Whatcha reading? 10

51EbAaHzUHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Free books are always good news. Blackwell’s A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (2nd ed, 2010) has been available online for free download for a while.

Patrick Sherry’s entry “Beauty” is inviting. I’ve believed for years now (from reading the Old Testament) that God’s ‘glory’ just is his ‘beauty’, the two being perfectly convertible. Sherry touches on that. And references to Weil (“The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible”) are never disappointing. And the answer to the question you are likely to have at the end of Sherry’s contribution is — don’t be mad at me — Boyd’s Trinity & Process.

Then there is an update from Richard Creel (“Immutability and Impassibility”) on his views. He hasn’t to my knowledge said anything new on the subject since his 1986’s Divine Impassibility. Creel, an open theist, advocates divine impassibility (grounded in God’s essential divine bliss). In his contribution to this volume he softens his 1986 position a bit.

I’m also in the middle of Rob Lister’s God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion (2013), a book every open theist should read if just to appreciate the diversity and nuances of competing positions. Lister argues for a qualified impassibilist view (of which there are apparently several). The best part about Lister’s book may be the footnotes. Excellent patristic sources to run down. (Rod Thomas may enjoy Lister’s reading of Clement.) He’s no friend of open theists; dismisses them whenever they enter the conversation. But surprisingly he has good to say about Creel’s position even though he recognizes Creel’s view on divine epistemic openness regarding the future. Lister apparently doesn’t connect Creel’s view on divine knowledge of the indeterminate future as essentially ‘open theism’ and sees no incompatibility with God’s being mutable with respect to his knowledge of the world and immutable with respect to his beatitude. I wonder if Lister not categorizing Creel among open theists is evidence of how much ‘open theism’ (the movement) is associated with theological claims that have nothing to do with the open view of the future per se, so that Creel’s views on God’s epistemic openness regarding the open future pass under Lister’s radar simply because Creel promoted a more traditional view on impassibility. Just a thought.

Happy reading.

Shortest books in the world


I’m still collecting titles for the shortest books in the world. Suggestions welcomed.

“Road to the Super Bowl: The Detroit Lions’ Story”
“How Higher Taxes Created Jobs”
“Brewing Your Own Beer” by Stanley Horton
“Women in Church Leadership” by Mark Driscoll
“Systematic Theology” by Peter Rollins
“AMERICA!” by John Howard Yoder (forward by Stanley Hauerwas)
“A Theology of Suffering” by Joel Osteen
Charismata: A Dialog with the Traditions” by John MacArthur
“12 Steps to Health and Wealth” by John Piper
“Tips for Great Vocals” by Katie Perry
“Fun Things To Do in Southern Illinois”
“Ministries I Approve Of” by Hank Hanegraaff
“Anita Belt: The Dark Years”

A few from my Middle Eastern years…

“Top Middle Eastern Vacation Spots”
“Humble Arabs I Have Known”
“Jewish Business Ethics”
“Jordanian War Heroes”
“Islamic Democracies”

More suggestions?

(Picture here.)

Whatcha reading? 9

51GuytFmUCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sarah Coakley leads an extraordinary reflection upon trinitarianism in God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, 2013). There are several angles from which she approaches trinitarian thought, but in her first chapter she offers a reconception of the task of [systematic] theology which she describes as “founded not in secular rationality but in spiritual practices of attention that mysteriously challenge and expand the range of rationality, and simultaneously darken and break one’s hold on previous certainties,” an “ascetic, contemplative, proposal for [what] theology actually entails.” I thought it worthwhile. Enjoy!


The first resistance to systematic theology resides in the philosophical critique of so-called ‘onto-theology’: it claims that systematic theology falsely, and idolatrously, turns God into an object of human knowledge…

That systematic theology should be perceived as necessarily engaged in a false reification of God, first, is the accusation made when systematics is seen as a form of ‘onto-theology’. But what exactly does this accusation mean? The charge goes back to the claim that Greek philosophical metaphysics was already engaged in a hubristic and inappropriate attempt to explain the divine, the ultimate Cause, and so to extend metaphysics beyond its proper reach; and, further, that classical and scholastic Christian theology, in its dependence on Greek metaphysics, unthinkingly extended such a trait into its projects of philosophical and systematic theology. Even Thomas Aquinas has been (falsely) accused of such an ‘onto-theological’ error.

