The Protestant Theory of Religion

Let’s define the Protestant Theory of Religion (PTOR) in a broadly Augustinian way: the idea that man by nature worships (perhaps we could call this the Worship Faculty), and if he doesn’t worship God, he worships something else, with worship being (broadly, of course) defined as a fixation upon that which we love ultimately. Examples abound in the Protestant world: one can worship money, fame, power, sex, whatever. Thus, it’s not our activity as such that is wrong but the object of it, or what our desires (on the broadly Augustinian conception, man is primarily an animal of ‘desire’) and faculties are aligned to. There is always something man is worshiping, always that to which man is fixated upon. We can then lay out the PTOR as such:

‘Man is by nature a creature of desire, who worships.’

(note: this fits in with Tillich’s ‘ultimate concern’ as well)

On this theory, it is a universal condition of humanity that they are worshipping creatures, and thus religious creatures – if their religion is not that of God, it is of something else, fame, fortune, etc – but every man has a religion. This, as Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it, is part of the ‘standard Protestant apologetic’. (Art in Action, p. 85). Is it, however, an accurate description of the human condition? Can we paint every man as someone who worships something?

A first difficulty has to do with confirmation of this theory: upon close inspection, it’s a theory which can be confirmed by anything. Search deep enough, and you’ll find something you worship, even if you’re a modern Western secularist. We’re all worshippers. We all fixate upon some ultimate concern.

A second difficulty is anthropological. Wolterstorff points out that, contrary to the PTOR, many people may not have one ultimate concern but many concerns:

‘Is it not rather the case that many live their lives with a multiplicity of conerns, shifting about from time to time, with no one concern ever being ultimate? Such people care a bit for their families, a bit for their material possessions, a bit for country, a bit for personal esteem, and so forth…if some situation would arise forcing them to choose, then one or more of those conflicting concerns would, for the time being at any rate, be subordinated. But for many, no such agonizing, clarifying conflict ever arises. Their life remains a fractured multiplicty concerns.’ (Art in Action, p. 86)

In a nutshell, some people just aren’t ultimately concerned. Some people just may never have an existential crisis. Sure, you could still say that such people are ultimately concerned and just don’t know it, but this seems like a case of trying to convince someone who isn’t sick that not only are they sick, they need your medicine. That’s the peril of existential apologetics – many people simply don’t have dark nights of the soul.

A third difficulty is biblical: is it in fact the biblical teaching that all men are religious in this way? Is this a universal statement made by the biblical writers? Again, Wolterstorff disagrees:

‘The Bible speaks about the true worshippers of the true God, and describes their unity-in-variety. But it never attempts to locate some ineradicable religious tendency which, though it can be turned in different directions, can never be resisted. It never tries to pinpoint some tendency such that what ultimately differentiates the true worshipper of the true God from all other men is that the former turns that universally shared tendency in a different direction than all the others – namely, in the right direction. It never contends that all those who are not true worshippers of the true God nevertheless have a Religion. It simply regards them as falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways.’ (Art in Action, p. 87)

Wolterstorff then gives a brief exegesis of Romans 1, which for brevity’s sake I will not reproduce here. He concludes, however, that Paul is not teaching that all men have a religious tendency which cannot be resisted but only directed.

This raises some a few questions: If Wolterstorff is right, and I think he (of course) broadly is, what are the implications? Perhaps one implication is that instead thinking of man as primarily a creature of worship (note: man still certainly is a worshiping creature, only not primarily so) perhaps man should be thought of as creature of action. This, of course, is not a novel insight – the Christian idea of vocation has been around for a good long time.

Another question that’s best perhaps phrased in the form of an answer: God is not found at the limit of human life but at the center. This is a huge theme in Bonhoeffer, especially his Ethics and Letters and Papers From Prison. Instead of attempting to identify an existential crisis or God-shaped hole, which may or may not be there or may or may not be viewed as significant, the Christian should simply act in the world. It is in the real world, in the concrete actions of the Christian in the real world, in the center of our existence, not in the deep dark existential moments, where God is. When God is found in the gaps, even deep existential gaps, He disappears when they close.

