How is Biblical Literalism a Secular Phenomenon?

Mosaic from the Papal Basilica of San Paulo Florida le Mura, used as the cover to Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory.

This post can also be found on Ed’s personal blog, here.

A good while ago, I put together a post arguing for the secular nature of Biblical Literalism. I’m still fond of the post, and I stand by the argument. But one thing it lacks is an definition of what it means to be secular, beyond a crude presumption that secular phenomena originate outside of thought proceeding from God’s nature. Continue reading


Broaching Impossible Thinkers

Incomprehensible therapy, courtesy of Existential comics

It’s that time of year again—students are anticipating the start of the school year, whilst we’ve already started in America. And it’s almost guaranteed that the start of a new year will bring us into contact with new thinkers, new writers.

Some of these thinkers will be relatively easy for us to get to grips with. Their arguments will fit quite neatly with our preconceptions of how such things should work, their style will be amenable and familiar to us, and we won’t have much difficulty discerning why they are writing what they write. They might be more technical, more dense than most of things we read for pleasure—but jargon can be learnt, density worked through.

Some of the names we come across, however, will seem impossible. To pick one concrete example, and one likely to be encountered by Oriel Theology students, Karl Barth can seem incomprehensible at best, deliberately obtuse at worst. His magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics, takes years (possibly decades) to read in its entirety. It can seem laden with irreconcilable contradictions. His habit of making the same point in five, ten, twenty different ways, repeating more or less the same sentence with only minor alterations (to say nothing of the fact that these sentences can sometimes consume half a page), can seem in ore hurried moments like a vindictive attempt to waste students’ time. And depending which part of the Dogmatics you happen to be reading, he can seem like a deeply, deeply unpleasant man—one who feels confident castigating human beings for the slightest of infractions who wields Scripture as a weapon against any notion of human dignity. At least, this is how he seemed to me when I had to read him for the God, Christ and Salvation paper.

Other thinkers can seem impossible for different reasons. Wittgenstein (who might not be encountered directly in an analytic theology department, but will always be lurking in the background) seems genuinely ignorant of the possibility that he might have some responsibility for making his work comprehensible. Derrida (who is highly unlikely to be encountered in an analytic theology department) seems to have considered this possibility, and to have quite consciously done the precise opposite. To say Aquinas’ style is jarring to read would be an extreme understatement, especially if we don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Aristotle. Augustine are Calvin, meanwhile, can seem in many ways easy to read—but that accessibility is complicated by the sheer volume of their work, the intricacy of their reasoning, and the extremity of their conclusions. (It’s worth noting that all the thinkers I’ve spoken of here are western males—this has more to do with my own narrowness than anything else).

How, then, are we to broach these thinkers? Because it’s often important that we do. It’s important in terms of grades; I for one got a 58 in that God, Christ and Salvation paper, in large part because I didn’t think it worth the time to try and figure out what Barth was actually trying to say and why. And it’s important in terms of overall understanding: Derrida might be anathema in analytic schools, whilst Wittgenstein has largely fallen out of fashion, but the core of what they are trying to say, however obliquely, is of extreme relevance to what many analytic philosophers are trying to say.

I’m not sure if there’s a single answer to this question—different things will work for different people. But I can say one thing that has made reading all the figures above considerably easier for me: reading their biographies.

There are several reasons for this. First, it’s easy to suppose that biography is inessential to argument; in terms of raw logic, at least, an argument is valid or invalid irrespective of history, and a philosophical truth is both the same truth and will remain true irrespective of the life of the one who expressed it. Whether or not these things are the case, however (and to claim that they are is itself a philosophical claim), it is easier to understand what a difficult thinker is trying to say if they are read against the context of their life. The apparent incongruity between Barth’s severity and his generosity, between his hostility against every form of natural theology and his awareness that every theology is at root a natural theology, dissolves when it is set in the context of National Socialism. Wittgenstein’s incomprehensibility becomes more comprehensible in the light of the awe he felt before beauty—when it is set in the context of his feeling utterly inadequate to say what he felt it most important to appreciate.

Second, biographies help to historicise a thinkers’ work. It’s easy to read a philosopher or a theologian as if they had entered the world as the finished article, as if their work at any given moment represented an essential unity rather than a historical progression. It’s easy to read the Calvin of the first Institutes as essentially the same as the Calvin of the third; the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations as the Wittgenstein of On Certainty; the Augustine of the Confessions as more or less the same as the Augustine who wrote against Julian so many years later. But while there is an identity over time, as there is in all of us, the Barth who wrote Volume 4 of the Church Dogmatics is more different to the Barth who first wrote volume 1 than the first year student is to the finalist. Knowing how and why this is the case is an essential part of delving into impossibly large corpuses of writing. It is essential for understanding both the underlying unity of and the differences between works produced at different stages of a single life, making clear the tensions which are often essential for understanding the apparent contradictions within a particular text.