But the mistake in the charge itself is that it has failed to understand the proper place of the apophatic dimensions of classical Christian thought (as already briefly discussed in the Prelude). Once there is a full and ready acknowledgement that to make claims about God involves a fundamental submission to mystery and unknowing, a form of unknowing more fundamental even than the positive accession of contentful revelation, the ‘onto-theological’ charge loses its edge. Indeed, one might say it becomes a mere shadow-boxing. For ‘God’, by definition, cannot be an extra item in the universe (a very big one) to be known, and so controlled, by human intellect, will, or imagination. God is, rather, that without which there would be nothing at all; God is the source and sustainer of all being, and, as such, the dizzying mystery encountered in the act of contemplation as precisely the ‘blanking’ of the human ambition to knowledge, control, and mastery. To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed.

So, if the ‘onto-theological’ charge misses its mark, is its accusation simply ‘much ado about nothing’? Not exactly; for its concerns rightly chide those forms of theology which show an inadequate awareness of the sui generis nature of the divine, and of the ever-present dangers of idolatry. In short, systematic theology without appropriately apophatic sensibilities is still potentially subject to its criticism. The question then presses: what constitutes such an ‘appropriately apophatic sensibility’? Can this be gained simply by taking thought (or, rather, by taking thought and then negating it)? Or is it that this first accusation against systematic theology has rightly isolated a deeper problem than that of mere intellectual or semantic hygiene – that is, the modern problem of the dissociation of theology from practices of un-mastery?

It is here that one of the key dimensions of my proposed theological method becomes crucial. As I have already argued, systematic theology without contemplative and ascetic practice comes with the danger of rending itself void; for theology in its proper sense is always implicitly in via as practitional. It comes, that is, with the urge, the fundamental desire, to seek God’s ‘face’ and yet to have that seeking constantly checked, corrected, and purged. The mere intellectual acknowledgement of human finitude is not enough (and in any case is all too easily forgotten); the false humility of a theological ‘liberalism’ which remakes God as it wishes under the guise of a Kantian nescience is equally unsatisfactory; it is the actual practice of contemplation that is the condition of a new ‘knowing in unknowing’. It must involve the stuff of learned bodily enactment, sweated out painfully over months and years, in duress, in discomfort, in bewilderment, as well as in joy and dawning recognition. Apophatic theology, in its proper sense, then, can never be mere verbal play, deferral of meaning, or the simple addition of negatives to positive (‘cataphatic’) claims. Nor, on the other hand, can it be satisfied with the dogmatic ‘liberal’ denial that God in Godself can be known at all: it is not ‘mysterious’ in this sense. For contemplation is the unique, and wholly sui generis, task of seeking to know, and speak of God, unknowingly; as Christian contemplation, it is also the necessarily bodily practice of dispossession, humility, and effacement which, in the Spirit, causes us to learn incarnationally, and only so, the royal way of the Son to the Father.

The first, ‘onto-theological’, objection to systematics therefore does still have continuing point, even as one answers it. It serves as a reminder that the problem of idolatry is an enduring one, and that it can never be dealt with by mere mental fiat or a false sense of intellectual control. It draws attention, too, to the fact that not all theology adequately reflects on its apophatic duties: insofar as it fails in them, it is indeed implicated in ‘onto-theological’ temptation. Finally, it hints therefore also at the need to make important distinctions between different levels, or types, of approach to doctrinal truth….That is, there are different ways in which doctrines can be purveyed, whether by symbolic power, indirect allusion, or analytic clarity; but even when these are judiciously combined, there can be no intrinsic guarantee of an effective apophatic reminder in any attempt to speak truly of God – unless such reminders are practised. One of the rightful requirements of systematic theology, then, is for it to indicate what sorts of different ‘forms’ of expression it is using, and for what purpose, and how such forms relate to intentional practices of un-mastery. Only thus can one consciously guard against the ‘onto-theological’ danger.


