Revisiting the Protestant Theory of Religion

Some time ago I wrote on what I called the Protestant Theory of Religion. I won’t reiterate that post here, but I got some pretty good feedback. In fact, in the comments, Derek Rishmawy made some interesting-ish observations and posed a couple of challenges. I want to interact with one of them here and perhaps develop a more well-rounded view of the PTOR – with the intent being to open up space more than defend a hard and fast conclusion on my part. Continue reading

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Rant on Youthful Christianity

I have a feeling that if Christianity in America ever decides to stop patterning itself after the youth it generally spends most of its time either converting or trying to keep converted, things might go a little smoother for it. We might have quiet virtue and devotion, instead of having to constantly be in ‘FIRE! PASSION! RUNNING! CHASING! DANCING! YOUTHFUL ENERGY! MORE! MORE! MORE!’ Perhaps we’d have less ‘Acquire the Fire’, and fewer corresponding burnouts because of people being unable to maintain such a level of ENERGY for very long. Perhaps, just perhaps, we might have more focus on doing the will of God in the world and living in faith, instead of having to pursue teenage-esque romance under the guise of A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS, and being burned out when we simply get tired of trying to be teenagers.

Believe it or not, Christianity is not defined by the traits of horny teenagers.

No, this isn’t a false dichotomy, and yes, I know we are told not to despise our youth.

Karl Barth on the Covenant

‘What, then, we gather from the Noahic covenant, and everything that belongs to this strand, is that according to the Old Testament conception itself the special divine covenant made with Israel does not exclude the human race as a whole from the gracious will of God towards it. What we find in Isaiah’s view of the status of Israel as a representational and messenger to the nations is that the covenant made with Israel has a meaning and purpose which reaches out beyond the existence of Israel. And now, from the prophecy in Jeremiah of a new covenant of forgiveness and of the Spirit and of free obedience on the part of man, we learn that the Old Testament looks beyond the past and present to a form of the relationship between God and Israel in which the covenant broken by Israel will be set up, that the Israelite, for whom ultimately God has nothing but forgiveness, but does have it actually and effectively, must now take his place directly alongside his Gentile fellows, and that if at all he can hope for the grace and salvation of God on this presupposition. In the light of this passage from Jeremiah 31 we are indeed enabled and summoned to give to the concept of the covenant the universal meaning which it acquired in the form which it manifestly assumed in Jesus Christ.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics IV.1 p. 34)

Some Bonhoeffer Thoughts

These are my comments on Kevin Davis’ outstanding 2-post series on Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity – do give them a read here. At the risk of self-advertising, here are some more of my thoughts on Bonhoeffer

‘We really don’t know what Bonhoeffer meant by “metaphysics,” and that is a big part of the problem with interpreting him here — but it is clear that he wants to secularize Christian concepts in some sense.’

There is definitely a problem there – I suspect, based on his reference to 12th-13th century as being when man ‘came of age’ that he has *some* form of scholastic metaphysics in his sights, but as you note, none of these things are carefully defined or discussed. The safe route would be to take him as simply trying to say how we can be Christians and have something to say to the world when God isn’t a given – stop trying to plug up apologetic/existential ‘gaps’ with God, stop trying to make man feel guilty when he’s oblivious to it, and simply live in faith in the world. That seems to be the safest option. But, again (again) this may not be the case – he speaks of Bultmann ‘not going far enough’ but then he also writes about how the mythology ‘is the thing’ of Christianity. Does he want us to return to the God of the Bible – revealed in weakness, operating in ways that are foolish to the world because of that weakness – or does he (as he almost seems to hint at) want us to do away with god-talk altogether and simply live in the world in faith?

Part of this also turns on the issue of the ‘secular’. You see that a lot, in guys like Charles Taylor, James KA Smith, etc – but who has pronounced us to be residents of a ‘secular’ age? No doubt our everyday experience may reflect a deepening secular-ity, but so what? Experience may be (and often is) wrong – why do we need to make the faith fit into our experience of the world as secular? There’s a lot of baggage here that needs to be opened and subjected to scrutiny when it is all too often simply taken to be truth.

The critique of Bonhoeffer’s uncritical acceptance of modernity or nonreligious man is right and could probably be extended to most modern theology. What’s interesting is that there still is a ‘given’ – only it’s no longer God’s existence but man’s non-religiousness. It’s not enough to just say that man has come of age – to paraphrase Plantinga, you don’t call something into question by simply saying (even loudly and passionately), ‘I hereby call this into question’ – you have to so why such and such is the case. Simply saying that man has learned to live without God as a working hypothesis won’t do it.

‘But I would caution ourselves. For example, the “Hellenization thesis” where Greek and Hebrew thought forms are strictly contrasted, which dominated 20th century theology, is not entirely without merit, even if we now know its over-simplifications.’

I agree completely – one shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater in any case. The ‘problem space’ that we’ve been given by your example of the Hellenization thesis (though I more or less ocnsider the thesis *as a whole* to be wrong) has given us a good deal worth thinking about. Let’s not write off the good that can come from any problem space, even if we see what caused it as quite mistaken (as I think)!

I almost get the feeling that Bonhoeffer really didn’t know *how* to be modern in a way that is recognizably Christian but also not merely an apologetic religion. I think a good deal can be gleaned from his earlier writing – his christology lectures show how he was willing to affirm orthodox doctrines (virgin birth etc) while also affirming that they can’t be verified as an object of strictly historical study. His point being that things like the VB etc aren’t historical in the sense that their truth is contingent upon correct historical methodology. This does away with the need to base faith on ‘evidence’ as apologetics would have us do without relegating it to the realm of ‘myth’.

