Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sam and Frodo and the rest of us...

So, I am planning more posts re: the Karl Barth class, but I've also just started a Philosophical Inquiry class, and I'm supposed to read Heidegger tonight, so rather than spend a ton of time writing new posts today, I am going to post a revised version of a post I wrote in the pre-blogspot days... hope you're all LOTR fans... :-)

One of my favorite scenes from Tolkien's "The Two Towers" is when Sam and Frodo are following Gollum through the swamps and valleys into Mordor, hoping to find a way to destroy the evil ring of power. Gollum, for those of you (if there are any!) who have never seen the movies or read the books, is a nasty, evil creature, a slave to the ring, but has promised to be Frodo's faithful guide, because Frodo has treated him with kindness. Frodo realizes that only Gollum can lead them into Mordor without being captured by the enemy. Sam distrusts Gollum and is fully aware of his treacherous nature.

At one point, Sam asks Frodo (I'm paraphrasing a bit here), "Why do you care what happens to Gollum? He's evil and will turn on you if he has a chance."

Frodo's reply is simple and powerful: "Because I have to believe that he can come back." In other words, Frodo knew that hoping his own life could be saved meant hoping that Gollum's life could be restored as well. Gollum had been terribly corrupted by evil, but Frodo refused to believe that there was no hope. Sam, on the other hand, refused to believe that Gollum could be anything other than what he was, i.e. evil.

It turns out, in the story, that both Sam and Frodo did the right thing. Frodo's kindness gave them a means to destroy the ring, and Sam's skepticism provided him with the means to save Frodo. And this same paradox of hope and skepticism plays itself out in our lives every day.

We are all created with a bit of Sam and a bit of Frodo, in differing amounts, within ourselves. Some of us are too trusting. Some of us are too suspicious. None of us gets it just right.

The "Frodos" among us realize that if we have any hope of life, freedom, salvation, etc., we must offer that same hope to others as well. The "Sams" are quick to point out that some people are, in all probability, simply beyond hope; they will not turn from their wicked ways, no matter what happens. The "Frodos" respond that it doesn't matter whether they are beyond hope or not, if we are to live in hope, we must believe that people can change, or we will lose hope that we ourselves can change.

The outcome, of course, is unknown and unpredictable. How do we respond? I guess my own hope is that the "Frodos" will learn to listen more carefully to the cautions of the "Sams", and that the "Sams" will learn to open themselves to the risky challenge of hope presented by the "Frodos".

But as Christians, we must also remember that our faith is based in the belief that hope ultimately wins. But do we really live as though we believe hope will win? Are we ready to give that hope even to those that appear beyond its reach? Or are we, like Sam, so certain of the demise of certain individuals that we would deprive them of any hope? That seems to me (and perhaps I am betraying my own "Frodo-ness" here) to be very wrong indeed.

Doesn't Dante's entrance to hell read, "abandon all hope, ye who enter here"? I am not ready to deprive anyone of hope, and yet I recognize (as most of my friends will attest!) that a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing at times. I struggle with both sides of this coin, and I've not found the balance... I probably won't in this life, but I must keep struggling regardless.

This all brings to mind another great quote from LOTR, this one from Gandalf, when he tells Frodo: "There are many who live that deserve death, and those who are dead that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Do not be too quick to deal out death and judgement."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Barth Post #2: Barth as partner for the philosophical theologian

Karl Barth: Partner for the philosophical theologian?

Tuesday night's class was a glimpse into the early ministry of Barth, including his time as a pastor in Safenwil from 1911-1921. After pastoring for nearly a decade, Barth began to struggle deeply with what he saw as a disconnect between the content of the Bible, and the issues the people dealt with in their daily lives. This struggle became more and more pronounced, as he struggled to make preaching meaningful to the congregation. The turning point came as Barth began to uncover the "strange new world of the Bible," a world that is not human, but God's. What Barth realized was that although the Bible is a book which contains stories about persons and events, faith in the truth of Scripture has nothing to do with "human thoughts about God, but the right divine thoughts about men."

In other words, Barth saw that "the Bible tells us not how we should talk with God, but what God says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found his way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with [us] and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. It is this which is within the Bible." (Barth as quoted in class handout)

This this closely connected to Barth’s understanding of the "threefold" Word of God: As Barth explained, Jesus Christ is Word of God Incarnate. Additionally, there is the Word of God written (Scripture), and the Word of God proclaimed (the faithful witness of the Church). It is true that we only know Jesus Christ through the revelation contained in the written and proclaimed Word, BUT, we can only see/hear/know the meaning of the written and proclaimed Word as a result of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Christ is primary, and without Christ, the Bible becomes nothing more than a book.

One of Barth's primary "formational influences" was Theological Liberalism. Much of his theology was aimed as a response to this "liberalism," which was basically (as Barth saw it) the surrender of theology to the philosophies of the Enlightenment. One of "liberalism's" primary motivations was the conviction that questions raised by the Enlightenment and modernism must be engaged theologically. Barth's criticism was that in so doing, theology ceded the ground to these philosophies and cultural ideologies, which reduced theology to phenomena that were to be studied and subjected to human interpretation and experience. Barth argued that theology must never become anthropocentric, and he was vigorously opposed to any system or idea that limited God's sovereign freedom to do whatever God chooses.

