Archive for January, 2011

Schleiermacher – The Christian Faith (§86-120)

01/31/2011

Schleiermacher is often seen as something of an antagonist in modern theology. The trenchant criticisms of Karl Barth and other theologians of the so-called neo-orthodox movement have left the reputation of the great 19th century German Dogmatician – to that time without modern equal – somewhat tarnished.  I was, coming myself from the theological milieu which looked askance at Schleiermacher, thoroughly unprepared for how great Schleiermacher’s works is. Really, this was a misjudgement.  Karl Barth, in his own Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, says that Scheleiermacher’s own remarks about Fredrick the Great apply to the theologian himself: Schleiermacher founded not a school, but a whole era. I once met the claim, made in fact in the preface to this work, that Schleirmacher’s The Christian Faith is a superior to Calvin’s Institutes with some credulity. Now, however, I’m not so sure. In retrospect, I probably should not really have been surprised by Schleiermacher’s brilliance, given even Barth’s reverence for the master, but I certainly did not expect his The Christian Faith to be as great as it is.

Schleiermacher covers a lot of dogmatic ground in his work, but I want to concrete on what I found the most interesting part of my portion of the readings: his conception of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth in §97:

For Schleiermacher, the doctrine of the virgin birth is one that he views with some suspicion. In fact, he questions both its (i) historicity and (ii) its dogmatic utility, but without simply discounting the doctrine altogether.

i.) Schleiermacher notes that the New Testament witnesses to the virgin birth are scarce. The stories are not referred to any in apostolic work outside their mention in the birth narratives in the gospel. Because all indications lead one to assume that the apostolic and early church did either not know or place any great emphasis on the idea of a virgin birth, Schleiermacher sees no reason to place any historical emphasis on the doctrine either, and says that one can certainly “believe in Christ the redeemer without believing in his supernatural conception in this sense” (404).

ii.) Schleiermacher’s critique of the dogmatic value of the Virgin Birth is even more scathing. First, he takes cognisance of the theological position that states that sin is inherited. Christ, because he was not being produced through sexual generative power, does not inherit sin. Schleiermacher observes that Christ would still inherit sin, in this rather venereal view of transmission, through his connection with his mother. Of course, certain segments of Roman Catholicism have postulated that Mary was herself born sinless (the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception). Schleiermacher notes the infinite regress involved with this tenuous position. Because, he says, there has been no tradition postulating a series of sinless mothers from Mary backwards, this doctrine is therefore dogmatically superfluous.

The only grounds one has, Schleiermacher says, for holding this doctrine is related to one’s doctrine of scripture. That is, on how one interprets the New Testament, and not on any theological foundations relating to Christ’s divinity or sinlessness. Schleiermacher also rejects two corollaries that have arisen related to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. The notion that Mary remained a virgin all her life is to be rejected as baseless, and we must also reject the notion that the doctrine of the virgin birth is to be taken as some sort of condemnation of sexuality as such, “as if its satisfaction was something sinful and productive of sin” (406).

What do other people think of Schleiermacher’s view of the virgin birth given its place in the Creeds? And, furthermore, what of the dichotomy he establishes between a Virgin birth in the particular sense, and supernatural birth in the more general sense?  Schleiermacher says, “Similarly anyone who cannot accept them [the biblical accounts of the virgin birth] as literally and historically true is still quite free to hold the doctrine proper of the supernatural conception. But if it is superfluous to set up a doctrine of the virgin birth proper, it is also inadvisable to do so, for this involves one all too easily in investigations of a purely scientific character which lie outside our sphere” (406). I, for one, think Schleiermacher is veridical; the doctrine of the virgin birth is not gynaecological.

Local Happenings

01/26/2011

I wanted to update my readers about some upcoming events.

1) I’ll be rejoining a Lacan study group at the Washington School of Psychiatry starting on February 9th. We’ll be reading Lacan and Freud, and the group we’ll meet every other Wednesday. Contact me if you’re interested in joining. The cost for students is $15/session.