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Guest Post on Understanding Jurgen Moltmann

Another guest post from my Eastern Orthodox friend, David Hemlock. Go read his incredibly intelligent blog, Katachriston
To understand Moltmann we must understand Classic Marxism as interpreted by Marxist/atheist Ernst Bloch (esp. his masterwork ‘Das Prinzip Hoffnung’ (The Principle of Hope, 1959) and more general conversations between secular Marxists/socialists and Christian intellectuals of the time regarding which Moltmann’s The Theology of Hope (1969) is a mere footnote that became very popular in the context of the Ecumenical Movement. Central to dialogue was the category of hope as a major issue of common concern, rethinking this issue in a manner facilitating achievement of common goals was a common task. “The past is prologue” of Classical Marxism found development and expression in Marxist/atheist Ernst Bloch’s masterful analysis of hope which fed directly into to Moltmann’s. Bloch recovered the root metaphors of apocalyptic literature as a manner of portraying the nature of man and political reality e.g. oppression. Key to Bloch’s use of hope is the conviction that our being in the world necessarily involves the not-yet – a form of “transcendence” even apart from considerations of otherworldly eternity (compare Moltmann’s theological elimination of this latter category correlates to his understanding of not just God and the Word of God, but the Trinity -vertically, i.e. a world-historical understanding of transcendence and Trinitarian theology). Whereas for St. Basil, “No one has ever seen the essence of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy”, leftward leaning Christian intellectuals within the Ecumenical movement regarded this as if not a point of contact, at least an agreement relative to common praxis. Moltmann regarded God’s ousia as self-defined in the historical process (psychology of God an even more fruitless enterprise than psychology of the living or psychology of the dead IMO). So (1) the essence of God is knowable; (2) it is known not only in the historical process, but only in the historical process. Bloch would surely not have objected.
Moltmann’s vertical perspective of things divine included a denial of the epiphanic. On this view there can be no union or theosis in the classical sense of the earliest apostolic fathers. Moltmann was wrong to view classical Trinitarian and Christological thought as abstractions; they were over safeguarding the Church’s experience of salvation as union (as described in Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, ch 1). As church historian J. N. D. Kelly has noted there was no other view of salvation among the apostolic fathers besides this. Politics aside or not aside, to find an entirely divergent epistemology, soteriology, ontology, ecclesiology, and so on than the apostolic fathers which explicitly contradicts the heart of their faith and casts Christianity in an entirely alien key is to my mind no less dubious than something like the Scofield Reference Bible; I do not say that simply because I’m Eastern Orthodox. That is not to say everything in Moltmann is disagreeable, but his understanding of God, Trinity, Christ, the Church are clever innovations incommensurable with classic Christianity as understood by the Eastern Church.

Against the Suffering God

Barth’s formulation of the classical doctrine of impassibility is largely correct in his insistence that while God does indeed have a heart and is moved to compassion, it is a free movement from within Himself, and not a movement that occurs as a result of an outside force. Barth moves the idea of impassibility/passibility away from suffering and towards compassion, love and freedom and in doing so retains a personal, loving God who acts from within His own freedom and His own fullness of love to aid those who are suffering.

Why can’t God suffer, though? Three reasons that I find particularly convincing:

(1) For God to suffer would mean that God is a part of the created order. For God to suffer would mean that an aspect of the created order (not to say that evil, which causes suffering, is a created thing – it simply ‘exists’ in the created order of nature) could affect the uncreated order. Thus God’s wholly other-ness and transcendence is violated, making Him part of the same created order within which evil works. God then becomes little more than a being-among-other-beings.

(2) If God can suffer, then suffering, caused by evil, would cause God to experience the deprivation that causes suffering. For God to experience suffering means that He is deprived of some kind of good or goodness – and thus is no longer wholly good or goodness itself.

(3) This is a point made by David Bentley Hart in ‘The Doors of the Sea’:

‘…if God’s love were in any sense shaped by sin, suffering and death, then sin, suffering and death would always be in some sense features of who he is. This not only means evil is a distinct reality over against God, and God’s love something inherently deficient and reactive; it also means that evil would somehow be a part of God, and that goodness would require evil to be good. Such a God could not be love, even if in some sense he should prove to be “loving”. Nor would he be the good as such. He, like us, would be a synthesis of death and life.’ (p. 78)

Against the common rejoinder that the doctrine of impassibility is an import of Greek metaphysics which makes God into a static, lifeless and emotionless rock, I answer that:

