Over here, Davey Henreckson has an intriguing synopsis of Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below, an examination of the growth of early Pentecostalism. I haven’t read Wacker’s book myself, but his argument (as per Henreckson), that Pentecostalism gained traction as a result of two emphases (pragmatism and primitivism) strikes me as accurate. By pragmatism, I assume Wacker is referring to the great adaptability and free experimentation with church form that characterizes so much of Pentecostalism. Rather than drawing on a set liturgy or church authorial structure, Pentecostal churches vary widely in their size, location and organization. By primitivism, Wacker means the sense that in the Pentecostal movement, we are returning to the original teaching of the apostles and the life of the Church in Acts (especially Acts 2). These two emphases, combined with the oft-noticed appeal of Pentecostalism’s focus on heavenly reward, gets at much of what the movement was about in the early 20th century. Of course, in the latter half of that century the movement spread and became more diffuse in its influences and emphases, but that is another book.
John famously wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). What a beautiful and sweet truth this is. But we would not know that God is love unless he had given us his Son. John goes on to write, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:9-10).
For von Balthasar, this love explains the “care” that is evident in the creation. He writes, “Only love can explain this care; only love can explain the pledge he gives, guaranteeing the integrity of creation” (Theo-Drama, vol. 3, 518). And so, in the sending of his Son Jesus, the love that is revealed there is nothing other–though how infinitely more!–than what was already shown with the creation: “Thus the acceptance of his [Jesus'] mission, its implementation in obedience right up to its bloody end, cannot be anything other than the revelation of the Father’s primal, absolute love for his creatures” (ibid.).
This does not, however, mean that we are simply able to read the height of this divine love off the page of creation. The Son’s self-sacrifice at the behest of the Father is ingrained into the very fabric of creation. It was taken into account, so to speak, when God undertook to freely create the world. So von Balthasar: “[I]n view of God’s foreknowledge of what is to become of it, the world cannot be created without account being taken of this sending of the ‘beloved Son’. . . [Jesus'] readiness to accept the mission cannot have been elicited from him by persuasion, as it were; rather, it must be in him a priori, he must spontaneously have declared his readiness ‘before the foundation of the world’ [Rev. 13:8]” (516).
So in Jesus we see the love of the vineyard owner, who “had one left to send, a son, whom he loved” (Mark 12). His Father “takes the risk of sending him … to the murderers who killed all his previous messengers. . . By ‘not sparing’ his Son (Rom 8:32), by letting him be taken, by actually surrendering him…–because he foresees what they will do to him–the divine Sender manifests a disposition that, both in sublimity and in lowliness, is expressed in the serenity and surrender of his Ambassador” (515-516). Jesus, thus, on this earthly side of the mission of salvation, manifests the “serenity and surrender” that corresponds to the care of the Father, the vineyard’s caretaker.
And on this, everything depends: “What is at stake here is salvation (a total salvation that embraces the whole of existence and the world) or the forfeiting of it. . . What is at stake is his care for his vineyard … his care for the entire world created by God” (516). And in this care, the care that leads to the head of the hill called Golgotha, the meaning of all being is shown to be love.
With only three weeks of the semester left, this means four months of free time (and work) are approaching. Of course, this means I have four months of books I can choose to read, that I didn’t have the time for during school. I think I’ve settled on this (fairly ambitious) list. Webster and Murphy are a must, as I’m headed to Aberdeen in September. The others are either important for theology, or new avenues to explore. So in no particular order:
John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory. I’m four chapters in to this 500 page hefty tome. That leaves eight to go.
Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader. Because I’ve only read some 20 pages of perhaps the most influential philosopher-historian of the 20th century.
John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Church Dogmatics. Aberdeen. And his Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch was fascinating.
Francesca Murphy, God is Not a Story: Realism Revisited. Aberdeen again. And I’ve heard she’s an “existential Thomist,” which is interesting. We’ll see how my Hauerwas sympathies jive with it.
David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite. It’s been sitting on my shelf just staring for about two years now. And working on von Balthasar has made this much more tantalizing.
Pseudo-Dionysius, Works. Sarah Coakley did me in.
Douglas Jacobsen, ed., A Reader in Pentecostal Theology: Voices from the First Generation. Because I should. And if I get around to it: Thinking in the Spirit: Theologies of the Early Pentecostal Movement.
Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Part One is read, Part Two looms.
That should be enough to tide me over. I’m also going to return to my complete poetries of Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman, for those peaceful, sunny afternoons in the backyard.