Third and finally, it is because a good biographies can be a joy to read. Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, and Peter Brown’s Augustine are both genuine tour de forces of their genre. Karl Barth: His Life and Letters, collected and written by Eberhard Busch and Calvin by Bernard Cottret, whilst less immediately accessible, serve not just as vivid portraits of their subjects, but also as inspired accounts of pivotal moments in history. I’ve just started reading Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters, and it thus far promises to succeed in the seemingly impossible task of making Derrida (the man, as much as the philosopher) effortlessly readable. And this is no small thing—it is easy to forget what it feels like to read for joy when caught in the middle of either an undergraduate or a graduate degree programme. It’s easy to sacrifice such reading at the altar of the reading list. To forgo reading for pleasure, however, can make it harder to read for work; it can mean that the only reading we do is the reading which feels like effort, and so drains us. And if this reading for pleasure eventually makes it easier to read for duty, by making the work of these thinkers much easier to tackle, then so much the better.

To summarise, then; when we encounter thinkers whom we simply cannot seem to get to grips with, or thinkers who work is so extensive that we can never be sure quite where to begin, there are worse places to turn to than their biographies, if they indeed have one. These biographies make it easier to understand the thinker whose expression we find so difficult, and so easier to understand their expression. They help to historicise this expression, and so make sense of the underlying threads of development which constitute both the unity and difference within a given corpus. And they are often genuine pleasures to read, giving life to the soul rather than draining it.

This post is also on Ed’s personal blog,

Why Christian Orthodoxy?

image[This post is written from an explicitly Christian perspective, and from a particular Christian position at that. Its purpose is to explore what the study of orthodoxy might entail for the Christian believer. The point of studying theology from a neutral perspective has been brilliantly written on by Tara Isabella Burton here, and its account is far more generally valid!]

I can’t begin to say how wonderful it’s been to be back in Oxford. I’ll be heading back to America in August, but after four or so (more or less) continuous years across the pond, it’s nice to have six weeks to putter around this wonderful town.

One of the main advantages of being in Oxford is the ability to attend things like the end of a recent conference at Pusey House, where those present were blessed to see a number of excellent talks centring around the doctrine of the Trinity. Similarly, it’s lovely to be able to actually spend some time with some of the other authors on this blog.

With that said, there is an oddness, and a discomfort. Part of it is no doubt reverse culture-shock (a culture-shock which has been exacerbated by the news coming out of America these last few days), but there is still something else lying beneath. There was a moment during the day at Pusey which has particularly lingered with me—I think because of this ‘something else.’ The comment was made at some point that it’s almost impossible to be orthodox without having studied the Fathers (or something broadly to that effect)—a statement which was met with general assent. And why not? It probably is impossible to appreciate the depth of Christian doctrine without an awareness of its origins. All the same, I haven’t been able to shake a nagging discomfort provoked by the statement, or at least the general context of its utterance.

Part of this discomfort is probably down to the fact that I’m one of the only people to have studied under Bill who didn’t do patristics—and I’m only too aware of how significant this gap in my knowledge is. But as my thoughts have circled around this statement over the last few days, the same question has been popping up: ‘so what? Why would it matter if one were orthodox in that case?’ At the risk of self-indulgence (and not a little self-righteousness), I’d like to write a few paragraphs on the ‘why’ behind this question, and the implications its answers might have for the practical study of Christian doctrine. They have nothing much to do with the question of whether knowledge of patristics is essential to orthodoxy; only with the thoughts which followed from the nagging discomfort which this remark provoked.

First off, it is worth saying that neither this question nor this post are motivated by the belief that orthodoxy is unimportant. The core of Christian orthodoxy—which here refers principally (though not exhaustively) to the Nicene Creed and the later elucidation of Trinitarian theology, the definition of Chalcedon, the rejection of Pelagianism, and the fact that each of these rests on the authority of Scripture—is of essential importance to the vitality of Christian faith (of course, I’m also quite confident that this orthodoxy can be understood in accordance with the idea that the (human) language in which it is codified is inherently ambiguous, such that the proclamation and assent to words can never in itself definitively constitute the fullness of orthodoxy. The last I checked, however, such a belief has never been condemned as heresy, unless we tenuously include the modern Roman declaration against modernity!).

Nor is this question asked on the assumption that abstract theologizing, or investigation into the historical development of Christian doctrine, is either irrelevant or useless. Again, both of these practices are (and have always been) of essential importance to the life of the Church, and neither should be denigrated in the name of other practical vocations.

It has instead been nagging at me precisely because I believe orthodoxy to be important; precisely because I believe this study to be essential to the vitality of the Church. And there is something in the air which has led me to wonder whether the reasons for this importance are manifested here, in the atmosphere of academic theology.

