Wednesday, March 04, 2015

What Indeed Has Athens to Do With Jerusalem?

Or what indeed has New York City to do with Königsberg?

In the last few years I've been sticking my nose into works of philosophy. Although seminary was a heady exposure to deep stacks of theology I never anticipated but deeply loved, I've come to believe that theology has much to learn in its continuing engagement with philosophical discourse.

The tricky thing about theology--it always seems to wend its way back to foundational authors or periods. Almost all contemporary philosophy, at least most philosophy written in Europe or in English, eventually has to engage those Germans like Hegel and Kant because they "changed everything."

Much the same can be said of a few German philosophers of the 20th century, Heidegger in particular. As uncomfortable as we are with Heidegger's politics, it's pretty difficult to get around engaging Heidegger. Similarly, if you want to do political theology, you have to come up against the juridical philosophy of Karl Schmitt. 

In point of fact, as Jacob Taubes points out, Schmitt's work on political theology (infused as it was with anti-Semitism) was influential even in the drafting of the Israeli constitution.

In Christian theology, we have this anxiety of influence of a peculiar kind--basically all of our theology has been formed in conversation with the philosophy of the Greeks (the Church Fathers engaged Plato and Aristotle as an alternative to and denunciation of the mythology and liturgies of Greek mythology; Thomas Aquinas organized Christian theology around Aristotelian metaphysical categories). 

So as early as Tertullian, Christian theologians were engaging Greek metaphysics and wedding it to the biblical worldview, while all the time questioning the enterprise.

As a reader whose impulse at least quite a bit of the time is to engage the footnotes, to dig down into sources, to consider how and why concepts emerge, I sometimes end up frustrated. Is it really the case that in order to think about philosophy in an era of post-colonialism and globalization, do I really still have to go back to Kant and Hegel? To think about the philosophy of technology, can't I dig into some other source than Heidegger?

The Unavoidability of Influence

The answer, unfortunately, is no. Some of these sources are so influential, so embedded in all our discourse and thinking, that there simply is no end run around them. One can only go through and beyond them, and continually back to them.

The issue with the original question of Tertullian--"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"--is essential if complicated. As posed, the question implies that one can distinguish between a pure Athens and a pure Jerusalem. Athens represents a uniform Greek philosophy. Jerusalem represents a completely separate and distinguishable Hebraic worldview. 

But are the two so distinguishable? Wasn't Jerusalem a meeting place for many cultures? Remember the Pentecost event, where Jews from many nations were gathered for trade and witnessed a new wind of the Spirit speaking through the disciples. Even prior to this, Hebrew culture was always infused and mingled with neighboring religions and thought-forms. From Solomon's wives to the exile in Babylon, from the references in Genesis to other early ancient texts to the Greek shift in the apocrypha (not to mention the transition from the Hebrew bible to the Septuagint as the primary source for theological reflection even among Jewish theologians), Greek and Hebrew culture were always already overlapping well before the Church Fathers began reading Aristotle.

Similarly, wasn't Athens a meeting place of many faiths? Paul tours the city and discovers shrines to so many gods that one shrine is even set up to an unknown god. And as already mentioned, Greek philosophy itself was not homogenous. Some types of philosophy were worked out in the theater and the temples, the philosophy of the gods and the tragedies. Another world of thought developed among the pre-Socratic philosophers and the three great philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (and perhaps also Plotinus). 

The Danger of Influence

There are some dangers of unrecognized influence. The newer of the philosophies, the one brought into to contemporize the original, can risk co-opting the center of the philosophy one is trying to pristinate. This is a concern in many contexts. For example, post-colonial philosophers are rightly concerned that continual reference to European philosophy is a continuation of colonialism. After the Shoah, we are right to be concerned about the continuing of influence of anti-Semitism and National Socialism in the philosophy of Heidegger. 

Or in a more modern context, to what degree should we be concerned about the life and values of the authors we read, such as the problem of John Howard Yoder's abuses in relationship to his pacifist theology, not to mention his influence on many theologians who have come after him?