(1) Far from the doctrine of God making God static, it affirms the dynamic nature of the fullness of Trinitarian love which God has by positing, as apophatic boundaries, that God does not have or undergo the fickle passions that humans (and the Greek gods) are subject to. Thomas Weinandy makes this point well:

‘Contemporary theologians wrongly hold that the attribute of impassibility is ascribing something positive of God, that is, that He is static, lifeless and inert, and so completely devoid of passion. This the Fathers never countenanced. The Fathers were merely denying of God those passions that would imperil or impair those biblical attributes that were constitutive of His divine being. They wished to preserve the wholly otherness of God, as found in Scripture, and equally, also in accordance with Scripture, to profess and enrich, in keeping with His complete otherness, an understanding of His passionate love and perfect goodness.’

(2) The early church reacted against the Aristotelian idea of God as only a Prime Mover by positing, on the basis of biblical revelation, His uncreated-ness and wholly other-ness. Again, as Thomas Weinandy argues in the same essay:

‘In keeping with biblical revelation, as opposed to pagan mythologies, they were concerned with upholding the complete otherness of the one God in relationship to the created order. They accentuated and clarified, against Platonism and Aristotelianism, that God did not merely order or set in motion preexistent matter but that, by His almighty power, He created all out of nothing”creatio ex nihilo . God was then no longer merely at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of being, but His transcendence, as Creator, radically placed Him within a distinct ontological order of His own. As such He was the perfectly good and loving personal God who eternally existed in and of Himself.’

Impassibility, far from being a static, lifeless conception of God, is an affirmation of His free love, compassion and fullness of being.

Learning From the Past in Theology

Theology as a discipline is rather different than, say, the natural sciences, in that, by and large, the older an idea is, the more true it is. In theology, one simply has to take what has been said in the past seriously and in some ways authoritatively, and in other cases definitively. I see this as a fairly common-sense sort of idea. Consider the post-apostolic fathers (the ante-Nicene fathers). It makes a good amount of sense to take what they say as an authoritative and definitive interpretation of the teachings of the Apostles, since, you know, they were the disciples of the Apostles.

Another way it makes sense to take seriously the voices of the past also seems to be a common sense idea: a lot (a lot!) of people have thought about theology and theological things. Lots of these people were very, very smart and very devout Christians – so it makes a lot of sense to take seriously what they had to say. Chances are, somebody has had something very good to say on whatever theological idea your thinking about. Examples would be the medieval period – lots of very important and interesting thinkers there. It would be kind of not smart to simply ignore a thousand years worth of theological reflection.

Now, the opposite of what I’m saying is, unfortunately, seen more often in theology than it should be, and its basically taking the voices of the past less seriously simply because of who/where/when there did their thinking. Easy example: the medievals. It’s pretty easy, in theological circles, to make blanket-statements about the atonement because some guy’s theory of the atonement reflected an aspect of his feudal society (I wonder who that guy is). It then becomes even easier to write off the entire medieval period as theologically illegitimate because of an influential model of the atonement. I seen it with my own eyes.

The problem with that should be fairly easy to see (I actually see two problems): it’s pretty stupid to write off whole periods of church history on account of when/who they were, and it’s equally as stupid to write off whatever theological idea because it (in this case) is a model of the atonement obsessed with feudal concepts of justice and retribution (disputable, but moving on). I see the latter as worse, actually, because at the heart of nearly every theological idea, no matter how weird or offensive it may be to us, there is a legitimate theological concern. Stupid medievals, with their individualistic retributive penal ideas of satisfaction! Out with them. Never mind that behind such theories of the atonement lie some pretty deep theological reflection on the nature of the Incarnation, justice, etc. And there’s the rub: by dismissing an idea on account of what’s on its surface, we miss the deep and often edifying aspects of the idea floating below.

A kind-of case study of what I’m getting at can be seen in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s ‘Justice in Love’. Towards the end of the book, he engages in a exegetical study of the concept of God’s justice, drawing on the book of Romans. He states at the beginning of the chapter that he sees his project as concerned with the medieval concept of God’s justice, iustia dei. He then wonders why there seems to be a lack of Protestant engagement with this idea of justice – he cites N.T. Wright as an example. According to Wolterstorff, Wright has never discussed iustia dei  in any of his work on the topic of justification.