To repeat the question, then—why does orthodoxy matter? I believe the reflections above contain the beginnings of an answer: it matters because it is key to the vitality of the Church. The next question is thus ‘why the Church, then?’ To gloss over a far wider debate, this is a question to which we have been given an answer: the reason of the Church is the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord. And so the answer to the question ‘why orthodoxy?’ is the same—orthodoxy matters because Jesus Christ is Lord.

Developing this a little: orthodoxy is important because it provides us with a means of talking about this Lordship of Jesus Christ, grounded in the mysteries of revelation borne witness to in Scripture. It clarifies and sharpens our sense of what is actually happening in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and through this (for most Christians, at least), it sharpens our sense of what is happening in the narrative of creation and fall, the words of the prophets, the Law, the history of Israel, the development of the Church, and so on. We are thus brought into a deeper sense of who God is, who we are, and what God’s will is for us today.

The key words in this, however, are ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ.’ These are the grounds of the importance of orthodoxy. And this means the focal point of orthodoxy is not doctrinal rigour or precision for their own sake, but rigour and precision for the sake of this same Jesus Christ (and Him crucified). The fact that the ‘why’ of orthodoxy is the Lordship of Christ therefore means that the content of that orthodoxy is necessarily intertwined with the life which Jesus, in this Lordship, calls us to pursue.

This in turn means that our focus in the study of orthodoxy must ultimately be the same as the focus of Jesus’ ministry, the focus of the God of Scripture—in the words of Isaiah 58:6-7, that our study must be explicitly, even if not directly, geared towards loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our houses, covering the naked, and opening ourselves to our own neighbours. Or, in the words of Luke 4:18-19, this study must ultimately echo the proclamation of good news to the poor, of release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; it must enable us to join the work of letting the oppressed go free and living out the reality of the year of the Lord’s favor.  In the words of today, it must proclaim against the killings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, as well as the police officers who have been killed in Dallas today, to mourn these deaths as Jesus wept, and to try and articulate a way forward in the grace of God.

This much can of course be said about the discipline itself. But there is more to it—for if this is what our field of study must do, in virtue of its object, then its students must do so as well. Students of orthodoxy must seek to live out this Gospel  through daily life, not vicariously, not indirectly, but as a practical aspect of our theological discipline. To study orthodoxy as a Christian in virtue of the Lordship of Jesus Christ necessitates the active pursuit of a life of discipleship. And this entails more than voting with conscience, ethical consumption, charitable giving, or advocacy for just causes (though these are all good and important things): it entails the twofold ministry of mourning with those who mourn, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and so seeking community with those who have been cast out and starved by the sins of our society, both to share in their celebrations and stand with them in their sorrows. To put it another way; the study and proclamation of orthodox belief must be set in the context of active participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ, as borne witness to in Scripture—the ministry of building relationships of grace at the margins of society. Otherwise our words run the risk of senselessness at best, hypocrisy and deception at worst.

All this has felt absent in the atmosphere of Oxford. And this, I believe, is a significant source of the above discomfort: the feeling that the study of orthodoxy in the academy is all too often disconnected from its practice. This is little more than a feeling, I should say—a lurking discomfort, a sense, not a confident judgement. And it may all be thoroughly misguided and mistaken. Even so, the sense is there, a feeling of the absence or hiddenness of the idea that the life of the Church is the necessary context of catholicity; of the idea that if we seek to study orthodoxy as Christians, then an integral part of that study must be the living out of our responsibility to the all-encompassing claim of God’s command, given in both the Law and the Gospel. Again, this may well be more a matter of blindness on my part than any actual hiddenness or absence; but I can say with relative confidence that it isn’t evident in the patterns of our discipline at large (I cannot, of course, say anything about the lives of students in particular, which would be beyond presumptuous). And even if these principles are there, perhaps sitting modestly beneath the surface of our visible life, their implications are worth making explicit, so as to show the integrity of the whole.

To clarify, none of this is said to try and argue that practise trumps doctrine in terms of importance—this is not a ‘life over doctrine’ rant, and to set one against the other in terms of value or priority is to misunderstand both. Neither do I believe that doctrine should be reduced to concrete ethical proclamation or subordinated to the goals of secular morality (c.f. several liberation and liberal theologies); on the contrary, I believe it is essential to theological ethics that the study and formulation of doctrine retain its own formal integrity and independence from concrete ethical expression. Nor is this said as if practise could supplant prayer in theology. Rather, it is said under the belief that the autonomous study of orthodox Christian doctrine itself, insofar as its object is Jesus Christ, demands the pursuit of this life as its outworking, even (and perhaps especially) of its scholars. The redemption that is in Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, very God and very man, is no abstract matter: it is a matter of the concrete realities faced by the victims of sin, ourselves included. The formal, historical, and doctrinal proprieties of orthodox faith are important, but they are important because they serve to bring the concrete practice of this redemption into sharper focus. And without setting their study in the broader context of this practice, without bringing orthodoxy into encounter with the day to day life of dispossession, without engaging with both the joys and the sorrows of this life, the theologian is akin to someone who claims to be a chess-player after they have learnt a large amount of strategy, but never actually played a game; their claim is not strictly false, but there’s something not quite right about it too.