2) At my local church in Arlington, I’ll begin teaching a theology class starting in March on Sunday mornings at 9:45. I think I’ll begin teaching a class on a theology of Holy Saturday. After that I’m hoping the class picks up some steam as we begin to wade through Grenz’s 20th Century Theology. I’m fairly open to teaching whatever, everything from postmodern theology to the church fathers. The Grenz book will be a way to open up the range of possibilities of different theologies the class could explore further. Eventually I’d like to spend some time that would align with my other supplemental projects: atonement (Feb-Apr), theodicy (May-July), liberation theology (Aug-Dec). I’ve thought about teaching Kotsko’s Politics of Redemption because it’s on my reading list (and Catholic U just got it in), and it integrates a variety of themes I’d like to cover: patristics, atonement, liberation theology, etc. I’ll keep readers updated. Also, I’d invite any lurkers from the DC area to join me.

Schleiermacher – The Christian Faith (§46-85)

01/24/2011

I want to focus the majority of my comments on this section of The Christian Faith on the attributes of God, which I found it be the most interesting part of this section.

1) God’s eternality suggests that God’s timeless causality conditions all that is temporal, including time itself. Man’s religious self-consciousness is contingent on the idea of God’s eternality and omnipotence. According to Schleiermacher, “religious consciousness…becomes actual only as consciousness of His eternal power” (§52). The feeling of absolute dependence demands that no change in God is posited. The doctrine of divine immutability has of course been challenged more and more by twentieth century theologians. Interestingly enough, Schleiermacher has to ignore a significant amount of biblical material to maintain this doctrine, which seems more beholden to his romantic philosophy than to the biblical narrative.

2) Schleiermacher refuses to acknowledge a distinction in God’s omnipotence between the possible and actual, or between God’s power and God’s will. The omnipotent causality of God is absolute and undifferentiated. It is worthless and confusing to try and posit any distinctions in God’s omnicausality.

3) As I mentioned in a comment in the previous post, it is very interesting to notice what Schleiermacher excludes from his dogmatics. In §59 he discusses Leibniz’s idea of the best world. Schleiermacher dismisses this as a product of speculative rational (natural) theology. Although he endorses the original perfection of the world, he is skeptical of Leibniz’s doctrine of the best world. Instead he prefers to think of this world as good (which of course is faithful to the creation myths in Genesis). The reason he rejects this speculative doctrine is because it is not a product of religious consciousness and because it attributes to God anthropomorphic ideas such as mediate knowledge (which would imply an imperfection in God) and alternative choice.

4) In an attempt to maintain God’s unlimited omnipotence we must come to terms with the idea that sin “is ordained by God as that which makes redemption necessary” (§81). From Schleiermacher’s perspective, redemption can only be ordained by God if sin is likewise is ordained by God. However, Schleiermacher refuses to think of God as the author of sin apart from God as the author of grace (in Barthian terms, God’s No is always in service of God’s Yes). Although this is difficult to accept, it is mandatory lest we fall into two heresies: Manicheanism (which argues that sin has an independent existence from God) or Pelagianism (which waters down the stark opposition between grace and sin)

5) In §85 Schleiermacher rejects mercy as an attribute of God. He believes this cannot be attributed to God because it introduces a sensuous sympathy in God’s character. This is not befitting of God because, like kindness, it posits that God can experience events or circumstances as agreeable or disagreeable. I was curious what others thoughts of this passage. Although his logic is impeccable, the fact that something as important as the mercy of God would be excluded from his dogmatics might suggest some inherent issues in the system. He will allow the mercy of God to have a place in preaching but not in dogmatics. I was especially thinking of Islam, and the fact that the mercy of God is actually the most used attribute in the Qur’an to describe God’s character.

