Okay, that title’s a bit grandiose, but I’ve decided to start delving into (some of) the works of German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, someone I’ve long thought I should be more familiar with. I recently read his Jesus Christ for Today’s World, which is a popular-level treatment of Christology, but now I want to move on to something more substantial. So I ordered a copy of The Trinity and the Kingdom, which, at least according to the book’s subtitle, sets forth a doctrine of God. I realize the more traditional place to begin would be Theology of Hope or The Crucified God, but I feel (maybe incorrectly) that I’ve absorbed many of the ideas in those works through other sources.
Moltmann intrigues me in part because he doesn’t seem to fall neatly into any particular camp or category and draws inspiration from a variety of theological sources (Lutheran, Reformed, Wesleyan, liberation, liberal, neo-orthodox, etc.). Any readers have thoughts on Moltmann, pro or con?
Glenn Greenwald has an astute piece today on the 2001 authorization to use force that Congress passed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. As he notes, the AUMF is currently being revisited, but largely for the purposes of expanding the executive’s authority to wage war.
Greenwald goes on to recount the, well, “criticism” would be putting it mildly, that Rep. Barbara Lee received as the lone vote against the AUMF in 2001.
To say that Lee was vilified for her warnings is a serious understatement. She was deluged with so many death threats that she was given around-the-clock police protection. The Washington Times printed an Op-Ed by Herbert Romerstein declaring that “Ms. Lee is a long-practicing supporter of America’s enemies – from Fidel Castro on down.” On NPR, Juan Williams compared her to Jerry Falwell and said they both “stand out in a nation where President Bush, who did not win the popular vote, now has the support of 82 percent of Americans.” National Review approvingly cited David Horowitz’s denunciation that “Barbara Lee is not an anti-war activist, she is an anti-American communist who supports America’s enemies and has actively collaborated with them in their war against America.” Michelle Malkin labelled her “treacherous” and also quoted Horowitz’s attack.
As it happens, Barbara Lee was my representative at that time–my wife and I were living in Berkeley, California, in 2001. And I, like most other Americans (though maybe not most Berkeleyites), disagreed with Rep. Lee’s vote against the AUMF. I even wrote to her office–a civil letter, I emphasize–criticizing her for her vote. In my mind, she was standing against bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.
I got off the “war on terror” bandwagon once it became clear that the Bush administration intended to expand it to Iraq, some time in 2002. And in retrospect, Rep. Lee seems a lot more prescient than her colleagues in foreseeing the consequences of giving the executive branch a blank check to wage war. (I wrote a blog post to this effect a few years back.)
I don’t know if it would’ve ultimately made any difference if the AUMF hadn’t passed, or if it had passed in a different form. Would that have prevented the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems unlikely to me given the confluence of the public’s (justified) anger over 9/11 and the preexisting foreign policy designs of key players in the Bush administration.
But if nothing else, Barbara Lee’s example highlights how readily Congress has abdicated its role in overseeing the conduct of foreign policy in the post-9/11 era. (Of course, the roots of this problem go back much further.) We need more Barbara Lees–people who are willing to question the rush to war and our willingness to hand over power to the president in the name of “keeping us safe.”
This NYT article interests me as someone who is about to join the United Methodist Church from an ostensibly more “progressive” denomination, at least with regard to the equality of LGBT persons.
Thomas Ogletree, a UMC minister, is facing disciplinary action after he presided at his son’s (same-sex) wedding. The UMC has continued to maintain that the “practice” of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As with most mainline denominations, there have been efforts to change this, but, in the UMC’s case, they have met with limited success.
This is partly due to the fact that a significant number of the delegates to the church’s general conference–its supreme legislative body, which meets ever four years–come from outside the U.S.–particularly places where conservative views on homosexuality still prevail. At the conference’s most recent meeting, in 2012, even an “agree to disagree” resolution couldn’t pass. Though it’s unclear how much of an effect acts of “civil disobedience” such as those of Rev. Ogletree may have on the direction of the larger denomination, this seems to be a stance that more “progressives” feel compelled to take.
So as someone who does support full LGBT equality in church and society, why would I consider joining a denomination that seems to be a long way from affirming it?
The main answer is that my family and I have found a home in the local UMC congregation we’ve been attending for about the last two years, and we want to formalize our commitment to it. We left our previous church for a variety of mostly non-theological reasons and were attracted to this one by its growing number of young families, dynamic pastor, flourishing homeless ministry, and combination of theological substance and progressive social vision, among other reasons. I’ve also come to appreciate some of the distinctive emphases of Wesleyan theology–combining at its best a Protestant emphasis on sheer, unmerited grace with a Catholic emphasis on personal and social holiness that I find quite appealing.