In any case, theology is not ‘a wonderful glass-bead game played for its own sake by its company of initiates in a quiet valley with no outward contacts.’ (Barth, The Christian Life, 96) It may well be, then, that one cannot be an orthodox theologian without a clear grasp of the Fathers, and in truth, I have no real opinion on this matter. In virtue of the subject of this orthodoxy, however, to articulate this faith outside of a life which seeks to share community with the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the alien, the poor, with those crushed by sin—to do this is to speak doctrine outside of the life of Jesus Christ, outside the life of Church, and so to rob the words of both their substance and their sense. They can only hang in the air; the institution of their use is lacking. The lecture halls, the classrooms, and the chapels of our academies are so often disconnected from many of the worlds where Jesus Christ spent his time; they are so often disconnected from many of the people with whom He built community (this is, it should go without saying, principally because we are lost and needy—not those to whom the academies are closed). We will not find the matter of Christian orthodoxy in these places, even insofar as they are indeed essential for learning its development and articulation. And whilst an understanding of this development and of this articulation is essential to the vocation of the theologian, if this understanding is prioritized to the exclusion of the life commanded by the object of orthodoxy, on both a personal and a disciplinary level, then it is a hollow understanding at best, falsity at worst.

Injustice can be found everywhere in the world, much of it in the cities around our theological institutions (in both Britain and America). Injustice can be suffered within the academy, of course, and we all of us can fall victim to isolation—but the call of Christ is still to follow him to where we are not. This call is not a grim call either: it is not a matter of some group from a position of strength reaching out to ‘help’ some group in a position of weakness, as if fellowship with the victims of injustice were some sort of ascetic or noble discipline on our part. Indeed, many communities on the margins, in my experience at least, know as much of joy, fellowship, and grace as anyone (often more). The Gospel does not command us to do favours for those we consider incapable of helping themselves out of our the goodness of our divinely-inspired benevolence. It instead commands us to seek relationships of grace for the sake of Jesus Christ—relationships which will prove just as important to our study and to our vocation as reading the works of the fathers.

So, if we wish make proclamations regarding the conditions of orthodoxy, then seeking community within the places of injustice should be of equal priority to other forms of theological inquiry. If we wish to study orthodoxy, then we should seek to love and be loved by others through the grace which lies at the core of that orthodoxy—and through this learn those truths of Christian faith which cannot be discovered in a seminar or substantiated within a text. We should do this for ourselves, we should do this for the sake of Jesus Christ, and we should do this for the Church. After all, how can we expect this orthodoxy—this catholicity — to invigorate the life of the Church, if it doesn’t even inspire us to dedicate everything we have to the pursuit of that life? And why would it matter that we’re able to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord through the most precisely orthodox formulations, if this Lordship doesn’t compel us to then try and manifest this ‘why’ of orthodoxy to the world?

To summarise: orthodoxy is essential because Jesus Christ is Lord. But the fact that its importance is grounded in the Lordship of Jesus Christ means that both orthodoxy itself and its study can only make sense in the context of the Gospel through which this Lordship is revealed. On a disciplinary level, this means that the study of orthodox theology must explicitly serve the Gospel, working in more and less direct ways towards the liberation of the captive. On a personal level, this means that the students of orthodoxy should pursue a life of discipleship with as much vigour as they seek precise and orthodox articulations of doctrine. This post was written because of a lurking sense that these principles are lacking in the air of the academy. This sense may be wholly mistaken—still unease persists, and so it seems worth writing on, even if that writing is in error.


On Vulnerability: Supporting Alec and Christians Facing Persecution

Usually when I talk about vulnerability, it's in the context of love and faith. It's typically related to the idea that loving entails being open to hurt and faith entails being open to a certain kind of uncertainty. Both of these possibilities are real enough, and both can ground anxiety and fear. They are both reason enough to treat this kind of vulnerability with respect.

There's also a certain kind of vulnerability in forgoing things with which we are often identified. Hair is a strangely important thing to our sense of self, to the extent that a change of hair can be a real statement of change of self. Control of our hair can help us control what kind of person other people think us to be. In this, hair can be a significant aspect of personal security. Getting rid of it entails a certain kind of vulnerability.

This is especially true for Alec Siantonas, a central writer on this blog—his hair and beard have almost taken on a life of their own. His majestic beard is almost as striking as his strange attachment to natural theology (the Lord works in mysterious ways). To shave it all off is an act of real vulnerability, I cannot help but feel.