So the awareness of influence is critical. But along with awareness should come the recognition that avoiding influence is impossible. It is how we live into influence that matters, rather than the whether of influence.

This is how Christianity works

One of the unique marks of Christianity is its translatability. The Bible, the Scripture of our tradition, existed as a holy book first in Hebrew, then in Greek, and later even in Latin. Over time, it has been translated into most of the world's languages, and that translation work is ongoing. Some of our best global theologians recognize translation as a crucial mark of our faith

Indigenizaton of the faith is central to the spread of Christianity throughout the world, but indigenization has never functioned well by abandoning the cultural underpinnings of the Christianity being indigenized. For example, although there was some talk in the early church about dropping the Old Testament as Scripture, this heresy (Marcionism) was finally rejected by the church, because the church councils recognized that it was the cultural interplay between the older Scriptures and the newer Greek writings that was itself essential to a robust Christian theology.

You can't just replace a culture with Christianity, or add it onto it. Rather, Christianity develops within a new culture as gospel because it was already an intercultural conversation before it ever engaged a new culture in faithful and missionary conversation.

So when Scripture is translated well into new cultures, translators don't bracket off the New Testament and tack it onto the scriptures of the cultures into which they are translating (although some have attempted this). Instead, translators bring the Scriptures as a whole to the communities, and it is the interplay of Jerusalem and Athens, then in conversation with the third culture into which the faith is being translated, that becomes the living dynamic of the faith as it reaches more and more nations.

Canon, Creed, and the Development of Doctrine

All of this is very important because each form of Christianity we experience today, without exception, is a living tradition precisely because Athens and Jerusalem do have something to do with each other. In Western Christianity, this is primarily through the reciprocal developmental relationship between the canon (Scripture) and the creed. In this understanding, the creeds are not abusive expropriation of Scripture as accommodation to Western modes of thinking. Instead, they are the very way Scripture is lived and indigenized in the culture. 

This is why, over time, Christianity was able to move to new centers, from Athens to Rome, from Jerusalem to Constantinople, from Constantinople to the third Rome, Moscow. And now we might add, to great Christian cities of the global south, like Buenos Ares or Lagos. There is not a higher, more universal Christianity to which we can appeal that transcends these specific places. Even Christian traditions in North America who believe they "just read the Bible" still have centers for their theological developments, such as Dallas, or Pasadena. 

Doctrine develops in and through these specific places, not above them. Philosophy is always the philosophy of somebody, some school, not a transcendent sphere above the fray of cultural engagements. Every philosophy has not only authors, but cities.

Back to Philosophy

So why does this matter? Well, for one, because nobody made a better run at developing a philosophy of technology than Heidegger, and he did so by engaging the philosophy of the Greeks. You can consider technology by way of other philosophers, but you'll be lacking an important dialogue partner. Contemporary theologians considering technology in religious perspective acknowledge this, and work with Heidegger's thought. Perhaps the preeminent example currently is Brian Brock's Christian Ethics in a Technological Age.

Similarly, many philosophers and theologians attempting to navigate the shift to a post-secular society know that part of their work is continual engagement with the philosophers who created the conditions for the possibility of modern secularities, especially Hegel and Kant. So Roger Scruton's recent work, The Soul of the World, on the sacred in face of atheist options, engages Hegel in almost every chapter. He didn't set out to write a book about Hegel. But his project is best accomplished with Hegel as continual lodestar.

Personally, I'm particularly interested in this history of influence because I am captivated by the notion that we are now living in a world of multiple secularities, so indigenization of Christian faith in secularit(ies) entails close attention to the philosophers who first assisted in distinguishing the secular from the sacred, and then perpetuated or even deepened the tendency.

We simply cannot pretend that post-secularity isn't upon us. This isn't an option. The only option is to consider what it means to live in a world where various religious and secular options really are that for us, options. 

