Whatcha reading? 5

Not yet finished it, I already know James Wilhoit’s Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered is going to end up on my 2014 Top Ten Reads.

Regarding our motivation for dysfunction and sin:

Why do I lie? At the level of my soul, it is because I think that something other than God is a quicker way to the happiness I crave. Why do I constantly defend myself and protect my reputation? I do this because I am insecure in my belief that God is for me, and I find a sterling reputation to be an idol I can lean on.

Christians are often unwilling to admit the allure of sin. I remember sitting with a young woman who was tormented by shame and guilt over her sexual adventures and relational dishonesty. She kept wondering aloud why she fell into these defeating patterns, which “are so dumb.” She was shocked when I suggested that “sex works.” It provided her an immediate and tangible, gratifying interlude and gave a short-term answer to her longing for intimacy and being needed. We can begin to get some leverage in dealing with sin when we see that we do it for “positive reasons.” We sin because our longings are so strong that at the operational level—not a the verbal level, where we confess “Jesus is Lord”—we feel that something in addition to Jesus is necessary for our happiness and well-being.

And regarding spiritual formation:

Christian spiritual formation is not primarily about programs or techniques, but it is first and foremost about an approach to life. I have seen this clearly in my teaching ministry. After I became more interested in the spiritual life, I began to teach courses concerning spiritual practices like solitude, prayer, and fasting. I observed that some students took the material and used these classical spiritual disciplines as a space to meet God and be refreshed and healed by his grace. Others used this material to become far more accomplished legalists. What became clear is that our deep theology, our life maps, may make a train wreck of any intentional spiritual formation.

Icons: What’s the Point?

For all us non-Orthodox especially, this is an amazing explanation of icons. The theology behind them is so — what’s the word? — informed, yes, thoroughly and intentionally informed. Very unlike western aesthetics. All 3+ hours is worth watching. Enjoy!

The Icon: A Seven Part Documentary

David Bentley Hart at Biola

David Bentley Hart’s lectures at Biola University’s 2013 Art Symposium. I posted the first a few months ago. But all three are worth watching. I think starting with the second lecture on violence makes a better introduction to the first.

Beauty, Being, and Kenosis: the Aesthetics of the Incarnation

Beauty, Form, and Violence

Being, Consciousness, Bliss: Beauty as Knowledge of God

Christ & Horrors—Part 6

Identity_Crisis_6BWith Adams, I want to take Jesus’ humanity seriously and I agree that in the end this means affirming things about Christ that most Evangelicals aren’t likely to feel comfortable agreeing to. But attributing (willful) sinfulness to Jesus is something I’m unable join Adams in. One reason for my disagreement with her on this point is biblical. I think the NT authors did believe Jesus to be sinless and it seems to me this aspect of his humanity wasn’t incidental to their understanding of his soteriological role. The other reason involves the logic of horror-defeat as I would understand it. I don’t see that the solidarity required by his job description requires sinfulness.

Adams interprets the traditional “sinless” passages as not requiring maximization. She is methodologically committed to the proposition that human nature in its present environment is by definition inevitably subject not just to vulnerability to those experiences which may be falsely interpretedbut to actual failure in meaning-making and its existential despair (together with the sinful dysfunctions that naturally follow). Christ shares all these with us, including the debilitating effects of horror. This leaves me wondering just what it is that qualifies him to be our horror-defeater.

For Adams the sinfulness of the horror-defeater is ultimately beside the point. It’s not part of the job description. But it doesn’t follow from this that you or I qualify to be humanity’s horror-defeater. Only God can accomplish such defeat. But the defeat is accomplished not by means of an earthly career insulated from horrors. God must participate in our horrors to defeat them. Horror-participation becomes horror-defeat when God is its subject. Exactly how the defeat obtains in Jesus’ experience Adams never says except to say that it must begin by assuming that Jesus actually suffers horrors (i.e., the failure to truthfully negotiated his meaning and identity in the world and the existential despair that accompanies such failure) and not just suffers the same circumstances which we failure to negotiate truthfully but which he successfully negotiates. In short, Jesus saves not by “staring down” horrors (as I would have it) but by “surviving” the lost of personal meaning they inflict. But don’t a lot of people “survive” their horrors in this sense? Yes. Lots of us do, but this wouldn’t qualify any of us to be the world’s Savior. What qualifies Jesus’ horror-participation to be horror-defeat is that horrors are in this one human being’s case the personal property of God. God is their subject.

despairGranted, Adams admits we can’t have Jesus descend too far into wickedness. He can’t be a Herod or a Hitler. His meaning-making capacities have to be sufficiently functional to manage whatever prophetic and teaching ministry his vocation requires. Look at Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist and St. Paul. Their sinfulness didn’t disqualify them from prophetic or revolutionary roles. Similarly, Adams believes, Jesus needn’t be morally infallible or absolutely dysfunction-free. On the contrary, Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” Adams interprets this to include Jesus growing up, for example, with the same racist attitudes toward non-Jews common to Jews of his day. The same is true for whatever common prejudices any young Jewish boy would have had to negotiate.