Our congregation is a “reconciling” church and so aims to welcome LGBT folks at all levels of parish life, even though this contradicts the denomination’s official teaching. This makes them (us) the loyal opposition, a position that could grow increasingly uncomfortable if, as seems likely, the denomination continues to move at its current glacial pace on this matter.
In his book A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf writes about various approaches to Christian engagement with the wider culture in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the typology developed by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture. Volf identifies “liberal,” “postliberal,” and “separatist” tendencies, along with his preferred approach, which he calls “internal difference.”
Liberal accommodation is concerned to make the Christian message intelligible to nonbelievers, but often at the risk of sacrificing its distinctiveness. Postliberalism reverses this approach and tries to interpret everything outside the church within the terms of the Christian narrative. The problem with this approach is that Christian communities risk “clos[ing] themselves off from a meaningful conversation with the larger culture” (p. 86).
The separatist tendency is a radical intensification of the postliberal approach; it “imagine[s] Christian communities as islands in the sea of worldliness” (p. 87). Volf says that this approach is often inspired by a stance of Bonhoeffer-like resistance, in which churches are seen as being “In the midst of the world” but “taken out of the world” and whose surrounding cultures are viewed as “a foreign land.” Volf quotes Bonhoeffer:
At any moment [the Christian community] may receive the signal to move on. Then it will break camp, leaving behind all worldly friends and relatives, and following only the voice of the one who has called it. It leaves the foreign country and moves onward toward its heavenly home. (p. 87)
The problem with this approach, according to Volf, is that it universalizes what was a response to a very specific situation. Or to put it more bluntly: most places aren’t Nazi Germany! “If one isolates such an account of the relation between church and the world from its specific situation and elevates it to a general program for Christian presence in the world, serious problems arise” (p. 88).
If Christian communities only wander on earth but live in heaven, they will have their own truth and their own moral norms, their own practices, all of which would not only be determined exclusively by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ but would have little to do with what is considered true, good, and beautiful outside the sealed train in which they live. Christians would then be present in a given culture but would remain completely external to it. (p. 88)
It’s debatable whether it’s even possible to consistently take such a stance. But Volf thinks that it’s a real tendency, and one that denies that there is goodness outside the Christian community. But if the world is God’s good creation, then how can Christians deny that truth, beauty, and goodness exist outside the walls of the church?
As the Word came “to what was his own” (John 1:1) when it dwelled in Jesus Christ, so also Christians live in each culture as in their own proper space. Cultures are not foreign countries for the followers of Christ but rather their own homelands, the creation of the one God. If Christians are estranged from the world, it can only be because and insofar as the world is (and maybe they themselves are as well) estranged from God. Christian communities should not seek to leave their home cultures and establish settlements outside or live as islands within them. Instead, they should remain in them and change them–subvert the power of the foreign force and seek to bring the culture into closer alignment with God and God’s purposes. (p. 89)
You can see separatist tendencies among certain Christians on both the “Right” and the “Left” in America today. For different reasons, both see the United States as an utterly hostile culture and the proper Christian response as creating distinctive Christian cultures with their own norms, practices, etc. (Interestingly, Bonhoeffer is often cited on both sides.) From Volf’s perspective, however, these Christians have misjudged their situation; there is plenty wrong with contemporary U.S. culture and politics, but it’s not so far gone that the only option is withdrawal.
Grist’s David Roberts has written a follow-up to his “medium chill” post of about two years ago that expands on the idea and its social and political implications. In the original post, Roberts argued, based in part on “happiness research” and in part on personal experience, that it’s more fulfilling to work less to allow more time for enjoying life’s intangible goods–even if that means making less money.
In the follow-up post, he concedes that research he cited in the previous post that seemed to show that happiness levels off after a certain income level (about $75,000) may have been wrong; nevertheless, the relationship between wealth and happiness does seem to be “logarithmic”–that is the increase in happiness you get from each additional dollar is less than the previous one, even if it isn’t zero. The basic point seems to stand: after you’ve reached a certain level, adding more income isn’t going to increase your happiness or life-satisfaction much, if at all.
But if you have reached that level–if you even have the option of “chilling”– you are likely among the richest 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Which means that access to a life with possibilities for fulfillment beyond the struggle for material security is severely maldistributed, to put it mildly.
And if you are so fortunately situated, it’s due to luck far more than hard work, pluck, or anything else that you could plausibly claim to have merited. Where you were born, who your parents are, and your genetic make-up have a lot more to do with your success in life than anything you contribute (assuming there’s some irreducible element that can’t be chalked up to any of these other factors).