The power of Alec's forthcoming shave, however, is not properly grounded in his vulnerability—it is grounded in the way that he is using it to point to a vulnerability which is profound and dangerous to the point of incomprehensibility. All the vulnerabilities above are indeed real enough, and they are valid concerns in our English and American contexts. The vulnerability entailed by love and faith for Christians in certain parts of the Middle East and Africa is of an entirely different order. The risk of believing in the Cross is not that it might lead you to change your life: it is the real possibility, to the point of certainty, that you will lose it. Proclaiming Christ, and Him Crucified, is a very different prospect when the price of doing so is execution—and in making himself vulnerable, Alec is bearing witness to just how little many of us know about the vulnerability of faith.

We are compelled to support those who are vulnerable in ways which we cannot begin to comprehend. We are compelled to support those for whom to choose Christian faith is to choose the constant risk of death—not, of course, to the exclusion of others who are just as vulnerable, but in solidarity with them as well. Alec is shaving his head and beard to raise money for three charities which are doing just this, and you can support his effort here, and you can follow his blog dedicated specifically to this subject here.

For my part, I'll be shaving my hair and beard off as well, at the same as Alec will be in England. I'm certainly jumping on his bandwagon, and my beard is significantly less magnificent, but I think that both of these facts matter less than the opportunity to support him in his efforts.

I'll be fundraising too, but I'll be doing so by directing people to Alec's JustGiving page. So, if you think the idea of me shaving off all my hair is good reason to support Christians facing genocide in the Middle-East, please click right here and donate to Alec's cause (it's a British site, but you can still donate from America).

Apart from all this, please pray for all those facing persecution in the world today, Christian or otherwise. Please pray for those who are vulnerable beyond our comprehension.



Less Negative Theology, More Negative Anthropology

At some point (on the off chance they'd be of interest to anyone) I'm going to try and write a series of posts laying out my very specific objection to a small point I found in Edward Brooks' recent piece exploring what the end of theology might be- though it's an open question whether the point was actually there. Before doing so, however, I would like to flesh out a particular approach to questions of Christian anthropology; that is to say, what Christianity has to say about human existence. As usual, nothing original or profound to see here: I hope it is interesting nonetheless!

My reason for doing so is this: the first few posts I would like to write focus on how particular accounts of human nature might impact our understanding of such things as grace and justification. I'd also like to try and stay true to the thought that we cannot derive our understanding of God from our understanding of creation (though this is not to say that nature can play no part in theology; regarding which, I'd point to a post Alec wrote a few months back). This includes an understanding of creation in its finitude: I do not think I could consistently argue from the finitude and contingency of creation to the eternity and absoluteness of God. Nor do I think I can consistently argue from observations about the vanity of nature, such as one might find in Hobbes, Nietzsche, Derrida, or the later Wittgenstein, to a particular account of what the effects of grace must be.

One of the main reasons for this is the belief that to argue from any human quality- even qualities such as finitude, insufficiency, and the like- to divine qualities is to determine one's understanding of God according to human measures (although, by the way, I think Edward is quite right right in his post when he says that analytic clarification regarding the nature of divine mystery does not necessarily do this). To try and discern God's nature according to our apparent weaknesses, meanwhile, is to anthropomorphise the divine just as surely as if we were to try and discern God's nature according to our apparent strengths.

Now, it is obviously (I think) impossible to try and speak about God without anthropomorphism: there is to be no intrinsically pure doctrine here. This is for no reason other than the fact that the human language with which we speak is, well, human- our words for abstract concepts such as love, justice, beauty, and the like are just as anthropomorphic as our words for limbs (Rowan Williams puts this especially well in The Edge of Words, p150- though it should be said that this book could be accurately described as doing the precise thing I'm trying to avoid). We cannot find a way of speaking about God which intrinsically frees itself from the risk of this natural imposition- even Barth concedes that we can always be doing natural theology, no matter what we say and why. The flip side of this is not, however, to therefore say anything goes; it is still important to try and avoid imagining what we would look like if we were perfect then calling the image 'God'.

Our problem is not, moreover, limited to our ability to speak of God- there is also the problem of how we are to speak of ourselves. After all, if what we truly are is revealed to us by God, how can we know ourselves apart from a God of whom we cannot speak without speaking of ourselves first? The problem here is a similar to one of the motivating thoughts behind negative theology: it's not just that we cannot say what God is; its that insofar as we cannot say this, we cannot say what we are either. So, what's to be done?

Here is one potential approach, one which rears its head repeatedly in Barth's Church Dogmatics: we begin with the assumption that though we cannot speak of God in virtue of our own power, God has revealed Himself to us through His Son, Jesus Christ. We also assume that the witness to this revelation is Scripture (both Old and New Testaments), which whilst not intrinsically revelatory (c.f. this older piece on Biblical literalism) can speak positively of God in human terms insofar as it serves as witness to His revelation.