What, then, is distinctive about the idea of theology that this book proposes? The central theme…is that the task of theology is always, if implicitly, a recommendation for life. The vision it sets before one invites ongoing – and sometimes disorienting – response and change, both personal and political, in relation to God. One may call theology from this perspective an ascetical exercise – one that demands bodily practice and transformation, both individual and social…

Such deepening of vision will eventually also involve at some point a profound sense of the mind’s darkening, and of a disconcerting reorientation of the senses – these being inescapable fallouts from the commitment to prayer that sustains such a view of the theological enterprise. The willingness to endure a form of naked dispossession before God; the willingness to surrender control (not to any human power, but solely to God’s power); the willingness to accept the arid vacancy of a simple waiting on God in prayer; the willingness at the same time to accept disconcerting bombardments from the realm of the ‘unconscious’: all these are the ascetical tests of contemplation without which no epistemic or spiritual deepening can start to occur.

Whatcha reading? 8

2185888The Community of the Beautiful, by Alejandro Garcia-Rivera (teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley), is a wonderful and thoughtfully composed thesis. He takes the transcendentals (the True, the Good, and the Beautiful), explicates the dynamic relationship between them in terms of von Balthasar (the Beautiful), Josiah Roice (the Good), and Charles Sanders Pierce (the True) and gives us a fresh and innovative theological aesthetics. Who would imagine putting these three thinkers into dialogue with Hispanic experience? It’s a wide-ranging book, pulling from the sciences, poetics, liberation theology, sociology, Pseudo-Dionysius, Christian mystics, ethics, pragmatism and much more to define what moves the human heart.

Here’s a sampling:

The role of mystery, however, reveals the inadequacy of describing apophatic Beauty and the kataphatic beautiful solely in terms of the “quarrel” between the senses and the intellect. If we were to follow analogy of the quarrel to its logical conclusion, then like the senses and the intellect, beauty and the beautiful, the apophatic and the kataphatic would find themselves opposed to one another. Mystery opposes such opposition. The apophatic and the kataphatic are not opposites in the context of mystery but complement one another. The inadequacy of the argument between the senses and the intellect to address mystery reveals a boundary, a place-between that neither senses nor the intellect wish to claim, yet a place where both find their unity. This place-between has been known in the philosophical tradition as the imagination. Universally seen as “mediator” between the senses and the intellect, its various descriptions bear a striking resemblance to aesthetic theory. As “imitator” of sensual reality, crafting an image for the abstractive intellect to “appreciate,” this view of the imagination resembles the objective pole of aesthetics. As inventive “expressor” of images from within the human spirit, the imagination resembles the subjective pole of aesthetic. There exists, however, another view.

Lawrence Sullivan discovered anew the religious nature of the imagination through his study of the various indigenous societies living in the Amazon river basis. Sullivan in his ground-breaking work Icanchu’s Drum defined the religious dimension of the imagination through his empirical study of myth:

“Myth does not simply denote a species of narrative; literary or oral genres are only symptoms of myth. Myth is not a form of lore but a quality of imaginal existence. Myth is the imagination beholding its own reality and plumbing the sources of its own creativity as it relates to creativity in every form (plant and planetary life, animal fertility, intelligence, art). Myth reveals the sacred foundations and religious character of the imagination. Myths are…significations that reveal the nature of significance, they make effective metastatements about imaginal existence (emphases mine).”

Sullivan’s key sense of the religious as “significations that reveal the nature of significance” is hard to grasp but it expresses Sullivan’s conclusion that for the religious imagination “understanding a reality requires that it has a beginning.” What Sullivan is proposing is that the imagination concerns the perceptibility of the different structures of reality as coming from an origin of differences. In other words, the imagination ministers to that place where differences begin and end.

As such, the imagination has its proper role not as artist to the senses or the intellect but as artist to Original Mystery. Imagination’s artistry makes mystery manifest both to the senses and the intellect. This affirmation, however, is not philosophical but theological. The understanding of imagination proposed here is not an epistemology but a theological aesthetics. Imagination is not so much a servant of knowledge as it is an aesthetics of mystery. This has an important corollary. If the imagination allows mystery to be made manifest to our senses and our intellect, then imagination also allows our senses and intellect to respond to mystery. In other words, the imagination is the prime mover and movement of the human heart. It allows Beauty to be appropriated by the human heart, and, as well, allows the human heart to respond to Beauty…The imagination allows apophatic Beauty and the kataphatic beautiful to have an organic connection within the human heart.