Wright has a habit of broadbrushing and oversimplifying ideas – the Enlightenment being a very prominent example. I suspect, though can’t of course be one hundred percent sure, that he would likely point to various examples of medieval theology gone wrong (purgatory, doing penance) as a reason why medieval theology was all muddleheaded, and then go about his day. He has of course engaged medieval theology (‘Scripture and the Authority of God’ had a lot of good work on medieval exegesis), but based on his slogan-like dismissal of various dynamic movements like the Enlightenment, I don’t see him as terribly concerned with medieval understandings of justice and what they have to say to us today.

This is a criticism that could probably be made of Protestantism as a whole – the medieval period is often trotted out as a whipping-boy along with the Enlightenment. The point of this, though, isn’t to pimp medieval theology but to highlight the perils of writing off the underlying concerns of any idea we disagree with for relatively shallow reasons, using Wright and iustia dei as a working example.

The point of all this rambling? Don’t write off an idea just because of what it says on the surface, but look to engage the underlying concerns of any idea.

Rough Thoughts on Pacifism

Prompted by a Facebook conversation – these are pretty off-the-cuff thoughts, since I don’t really have a terribly well-developed position, but here we go:

In a nutshell, I’m a pacifist in the same way I’m a universalist – hopeful but not really committed to it. As far as theological arguments for/against, I’ve yet to be really convinced that pacifism is a necessary part of Christianity, and all too often it seems that a nonviolent ethic is made to be central to the Gospel, and sometimes it seems that the Christian message is even reduced to one of nonviolence.

As a matter of personal opinion/ethic, I don’t really have a problem with a pacifist position – keep in mind that pacifism doesn’t = nonaction, just nonviolent action. The issue I have is primarily the extent to which it’s commonly seen as central to the Gospel.

I do think that the defense of children, widows, women, the weak, etc, can, will and do at times require violent force.I also think that pro-violence is a pretty terrible attitude to have – especially seeing Jesus’ very clear opposition to violence done in his name (Peter chopping off that one guys ear, for example).

 Having said that, one can’t ignore various Old Testament passages where various men and even heroes of the faith are praised for the willingness to commit acts of horrendous violence – Phineas kills an Israelite/Midianite couple in the midst of the sexual act, for example.Phineas and the Levites were called to be set apart specifically for their willingness to do some pretty raw things. Which, while not an argument by any means, is something one has to keep in mind.
 
With regard to whether Jesus commands Christians to not participate in national/state sanctioned violence, I see a couple of issues:

1) textual evidence – I’m not really aware of any real statements in the NT outright forbidding Christians to engage in national violence (say, a war or something like that). So we have to look elsewhere:

(2) Jesus’ posture toward violence in general – Jesus has very little to say about national/state violence – the famous turn the other cheek saying, for example, refers to personal insult/injury. Jesus certainly opposes violence in a sense, as I said before – he makes it very clear that the Kingdom of heaven will never be brought about by violent actions, perhaps in direct opposition to the zealots who sought to bring about the Kingdom by national violence. In that sense, yes, Jesus does forbid it by both word and deed.

 

Ethical Notes

– Being a Christian, my ethical approach takes on a decidedly (obviously enough) Christian tone . I generally fall within the virtue ethics camp – I think that the moral character of a person, specifically an ethicist, is of huge importance (though I’m predominantly influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer). While anyone can utter correct moral tidbits (a murderer can tell you not to murder, and it’s still sound advice despite the status of the person uttering it), when one attempts to articulate a comprehensive moral way of life, surely their character must be taken into account.

– Christian ethicists have an even stricter standard – or at least I think they should. When a Christian ethicist lives in a way that is profoundly at odds with the doctrines and values they preach, while not invalidating the truth of what they say in a strictly logical sense (again, someone can say something true even if they don’t follow it themselves) that is serious cause to stop and reflect on whether or not they are a good source to be drawing ethical ideas from.

– To repeat: whether someone is of impeccable character or not doesn’t logically invalidate the truth of what they may say, but behaviour and action do provide a window to the heart, which, for the Christian, is ultimately the most important part of the person as a whole.

– The basis of Christian ethics is the invalidation of the knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer) – hence the importance of the heart in ethics and by extension the importance of character and action as well.

 

A Few Assorted Thoughts on God, Weakness, Jesus and the World

This is actually a discussion I had on a Facebook comment thread -I posted this and the following exchange ensued (one commentator is bold, one is italicized, and my responses are in plain text. I’ve edited here and there, so any awkwardness is my own fault).