Now, Scripture doesn't just speak positively of God- it also identifies God as utterly unique, as the only One to have the qualities He has. These qualities are borne witness to by human concepts, not in order that those concepts might give us a general picture of God's nature, but so that the particular nature of God's self-revelation might unsettle any claim we might think our general concepts have to ultimacy (in Barth's terminology- God remains hidden even is His revelation). And in this revelation and this unsettling, we ourselves are told what we are not- specifically, that we are not God, in any possible sense.

From here, we might be able to broach the question of what Christianity has to say about human existence in terms of a negative anthropology (a quick google search shows that this is not a new term, not in the least- though its theological use seems far from standard). Such an anthropology tries to flip the thought of negative theology, saying that though God has revealed himself, still we cannot first say what we are, only what we are not. This does not work by perfectly identifying definitions of different aspects of God's nature, then interpreting humanity as lacking those aspects- after all, though scripture uses human words to speak positively of God, this does not entail that we therefore definitively know what those words mean when they speak thus. Instead, we begin by saying that we don't entirely know what the term 'almighty' means when applied to God (except insofar as it is given content by His revelation in Christ, and even then, we do not have anything more than a provisional definition). We also say, however, that God allows a partial analogy between our terms and His nature by setting them in the context of His revelation and allowing them to function in a particular way in that context, such that we are not completely ignorant of what is being said (the specific character of this analogy being the main point of contention over the possibility of a valid natural theology). We then say that whatever 'almighty' means definitively, we are not it- and so we look to what account scripture gives us of God's power, then give an account of human nature in contradistinction to that account.

Such an account could never be final, of course, no more than our positive account of what 'almighty' means when it is applied to God could be definitive in an absolute sense. Nor could it claim to be beyond the necessary risk of anthropomorphism. But it does seem to be a quite decent way of trying to approach Christian anthropology in a way which follows from Christian theology, as opposed to the other way round.

Two final things to say: first, that a negative anthropology of this sort would not make sense apart from a positive theology. Positive theology does not here mean a theology which seeks to give a definitive positive account of God's nature- it means a theology which seeks to give a positive account of God's action in the world through Christ. This means that a negative anthropology could only be developed in the service and context of the broader narrative of grace and redemption. It cannot be an end in itself, seeking to talk about humanity for its own sake- rather, it must seek to add to our understanding of grace in terms of what God tells us about ourselves. Second, it is worth saying that such an approach need not lay any exclusive claim on Christian anthropology, and so should not presume to absolutely exclude a Christian account of humanity which begins with the fact that whatever we are, we are created to be God's children, and that evidence of this fact is not entirely lacking in the world today.

Such an account would of course be the anthropological aspect of a positive theology- for God's work in the world is in fact the work which creates us in this way. The task now is to try and argue that there are pertinent considerations grounded in our negative accounts of ourselves which count against this creation being constituted by the moral transformation of the individual.





What’s the Point of Christian Theology?- Or, Why Theology isn’t About Making Us Better People

N.b. This piece is specifically about the potential purpose of practising philosophical theology as a Christian- I think former Orielenses Tara Burton has written about as good a piece as could be written about the purpose of theology from a secular point of view!

I enjoyed reading Edward Brook’s very well written post on the purpose of philosophical theology (even though it’s confusing to have more than one Ed). I think the general direction is probably good. There is one key point, however, which seems to me to be off the mark- one which then determines the understanding of the whole piece. That point is the understanding of what constitutes the ‘ethical’ aspect of knowledge of God, in the Biblical sense.

Edward writes that the goal of theology is the knowledge of Jesus Christ. He also writes (absolutely correctly, I think) that there is no reason to suppose that propositional knowledge does not have ‘ethical’ aspects, and so no reason to unconditionally denigrate what we try to say in relation to God’s revelation in the name of what we can supposedly know but not say. In virtue of this, the aim of theology is not just a sparse knowledge of Christ- it is ‘to know Jesus Christ and the fullness of eschatological life in him.’ This ethical aspect, this fullness of eschatological life, is described as ‘personal, participatory knowledge of God- friendship with God that results in moral transformation.’

Now: I do indeed believe that the aim of Christian theology is necessarily active- that is to say, that it must concern what we do, how we live, who we are (I would say existential, but I’m no fan of the word or its broader implications. I also don’t say ethical, because I’m pretty sure Christian doctrine can’t be used to ground specific logical-ethical principles). I also believe, however, that if this active end is described in terms of moral transformation then we have made a dangerous error; that if the active aspect of Christian knowledge is understood as the moral transformation of the knower, we have a) cast the human individual- not Jesus Christ- as the end of God’s grace, and b) given a false account of what it is to exist as an individual in Christian faith. I’m going to try and explicate this belief, and why it is troubling. I will then try to describe a view according to which the active aspect of theological doctrine is the clear articulation of confession, not (in any sense) the moral transformation of the subject. In virtue of this, I will claim that the final aim of Christian theology is not knowledge of Christ (whether propositional or experiential), but the clear communication of Christian faith through word and deed. I do not believe that this is incompatible with the bulk of Edward’s post- in fact, I hope that it is actually a more consistent rubric within which to understand the relationship of analytic methods to mystery.