In the volume, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, theologian Sarah Coakley has an essay on “deepening practices” (79-93). In it, she argues for an alignment of three sets of practices with the traditional three stages of spiritual progress. In mystical theology, there are three steps in a deepening pattern or practice of prayer: the “purgative,” the “illuminative,” and the “unitive.” Of course, the three are not so neatly divided, but are interwoven in the “messy reality” of day-to-day faithfulness (79).
To the first stage, the “purgative,” Coakley links the sort of practice of turning away from evil practices associated with new converts or beginners in the faith. In this early phase, “Much of the emphasis is on setting one’s life in a direction different from that of the world” (84). The second stage, the “illuminative,” Coakley illustrates with Benedict’s monastic Rule. This stage is about ingraining the love of Christ on one’s interior through repeated, habitual practices. Over time, things like worshiping together, welcoming the stranger and giving charity to the poor shape one’s life to become more like Christ. A “habituating of love” takes place (86). This not just in external matters, as in the first stage, but in one’s deep attitudes or dispositions.
The third and final stage, the “unitive,” as the name suggests, is the stage of spiritual union with God. At this level of grace, the soul is so empty of self and filled with God that it becomes “transparent to the divine” (90). Here a level of holiness or sanctification is reached that “even the skeptical outsider” must begin to recognize as a supernatural grace (80). As with von Balthasar, so too with Coakley: “The saint is the apology for the Christian religion” (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, 229). Importantly, however, this level is not necessarily even consciously attained for the believer. Sanctification, or growth in grace, proceeds, as Coakley writes,”discreetly, quietly, and often even unconsciously in the recipient—through the ‘long haul’ of repeated practices of faithfulness” (83).
As we progress, through the “‘long haul’ of repeated practices of faithfulness”, a subtle transformation of our beliefs takes place as well. What initially began perhaps as a dogmatic clinging to truths proposed to us by an authority, by the Church, becomes the truth out of which we live and breathe. Our practices begin to “infuse beliefs with richer meaning” (92). Coakley speaks of the final stage this way:
This practice of contemplation is, strictly speaking, God’s practice in humans—a more unimpeded or conscious form of that distinctive human receptivity to grace that has sustained the process all along and that is itself a divine gift. But it does not obliterate or invalidate all the other practices; rather, it sets them all in a new light, reversing more obviously now the logical relations of beliefs and practices as this practice finally discloses the incorporative telos and meaning of ‘beliefs.’ In particular, the Trinity is no longer seen as an obscure though authoritative ecclesial doctrine of God’s nature, but rather a life into which we enter and, in unbreakable union with Christ, breathe the very Spirit of God. (93)
Theology is a fundamentally missionary enterprise. “It has,” as Linda Woodhead writes, “more to do with witness than invention” (in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 403). The fundamental ambiguity of missionary discourse, of course, is the attempt to communicate truths across idioms, to introduce a message which originated in another historical moment in the present. This inevitability is not detrimental to mission, but simply the natural outworking of an historical revelation. This feature distinguishes Christianity (and its quite different relatives, Islam and Judaism) from the Eastern religions.
In Pannenberg’s Christianity in a Secularized World, he confronts this inherent difficulty head on: “So how,” he asks, “should the churches conduct themselves in the world of a secular culture in order to make it easier for people to move from the implicit presence of the religious theme in their lives to an explicit Christian commitment of faith? What can theology contribute to this?” (in Gunton, 360). The missionary theological options–which, one should note, are ecclesially situated–range, Pannenberg writes, “from the various forms of assimilation to a move in precisely the opposite direction” (ibid.).
When theology completely assimilates itself to the thinking of secular culture, “the content of faith becomes so empty that the question arises why one should still turn to religion at all” (361). On the other hand, when a sharp antithesis is driven between faith and the dominant, secular culture, the former “appears as irrational commitment to a content which is regarded as ‘true’ only in a private perspective” (360). What is actually needed, Pannenberg argues, is a theological account of rationality.
From the early murmurs of the risen Christ in the margins of the Empire, the Christian gospel has had to confront the claims of pagan reason. As Pannenberg states, “From the beginning the link with reason has been part of the missionary dynamism of Christianity. In the Christian patristic period it characterized the claim of the gospel to universality against all the irrationalisms in which late antiquity was particularly rich” (364). To overcome absorption into the pantheon of Mediterranean religions, Christian theology had to demonstrate that it was the bearer of a universal truth, and thus, a universal rationality. Pannenberg, in this light, states, “the opportunity for Christianity and its theology is … to oppose the shortcomings of secular culture with a deeper and broader reason” (363, 364).
