Sunday, January 8, 2017

Three Cheers for Our Post-Factual Turn!

          One thing our post-factual age has made clear is that we do not live by the “facts” at all. No, we live rather by the stories that have and continue to shape our lives. We may not be aware of them. They seem to us to be just the way things are. The “facts” as we see them fit the contours these stories have already etched into our hearts, minds, and bodies. And it remains so until enough challenges to the truth and reality of those stories accumulate. Thomas Kuhn taught us that science progresses by following the accepted findings of the science of the time until enough “anomalies,” that is, experimental results that don’t accord with the accepted scientific findings, accumulate that make it impossible to accept the science of the times with intellectual honesty. And the paradigm of science changes taking on a new shape that becomes the reigning description of science until the next paradigm shift.

          Now that we no longer even pretend to live by “facts,” it will not be they that provoke a paradigm shift in our societal or individual ways of construing reality. Oh, at some point reality will impose itself in such a way that we will have to change or substantially modify our stories under its pressure. For instance, if climate change is true, generations not too far hence will be forced to accommodate how they understand the world under its crushing, even mortal press. Until then climate change remains a debating point for which “facts” can be marshalled for divergent points of view.

          A “modern” response, which most of us are still inclined to resort to in response to these kinds of issues, is to try and debate these “facts” and prove theirs and dispute the other side’s. As most of us know now, this approach seldom if ever accomplishes every much.

          Today, however, our post-factual turn might provoke us to a “post-modern” (if I may use the term) response. We might choose to hear the “facts” presented for a given perspective as thumbnail versions of longer stories that lie behind them rather than discrete, provable, “things” that either are or are not true. We might then respond by asking about what such “facts” mean to them, why they seem important, and what would we lose by coming to see things differently. We might then share the same things about why and how we see the world the way we do. Such an approach holds far more promise for building understanding and relationships through conversational story-telling than the so-called modern response.

          A couple of days ago I posted this on FB: If your worldview does not include the blessing and peaceful existence with all others, you should ask yourself why. You may need a new worldview. These are the kinds of questions we ought to hope to raise in our time. The post-factual turn has made this not only possible but almost inevitable. So lament the demise of the factual if we must, but let us also embrace the possibilities it opens for us. The most important voices in any culture are those of the story-tellers. Christians are God’s story-tellers and the impact of our witness will be measured by the paradigm shifts our story-telling provokes in both individuals and larger groupings in our culture.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Varieties of atheistic experience

There are three varieties of atheism. Only one of them is actually interesting.
  1. “Matter of course” atheism — this is the position that belief in God is clearly superfluous, both for explaining the natural world and for developing a coherent moral code. It’s not a matter of deep conviction, hence not very interesting in itself.
  2. “Smarter than you” atheism — this is the worst kind, represented by the New Atheists. It goes beyond “matter of course” atheism by supposing that atheism can be a positive doctrine that must combat benighted religious doctrines. It always threatens to veer toward racism, because when they notice societies where atheism has failed to make major inroads, they start to wonder if there’s something… intrinsically wrong with them, you know, as a group.
  3. Protest atheism — this is the only kind worth discussing, because it calls the God of monotheism to account for the injustice and suffering in the world. Interestingly, from my perspective, it continues along the path laid out by monotheism itself, whih is grounded in a demand for a divine principle of justice. Protest atheism holds onto that demand while pointing out how monotheism itself failed to deliver on its own promise . . .

Review of David Fitch's "Faithful Presence"

David Fitch’s Faithful Presence sketches a vision of church oriented around the presence of God. God’s “real presence” to steal a trope from Eucharistic theology. Filled with both analysis and anecdote his work helpfully weaves a tapestry of church life that fills out a genuinely missional understanding of the church in practice, something which missional theologians have struggled to do. Among the many virtues of Faithful Presence are

-a biblical theology oriented around God’s presence,

-a vision of life in Christ rooted in radical trust in God’s actual presence in our midst leading us mediated by the Eucharist and the faithful practices of gifted koinonia, and

-a threefold differentiation of sites of ministry/mission into the close circle, the dotted circle, and the half circle.

