David Bentley Hart on the Infinite and Peace

Just started David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. He concludes the first part of his introduction with this:

I shall argue that it is possible to see vast portions of Western philosophy, from antiquity to the present, as moving within the confines of two ontologies – two narratives of being – which are really only two poles of a single ontological vision, whereas the church’s story of being – arising from Scripture and its own understanding of what has been revealed in Christ – is simply alien to the world this vision descries. And nowhere does this difference appear more starkly delineated than in the understanding of the infinite that becomes possible (indeed necessary) within Christian thought; the Christian infinite belongs to an ontology of or final and ultimate peace, and as a consequence allows a construal of beauty and of peace inconceivable in terms of the ontology that Christian thought encountered first in various schools of pagan metaphysics, and encounters, and encounters again in the thought of Nietzsche and his heirs.” 

….this is going to be good.


Hitchens and the Collect for Purity

Chris Hitchens is by far my favorite contemporary atheist. I think this is because he has the best wit of the current crop of “despisers of religion.” I also appreciate his rants against the evils perpetrated by religious institutions. Even though, as David Bentley Hart has argued, the conclusions he draws from the these observations are nothing but non-sequiturs. One statement he has made has always struck me as particularly interesting and worth reflection. I have heard him suggest that he not only has no reason to believe in God, but that he is glad that this is the case. His answer that atheism is good news is incredibly insightful to the human condition. He states:

            The main reason for this is that it (theism) is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. That there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority; who can convict you of a thought crime while you are asleep. He can subject you, who must indeed subject you, to a total surveillance around the clock every waking assuming minute of your life…and after death this is where the real fun begins. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desire such a ghastly fate?

Hitchens finds the idea of an all powerful God, who knows and judges, our innermost being repulsive. For Hitchens, it is better that we have our privacy. On the surface, Hitchens’ reasoning is ridiculous. He views a reality without any chance of final justice for the poor, cosmic purpose, the restoration of our own inner demons, and ultimately the final meaningless end of everything and everyone we ever loved is a better reality than one in which there is a divine creator who truly knows us.

One could fault Hitchens for desiring his own personal privacy over the redemption of cosmos as Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of soup. I know, however, that Hitches is simply expressing honestly a disposition that all of us often share with him. If we are honest, there is a part of us that is resistant to the idea that our whole self belongs to God and that we live our lives exposed to our creator. This desire for privacy, however, is not freedom but rather one cause for our loneliness. Mark Galli pointed out in a talk this weekend that our need for space keeps can keep us from forming the intimate relationships that we need.

Of course, there is always a risk involved with being exposed. The God we trust in is not the impersonal tyrant that Hitchens describes, but is revealed in the self giving love of Jesus Christ who exposed himself to the hard wood of the cross and suffered to reconcile humanity to God.  God’s revelation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that the reality that God knows all our thoughts is good news. God truly knows us: our discontentment, pain, struggles, irritation with others, part of ourselves we are so ashamed about that no one else knows about, parts of ourselves we do not even recognize ourselves and responds in grace and love. I am reminded of this statement by Hitchens when we pray the collect for purity every week in church.

            Almighty God, to you all hearts are open and all desires known and from you no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your Holy name. 

The hope expressed by the prayer is that love of God, who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, is a transformative love that enables us to grow in love for God and our neighbor.

Speaking of Jamie Smith

James K A Smith engages a recent column by David Brooks of the New York Times. Smith reads Brooks against himself in a way. Of course what is interesting is the discussion of how much theory forms practiced morality. Smith argues that one’s practice is really a result of one’s loves or desires not a system of thought or rules.

Here is Brook’s article http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-it-feels-right.html?_r=2&hp

Here is Smith’s response http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2011/09/contradictions-of-david-brooks.html


I really like Smith’s idea that discipleship is a process of having one’s desires disciplined. The human being is not first a thinking animal, says, Smith, but a loving animal.  Moral formation or discipleship is a result of participation in a “community of practices that are pursuing a thick vision of the good.”

Two questions: (1) What is the role of “thinking” in relation to the communities “vision of the good.” (2) What is the role of the Holy Spirit in moral transformation? I am sure Smith discusses the Spirit in his book Desiring the Kingdom– He’s a pentacostal!

Revelation and Desire

I wrote a paper for my Christian Education class in seminary on ways in which The Book of Revelation can help Christians think through the various themes we covered in the course. I had in mind Jewish apocalyptic imagery as a counter to the symbols of the pagan world that surrounded the Christians in Asia Minor. I got the idea from Richard Bauckham’s approach in The Theology of the Book of Revelation.