Easter is freedom from fear of death

Slavery of DeathRichard Beck over at Experimental Theology hits the nail on the heard with The Slavery of Death: Q&A about which he has a book out under the same name. I thought it interesting especially since Hebrews 2:14-17 is our text for this (Easter) Sunday at Emmanuel under the general theme that we naturally carry the sentence of death and come to enjoy the sentence of life through Christ. And the Orthodox preference for describing humanity’s predicament primarily in terms of our fear of and slavery to death (with sin as a consequence of this) strikes me as true as well.

Whatcha reading? 7

0801027780Last week a friend shared Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. Allert is an associate professor at Trinity Western University in BC and his book one of four volumes (thus far) in the Evangelical Ressourcement Series edited by D. H. Willilams, Professor of Religion in Patristics and Historical Theology at Baylor.

“Ressourcement” is a French neologism for “return to the sources” or “renewal through the re-appropriation of sources.” It was coined to describe a renewal of Thomas’ thought by early 20th century Catholic thinkers. The phrase has been picked up by others, Reformed and Evangelical, to describe the same recovery within the context of patristics. From the back cover:

The Evangelical Ressourcement series is grounded in the belief that there is a wealth of theological, exegetical, and spiritual resources from the patristic era that is relevant for the Christian church today and into the future. Amid the current resurgence in interest in the early church, this series aims to help church thinkers and leaders reappropriate these ancient understandings of Christian belief and practice and apply them to ministry in the twenty-first century.

Matthew Milliner has (Dec 2011) a nice review of theological ‘ressourcement’ efforts of this type over at Books and Culture (where he reviews Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry). Vox Nova reviews things nicely too. Other such re-appropriations include Robert Webber’s four-volume Ancient-Future Collection (intent on integrating a broad range of traditions views — Orthodox, Catholic & Protestant — with postmodern and away from modernity), and of course Tom Oden’s (as general editor) of IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture project. It’ll come as no surprise to our readers that Dwayne and I think these efforts a good thing. As open theists press farther back to ground their convictions historically and theologically, hopefully more and more of them will make other important discoveries. By the way, my daughter married an Oden (Thomas Oden is brother to my son-in-law’s grandfather Talmadge Oden). So hey, don’t mess with me!

I enjoyed Allert’s volume and am looking forward to reading the others. As you can guess from the title, Allert is concerned to explore how the formation of the NT canon ought to inform our doctrine of Scripture. He doesn’t finally offer any easy answers, but his emphasis upon canon formation as integral to understanding Scripture and inspiration (and related issues) is spot on. From the Postscript:

Foundational to this whole enterprise is the understanding that a high view of Scripture should be just as concerned with how the New Testament came to exist in the form we have it as with what is says. What the Bible says is certainly important, but a knowledge of what the Bible says in intimately related to where the Bible grew — in the church—and how it grew. Another way of stating this would be that the church certainly has something to say about what the Bible says because the Bible is the church’s book. Any examination of the history of the formation of the New Testament canon cannot miss the vital role played by the church and its leaders. This does not deprecate the role of the Holy Spirit in this formation, but rather acknowledges the face that the Spirit was a work throughout the entire process of sifting, including, excluding, and interpreting these documents. The early fathers understood the Spirit to be active not only through the writing that eventually came to be included in the canon, but also in the broader context of all the ecclesial canons. Yes, all were measured by these writings, but the Spirit was seen as living and active in the entire community.

The conclusions reached are also not intended to undermine the authority of Scripture, nor should they. The bottom line in ancient and contemporary appropriations of the canon is that it is the foundational and primary source against which any reflection of God’s revelation must be measured. It is thus canonical in the sense of being a standard of measurement. But it could not and did not function in the early church as the only standard for texts. For roughly the first four hundred years of its existence, the church had no closed canon, so the Bible could not have functioned as the sole criterion. This is what makes the distinction between the terms “Scripture” and “canon” so important. Failure to distinguish between them could lead to some significant distortions of the patristic age and its understanding of the nature of canon.