Within this overall profile Fitch offers seven disciplines that train and position Christians in their churches to grow toward the vision he sketches. The seven disciplines – the Lord’s Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, being with the “least of these,” being with children, the fivefold gifting, and kingdom prayer.

I have been working on a proposal for biblical theology ( 8/13/16) for a while now that centers on the temple and the theme of divine presence with kingdom and covenant as its chief carriers). I was gratified to see Fitch working along similar lines.

He proposes that God’s presence with his people is “the” point God is working towards and intends from all eternity. He notices that “with,” “in the midst,” “present,” and “dwelling” are key words signaling this intent. “God’s presence is so viscerally real that they must all know how to approach God” (22) is his assessment for Israel. Jesus Christ is the restoration and fulfilment of God’s presence with his people and world. God’s presence will fill the while world in his new creation (Rev.21-22).

Fitch proposes that God changes the world by establishing a people in a place and inviting others to join them. A people with God alive in their midst. His presence in their presence in their world creates currents of justice, reconciliation, renewal, and healing. This is God’s strategy for fulfilling his purposes.

I notice many similarities between Fitch’s thought and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s in his proposal. This, for me, is a real strength. Perhaps nothing is more radical and renewing than this. In both Bonhoeffer and Fitch this point gets to the heart of the matter. Is God alive and active in and through his people or is he not?

“For most Christians in the West, God is an individual belief, a personal       relationship, a private experience, something we fit in between all the                          other things in our lives. The notion that we can be present to God and                          he to us, is not on the horizon of our awareness. We do not imagine that                   God is present outside of me or between me and the other person I’m                           with, that he will confront me in the middle of my world if I will open myself             to him.” (20)

This really is where the rubber hits the road! Apart from an embrace and nurturing of God’s present reality, there is little point in the rest of it. Fitch repeatedly points out the consequence of not doing this: the church lapses into maintenance mode. The church becomes preoccupied with serving its members and procuring its survival. This is the church we have known in American for quite some time.

In the disciplines and particularly the Eucharist (“the ground zero of faithful presence,” 67) we have the opportunity to nurture our sense of God’s presence with us. The latter is especially the discipline of presence. Presence to Christ and to one another. “If we can recognize his presence at work around the table,” writes Fitch, “we will be able to recognize his work in the rest of the world as well.” (51). Again, I concur with this (see my blog post for 8/19/16). I believe Fitch is on to something crucial here.

Each of the other disciplines discussed rely on the conviction that God is present in, with, among, and through the people involved. In essence, every relationship we enter is a three-member relationship. Me, the other person, and God. This reflects Bonhoeffer’s Christological anthropology which sees Christ at the center of all our relationships, standing at the boundary between us which turns out to be the center between us. Fitch deploys this kind of understanding to great effect. An understanding most individualistic North American Christians need to learn and experience.

 Bonhoeffer’s last writings from prison emphasize Jesus as the “man for others” and the church as the “church for others.” Fitch draws out this emphasis in a practical and fascinating way. Fitch proposes we imagine three circles, the close circle, the dotted circle, and the half circle.

-the close circle is gathered community of the committed. Perhaps this would be Bonhoeffer’s “arcane discipline,” his term for the worship of the church in a world-come-of-age. Note Fitch does not say a “closed” circle. He focuses on the quality of relationship in the group rather than its boundaries.

-the dotted circle is a place in the neighborhood where Christians host others beyond the close circle. Perhaps it’s a home gathering, or perhaps a gathering in some other place where Christians offer others the chance to see and experience what goes on in the circle.

-the half circle encompasses the places of hurt and brokenness we encounter. Here the Christian is a guest who extends the presence of Christ into a situation where it may or may not be accepted.