Remembering Tertullian, I agree with James McGrath, who observes, "Tertullian himself provides a wonderful example of the fact that denying a connection puts one in a situation in which one is likely to make just such a connection without realizing it." Similarly, I think attempts to do philosophy without reference to the Greeks, or theology without reference to the influence of Athens, is likely to accomplish making such connections without realizing it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Advocate for Migrant Children and Asylum Seekers

Today and tomorrow, this Subcommittee will take the next step towards passing these bills.SFW header
Dear Faith Advocates, 

When we last wrote to you, the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security of the House of Representative’s Judiciary Committee was preparing to debate four pieces of legislation that would strip protections for migrant children traveling alone, harm migrants and the communities that welcome them, and create unnecessary barriers for people seeking asylum. Today and tomorrow, this Subcommittee will take the next step towards passing these bills.

The 4 bills that the Subcommittee will consider are:
This is not the first time we have seen these legislative ideas, many of which are mean-spirited and unwelcoming, as similar bills were also introduced in the last session.  Rather than spend time and energy on these bills, we believe Congress should work to enact legislation that keeps families together, protects children, migrants, refugees and other vulnerable persons.
Please join us in telling Congress that the faith community stands together to oppose these bills in any form. We invite you to add your voice today by:
  • Calling your Representative at 202-224-3121. Here’s a sample of what to say:
“I’m from (city, state, congregation/community) and as a person of faith, I urge Rep. [NAME] to oppose any proposal that strips protections for migrant children fleeing violence, creates barriers for asylum seekers, or expands the use of immigration detention.  Please oppose such proposals including the Michael Davis Jr., in Honor of State and Local Law Enforcement Act, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, and the Protection of Children Act. I urge Rep. [NAME] to instead support legislation that protects vulnerable migrants and refugees seeking protection in the U.S."
".@(your representative) As a person of faith from (your district/city) please oppose H.R. 1148, 1149, 1153. Protect migrant kids & asylum seekers!"
  • Taking action at LIRS’s Action Center to send a message to members of the House Judiciary Committee urging them to stand with people of faith in opposing legislation that harms vulnerable migrants seeking safety.
Thank you for letting Congress know that people of faith believe migrants and refugees should be welcomed not endangered.

Stay tuned for further updates and as always, thank you for standing for welcome.

In peace,

Brittney Nystrom
Director for Advocacy

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Hoping against the cross

This morning, because of the ice storm and worship cancellations, I had time to experiment with a new video app. I think I'm going to go crazy using Vittle now that I've experimented with it a bit. It's seamless from production to posting. It's definitely a WOW! app.

Here's the video, a "visual sermon" on Romans 4:

Hoping against the cross from Clint Schnekloth on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Poverty of Theology in Face of Mass For-Profit Incarceration

"During his only visit to America, theologian Karl Barth in 1962 visited three prisons: Bridewell House of Correction in Chicago, San Quentin in California, and Rikers Island in New York. He called Bridewell 'Dante's inferno on earth' and said it was a contradiction of the wonderful message on the Statue of Liberty. Barth wondered aloud why theologians weren't denouncing the deplorable conditions in American prisons, calling on Reinhold Niebuhr in particular" (Christian Century, March 4, 2015)

Unfortunately this denunciation still applies to most contemporary theologians, and really the church in general. I have trouble thinking of a more clear sign of the bankruptcy of Christian faith in the United States than the lack of attention we give both in our practice and in our theology to the fact that we have become, by a wide margin, the largest incarceration culture and country in the world.

I am proud of the ELCA, because we adopted a social statement on Criminal Justice in 2013. It is not only a great social statement, but one of the more original theological proposals from our denomination in the last decade.

LIRS also does quite a bit advocating against unjust detention of families and children. Their backgrounder on the topic is helpful and illuminating:

One of the best on-line pieces I have read on the theology of mass incarceration is "Towards a Black-Womanist Theology of Mass Incarceration."

We have a long, long way to go. If we are serious about our faith, we will not allow our culture to do what it is attempting to do: to incarcerate millions of our neighbors in facilities shunted off and away from society, and to the financial benefit of for-profit prison corporations.