Successful Awkwardness in Interreligious Dialogue

01/23/2011

Last night I had the pleasure of grabbing a drink with two of my good friends from graduate school. Unsurprisingly, the topic of religion came up for discussion. One of my friends is a Muslim, and she and I had a nice talk about Christianity and Islam. She and I had a lively discussion on the Christian claim that Jesus is God. In her view, Christianity has distorted Jesus’ true identity, as a mere prophet of God. Of course, in Islam, Jesus is lauded as a great prophet and the Messiah. She continued to insist that it is incredibly offensive to think that God would become man. In response, God gave the final revelation to the Prophet to correct Christianity’s aberrant teaching. What I found particularly interesting was her reaction to my claim that I wholeheartedly endorsed the incarnation (she also didn’t like my claim that God died in Christianity, but here I stand firmly in the Lutheran tradition). She said that it was “ridiculous” that I could actually believe that God would humiliate Godself and become man. Of course I have no proof to argue for the incarnation, rather it is an axiomatic decision that Christians are compelled to make (at least those who endorse creedal, orthodox Christianity). I found myself in a delicate position because I had no desire to ridicule her religion or theology, not because I’m mature and a good person. Rather I felt that if I were to try and play the “well I respect your beliefs, you should respect mine as well” card, the engagement would have been killed. Socially, I believe it would have been considered a major offense if I would have called her religious beliefs absurd or unbelievable (which is an entirely different matter). I also find Islam a very rational and believable religion. It makes a lot of sense, unlike Christianity, which is probably what led Tertullian to claim “I believe because it is absurd”. I found it hard to not be defensive, but I decided it would be best to listen and engage. We eventually claim to the conclusion that a belief in the incarnation is in fact the difference between Islam and Christianity. This should come as no surprise. Despite her offensiveness, I found this level of engagement incredibly refreshing. I prefer this sort of open and sometimes aggressive discussion as opposed to the niceness and false sentimentality of so much inter-religious discourse. True engagement is going to be uncomfortable, but awkwardness is probably a sign of successful dialogue. That is to say, if you’re not offended, it’s probably because someone in the discussion was being dishonest.

Schleiermacher – The Christian Faith (§1-45)

01/17/2011

Dogmatic. I imagine a heavy, convincing voice issuing the word in a large room of which the perfect level of reverb emerges. The word itself has a strong presence, a force to be reckoned with. My connotations are mostly negative, based in that authorities (both past and present) have used their power to quash the voices of truth and justice (however opposed to the status quo) when they arise from the margins. Such is the weight and force of the dogmatic.

However, in spite of this, we are precisely concerned with the dogmatic work of Friedrich Schleiermacher in The Christian Faith (Ed. by Mackintosh, H. R., and Stewart, J. S., T. & T. Clark, 1928). Schleiermacher’s study of Christian dogmatics initiates with its definition, for we cannot rightly say anything useful about dogmatics before first knowing where it originates (§1). Continuing, Schleiermacher wishes, alongside a definition, to point out the ‘method’ of dogmatics; for we wish to know how Dogmatics will affect the Christian life, as evidenced by the title of this work. (While I do not have the space to hash out every aspect of Schleiermacher’s comprehensive propositions, my interest in ecclesiological matters led to the author’s focus on the Church in regards to Dogmatics.)

Schleiermacher, from the outset, contends that Dogmatics can only happen in the wake of religious communion (§1). First, he discusses modes of consciousness which lead to a religious self-consciousness. Piety as “a state in which Knowing, Feeling, and Doing are combined,” (11) is consummated in the self-awareness of absolute dependence–forming a relationship with God (§4). The maturation of consciousness (to absolute-dependence) is the context which necessitates communal development and allows for the religious self-consciousness to open up and embrace the self-consciousness of others–forming community (27).

From Church–as a community of religious self-conscious individuals–there is preaching (drawing on the original preaching of the gospels). Preaching is the “self-renewing circulation” (29) of the religious self-consciousness within communion. Schleiermacher asserts dogmatics can only be considered a complete system when dogmatic expression of preaching is brought into a coherent relationship with dogmatic propositions (87). In other words, the work of dogmatic theologians ensues the expression of church life; Schleiermacher establishes an interdependency between communion and dogmatic theology. Because of this interdependency, dogmatics is situated in the historical realm: “Each presentation confines itself to the doctrine existing at a certain time… Text-books of the seventeenth century can no longer serve the same purpose as they did then… and the same fate will one day befall the present ones too” (87).