          All three of these “sites” (perhaps we could call them “Jerusalem,” “Judea,” and “the ends of the earth” following Acts 1:8) are part of what Fitch calls a church “on the move” (41). The question for such a church is always about discerning Christ’s presence wherever we go and the character of the witness to his presence we bear.

          These three “sites” provide a faithful way for us to envision being Bonhoeffer’s “church for others.” Faithful because it is driven by the central dynamic of “mutual submission.” Mutual submission, in turn, is a correlate of the kingdom of God. The latter bears God’s presence and that presence is embodied in the seven disciplines which function in terms of mutual submission. Fitch describes it like this:

“The disciplines gather people together in a circle of submission to his                        reign. Submission to the king defines each subject, and the kingdom                                       is composed of the king’s subjects. Each discipline then creates a                          space for surrendering our control. Each works against the impulse to                              take control and impose my will on a situation. In this process a marv-                            elous space is opened for Jesus to become Lord. We can then tend to                         Christ’s presence among us.” (37)

Mutual submission, I take it, is the practice that attends the radical trust in God’s/Christ’s “real” presence guiding and ruling the people mentioned earlier. This “founding principle” of God’s kingdom (38) roots the life of God’s people and, indeed, creation itself in a peaceable, nonviolent order. Mutual submission, then, is the central feature of God’s own life reflected in all he makes.

Fitch makes the point, but it needs to be strongly reiterated, that mutual submission must be aware of the power dynamics of each particular situation so that it not become a hidden pattern of abuse toward powerless and voiceless “others” in that situation. God’s presence exposes these patterns and calls on us to put processes and protocols in place to resist and defeat them.

Though I will not discuss the disciplines in detail here, the heart of these practices is opening up a space through mutual submission where Christ’s redeeming and reconciling presence can do its work. When the “church on the move” loses this reality of God’s presence as its animating center it lapses into maintenance mode, tending to its own member

s and focusing on its own survival. This means, in effect, the loss of that community’s capacity to be a bearer of God’s presence in its time and place. And that’s a tragedy we know all too well in North America.

Faithful Presence is a timely and provocative volume. It takes the road less travelled in developing an ecclesiology that I have suggested stands in the trajectory toward which Bonhoeffer pointed in his prison letters. While his descriptions of the disciplines can certainly use extension and refinement, it is a great start in the right direction in my judgment.

In many respects Fitch’s book furthers the work of his mentor in Anabaptism John Howard Yoder. The latter’s book Body Politics is a similar kind of exercise in describing some “social sacraments” that make the church the church. Fitch’s treatment of these repeatable disciplines (that’s why baptism and marriage aren’t included) also aim to explore the practices that make and keep the church the church. Faithful Presence is a worthy companion to Yoder’s Body Politics.

Much more could and should be said about this book. But it needs to happen in churches, study groups, small groups, etc. Not in a more extended book review. I hope this review whets the reader’s appetite to dive into for themselves. Faithful Presence is a faithful presentation of the way forward toward a renewed church in North America. It is not the last word (no such thing exists) but it is more than a first word. May it please God that it find open hearts and ears to hear its message!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Barmen Declaration for Today

(The “rejections” of the Barmen Declaration of 1934 updated for today)

8.10 - 1. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." (John 14.6). "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved." (John 10:1, 9.)
8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.

No nation, leader, ideology, other force or power, or personal interest or preference other than Jesus Christ gives us our marching orders as God’s people.

8.13 - 2. "Christ Jesus, whom God has made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption." (1 Cor. 1:30.)
8.14 As Jesus Christ is God's assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God's mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.
8.15 We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords--areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

Our political, social, educational, economic, sexual, recreational, and any other parts of our lives belong to Jesus Christ and him alone. Direction from any other source must be critiques and reformulated in light of his gospel to determine what of it might be useful for the church.

8.16 - 3. "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together." (Eph. 4:15,16.)
8.17 The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.
8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

The form and content of the church’s ministry and message is that of the cross. Triumphalism, acting and speaking as if we have arrived or know the truth or are specially blessed with success or prosperity is never an expression of Christian grace or wisdom.