Over the course of writing this post, it became apparent that to argue each of the points which must be argued would make it absurdly long. Given that I have problems with length at the best of times, I decided to structure this post as the skeleton of a proposal- describing the basic thoughts, but not properly arguing them (or, in many places, citing their origin). I’ll then try to write individual posts on each of the points which clearly require argument and elucidation, breaking up the whole to make it slightly more readable. I hope that this is ok- even though it leaves a whole lot of potential logical gaps open in this piece!

The Individual as the End of Revelation

The first objection to the idea that the active aspect of systematic Christian theology is constituted by the moral transformation of the human individual is that it identifies that individual as the end of God’s grace. Now, what could be problematic about this? After all, didn’t Christ come to save sinners? And aren’t sinners individuals? Shouldn’t knowledge of God effect a new birth, a new being in the believer? And shouldn’t this new being be a morally superior one? Should it not render faithful Christians dead to sin?

All of these things are true. The problem (as usual, I think) is not the truth of linguistic statements, however- it is the conditions according to which we suppose those statements to have the sense under which they are true. I believe that there are at least three conditions according to which we have to understand the sense of these statements which, taken together, render it impossible to understand their truth as entailing that the end of God’s revelation (and so the end of the interpretation and proclamation of that revelation) is the moral transformation of the individual. The first is the fact that Christ’s mission is stated in terms of the whole of creation, and that this creation cannot be understood as a collection of discrete and self-subsisting individuals. The second is that ‘newness of being’ is to be understood in terms of relation to the divine, not essence or character (and so not in terms of a substantial transformation)- that though the term ‘sinner’ is to be understood as a necessary predicate of human being, this is not due to intrinsic nature or essential qualities, but a relationship between God and creation which, though not absolute, it is not within human power to change. The third is that sin is not to be understood as a moral term (in terms of either character or conduct) and redemption is not to be understood as an alteration in moral standing- to such an extent that, running according to a particular strand of reformed thought, neither Christian knowledge nor the practise which follows from it are to be understood within moral categories.

In virtue of the first condition, the redemption of the individual in creation cannot be understood apart from the redemption of the context within which that individual exists and which determines the individual’s existence- meaning that the redemption of individual persons is not the final goal of God’s revelation. In virtue of the second, the form of this redemption cannot be understood as an essential transformation, on either a moral or a substantive level. In virtue of the third, whatever difference is effected by knowledge cannot be understood as a difference in moral nature (whether this be the moral value of actions or persons). Taking all together, the end and effect of God’s revelation cannot be the moral transformation of the human individual, and so this cannot be a determining aspect of the purpose of theology.

If we ignore these conditions, meanwhile, it seems to me that we move the focus of theology away from Jesus Christ to the moral character of individual human beings. This can first ground (and does ground) an overly individualistic picture of the point of Christian living, one which is focussed on the supposed purity of human conduct. The practical effects of this view are made evident in the German Pietism of the 1920s, in the inconsequential niceness and religious wooliness of much of 20th Century Anglicanism, and the neo-Puritanism of stereotypical American fundamentalism. It can then lead (and does lead) to a reading back of human moral categories onto Jesus Christ himself, categories which especially distort the content of God’s revelation through Him so as to resemble the prevailing sensibilities of the day. Though some such reading back is ultimately unavoidable (there is no ‘pure’ reading of Scripture), there is no reason to therefore give up on attempting to limit it.

The Truth of Christian Existence

The second objection is simpler, and largely follows from the above- it is that to say the effect of personal knowledge of God is the moral transformation of the individual gives a false account of the reality of Christian existence. The argument is that there is no reason to suppose- and every reason to reject- the idea that Christians are better people for their knowledge of God, in any sense (even and especially what we might call ‘good’ Christians). The argument to be given here is both theoretical and empirical. On the theoretical side, it is derived from how Scripture describes the encounter of peoples with God’s revelation. On the empirical side, it is derived from an analysis of the character of Christians and Churches over time- not, moreover, those who can be pointed to as examples of ‘bad’ Christianity, but those we might want to point towards as exemplars. The argument is that even a saint is not made more moral, or in any way less by their relationship with God. Presenting moral transformation as following from Christian faith, meanwhile, provides a good ground for a pejorative disillusionment, accusations of hypocrisy, and pride (either in the form of self-approbation, when we think we are better for our faith, or self-despair, when we fears that we have no faith because we are not better).