Each word of Heb. 5.8 is crucial. Jesus “suffers” to learn obedience. Jesus suffers to learn “obedience.” Jesus suffers to “learn” obedience. Jesus’ character emerges developmentally through the same trials and errors and within the same constraints we are naturally limited to. And this means Jesus grows morally and spiritually into the obedience which his role as horror-defeater requires rather than emerging from the womb with pre-installed supernatural upgrades that insulate him against failure to self-identify truthfully before God and the experienced loss of personal meaning such failure results in. For Adams, Jesus was non posse non peccare with the rest of us. There is simply no other way to be human in this world (prior to the final glorification of the cosmos). But these failures of personal meaning (i.e., these “horrors”) save us in Jesus’ case (and not in any one else’s case) because they are God’s failures. They’re God’s loss of personal meaning. And as I understand Adams, this saves us just because the horror which is so finally and hopelessly destructive in our case is in God’s case united hypostatically to a person who is in his divine nature an incommensurate good of infinite value which cannot suffer horror or end in personal destruction. God defeats horrors by simply experiencing them (i.e., experiencing loss of personal meaning) and surviving the ordeal and not by experiencing them without loss of personal meaning. That’s my read on her thus far.

I don’t think this a viable Christology.

(Pictures here and here.)

Christ & Horrors—Part 5

CHRIST_SUFFERING_FOOLS_by_vmaximusAdams concludes chapter 3 with introducing her answer to the question of who and what Jesus must be in order to provide Stage 1-3 horror-defeat. Reconceptualizing the natural human condition as “vulnerability to horrors” with the “inevitable loss of meaning” such horrors precipitate and the ‘sin’ that follows as a consequence, and her agreement with the patristic conviction that “what is not assumed is not restored,” Adams concludes that it takes a God-man to do the job–all of which I agree with. I nevertheless have mixed feelings about her chapter 3 conclusions. Here I want simply to present Adams’ views without comment and postpone my critique for the following post.

To being with:

“Because State-I horror-defeat turns on Divine solidarity with human horror-participation, it sets up counterpresumptions that Christ’s ante-mortem human nature will be as much like ours as possible, and that Christ will identify more with our present condition than with any putative past or future uptopic state. First, and most obviously, Stage-1 defeat requires that Christ share human vulnerability to horrors which arises from our being personal animals in an environment of real and apparent scarcity.”

Christ’s body “must be urged on by life instincts of hunger, thirst, and sex, and threatened by the built-in seeds of its own demise.” This is all involved in his “assumption” of the
temptationnature needing restoration. Christ grew from infancy to adulthood facing and struggling with all the same developmental issues we face. He had to grow in his understanding and abilities and experience all the paradigm-shifts common to human beings. Following Forsyth, Adams argues that “Jesus struggled to win the right focus for, and eventual mastery with respect to, His vocation.” The cry of dereliction is to be read in the Lutheran sense as viewing Jesus to have shared our sense of abandonment by God and of divine condemnation “which,” Adams feels “is surely incompatible with simultaneous beatific intimacy, and plausibly at odds with any simultaneous face-to-face vision at all.”

“When His subjective world goes to small at six months, or at the terrible twos or the Oedipal threes, or at adolescence, He must share our initial incompetence and confusion, the anxiety and tension that goes with floundering around for a new integration. This includes the trial and error of false and rejected solutions, at the cognitive and emotional, moral and spiritual levels. Moreover, fully to embrace our vulnerability to horrors would mean struggle and the not merely apparent but real possibility of His not striking an appropriate Eriksonian balance, even of going seriously wrong.”


“[S]haring our vulnerability to horrors means living in a horror-prone environment: in a material world like ours, with real and apparent scarcities that arouse fear and provoke competition; being reared by and living among other human beings who have negotiated their own radical vulnerability to horrors in skewed and neurotic ways.”


