Monday, April 14, 2008

Not To Be Missed

You must plan to attend this conference this summer:

"Christian Theology and Islam: A Conference for Clergy and Laity" will be held at Loyola College in Baltimore from June 9 (evening) through noon on June 11. It is sponsored -- ta-da -- by the eminent theology think-tank, the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology (CCET). Of course, you know that I sit on the Board of that august institute, but that in no way influences my recommendation. You may view the conference brochure (and, of course, arrange to register) at the Center's website. The presenters are first rate (and I know some of them personally, so I am confident in that assertion), and the topic couldn't be more relevant.

Here's a teaser from the brochure:

How should our reflection on Jesus, on the Trinity, on truth and tolerance proceed against the background of a greater presence of Islam in North America and the more intense global interaction between Christianity and Islam?

This year's [CCET] conference will ask how does a theology committed to the classical traditions of the Church think about the issues raised in the discussion with Islam. The conference is not an exercise in Christian-Muslim dialogue, but an intra-Christian conversation about the Christian faith against the background of Islam. ...

I will be there, d.v. And I look forward to meeting anyone who reads this blog. Dust off your 3-ounce liquid containers (no: I mean shampoo; you can buy the other stuff in Baltimore). Maybe we can have our own reception? (And then we can follow that up with a colloquy on this site! I hereby issue an invitation to anyone attending the CCET conference to post as a guest. Maybe then, some of the multitude of all y'all who read and never comment will be inspired to become an author! But enough foolishness -- except for the invitation to post.)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Is Rowan Williams Wrong?

I have just started Rowan Williams’ charming little book, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). It presents edited-for-publication “talks” that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave during Holy Week in 2005. In the talks, Abp. Williams summarizes the fundamentals of Christian faith to an era in which the long catechumenate of early Church history (which would have filled the current void in basic pre-Baptismal instruction) has been long abandoned.

Now an excursus: I would give money to have available to me such a series of homiletical lectures by a scholarly (or even remotely theologically astute) bishop. Such an experience seems to me to be what bishops and Lent and Holy Week are for. It is, to my eye, a measure of the degradation of the Church that we (and here I include most “denominations”) have allowed the office so to deteriorate that bishops are more comfortable discussing terms of 401k plans (or whatever they are in the non-profic sphere) than Christological controversies.

But back to Abp. Rowan.

In his first talk, the Archbishop sets the fundamental theme of his talks – viz., that Christian faith is trust in God. The title of the essay is “Who Can We Trust?” (OK, a complaint: Abp. Rowan is a good thinker and pretty felicitous writer, but he has some nasty habits resulting in errors of grammar and punctuation. These should have been corrected by his editors. I mean, I know that we are always to treat God as “subject” and not as “object,” but I don’t think the rule extends to our grammar. "WhoM can we trust?" – that’s what it ought to have said. And there are several other misuses of the objective case already in only the first chapter.)

At page 12, he says this:

A word of caution here: some modern thinkers have been very tempted by language that seems to suggest that God is in some way in need of having something else around in order to become more fully himself. … But I think we have to face a challenge here; we must get to grips with the idea that we don’t ‘contribute’ anything to God, that God would have been the same God if we had never been created. (Italics added.)

And it’s that last phrase, “God would have been the same God if we had never been created,” that brought me up short. My initial reaction was, “Wrong!” And the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became in my original reaction.

I readily admit at the outset that I am no philosophical theologian (I can’t even play one in Sunday School). And I am not particularly facile in the arguments surrounding the Theopaschite controversy. And I figure that with the heft of his tome on Arius, the Archbishop is fluent in the controversies of Christian polemics. But I can’t figure out how one -- i.e., he -- squares the claim that Jesus was God and that he died with the claim that God would have been the same had that not happened. Here’s my reasoning.

God is what happens among the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is not God without the either the Son or the Spirit – and the same holds for the others. (And I think this stands up whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son.) God is dynamic, relational -- an event, even. He is not static or reified in the way a statue or a photograph is.