I should also note, that in regard to particularity and method, he also emphasized that dogmatics is focused on the person of Jesus and the effect of his redemption. Essentially, no dogmatic proposition can fit in without adhering to these two presuppositions (§11).

After composing a pertinent definition and methodology for dogmatics, Schleiermacher opens with his doctrine of creation; one must begin with defining our absolute dependence on the world we find ourselves. He claims absolute-dependence can only remain pre-eminent so long as we claim that nothing could have come into existence unless it is from the work of God (§§40-41). Schleiermacher affirms the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (153), creation from nothing, to belay the absolute-dependence of man in relationship to God. Admitting that God did not create, from nothing, everything would erode the foundations of humanity’s relationship with God (153). In doing so, he highlights an inconsistency with classical rabbinical work on creation. In my personal exegesis of the creation story, I found the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo to be largely un-biblical. The Hebrew text closes off the experience of the reader to the primordial event of creation–the moment, the divine fiat, of creation is unknown to us. Schleiermacher seems to admit a problem in the relationship between creation and time, but quickly dismisses its relevance to the feeling of absolute-dependence–critical to his doctrine of creation (155).

Reader’s Guide to Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith

01/11/2011

I began reading Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith this evening. I’ve gotten through Chapter I of the introduction, and I am pleasantly surprised with his elegant and succinct style . Anyway, for those following along with us, I’m attaching an excellent resource. It includes short summaries of each section of The Christian Faith. Also, I’ve added a new page for the reading weekly reading schedule.

Kant – Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone

01/10/2011

It would be a task nigh impossible to avoid Immanuel Kant. Very few are the figures who cast intellectual shadows as long as this Prussian does. He is, quite possibly, the most important figure in modern philosophy. Though, to be sure, Kant did not bequeath a philosophical system that produced a “school” in the proper sense of epigonic followers, one cannot imagine a philosopher who has or even could ignore Kant’s works, so significant were his contributions. Kant is not merely a representative of the Enlightenment, he is the enlightenment, or at least its supreme eventuation – as his religious philosophy well demonstrates. Kant is little concerned with preserving an ossified and inadequate orthodoxy, though the Lutheran-pietistic influences of his youth are like dark clouds in his philosophy, though unseen and over the horizon, one can still hear their thunder, if one dimly.

Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is one of Kant’s later works, dating from 1793, and thus comes after his important philosophical treatises. In one of his prefaces to this work, Kant assures the reader of his Religion need no prior understanding of any of his previous philosophical work to comprehend this one, although such an understanding is of great practical service or even necessity to truly understand the whole of Kant’s theological project.

“Religion,” Immanuel Kant provocatively defines, “is (subjectively regarded) the recognition of all [ethical] duties as divine commands” (142). Immanuel Kant is not concerned with the truth of Christianity (or its attendant doctrines) as such. Christianity, indeed, is not the true religion; though, in spite of certain erroneous tendencies, it does most appropriate the true, universal religion in that its ethical proscriptions are the most easily aligned with the religion of reason. For Kant, the religion of reason is one that is not bound to historical contingencies, as Christianity is, but one that abounds from a purely ethical standpoint. Consequently, we may note that Kant has a rather tepid view of historicity. Kant is ambivalent towards the quest for the historical Jesus or any attempt to ground the Christ of faith within the Christ of history. This does not mean that that he associates Christ with solely the Kerygma of the church, but rather that the Christ as a historical person can not help us achieve moral perfection any more than the ideal Son of God whom the church proclaims can. This issue is of course portended in his philosophy, and the largest problem I have with Kant’s theology. Because of it, Jesus Christ is stripped of any objective actuality as the self-revelation of God.

Given Kant’s epistemological prolegomena that he established in his previous (and epochal) trilogy of Critiques, the philosopher of course denies that religion is any sense a knowledge in abstracto of certain concepts; even, he says, of the existence of God. Such facts (e.g. the existence of God) are supersensible in nature and merely intellectual hypotheses of the speculative variety.

Kant, in the end, yokes basically  all facets of religious consideration to its ability to increase or impinge ones ethical effectives; for Kant the end is morality, as is the beginning.