Because those of us with more have it not mainly by dint of the sweat of our brow, but because of circumstances well beyond our control, there is no justification for hoarding all that good fortune. (“You didn’t build that,” as President Obama might say.) We need policies–liberal policies essentially–that distribute access to the world’s goods more equitably in order to allow everyone a shot at a flourishing human life.
He goes on to speculate a bit about the possibilities for human life freed from the necessity of working more to earn more. Life should not be about being a fitter, more productive worker bee; it should be about cultivating our innate capabilities for creativity and self-expression in community with others. The seemingly laid-back medium chill turns out to have a rather radical, utopian streak.
All, or nearly all, of this resonates with the Christian view of life as I understand it. In his recent book A Public Faith, theologian Miroslav Volf argues that Christianity’s contribution to the common good is a more substantive and appealing vision of human flourishing than the one that has gained much ground in the modern West. According to Volf, this is the view that the good life consists primarily in the satisfaction of individual desire or preference.
Not surprisingly, he considers this to be a deeply impoverished view of human life. Not only has it lost sight of the love of God, but by focusing on individual satisfaction it is opposed to any robust idea of human solidarity. By contrast, for Christians,
[w]e lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. Life goes well for us when our basic needs are met and when we experience that we are loved by God and by our neighbors–when we are loved as who we are, with our own specific character and history, notwithstanding our fragility and failures. (p. 72)
This account is clearly incompatible with a society in which everyone has to scramble endlessly to “get ahead” in material terms–e.g., Thomas Friedman’s horrifying “401(k) world.” Christians should want a world in which people are free from the pressure to constantly “invest in themselves” to please some boss or keep up with the Joneses.
In the Christian view, we aren’t made for working ourselves to death or for endless accumulation, but for lives “rich with relationships and experiences,” as Roberts puts it. In Biblical terms, we might think of the “medium chill” as a way of keeping Sabbath, as described by Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann:
Sabbath, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. (Journey to the Common Good, p. 26)
This restful withdrawal from over-work and over-consumption is a precondition for genuine community and human flourishing. A good society would be one that made this a possibility for everyone.
The country legend has passed away at the age of 81.
Experience with seminary students over several decades indicates that they turn surprisingly agnostic when the time comes to think about God, declaring that “the finite cannot comprehend the infinite,” so any ideas one might have about God are just as good as any others. Such agnosticism has its roots either in intellectual laziness or in a theological despair at ever getting things right. In either case, it is sorely mistaken. Our task is not to overcome what Bernard Meland called the “fallibility” of all our forms and symbols for God. It is to come up with ways of talking about God that are appropriate to the revelation of God attested to in the biblical witness. All ways of talking about God are arguably inadequate. Yet, some are more clearly inadequate than others. There are ways of talking about God that are more appropriate to the norms of the Christian faith than others and that are also more helpful in the face of the challenges that confront us in the death-dealing times in which we live. (Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology, p. 103).
I can understand why people emerging from religious traditions that suffer from an excess of certainty might be tempted to retreat into a purely “negative” (or “apophatic”) theology. But Williamson is right here that some “ways of talking about God . . . are more appropriate to the norms of the Christian faith than others.” For Christianity, it is more appropriate to speak of God as loving than as hateful, wise rather than ignorant, personal rather than impersonal, etc. The central belief of Christianity– that Jesus is God expressed in a human life–entails that God has a particular nature and character. In other words, the cure for bad theology isn’t no theology, it’s better theology.
Sure, there have been great saints and mystics throughout the history of the church who have stressed the unknowability of God virtually to the point of recommending utter silence. And their writings provide an indispensable reminder of the limitations of all our language about the divine.
But this apophatic reticence has always been balanced by the “kataphatic” tradition of affirming the appropriateness of at least some language about God. This tradition is particularly important in prayer and liturgy, not to mention the Bible itself. And as Williamson suggests, only if we can speak intelligibly about God can we say that certain “death-dealing” ways are contrary to God’s will or nature.
In Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?, Hans Urs Von Balthasar takes as his starting point that the Bible contains “irreconcilable” statements on the ultimate destiny of humanity. There are passages that hold out the threat of everlasting punishment, but there are others that speak hopefully about the ultimate reconciliation or restoration of all things. Von Balthasar says that there are a variety of responses that have been made to this, but what we can’t do is simply write off either set of statements.