I think I should disagree with this argument from Bonhoeffer. Perhaps it’s born of the times in which he wrote, in which evil seemed to be prevailing in his world, that he should see God’s true power in His apparent weakness, but I don’t think it reflects the Biblical picture we have of an intervening God, who conquered all through a seeming act of “weakness” (namely, the Cross).

The Kingdom principles which Jesus teaches tends to upend conventional wisdom, in that the last will be first and the first will be last, service is true leadership, there is virtue in suffering, etc. But God certainly made His presence felt in power as well as in seeming weakness, all through the Scriptures.

If Jesus is the Word of God, the full revelation of God, etc etc, then right off the bat, as Jeff pointed out, there are some serious challenges to conventional wisdom. If we go a bit further, and say that in Christ God was/is acting to reconcile all things and all men to Himself, then it seems that God’s way of acting in the world is completely at odds with how we think He should act in the world.

What I think is an appropriate way of thinking about what Bonhoeffer means by ‘weakness’ is this: the world is a world of striving, power, will, force, violence, etc. That’s what it means to act in power in the world. God doesn’t simply choose to armwrestle the world and win – through weakness (perhaps apparent weakness – we could say that this weakness is true strength) He overcomes the entire ‘machine’ of force, violence, striving, and power. When God flexes His muscles, it takes the form of the Cross and the Manger.

There’s a lot of merit to that, but the God who acts with meekness in so much of the New Testament also took down Annanias and Sapphira in the book of Acts for attempting to deceive the Holy Spirit, and kicks butt and takes names at the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation. The Lord is complex, at the very least.

I think it can be pretty certainly said that when it comes to Kingdom/reconciliation, violence will never advance it (see Jesus’ rebuke to Peter for chopping that one guys ear off).

Though it IS rather interesting that Jesus instructed His disciples to go and get a sword…I don’t believe Jesus is at all contradictory…but I am sure He enjoys playing with our presuppositions, no matter where they sit.

Jesus also says that he comes to not bring peace but a sword – so there’s obviously more happening here than simple descriptions of primitive warfare. Though references to swords are very common (especially in Proverbs) – not to mention the sword of the Spirit, etc. One could probably argue that it’s a subverted metaphor – remember, the weapons of our warfare are not flesh and blood, so Jesus could quite easily command his disciples to gird up for war – but waged with weapons of the spirit – peace, the Gospel, etc.

The context of Jesus saying that He brings “a sword” deals with the division, especially of families, within the Jewish community over His claims to being Messiah. It creates near enmity between family members when one person in the family embraces Jesus as Messiah–the others see it as a betrayal, and the new believer is usually shunned by the rest of the family/community. It happened then, just as Jesus said, and it continues to happen today. This is why Jesus told us to count the cost of discipleship, though that’s going to dovetail quite nicely into being a Bonhoeffer reference as well.

However, Jesus didn’t seem too off-put by the fact of war and violence…He often used the ideas of soldiers going to war, Kings planning wars, and such…I don’t believe Jesus was promoting war or violence, nor do I believe He was pleased by it. But I do think that He regarded such things as a reality of the fallen world that we all must live in. And, though He did use such examples to point to spiritual truths, it also strikes me that Jesus didn’t seem too adverse to earthly power, when such powers were in line with shaping world events for the spread of His Gospel.

Also, in spite of Jesus letting the Romans do with Him what they did, I don’t see Jesus being a pacifist at all. He would have told husbands/fathers to protect their wives and children against invaders, and were it not for Him seeing God’s hand of judgment against His people in terms of the Roman occupation of the Promised Land, He would have organized armed rebellion against the pagan invaders.

I’m not a pacifist or super zealous anti-violence-in-the-bible guy – so I don’t see Jesus as a pacifist (in the modern sense) in any way. I also agree that Jesus was fine working within the existing structures of power (most of the characters in the NT seem fine with that) but with the intent to both (a) subvert or reform them and (b) remind them who it was that their authority came from (I think we see both of those themes in Paul, though the anti-imperial themes are blown way out of proportion these days). Paul is a great example of someone willing to use the circuitry of the Roman empire to spread the mesage of the Gospel, even though those two things are pretty at odds with each other. But I believe that there is intent to subvert and reform by the spreading of the message – since there’s significant biblical witness to the Gospel being God’s power to save.