Confession and Proclamation

Instead of moral transformation, I would argue that the active aspect of Christian theology can be better understood in terms of confession. Confession here is understood as the active acknowledgement of the truth of a given belief. Christian confession is an acknowledgement of the truth of God’s revelation- that Jesus Christ became incarnate, died, and rose again. Acknowledgement of a truth is understood as a process with practical and intellectual aspects, and in a specifically Christian content, acknowledgement is a matter of faith (both human and divine). It thus has serious implications for how to live one’s life, but these implications are not grounded in a supposed personal transformation.

Under this view, the active goal of Christian theology is thus (to paraphrase Anselm and a whole lot of other people) to try and understand God’s revelation so as to better understand these practical and intellectual aspects- not the attainment of new knowledge, then, but the clearer understanding of a belief held in faith (and so treated as grounding knowledge). This understanding is not an end in itself, however: understanding is not the final goal of theology, but a means to a broader end- the active, clear, and integral proclamation of the object of this faith over the course of human life (in both word and deed, if that needs to be added).

Finally, all this self-evidently involves the formulation of propositions. It also involves a critical analysis of those propositions, in order to try and ensure that we communicate as clearly and accurately as possible what we are hoping to communicate. A significant part of this, however, is recognising that the propositions formulated are not themselves the God’s revelation- rather, they are our confessed human responses to that revelation. Of course, we try to ensure that those responses are true to the revelation itself, and of course we try to ensure that they point to the revelation, but they are not themselves that revelation. The point here- and one which I think shows how an understanding of the end of theology impacts an understanding of the purpose of analytic methods in the theological sphere- is that we do not protect and clarify the meaning of the revelation itself: we try to clarify our understanding and our responses to that revelation, through which we then attempt to confess its truth. This of course entails trying to understand what God is saying through Jesus Christ- but at the end of the day, we are analysing human words and deeds, not divine ones. We cannot analyse the divine Word: we can simply hope that our analysis of the human words and deeds through which we try to articulate that Word to others might be directed towards the love of God and neighbour.

(P.s. The idea above, of confession, is not in the least bit incompatible with the idea that personal knowledge of God can effect personal transformation. That is not rejected because confession might be a better model. I also don’t think that much of the last section contradicts much of what Edward wrote- at least, I hope not, as I broadly agree with him.)


What Could Analytic Theology Say in Charleston?

What does Analytic Theology have to say for justice? Not, what does Analytic Theology have to say about justice, but what does it have to say for justice? And most specifically right now: what good can analytic theologians offer up, as analytic theologians, when it comes to the shootings in Charleston? I’m not looking to provide an answer here, but I would like to pose the question. I would also like to clarify why I’m asking it and what I think the difficulties in answering it might be.

First, a clarification; I am not asking it as if I were an absolute outsider, or in an accusatory tone. I still don’t claim the analytic tradition as entirely my own (and if I did, I wouldn’t have the skill to back it up), but I am more shaped by it than any other. I’m asking because it seems an important question to answer, especially for those of us who seek to practise theology (analytic or otherwise) as Christians.

Second, a difficulty; without wanting to sound overly gap-yah, centres of Analytic Theology are (almost by definition) unlikely to obviously and directly confront people on a peer level with the direct experiences of those communities which endure racial and economic suffering. Taking Oriel as my example, we can say what we like about attempting to make admissions open to people from all background- all the same, look around formal hall: unless things have changed a lot since I was there, very few of the people dining there will be at the sharp end of systematic oppression. This can be generalised, sometimes less fairly and less accurately, across college life.

The point here is not just that the ivory tower is set apart from a great deal of suffering and injustice, such that it is either difficult or impossible for those within the tower to speak with those communities suffering injustice. This is probably the root of it, but the matter is a bit more specific: it is that the atmosphere within which I remember studying theology at Oriel is so rarified that it is practically impossible for the kinds of concerns facing the black community in Charleston to play a formative role in theological thought developed there. And if it does, it is the role of the abstract- not the visceral. (To clarify: I cannot speak from a better position here. I am not trying to write as if I were more worldly.)

Third, a second difficulty; analytic writing is opaque to 99% of the world’s population. Yes, I have made that figure up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be correct. Whatever we might say about clarity and precision, analytic methodology does not lend itself to clear communication outside of a very specific community of people well versed in the usage of certain (pseudo-?)technical terms. This makes it hard to say anything which could be of real use to others outside of that community without either coming off as or just straight up being condescending. But it is important to do so- the meat of theology is not found in libraries. It’s found in churches like Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. And if the words in the libraries cannot be spoken in the churches, in some form at least, then they are lost as theology. Could we speak analytic theology in churches? How would we preach a pastoral sermon in Newhallville, New Haven, Ct., according to analytic-theological principles?

Finally, the importance of the question: Analytic Theology can, and I think should be, a spiritual discipline for those who practise it as Christians. And this ties a moral imperative into its practise: the imperative to use it in the service of Christ as a resource which could be employed by the least of His brothers and sisters.

Anyway, I would love to hear and read people’s thoughts on the matter.