We must also remember that both before and after the church managed to have a closed canon, the necessity of properly interpreting these texts remained. The closing of the canon does not obviate the fact that proper interpretation is key for the Bible to inform the church’s faith and life. Simply closing the canon wold have done little to counter the Gnostics, for example, because in many cases they were offering differing interpretations of the same material. Even today the canon requires interpretation. We cannot escape from this need because we are located in a particular context, with many different influences, and thus we come to the text with different lenses. All this necessitates some sort of standard against which we may measure interpretation.

One may ask, however, if I am denying the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture by saying that the proper interpretation of Scripture is not always apparent. But the clarity of Scripture cannot be uprooted from its context. Protestants from Luther to Wesley found the perspicuity of Scripture as an effective banner to unfurl when attacking Catholics, but always a bit troublesome when common people began taking the teaching to certain conclusions.

For the Reformers, popular translations of the Bible did not imply that the people were to understand the Scriptures apart from ministerial guidance. So, when dealing with a scholar like Erasmus, Martin Luther could champion the perspicuity of Scripture by stating, “Who will maintain that the public fountain does not stand in the light, because some people in the back alley cannot see it, when every boy in the marketplace sees it quite plainly?” But when Luther was confronted with those he called sectarians, he admitted the danger of proving anything from Scripture: “I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they are fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from the Scriptures that beer is better than wine.” Calvin’s understanding was similar: “I acknowledge that Scripture is the most rich and inexhaustible fount of all wisdom. But I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which anyone may fasten to it at his pleasure.”

I am not here denying the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; I affirm both of these. I affirm that in the Bible God has given us all truths necessary for salvation. It is the final authority. But the Bible is not self-explanatory. And the very canonical construction of the New Testament as Scripture was a patristic accomplishment. The history of Christian doctrine is not just the story of repeating scriptural statements. Throughout doctrinal history we see the authors of heresies invariable taking their stand on Scripture, often claiming to recognize this as the sole court of appeal. These authors were not subsequently accused of being unscriptural, but rather they were accused of misusing Scripture. Thus, the point was not contended simply by appealing to the authority of Scripture, but the real battle was won on the interpretation of the Bible…

Appeal to the Bible as authority is essential, but not without a similar appeal to the proper lens of interpretation. That proper lens of interpretation has been the ecclesial canons of the church in which the Bible grew. In the early church a high view of Scripture was not one that necessitated a text that functioned authoritatively outside of the church.

Whatcha reading? 6

Khaled Anatolios, in Retrieving Nicaea, on Athanasius against Arius—

One way of retrieving Athanasius’s conception of the trinitarian structuring of divine immediacy in humanity’s sharing in divine life is to follow his usage of the language of “image,” which we have already encountered as central to the conceptual struggle of On the Incarnation. Much insight into the Alexandrian’s theological vision can be gleaned by noting how the language of “image” is used to draw a series of immediate links between God and humanity. Humanity is made according to God’s image, and its entrance into and perseverance in being is constituted through its participation in the divine Image, who is Word, Wisdom, and Son of the Father. The Son, in turn, is the true and perfect Image of the Father, who fully shares the being of the Father in himself and is only thus capable of sharing this being-with-the-Father with creation. The Spirit also is the Image of the Son, sharing the life of the Son in himself and enabling the life of the Son to be shared by creation. Throughout this usage “image” does not so much denote visibility or objective reproduction of a prototype but rather ontological sharing in the prototype. In the case of humanity, however, the being-according-to-the-image is not simply coincident with the entirety of its being, inasmuch as this being is also simultaneously a being-from-nothing. That is why the human being is not simply “image” of God, but “according to the Image.” Human being is thus a movement from nothing into God. When this movement became radically disrupted by sin, the divine Image, whose being is coincident with his sharing the life of the Father, repaired the human image through his own incarnate humanity. He did this by transferring humanity’s movement-from-nothing into himself, such that we now have a new “point of origin” in Christ. The human being’s movement from nothing into God is now accomplished within Christ, who integrates this movement into his own imaging of the Father and the Spirit’s image of himself. The salvific effect of the incarnation is precisely to transfer the potential obstruction of the starting point of nothingness, actualized and intensified by sin, into the free and unobstructed movement of Father, Son, and Spirit, through the new creatureliness of the Incarnate Word. For Athanasius, all this is catastrophically undone as soon as we introduce the notion that Son and Spirit are themselves creatures “from nothing.”

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.