“[T]he Synoptic career does not require Him to have attained the optimal Eriksonian balance at every developmental stage, nor to have arrived at the threshold of His free from neuroses. Biblical prophets, John the Baptist, St. Paul, voices God’s message, despite their eccentric and abrasive sides.”

She’s not saying we’re “free to attribute to Jesus Down’s syndrome or paranoid schizophrenia.” But she “leaves it open whether He was dyslexic or beset with other ‘learning disabilities’.” And not surprisingly at this point:

“Jesus’ New Testament roles as teacher, preacher, and healer do not by themselves require sinlessness or moral infallibility. St. Paul enters all those roles, despite his self-declared status as ‘the worst of sinners’….Role-wise, it is John’s presentation of the relation between Jesus and the Father as that of exemplary mutual indwelling that sets the highest standards…For now, it is enough to note that the role – by itself – does not force maximization.”

For Adams, Christ’s human nature is what allows him to join us in horror-participation, and thus…

“…this identification with us in horrors is essential to Stage-1 horror-defeat and means that Christ’s ante-mortem career will not fully anticipate Stage-2 and Stage-3 defeat. The result is that we do not need to take on a commitment to Christ’s utter human sinlessness. We are free instead to admit that Jesus had to outgrow parochial racism under the tutelage of the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman (MT 15:21-28/MK 7:24-30) and to acknowledge that He might have been harsh with His blood relatives!”

If you’re panicking at this point, perhaps this will help (and perhaps it won’t):

“Overall, Christ’s soteriological role as horror-defeater combines with His Gospel career to set the following limits on how much and in what ways He identifies with us. First, Christ could have only those human faults and psychological peculiarities compatible with such clarity of Godward orientation that people could reasonably take Him to speak and act of God’s behalf in His prophetic ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing. Second, He could participate only in those horrors that could beset a self-conscious, highly integrated servant of God.”

Let me steal two more quotes from much later in the book that expand on just what Adams insists Christ’s sharing our human nature entailed:

“My focus on horrors leads me to agree with Swinburne that the Divine nature is mutable and passible, although ever exercising self-determination over whether and how it changes. Taking a page from Hartshorne, I want to say that Divine omniscience involves God in feeling all our feelings, while Divine love for the world expresses Itself in the Trinity’s experiencing God-sized grief and frustration over human horror-participation. Such Trinitarian sympathy would mean that Godhead changes and is very likely acted upon. But it would not suffice for Divine solidarity in human horror-participation, for, however ghastly the things that we and God experience, the Divine mind cannot be “blown” by them; Divine meaning-making capacities cannot be stumped by them. God’s comprehensive consciousness recontextualizes them in a field that includes joy and delight in the Divine perfections, in the Divine persons’ love for one another, in cosmic excellencies beyond our ken…Put otherwise, even if Divinity is mutable and passible, the Divine Perfections in Their Divine nature are not vulnerable to horrors. For God to share horrors, God has to become the kind of thing that can be radically vulnerable to horrors. And this will require a finite range of consciousness with limited powers to cope.

Hold onto your hats. One last elaboration:

“God’s feeling in the Divine nature all the pains that creatures feel will not constitute adequate solidarity with human horror-participants. Divine consciousness is of immeasurable scope. God’s clear and comprehensive awareness of the Good that God is would radically recontextualize any creaturely pain and suffering that God might feel: what swamps a human consciousness would be a minuscule fragment of what occupies Divine attention…To show solidarity with horror-participants, God must experience evils within the limits of a finite human consciousness, with a mind that can be “blown” and at least prima facie unable to cope with horrors. The two-natures theory, Incarnation of a Divine person into an individual human nature, fills this bill….” [emphases in all quotes mine]

The smelling salts are in the cabinet. I’ll be voicing my agreements, reservations, and objections in upcoming posts in this series.

(Pictures here and here.)

Christ & Horrors—Part 4

fatherForgiveLGChapter 3 (“Sharing the horrors: Christ as horror-defeater”) of Marilyn McCord Adams’ Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology is a wonderful chapter that has me equally excited and skeptical, apprehensive and suspicious. Here she begins to answer the questions she posed at the conclusion of the previous chapter, namely:

If our fundamental problem is our vulnerability to horrors, and if salvation is the defeat of and our healing from the dysfunctional effects of horrors and the eventual removal of this vulnerability from the cosmos, who and what must Jesus be and what must Jesus’ relationship be to God and to us if Jesus is the one in whom this salvation-as-horror-defeat is achieved?