Personal Reflections:

Immanuel Kant has a reputation for being difficult to read. The preface the Penguin Classic edition of the Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason relays the anecdote of one philosopher who, so dismayed at Kant ostentatious and demanding style of writing, collapsed after the second page, having understood nothing. I found this work of Immanuel Kant hardly so difficult, although I owe this more to the audience Kant was writing for and the concepts he was writing about. These religious matters as set out in this book are hardly as intricate as hard-core epistemology. Wrestling with Kant is something I must say that I found surprisingly agreeable, even if I did not find his theology to be such. Regardless, Kant’s reputation of immense brilliance is certainly well deserved.

Three Book Reviews of Liberation Theology

01/06/2011

Last week I continued my project of reading works of liberation and feminist theology. I began by reading Mercy Amba Oduyoye’s Introducing African Women’s Theology. It is a short work of African feminist theology that goes through major doctrines: Christology, anthropology, ecclesiology, hospitality/spirituality, and eschatology. I was especially interested in the chapters on Christology and hospitality. Oduoyoye discusses the preferred Christology of African feminist theology: the Victorious Christ. She argues that African feminist theologians prefer to focus on a Christology from below as opposed to the high metaphysical Christological debates on the nature of Christ. She insists, much like St. Clair (whose book I will be reviewing later), that African women can endorse a Christ who suffers, but only a Christ who suffers voluntarily (55). Another interesting aspect of this book was her discussion of hospitality. She discusses the importance of the ethics of hospitality in African culture and the perils that lie within. Oduyoye notes that hospitality makes one vulnerable. Also welcoming the other is a theological responsibility since “all guests are sacred” (98). Moreover she writes, “the great hospitality that moves from charity to justice and solidarity and results in a just development and a world inhabitable by all” (98).

I also read Ogbonnaya’s On Communiatrian Divinity: An African Interpretation of the Trinity. In my opinion, this book was a bit disjointed. Also, it suffered from an inordinate amount of grammatical and spelling errors. The basic argument is that African religion offers us a different view of God as community. In fact he suggests that African theology is best captured by the idea of communotheism, where the different God all shares in the same divine substance. In the final two chapters he discusses Tertullian’s doctrine of God, which Ogbonnaya believes needs to be grounded in his African context. He argues that Tertullian’s subordinationsim is not ontological, but rather temporal and functional. I did not really buy this argument, as he seemed to go to great lengths to clear Tertullian’s name of any hint of subordinationsim. I found the beginning part of the book more interesting, especially his rejection of African religion being described by monotheistic or polytheistic.

My favorite work was Racquel A. St. Clair’s Call and Consequence: A Womanist Reading of Mark. St. Clair’s work includes an excellent and detailed exegesis of the gospel of Mark. She is attempting to bridge the gap between womanist theology and womanist biblical studies. Although she in agreement with other womanist theologians that African American women have too many crosses to bear, she rejects the view of Jesus as a co-sufferer. However, she does not want to abandon the cross like Delores Williams who believes that the cross has been used to a symbol of abuse that encourages African American women to accept “shame, suffering, and surrogacy”. She spends the majority of the book exegeting Mark 8:31-38. Specifically, she wants to argue against any notion that God willed Jesus’ suffering must be rejected. She argues that we ought to read Mark 8:31: “the Son of Man must suffer many things” not as divinely willed, but rather as an inevitability given his ministry is one that conflicts with political and religious leaders of the time. The scholarship can be dense, but ultimately I believe her interpretation is correct and well argued. Disciples of Jesus will experience pain because of the difficulties that arises when one opposes oppression. I’ll let St. Clair have the last word: “domestic violence and domestic jobs; dropouts and drive-bys; the corporate glass ceiling and election vote stealing; high incarceration but low graduation rates; inadequate healthcare and inferior housing; stereotypes that depict us as caricatures rather than complete persons. These are not crosses for us to bear. They are challenges that we must overcome. And the call, the challenge, is not suffering with Jesus; it is ministering like Jesus” (167).