God created humanity (as a part of the creation of all that we know) ex nihilo. There was something new brought into being and, thus, already something must have changed in the nature of the relationship among Father and Son and Spirit -- which is to say, in God --, because the love that binds them in their eternal perichoresis was in some sense adjusted or opened to include what had not been there before. Doesn’t that mark a difference already in God – not exactly an evolution (I’m not that daft!), but certainly a change (as in a change in the dynamic)? Admittedly, I suppose, it represents no fundamental change in the essential nature of God (if one wants to go all Aristotelian). But it does change God. Does it complete God in some way? No, but it does complicate his existence.

Take it to the next step: Only because God created humanity did Jesus become human. (Obviously, that is speculation, but it does seem naturally to follow from the Christian reading of the "Fall" which followed from the creation.) The Son took on flesh and lived, suffered, died, and was buried in both his human and divine “natures.” Now look: If Jesus was both fully human and divine, then when he died, the Son died, didn’t he? And if the Son died, God died – because God is what happens among the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. If there is no Son, there is no longer God -- at least in the sense that there was God when the Son was alive. Because of the contingent nature of the Christian narrative, are we not compelled to say that had humanity never been created, God may never have died. But since God did die, was God not different from what he would have been had he not died never created humanity?

Did God not weep over Jerusalem? Did God not mourn Lazarus’ death? Did God not revel in the wedding banquet at Cana (OK: that’s an embellishment on the pericope)? Did God not feel the scourging done to him? Did God not suffer on his cross? If any and all of these are true of Jesus, and they are, are they not true of God by nature of the infinite perichoresis among Father and Son and Holy Spirit? And were not all of these contingent on the creation of humanity?

My reading of Heilsgeschichte is that God regularly changes his mind, alters his course. These changes are perfectly consistent with his fundamental identity, which is love. But are we so to isolate God away from human experience that we can – or that we want – to say that God was affected by none of this?

Fundamentally, we I don’t see how we can continue to hold that God did not change, did not experience different things differently, did not suffer as a result of the contingent event of his creating humankind – that is, unless we want to put everything on the level of pagan myth. It seems to me, without knowing what I’m talking about, that I must be a heretic of the Theopaschite variety. The immutability of God may have served an importance at one point in history. Now it seems to be to be something better ignored.

In my defense, I think that I can find support for my position in a number of big-wig theological thinkers who are not talking through their hats: Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, and others (don't I remember something from Jenson's Systematic raising this point?) seem to be on board with a new reading of that old problem.

I suppose, from the Archbishop’s perspective in his lectures, it makes sense to stress the unchangeability of God to underscore God’s reliability (although that's not what the context suggests). But I think his assertion goes too far and ultimately undercuts the theme he pursues.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

My Belated Easter Proclamation

This is overdue. I only recently realized that I had filed this in "draft" and had not posted it. But as I am an observer of the Great 50 days, it is not too late to resurrect it.

John Donne, for all his complexity, magisterially got one of the great points of Easter in his sonnet (called "Sonnet X" or "Death, Be Not Proud") which follows.

All blessings be to the Lamb who, though he died, yet lives! "And what does this mean?" Read on:

Death, Be Not Proud
-- John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


Among the Signs of Hope

Eastertide, it seems to me, is a time to be especially awake to the signs which encourage our hope. An empty tomb, a mistaken identity set straight, a broken loaf and shared cup that set misunderstandings straight -- why not look for these in our own day?

Through the graces of my friend Bjoern (I haven't mastered umlauts on this site) comes this news report. The Israeli Knesset (parliament) changed the law to allow a foreign head of state to address the Knesset, and it did so to accommodate Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. That the first-in-history should be granted to the leader of Germany is, I think, just exactly one of those empty-tomb signs that ought to lift us up.

Now, if we could get Abu Mazzan up there ... !