We have a “soteriological job description” (i.e., Stage 1-3 horror-defeat), but what are the qualifications to be this horror-defeater? Adams agrees “it takes a God-man to do the job,” and she aims to work out the identity of this horror-defeater consistent with the Chalcedonian Creed (451 BCE) and a conviction she shares with Gregory Nazianzen (4th century Archbishop) that “what is not assumed cannot be restored.” As she argued in the previous chapter, because divine being is the only incommensurate good sufficient to accomplish this horror-defeating work, Jesus must be divine being. But because human embodied existence is the context to be assumed and in which its healing defeat must be accomplished as horror-defeat, Jesus must be human being.

Perfectionist treatments
Adams summarizes two different answers to the question ‘Who/What must Jesus be to be our savior?’ before offering her own qualified diagnosis. I want to quickly review these two approaches in this post (Part 4) and her own offering in Part 5.

The first sort of answer she calls perfectionist Christologies. These attribute to Christ’s human nature “maximal supernatural upgrades in grace and knowledge” which essentially insulate Christ from any genuine participation in the very vulnerability which is the arena in which (Adams argues) our horror-defeat must transpire. She explains—

“These thinkers begin with distinctive systematic presumptions… Some harbored a presumption against Incarnation, vigorously voiced by non-Christian (Jewish and Muslim) monotheists and reinforced by a Platonizing appreciation of the metaphysical “size-gap” between creatures and God. In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm in effect concedes that Incarnation is prima facie metaphysically indecent (why would a being a greater than which cannot be conceived unite itself with what is ‘almost nothing’?) and therefore something God would undertake only if the fulfillment of Divine purposes made is conditionally necessary to do so. Given the fact of Incarnation, non-Antiochene patristics and early medieval theologians transmuted the presumption against Incarnation into a presumption of perfection, that, other things being equal, the human nature God made God’s own would have to be as perfect as it is possible for a human nature to be.”

Essentially this perfectionist tradition merely adds normal human functioning and growth “into a soul already equipped – ab initio and permanently – with as much supernatural knowledge of God and creatures as a human soul is capable of….” This approach, Adams feels, actually disqualifies Jesus from being our horror-defeater, for the job is to defeat horrors not just insulated ‘inside’ a human nature but ‘with’ or ‘by means of’ that nature, i.e., in terms of the capacities and vulnerabilities definitive of that nature. This is the human side of the qualifications. But there’s also a divine side of the job description (Part 5) which limits how much and in what ways he identifies with us.

Turn-of-the-century British Christology
She also briefly reviews the ways British theologians (Charles Gore, Frank Weston, Peter Forsyth, William Temple) departed from this perfectionist approach. She agrees with the basic direction in which they move (because by her account they took Jesus’s embodied, social context and human development seriously) but disagree with them where “they share the conviction that sin is the main soteriological problem, and that One Who saves us from sin must be sinless.” Thus British Christologians have a “soteriological plot [that] tends to be moralistic and moralizing,” while her approach will not require Jesus to be impeccable or sinless. Stay tuned for Part 5!

“Broadly speaking, turn-of-the-century British liberal theologians deplored the a priori character of such patristic and medieval Christology, with its tendency to make the metaphysical “gap” and the presumption of perfection decisive. On the contrary, Christology should begin with Holy Scripture, and with then-contemporary higher critical exegesis of it which treated the Bible as a historical document.”

What this meant in practice was that Scripture’s portrait of Christ was not infallible, historical inaccuracies abounded, the text couldn’t be trusted, and for some that miracles were impossible, etc. Though they denounced the philosophical presuppositions of the perfectionist Christologies which in their view failed to take the real humanity of Christ seriously, they had philosophical presumptions of their own that disqualify their view in Adams’ mind. And we’ll get to Adams’ arrangement of these concerns next.

(Pictures here and here.)

Rowan Williams—Gifford Lectures 2013

Love the eyebrows. Awesome. And I’m looking forward to exercising my brain cells in listening to his lectures (all available on Youtube). Enjoy!

Lecture Theme: Making Representations: Religious Faith and the Habits of Language

Lecture 1: Representing Reality

Lecture 2: Can We Say What We Like? Language, Freedom and Determinism

Lecture 3: No Last Words: Language as Unfinished Business

Lecture 4: Material Words – Language as Physicality

Lecture 5: Extreme Language – Discovery Under Pressure

Lecture 6: Can Truth be Spoken?