This can, I believe, be tied in with a remark he made about Bultmann in which he states that he doesn’t believe that Bultmann went far enough – and that remark really puzzled me. I think we can reasonably assume that he meant that, as a matter of consistency, Bultmann should have also demythologised God instead of rather arbitrarily stopping with him. So Bonhoeffer is perhaps caught between the affirmation of orthodoxy and his rebellion against apologetic religion – one of which leads to demythologization (which, as you noted, he saw as ‘the thing itself’) and one of which leads to a form of historical rationalism.

More Notes on Augustine’s Ethics

– Nicholas Wolterstorff charts a transition in Augstine’s though – a movement from roughly Platonic/neo-Platonic ideas of ascent and hatred towards this-worldly goods and relationships to an moral vision much more informed by Biblical ideas.

Reading Wolterstorff’s treatment of Augustine in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, I’m struck by how much Augustine modifies and breaks the ancient eudaimonism – while God alone will fail to disappoint love, our mutable neighbours are, in fact, love and disturbance-worthy, while locating the much sought after tranquility in the life of the world to come. To quote Wolterstorff, in this life, love trumps tranquility.

An example:

Augustine never loses the idea of tranquility or happiness being that which we should strive for – he holds that along with the various pagan schools quite firmly. What he does, however, is to modify and in some cases break away from the eudaimonism of those schools. His idea of tranquility becomes grounded not in an ascent to the heavens but in the eschatology of the life to come – we are not to seek tranquility among the evils and miseries of the world but to acknowledge these evils, and, in his most dramatic break with the eudaimonistic traditions, be compassionate towards others, feel sorrow, joy, and anger for people and events. To do otherwise is to deny our created nature.

– Augustine’s emphasis on compassion is probably the most non-eudaimonistic aspect of his ethical and moral thought – compassion being a profoundly kenotic kind of thing, opposed to eudaimonism and certainly opposed to (explicitly so) the Stoic conception of ethics:

‘Unlike such emotions as fear and grief, it (compassion) does not have a eudaimonistic basis. Because it does not presuppose any investment in the well-being of the other, it cannot have as its basis the perceived or threatened impairment of one’s investment. On being moved to compassion, the (Good) Samaritan proceeded to care for the man in the ditch; he invested himself in his recovery. The compassion evoked the care, the investment, not the other way around.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 218)

Scruton on Religious Differences

‘Fine differences are always more important in determining membership than large differences, precisely because they permit comparison. The person whose religion differs from mine by a tiny article, or a barely percievable gesture, is not a believer in other gods, but a blasphemer against my gods. Unlike the person with other deities, he is automatically an object of hostility, since he threatens the faith from a point within its spiritual territory.’ (Roger Scruton, ‘The West and the Rest’, p. 23)

The Eschatology of the Transcendentals

Thinking on the symposium on Roger Scruton, I found myself wanting to flesh out a bit the relation between the classical Transcendentals and his philosophy of beauty-as-belonging, so let’s see what can be done with that.

The classical Transcendentals are Beauty, Goodness and Truth – the most important universals or forms (the Christian way of looking at things has generally ascribed them to the divine life – perhaps as divine Ideas, or something else along that line). The will and mind are oriented towards these transcendentals by virtue of the desire evoked by our desire for particulars which instantiate one (often more) transcendental – our desire for a beautiful thing isn’t satisfied by the thing, because our desire for a beautiful thing is ultimately a desire for the beautiful as such. On this view, beauty is a rather abstract thing.

Scruton, in a nutshell, brings beauty down into day-to-day life. The beautiful for Scruton is something which, when pursued, gives meaning to the world and to our endeavors, and from this follows our sense of belonging. Hence, beauty-as-belonging (see the above symposium for more detail). Scruton grounds a lot of his meaning-talk and beauty in the actions of a community – generally, for Scruton, a religious community, where reconciliation and forgiveness can be had.

A possibly fruitful way to put these two themes together might be as follows: suppose we bring the notion of the eschatalogical into play here (which Scruton does, albeit in a somewhat vague manner) – specifically, Christian eschatology? What might that look like?

Perhaps we can think of the transcendentals as ‘orienting our sense of belonging’, that is, as conditioning how we achieve and even express belonging. On the Christian scheme of things, the transcendentals have ‘come down’ to us in the person of Jesus Christ – the embodiment of God, who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty as such. They will, however, ‘come down’ further at the eschaton – this is the now/not yet tension of Christian theology. Thus, in this ‘coming down’, that which orients our mind and will towards action in pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness is seen to be not an abstract form but a concrete person doing concrete things.

Building of Scruton’s philosophy of belonging as being something we practice and ‘build for’, and bringing in the Christian idea of being ‘in Christ’, wherein we participate in both the suffering and vindication of Christ, we might say that we act ‘transcendentally’. Our acts of love, sacrifice and charity are ways in which, borrowing again from Scruton, we redeem the world and build our home in anticipation of when we truly come home at the eschaton. In short, by making the world beautiful, whether through art, or acts of love, acts of service, tending a garden or simple acts of kindness, we act the transcendental – instead of being ‘out there’, they have been shown to be right here in our communities and acts of faith. Our actions becomes practices of belonging in preparation for the final redemption. By ‘coming down’, the transcendentals orient us towards redemptive practices.

Here we need to take careful account of the role of grace – it is only by grace that any of this happens because it is only by a free movement of grace from above that any of our actions are in fact actions of grace and redemption, because it is only by grace that we are incorporated in Christ.

As a kind of summary: by way of Incarnation, Truth, Beauty and Goodness have been shown to be concrete acts done in community, and by practicing the transcendentals (which have been shown to be actions of redemption in preparation for the final redemption) we make the world our home, where we belong, while we wait for our true Home, where we Truly Belong.