8.19 - 4. "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men excercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant." (Matt. 20:25,26.)
8.20 The various offices in the Church do not establish a dominion of some over the others; on the contrary, they are for the excercise of the ministry entrusted to and enjoined upon the whole congregation.
8.21 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers.

Those who lead in the church, follow. Those who rule, serve. The tokens of leadership and rule in the church are the basin and towel. That is all.

8.22 - 5. "Fear God. Honor the emperor." (1 Peter 2:17.)
Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the Church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God's commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.
8.23 We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commision, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church's vocation as well.

Neither America, nor any other geopolitical entity is God’s nation, his chosen people. Only the church bears this privilege and responsibility and does so for the sake of the world, to spread God’s blessings everywhere.

8.24 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.

Neither is the church an organ of the State to do its bidding, support its interests, or produce good citizens for it. Rather the church serves God only as sign, sacrament, and servant of God’s radically upside-down kingdom.

8.25 - 6. "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matt. 28:20.) "The word of God is not fettered." (2 Tim. 2:9.)
8.26 The Church's commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ's stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.
8.27 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.

It is a blasphemous violation of the third commandment to harness the gospel to alien ideologies and purposes foreign to it.

8.28 The Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a federation of Confessional Churches. It invites all who are able to accept its declaration to be mindful of these theological principles in their decisions in Church politics. It entreats all whom it concerns to return to the unity of faith, love, and hope.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

How Stories Configure Human Nature

December 12, 2016

1. It is in our nature to need stories. We arrive “biologically prepared” for them. They were evolutionarily crucial. We feel and think in story-logic (story-causality configures our reaction-biology).

2. Like our language instinct, a story drive—inborn hunger to hear and make stories—emerges untutored (=“biologically prepared”).

3. “Every culture bathes its children in stories" (to explain how the world works, to educate their emotions). . .


How NT Wright Stole Christmas


by Peter J. Leithart 12 . 22 . 12

This piece was originally published at the Credenda/Agenda web site in 2009. Being in a Grinchy mood and of a generally Grinchy disposition, I thought it worth re-presenting.

Several years ago, when The Passion of the Christ was making headlines, I realized that N. T. Wright has spoiled every Jesus film. Once you’ve read Wright, you realize that none of the movies get Jesus right. Pharisees and scribes are reduced stock villains with caricatured Jewish features. Pilate has to make an appearance, and Herod, but we are given no sense that first-century Israel was the powder keg that it actually was.

No film ever gives us what Wright says we should be looking for: a “crucifiable” Jesus, a Jesus who does something so provocative to make the Jews murderously hostile. In the movies, Jesus is a hippy peace-child, a delicate flower of a man, a dew-eyed first-century Jewish Gandhi. Why would anyone want to hurt Him? Maybe because He’s so annoyingly precious; but that’s not the story of the gospels.

Just this year, I had another realization. N. T. Wright has spoiled Christmas too.

Red more at

It’s time we think of politics more like religion

Supporters cheer as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Sarasota, Fla., on Nov. 7, 2016.   Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlo Allegri 
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FARNSLEY-OPED, originally published on Dec. 7, 2016.
Supporters cheer as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Sarasota, Fla., on Nov. 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlo Allegri *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FARNSLEY-OPED, originally published on Dec. 7, 2016.

(RNS) Students in my college classes start out thinking religious identity and behavior are primarily about ideas. When I ask them about differences between Catholics and Methodists, they respond with differences in beliefs: the pope, contraception and transubstantiation.
These theological differences are real, of course, but I learned long ago that ideas do not create religious identity: They follow from it. My students imagine we pick from a large menu of ideological options and then make decisions about which membership best fits our own ideas.
It does not take long to convince them this “decision” model is badly incomplete. We never start from a neutral position. Our thinking is shaped by where we are born, who raised us and the tribes we call our own.