In the opening pages Bauckham states “As such its function, as we shall notice in more detail later, is to counter the Roman imperial view of the world, which was the dominant ideological perception of their situation that John’s readers naturally tended to share.” (p.8) One concrete way in which Roman ideology penetrated John’s communities was false teaching that legitimized eating meat sacrificed to idols (Rev 2:14,20). Some scholars suggest that believers in Asia Minor were tempted to participate in ceremonies in honor of trade deities that were a normal part of life in the Empire and an important part of maintaining  the social connections necessary for economic existence. John, however, sees that behind these practices are the demonic forces that perpetuated the evils of Rome.

This idea came to mind this morning while starting James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. He argues that humans are above all desiring animals shaped by practices and cultural liturgies. He argues that we are constantly formed by “cultural liturgies” that shape our perception of the “Good life.” Implicit in these liturgies “is an understanding of the world that is pretheoretical, that is on a different register than ideas.” In other words, our theories about the good are shaped by the practices in which we participate.  So, Christian worship is a part of educational and formation in the same way that a trip to mall shapes the way that we understand the world.

I think John agrees with Smith at this point. Revelation was written partially to combat the encroaching influence of pagan liturgies into the churches in Asia Minor. The act of participating in idol feasts forms a view of world in which the pagan gods were in charge of the world, even if as in Corinth, John’s readers believed theoretically that “an idol is nothing,” and needed placation in order to ensure prosperity – not simply for oneself  but also for the good of the empire. John counters these images, not only with depictions of the empire as a beast or whole of Babylon, but images and hymns probably from early Christian worship (Rev 4:6-10; 5:8-10; 7:10-12; 11:15-17; 14:1-5; 19:1-4).


What role does not theoretical aspect of life such as  imagination, desire, and worship play in forming how we view the world and than live?

The God of William James

I am currently enjoying Stanley Hauerwas’ Gifford Lectures With the Grain of the Universe. He provides an accounts of the thought of William James Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth. As I understand, Hauerwas argues that Niebuhr is indebted to William James during his Gifford Lecture The Nature and Destiny of Man. James, according to Hauerwas, was a modern pragmatist that “never entertained the presumption that the God of Israel might exist.” James provided a case for religion, however, because he needed to show that human existence was not “pointless.” He thought that people could be “religious without taking ‘institutionalized’ religion seriously. ”

Towards the end of his discussion of William James, Hauerwas describes James’s “Democratic critique of Christianity.”  For James the particularity of Christianity is incompatible “with the way of life necessary to sustain democracy.” This is because the universal claims of the Christian faith run against the universal claims of democracy that elevated the individual over the collective as displayed in the romantic values of Ralph Waldo Emerson. An interesting passage summarizes Hauerwas’ assessment of James:

“Just to the extent that James denied the creaturely status of human beings, I suspect it is a mistake to take too seriously his arguments against natural theology as the primary objections he had to Christianity. Those arguments were primarily an expression James’s deep moral objection to Christianity. What really bothered James was not that Christianity seemed to entail false views about the world, but that Christianity challenged the moral and political arrangements necessary to sustain the human project without God.”

A few lines down he adds, “Many Christians today want the world James wanted, while assuming that they can continue to have the Christian God. But James was right to think that you cannot have both.”

To sustain democratic order the things people care about most must be privatized because “if they were given purchase in public, they would, at best, lead to what James could regard only as unfairness and, at worst, escalating conflict.” Hauerwas concludes that James could not have it both ways because democracy in itself does not have the resources to keep itself from being “a way of life legitimized by coercion and violence.”

I thought this section was brilliant and illuminated the logic of Hauerwas’ vision of Christian ethics.

Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (Part 2)

This is the second part of the three part discussion of Andy Byers’ new book Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic Saint . We will focus on Part 1 of the book that proposes five characteristics of Christian culture that are catalysts for cynicism in the church.