And all of [these responses], indeed, must come to terms with the notion of a primarily cyclical apokatastasis, without, arrogant or unconcerned, simply dismissing the horrifying thought that brothers and sisters of Christ, created by the Father for Christ, who died for them in atonement, may fail to reach their final destination in God and may instead suffer eternal damnation with its everlasting pain–which, in fact, would frustrate God’s universal plan of salvation. If we take our faith seriously and respect the words of Scripture, we must resign ourselves to admitting such an ultimate possibility, our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding. We may not simply ignore such a threat; we may not easily dismiss it, neither for ourselves nor for any of our brothers and sisters in Christ. (p. 237)
In general, Von Balthasar sees damnation as something self-inflicted. God’s will to save is universal, and he rejects any doctrine of double predestination. But the possibility remains that some will reject God’s love. This possibility–enunciated in many places in the Bible–must be taken seriously. At one point, Von Balthasar refers approvingly to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which imaginatively portrays the self-damnation of those who won’t (can’t?) accept God’s love.
Yet Von Baltahasar believes that hope can have still have the last word. Not as a theoretical or speculative matter: we don’t know that everyone will be saved. Nor, for that matter, do we know that anyone will be damned. He is a staunch foe of presumptuous certainty on either side of this question.
But given God’s desire that all will be saved, we can hope that, somehow, the divine love will ultimately win over even the most recalcitrant heart. This doesn’t mean there will be no punishment–there may be a penultimate “purifying fire” necessary to purge those parts of us which are incompatible with God’s Kingdom. But we can–and should–hope that God’s mercy will prevail. For Von Balthasar, this is an existential not a theoretical or dogmatic stance: we should treat each person we encounter as someone who is destined for eternal life.
I was already largely convinced of something like Von Balthasar’s position before I read this. Though I’m definitely sympathetic to universalism, on balance I think it’s better to let the scriptural warnings stand and avoid dogmatism on this. As Von Balthasar likes to put it, we are under judgment, but our judge is Christ, who is the merciful Savior.
I started reading the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?”, and right off the bat what struck me is how similar the public controversy over Von Balthasar’s views was to the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”
Obviously there are vast differences here. Von Balthasar was a brilliant (and at times obscure) theologian; Bell is an evangelical preacher whose talents lie more in communicating his message than theological originality. But the controversy, at least based on Von Balthasar’s account here, was drawn along remarkably similar lines.
Here’s Von Balthasar on the criticisms leveled at him by some of his contemporaries (this all took place in the mid-80s). The question at hand is “whether one who is under judgment, as a Christian, can have hope for all men”:
I have ventured to answer this affirmatively and was, as a result, called to order rather brusquely by the editor of Fels (G. Hermes); in Theologisches, Heribert Schauf and Johannes Bokmann added their voices to this reprimand. . . . At a press conference in Rome, besieged about the question of hell, I had made known my views, which had led to gross distortions in newspapers (“L’inferno e vuoto“), whereupon I published, in Il Sabato, that Kleine Katechese über die Hölle (Short Discourse on Hell), which was reprinted in L’Osservatore Romano without my knowledge and aroused the ire of the right-wing papers.
Bokmann is perfectly correct: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.” However, I never spoke of certainty but rather of hope. The three critics, by contrast, possess a certainty, and G. Hermes expresses it with matchless force: “Such a hope does not exist, because we cannot hope in opposition to certain knowledge and the avowed will of God.” It is impossible that “we can hope for something about which we know that it will certainly not come about.” Therefore, the closing sentence of the essay declares tersely: “There is no hope for the salvation of all.” If I speak “no less than five times” of the fully real possibility, which confronts every person, of forfeiting salvation, the retort I get is that the matter is “not” treated “seriously by putting on a stern face but by stating the entire and full truth. And the full truth about hell is not stated if one only speaks of its possibility . . . and not its reality.” At this point, a first paradoxical statement occurs: “If we once admit that it is really and seriously possible, even considering all the opposing arguments, that men are damned, then there is also no convincing argument against men’s really being damned.” This is not comprehensible to me: if God sets the “two ways” before Israel, does it necessarily follow that Israel will choose the way of ruin? There was certainly no lack of seriousness behind the presentation of the two ways. But G. Hermes, of course, knows that the possibility is reality; he is not the only one, as we will see, who knows this. Just how will become evident from what follows here.
But first one other regrettable thing: as a consequence of not sharing in this secure knowledge–and R. Schnackenberg, for instance, does not share it when he says of Judas Iscariot that it “is not certain that he is damned for all eternity”–one is then numbered among those “average Catholics” who veil the hereafter in a “rose-red fog” and “wishful fancies”, participate “irresponsibly and cruelly” in “operation mollification” through their “salvation-optimism”, adopt the “dull and colorless garrulousness of present-day Church discourse”, practice “modernistic theology” and call for “presumptuous trust in God’s mercifulness.” So be it; if I have been cast aside as a hopeless conservative by the tribe of the left, then I now know what sort of dung-heap I have been dumped upon by the Right. (pp. 16-20, footnotes omitted).
Change a few names, and lower the general level of erudition all around, and you’ve essentially got the debate between Bell and many of his evangelical critics.