubac, or rahner) or a posteriori (like bits of thomas, most of the scholastics, schleiermacher, etc.). it can neither be an assumption nor a deduction. it is something that happens, something we wait for, crying out “how long?” only when we see ourselves as standing in the middle of a story, between the “in the beginning” and the “amen,” do God and reason come together.

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theologian at the beach

June 10, 2008

i think i’m going to institute an international holiday, theologian at the beach day.

today i spent the afternoon stretched out in the shade of overhanging trees at hartigan beach. with my favorite hat slid low over my forehead, the sun beating down on my bare back, and my toes digging in the sand, i poured over von balthasar’s introduction to barth’s theology. the book is excellent, coming highly recommended by cindy’s fr. bosco. the beach is better. put the two together, and magic happens.

the sandy pages of von balthasar’s the theology of karl barth are highly worth your time. he traces lines of continuity and development in barth, his move from dialectical theology to the analogy of faith. the book gives some much needed context to my hard-fought progress through church dogmatics.

between swatting flying ants and rubbing sand off my coffee mug, i jotted this passage down in my commonplace book. von balthasar draws it from barth’s adolescent prolegomena to christian dogmatics. it’s something that may have been very helpful in my own adolescent theological flailing about.

Recent New Testament exegesis has been influenced by phenomenology, and Kierkegaard’s anti-Hegelianism is a philosophy too. … We all wear our own special pair of glasses, without which we would see nothing at all. We must use some framework to unlock the biblical message. We do not intend to save theology by waging war on a particular philosophy. … Using the same philosophical presuppositions, a man can hear the Word aright or wrongly. Philosophy does not threaten theology because it is philosophy, or a particular brand of philosophy. It becomes a threat only when its relative influence on our hearing of the Word is not taken into consideration.

to participate in international theologian at the beach day, roll up your jeans, grab your swimtrunks, or slip into a bikini, and reach for your nearest theological tome (the denser the better). then walk down to your nearest lakeshore, city park, forest preserve, or trout stream, and relax in the sun with your karl barth-equivalent.

(this may need to develop into a weekly habit for me.)

last night i woke up around 3:30 am. i haven’t installed the new-to-us air conditioning unit in the bedroom window as of yet and yesterday was the first day in the chicago summer to feel like it spiked ninety degrees. so i was up in the not-yet-grey hours of the morning, dehydrated and unable to fall back to sleep.

naturally, i turned to karl barth to keep me company while i drank a cup of decaf chocolate-hazelnut tea (good stuff) and sat next to the window. as i struggled through church dogmatics‘ thick prose, the distance between barth’s germanic-reformed meaning of evangelical and my own rocky mountain, non-denominational take on the word kept pushing its way to the fore of my mind.

at times i really like barth. in many ways the same unhelpful alternatives face us that faced believers eighty years ago: the protestant modernism and catholic (super)naturalism that barth protests are still with us, though in new and modified forms. barth swoops in from above to offer a third way, completely outside the assumed possibilities of the dueling protestants and catholics. this much i like.

but i don’t like barth enough. not enough to become like him, to take him on as my theological exemplar. it’s the same problem i have when i consider attaching myself to a denomination: i find things i like in many of them (anglicanism, mennonite-ism (?), even catholicism) but nothing that compels me to become one of them.

this, i think, is a classic evangelical problem. i’ve called evangelicalism the orphan and the widow of the church, and i will stand by that. as for those of us raised in un- or losely-affiliated churches (often with “bible” somewhere in their names), we have no roots, no tradition to draw on. further we have no authority to appeal to, no one to give us definitive direction. so many of us end up walking around like a little bird, asking “are you my mother?” to whatever crosses our path. when we go looking for tradition, we can’t perform a chestertonian or eliot-esque conversion, not because of a lack of good options but because of our lack of something to be converting from. it’s like trying to learn a new language without even a glimmer of the rudimentary grammar of the language we already speak.

this said, i think a quest for a tradition (or even for what can be redeemed in evangelicalism itself) is a worthwhile endeavour–just a difficult one. it’s not one to be stumbled into unreflectively or haphazardly (slapdash, cindy would say). for my own part, i’ve pasted together two somewhat firm guides for the manner in which i go about this:

1. no tradition will be perfect. every denomination, organization, association or movement has its falling-down points, its embarrassments, its closeted skeletons. there will be the inspiring, captivating prophets who draw me to it (the barths, von balthasars, rahners, and john howard yoders), but each tradition will also have its loud, awkward, blustering members (whether in the pew, in the pulpit, or holding the pen) who smell funny, talk loudly, and misbehave (in ways not in vogue). don’t shoot for shiny perfection.

2. broader is better. (this perhaps betrays my jesuit education.) the older and more rooted a tradition, the more varied and sometimes in tension its current manifestations will be. i used to go a-questing for theological orthodoxy, down to my fine points of disagreement with my undergrad’s conservative systematics textbook. how dumb of me! a strait-jacket’s a strait-jacket even when you agree with it. a broader tradition (even if sometimes doctrinally-fringey) has room to listen and respond to God’s voice in ways that go beyond my own interests. it opens up the possibility for me to care about imagining what the claim “Jesus is Lord” looks like lived out here, to read church theology, to invite people over to our very hot apartment for soup (maybe a bisque), and yet the concrete physical needs of refugee families or the prophetic voice to power (etc.) still are carried out by other members (if not other orders).

it’s a hot afternoon now, and i need to see to that air conditioner if i want to sleep better tonight. i’d love to hear your thoughts on your traditions and how you’ve come to them.