So, what makes us cynical about Christianity in America? Andy Byers answers “Pop Christianity” Certain parts of America church culture are saturated with popular expressions of Christianity that is characterized by, idealism, religiosity, experientialism, anti-intellectualism, and cultural irrelevance. What are the kinds of things Byers has in mind? Well for example – in rural North Carolina, I would regularly drive a 6 mile road and pass about three church signs that said something like this…

He does not intend the first section to be an exhaustive list, but significant features of the American Christian landscape that he has experienced in his work as a pastor. Throughout this section Byers is insightful and also fair in his judgments. He notes that these trends in American Christianity often stem from good motives.  For example, despite the unhealthy tendency in some circles to crave, pursue, and misinterpret super-spiritual experiences, Byers closes his chapter on experientialism with an anecdote about how God spoke prophetically through a friend into his life.  His chapter on anti-intellectualism was particularly helpful because it traces the historical roots of the “the bible-says-it-so-I-believe-it-and-that-settles-it” attitude (92-95) and its rejection of institutional church authority. I found the end of this section particularly helpful. He closes out his chapter on cultural irrelevance with stories of his experience as a pastor of an extremely “irrelevant church” country church. Although the predominately elderly congregation for whom Byers cared was no where near the cutting edge of American intellectual or artistic culture, he learned things that our culture desperately needs: loyalty, community, and a sense of our own mortality.

In this first section, Byers names features of evangelical Christian landscape that I believe readers will immediately recognize. The chapters are often introduced with personal accounts that give flesh to the aspects of pop-Christianity that he believes cynics are correct to question. Each of the five attitudes are put under the microscope of scripture. Byers shows that the Bible’s description of reality is much more complex than Christians often realize. This is good news because reality is much more complex than many Christians would like to believe. In his chapter on idealism, Byers states, “the resetting of our eschatological clocks means that we are not just living post-Eden and pre-parousia, but in the awkward overlap of the ages.” Cynicism is a temptation of those that rightly realize that the world (and the church) is not what it should be. In Part 2 of his book, Byers will provide Biblical models that are alternatives to cynicism for those of us on whom as Paul says, “the ends of these two ages have met.” (1 Cor 10:11)

Intervaristy Press was kind enough to send me a free copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

Royal Weddings, Eschatology, and the Arts

So, I am a cynic and I wasn’t really interested in watching Price William and Kate tie the knot yesterday. And, I darn sure didn’t care to withstand news coverage from America’s wonderful (sarcasm) 24 hour news teams (I did watch a little of the after reporting later in the day). But, I want to resist, for a second, the criticism that the time was wasted covering the wedding when there are more important things going on in the world. Of course this criticism makes sense; the US is involved in three wars, world leaders are making important decisions regarding the world economy, the earthquake in Japan, tornadoes in the southeast, and the US budget.  And of course, the news media covered the event like gossiping vultures (interested in why certain family members were or weren’t there, the shame the prince Charles has put on the family), the event featured just a little British nationalism, and yes Williams and Kate (no matter how faithful they are) are bound to disappoint us in the future in  some way.

But, I want to suggest that there is something about a royal wedding that is desperately needed in the world today. We are a society that values utility and information. What is important to us is stuff that can help us solve problems. We want to be doing stuff. For us Americans, a royal family, specifically a British royal family with no political power, seems like either a waste of time or a matter for trivial gossip. But we must pause to remember that a wedding is the consummation and celebration of the commitment of two people to give their lives for one another which will literally and figuratively bring new life into their communities, with God’s help. A marriage is a powerful metaphor that the authors of the New Testament use to describe the relationship between Christ and the church (Luke 14:7-11; Eph 5:22-33; Revelation 19:6-10). We, who are Christians, need such images and reminders in order to confront the evil and pain in the world. We need the eschatological vision that a grand wedding provides (even if it is always like looking through a glass dimly) in order to see to world differently to bring new restorative light into the darkness.

Until recently, I have never really thought about the arts in a theological perspective. A month ago, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by painter Makoto Fujimura at Duke Divinity. He used story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus and Judas’ reaction to discussion the relationship of the church and the arts (John 12:1-8). Mary’s wasteful use of expensive perfume is decried by Judas. His criticism makes sense. The perfume was money and it could have been used to feed the poor. But, Jesus thinks differently. He sees that Mary has provided a creative and truthful image about God’s lavish love for the world that is revealed in Christ’s death; she has done a beautiful thing (Mark 14:7). “What Judas doesn’t realize,” Fujimura explained, “is that it is the artists who are with the poor.” He closed his presentation by asking, if the image of the final consummation of God’s kingdom is a wedding, who are the wedding planners? Who are the artists, decorators, cooks, fashion designers, and musicians who can provide the world with images of God’s love and restoration? Who can provide an eschatological vision that helps us participate in God’s restoration of God’s creation?

I received a tweet on my newsfeed from a friend on my way to work yesterday that was a quote from the wedding homily yesterday. The Bishop of London stated, “Every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.” What a great thing to be said to a world that was watching celebrities?