Barth was not fond of Tillich or others who tried to philosophically systematize theology. He saw them as intellectually dishonest. This was a bit troubling for me to hear, as my interests lean primarily toward the realm of philosophical theology. In Barth's view, Tillich (and the majority of Evangelicalism and Apologetics, for that matter) said, "Bring your questions to the Bible and God will answer them." Barth said, "No. You come to the Bible and God will ask you the questions." Barth was deeply appreciative of all the sciences and arts in their own right, but did NOT think that theology should be co-opted by any of them, or should serve any of them... all other sciences should serve theology!

Talking to Prof. Burton after class, he assured me that Barth's issue is not with philosophy per se (after all, Barth's brother was a philosopher), but with philosophers who are doing philosophy under the guise of theology, and even more, Christians who have let their theology become subject to any philosophy.

This creates an immense challenge for me as I continue along my current educational path: How do I keep from subjecting my theology to any philosophy, while at the same time attempting to speak honestly into philosophical structures that may understand and, indeed, require me using a different "language"? I can certainly see Barth's point that it would not be faithful for me as a Christian to accept the subjectification of theology, but is there a way to balance honest theological study with proper engagement of philosophical constructs and ideologies that might be of assistance to theology? This is certainly no easy task.

Of course, there are many opportunities for theology to critique philosophy. But there are also, I think, times when philosophy can and should critique theology, especially theology that has drifted from its true center and purpose. There is always the danger of philosophy becoming an idol... and for that matter, the same is true of theology. Lots to think about...

Tonight (Thursday) we will be looking at Barth's "Epistle to the Romans," a profoundly influential work that catapulted him into the spotlight of Christian academia.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

First post on Barth class...

The course I'm auditing this quarter - Karl Barth and Evangelicalism - has begun, and if Monday's introductory lecture was any indication, it should be a very interesting class. I've been reading Barth's "Evangelical Theology: An Introduction" as part of the required reading (well, not so much "required" for me, but...) and I'm a bit unclear on Barth's concept of the presuppositions of Christian theology, or lack thereof.

On the one hand, Barth says, "Theology cannot... presuppose anything at all concerning the foundation, authorization, and destination of its statements." He continues, "Were theology to presuppose the power sustaining its statements and itself, then theology would assume power in its own right, superior to that first and fundamental power... the very thing theology seeks would be lost whenever theology attempted to rely upon such an arbitrary presupposition." (p. 50-51)

But later on he states (p. 147) that the "reality of God's work an the truth of his Word" is a truth "radically superior to theology" and "is presupposed for it in the manner of a radical presupposition."

I asked Prof. Burton about this last night and he indicated that what Barth was apparently trying to say was that the only presupposition for the Christian is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Barth, all theology is founded upon and a response to God's revelation, which is seen ultimately in Jesus Christ.

Now, at this point, my thought was that if Barth saw Jesus Christ as the only presupposition for Christianity, it seems surprising that he didn't attempt to engage more fully in New Testament studies surrounding Christ's life, death and resurrection. But my professor quickly rebuked me for that assertion! :-) Barth was not interested in the "historical Jesus" or any other such evidentiary commitment. He was only committed to the revelation of God in Christ.

But this brings a couple of difficult questions to my mind. The first is whether Barth's insistence on presupposing the revelation of God in Christ without any subsequent presuppositions does not lead him to a sort of fideism that ends in a catch-22. Perhaps Barth would call it a paradox, and Christ certainly is that. But is this all that is left to us? Is there absolutely nothing we can say? Perhaps that is the crux of the matter: Faith in Christ involves being a witness in spite of the fact that you can really say nothing.

The second, and related, question is whether Barth's theology offers any real opportunity for genuine dialogue with other fields and other faiths. My concern is this: If we, as Christians, say that our faith is built upon God's revelation in Christ, and we need not acquiesce to any other inquiry or evidence, then there is no further room for debate. Which is perhaps theologically legitimate, but causes me great concern regarding the witness of Christianity in many cases.

What I mean is, Barth connects theology (and faith) closely with community and ethics. There is a proper sense in which Christians must rely upon the revelation of God to produce the fruit of the Spirit, which will be seen in the ethic of the Christian community. But when - as is very often the case - the so-called "Christian ethic" appears either non-existent or in such disarray that many Christians (to say nothing of non-believers) can make neither heads nor tails of the difference God's revelation in Christ has made in their lives, then what do we have? It seems of little use to stand on a foundation of presupposition-less revelation when the outworking of such a theology does not bear out in actual living. Is some amount of "realism," no matter how dirty that word may be for Barth vis-a-vis Niebuhr, needed?

These questions are bothering me, and I hope that I will gain additional clarity regarding these issues as the course progresses. I think Barth is definitely onto something, and I find much of great value in his theological perspective. I'm just not sure what to make of his intense commitment to presupposition-less theology. More posts to come...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

quick update...

So, it's been a couple weeks since my last post, and that will soon change... I start the first of my "intensive" summer classes this week, and I am planning to post at least some of my thoughts and questions on this blog... so, if you're a reader here, get ready for some fun! (er, uh... yeah, fun!)

My first class is an audit, actually, since I don't need it to graduate, but I'm excited to take it nonetheless: Karl Barth and Evangelicalism, taught by Dr. Bryan Burton. I am not a Barth devotee, but I do appreciate a lot of what he has to say and have a deep respect for his theological acumen. So I'm looking forward to it. Stay tuned!