Disagreeing to agree: On theological dialogue

A commenter recently asked me to clarify the stakes of a comment-thread debate, and ultimately all I could say was that I was advancing a consistent position, but it seemed to me that my interlocutors were constantly moving the goalposts so that my critique would not fully apply. This was emblematic of my interactions with confessional theologians at that time, particularly Barthians. They would agree that traditional articulations of (for instance) transcendence were problematic, but that only meant that we had to find the good transcendence! Often Karl Barth was held to be the source of the “good version,” which was so radically distinct from the pre-Barthian version as to be invulnerable to any conventional line of attack. It was almost a parody of Dan Barber’s critique of the quest for “good versions” — but with no attempt to articulate the concrete difference between the good and bad versions. If I did not concede that they indeed had a better version of what I was critiquing, the conversation would veer toward a consideration of how we could never truly have a conversation in the first place due to our incompatible axiomatic commitments. The whole thing became tiring, presumably from both ends — most of that traditional theology crowd does not show up in comment threads anymore (though comments are very inactive generally speaking).

Prior to the resort to incommensurable values, the exchange reminded me of a conversation I had with a Nazarene youth pastor. This was a “cool” youth pastor, someone I had gone to college with, someone who listened to Radiohead. I had just read Blue Like Jazz at my mom’s recommendation, and I shared that it made me viscerally angry, because it seemed to be nothing but an attempt to rationalize remaining affiliated with something that was hurting the author and other people around him. When pressed, I suggested that the youth pastor was doing the same thing. His objective function was to make young people feel just comfortable enough being affiliated with the church that they would maintain that affiliation through young adulthood and ultimately raise their children in the church — an institution that, I consistently argued, would hurt them as it had hurt me (and honestly, had hurt everyone in that room).

I was arguing, in short, that he had an ethical obligation to quit his job and abandon the institution he had chosen to serve, but he kept insisting that we were not in fundamental disagreement and could hash the issue out over a couple beers (because, yes, he was that kind of hipster Christian). At that point, simple disagreement would have been a relief — in fact, anger and outrage would have been a relief. After all, I was telling him his life’s calling was destructive and dangerous. In this situation, if he had veered toward a meta-conversation about how we come from such different starting points that we can’t even really have a conversation, it would have felt dishonest and even passive-aggressive. It would have been a coded way of saying that because I’m not a Christian, because I’m not saved, because I’m lost and mired down in the false wisdom of this world, I can’t understand the goodness they experience, or why it’s important to maintain the connection to the church even with all its faults.

The Radically Orthodox are more honest in their presentation, when they talk of secular philosophy as representing “fallen reason,” as a form of malign nihilism. Of course, their God is able to turn evil to good, and the same holds for the conceptual ingenuity of the nihilists. You can have all that is best in those philosophers you love, all that is compatible with Christ — and the theologian is offering you that opportunity. You can have your social critique, to the exact extent that it does not threaten the foundations of Christian dogma. You can have your quest for justice, which turns out to point toward a revamped version of Christendom.

You really can have it all! All the wisdom of this world, all the kingdoms of the world they will give you, if you will bow down and worship…. And if you won’t? Then you must have misunderstood, or be beyond saving. The resort to incommensurable axioms is a euphemism, a fake — because they can’t admit that you genuinely have a principled position of your own. They can’t do you the courtesy of directly disagreeing. At this point, one wishes for the straightforwardness of Satan, who responded to Jesus’ rejection of his offer by arranging to have him killed. The prince of this world did not realize that it can often be worse to kill them with kindness.

The White Christian’s Burden

This is the text of a talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival 2014. The theme of the Festival was “Travelling Light”; my talk was originally called “Travelling Heavy”, and I summarised it for the programme as follows:

Christianity doesn’t travel light. It is weighed down with history, much of it shameful. But if we don’t understand our past we can’t understand how it continues to form us, and we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. What would it mean for us to deal with the burdensome history of Christendom?

 

I want to start by telling you three stories, that may or may not be familiar to you.

The first story is about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.* Not long before the Winter Olympics took place, Vladimir Putin passed a law banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors’, which is to say that there was a ban on anything that could be construed as pro-LGBT propaganda. It wasn’t very clear exactly what was being banned, or how thoroughly it was being banned; there was some ambiguity over whether wearing a rainbow lapel pin would count as propaganda to minors, and the Russian government said different things at different times about whether non-Russian citizens would be arrested for breaking the law. But there was a huge outcry in the UK and the US. Celebrities wrote op-eds. Stephen Fry wrote an open letter. Gay rights activists loudly argued that we should boycott Russian vodka, or even the Olympics as a whole. Lots of people I know, including lots of Christians, shared articles on Facebook and Twitter, and talked angrily about how terrible it was that Russia were doing such awful things to their LGBT population. Continue reading “The White Christian’s Burden”

Strangest and weirdest stories in the Bible?

As I am finishing up my second lectionary preaching book, tentatively titled The World is Crucifixion and under contract, for the first time in my preaching ministry I am going completely off-lectionary for a series on the strangest or weirdest stories in the Bible, beginning the last Sunday in Christmastide to the final Sunday of Epiphany, which is traditionally Transfiguration Sunday.  The final “strange story” will be the transfiguration.

Obviously, what I think are weird stories from the Bible might be different from what others think.  Here’s a list I’ve assembled from some internet searching about what people think are strange stories in the Bible: Continue reading “Strangest and weirdest stories in the Bible?”

What if the gates of hell did prevail against it?

A theological hypothetical for all those armchair ecclesiologists in the audience: what if literally every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishop suddenly died before they were able to ordain any new bishops? How would apostolic succession be preserved or “retconned”? Would Anglican orders suddenly turn out to be “good enough”? Would priests be upgraded to bishops? Is there already a contingency plan hidden in the depths of the Vatican?

A link in honor of Martin Luther King Day

At Women in Theology, Amaryah Armstrong has a post critiquing the idea of “racial reconciliation”:

I want to be clear here that conflict resolution at an interpersonal level is important for life together, but the framework of reconciliation, even when it attempts to speak about justice, values the confession and the future to come above the present. Reconciliation displaces structural analysis for narratives of various experiences that end with a unity in Christ and a theological vision that is white. These narratives are used to imbue hope for the possibility of reconciliation but they actually prevent the possibility of ending white supremacy, anti-blackness, and racism because it is the supercessionist framework itself that is the problem. Reconciliation thus becomes a way of displacing structural dominance and oppression to the level of inter-personal conflict and confessions of privilege, moving our focus away from the ways Christianity itself structures racial domination and racial formation. Because reconciliation is never able to call Christianity itself into question as a problematic framework, only white people. Reconciliation continues to reproduce an inability to recognize itself as that which produces the division in the first place through its narration of identity as things to be superceded. Rather than clarifying relations of power, reconciliation mystifies them.

In addition to its intrinsic interest, her post includes many helpful links.

Sermon: Duck Dynasty and the Separation of Church and Hate

I preached this sermon this morning, the readings are the lectionary for Christmastide 2, Jeremiah 31:1-14 and John 1:1-18.  The sermon led into a celebration of communion.

The prophet Jeremiah’s words characterizes the captors of the Jewish people, the Babylonians, as bullies, and celebrates that God keeps his promises, but only after God’s people recognize that they just can’t pay lip service to God, but that following God requires a real sacrifice.

This is perhaps the most important message of prophesy the church needs to hear today, as it was one of the most pervasive themes of the Old Testament prophets to the Jewish people.  The message remains the same, but the circumstances are very different.

I will return to this, but I want to talk about some things happening in the past month, during the season of Advent, as we continue through these twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany.

The philosopher Mary Daly’s most famous teaching is from her book, Beyond God the Father, written in the early 1970s, that “As long as God is male, the male is God.”  Her point is that the attributes we ascribe to God are often reflections of our own identities.  Continue reading “Sermon: Duck Dynasty and the Separation of Church and Hate”