Linda Woodhead confronts a homologous issue in feminist theology, which she laments “has failed to be sufficiently theological” (in Gunton, 399). Importantly, this results, in Woodhead’s view, from insufficient attention to the church, which “feminist critique relegates … to a secondary role” (401). Woodhead reads feminist critiques of Christianity as oddly uniform, despite their divergent conclusions. They together share “main features [which] may be traced back to the early days of the Enlightenment” (ibid.). Feminist theological critiques typically reduce Christianity to a set of dogmas, or what Rosemary Radford Ruether calls, “codified collective experience” (ibid.). In Woodhead’s own phrase, “textually encoded beliefs” (400). This “thin reality … occludes the thick reality of the Trinitarian God and of those communities which are caught up in His [sic?] life” (401).
In a manner parallel with feminist theologian Sarah Coakley, Woodhead argues that the life of the Trinity makes the Church a site of grace. Instead of a rigid hierarchical–worse, patriarchal–institution, the Church is “the place where human beings are caught up into God’s life” (402). In other words, the place where people are, in Mary Daly’s phrase, “becoming whole persons” (in Gunton, 390). By such healing, “women can generate a counterforce … challenging the artificial polarization of human characteristics into sex-role identification” (ibid.). But this occurs only in the Church.
Which leads to the central thrust of Woodhead’s concern: that feminist theologians are more fundamentally feminist than theologians. It may be possible to hold a strong feminist concern as “less a meta-narrative than an ethical conviction or principle” (402). But too often, feminist theologians “hold it as a more basic commitment than their commitment to Christianity, even as their sole and unrevisable commitment” (403). In this, the project of theology is essentially abandoned, for to be a theologian is to witness to the God who has come to us in Christ–a witness that occurs only within the sphere of being caught up into the life of Christ’s service to the Father, in the fellowship of the Spirit.
Thus, theology without Christian commitment becomes necessarily impotent. In Linda Woodhead’s words:
The failure of feminist theology to produce truly constructive Christian theology is due, in my view, to the incoherence of its project. Christian theology has never been constructed on the basis of ‘experience.’ Rather, it has been constructed on the basis of encounter with God in Christ, mediated through the Christian tradition. It has more to do with witness than invention. (403)
In the theology of the Trinity–with Christology, the most difficult and most central piece (or the whole?) of Christian theology–a distinction is made between the “immanent” and the “economic” Trinity. The immanent Trinity refers to the inner life of God enjoyed between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without reference, that is, to creation, to time, etc. The economic Trinity, on the other hand, refers to God’s activity in the creation, for example, in the Father’s sending of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In twentieth century theology, as Trinitarian theology experienced a renewal, this distinction was the subject of much discussion. Particularly jarring was the dictum of Karl Rahner, who wrote simply, “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa” (quoted in von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 3, 508, n.3). In a single, compact paragraph, von Balthasar sums up the importance of maintaining the immanent/economic distinction for Christian theology:
[W]hile according to Christian faith, the economic Trinity assuredly appears the interpretation of the immanent Trinity, it may not be identified with it, for the latter grounds and supports the former. Otherwise, the immanent, eternal Trinity would threaten to dissolve into the economic; in other words, God would be swallowed up in the world process–a necessary stage, in this view, if he is to fully realize himself. (Theo-Drama, vol. 3, 508)
In this amazingly dense paragraph, two very important truths are laid out. First, the economic Trinity is the “interpretation” of the immanent. In other words, the activity of God revealing himself to us through the prophets and apostles, and most definitively in his Son Jesus, “interpret” to us the inner life of God. For instance, when Jesus prays to the Father, as he often does in the gospels, we catch a glimpse of what the eternal life of God is like.
Second, the immanent Trinity is distinguishable from the economic–not that they are not one reality–because if we collapse the two, then creation becomes necessary. If Christianity is not to become Hinduism, this fatal misstep must be avoided. Creation is contingent, not necessary; in other words, it is a gift out of the free choice of God’s love. Creation did not have to be, and if it did not, then there would never have been an “economic” side to God’s Trinitarian life. Instead, Father, Son and Spirit would have shared each other’s life in perfect self-giving from eternity to eternity.
My pastor this morning spoke of the God of new beginnings. The Catholic Church in Ireland certainly needs such a new beginning. The unequivocal condemnation of child abuse is prominent in the Pope’s Friday letter to the Catholics there. Priests who are guilty of this crime “must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals” (§7). To begin the healing process, “the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children” (§2). It is reminiscient of Paul’s judgment: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate… And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?… With such persons do not even eat” (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 11).
Yet, the future is not utterly bleak. In equal measure with condemnation, the Pope speaks of hope for “the rebuilding and renewal of our beloved Church” (§9). The Pope speaks with deep compassion, having met with many victims of sexual abuse in the Church: “I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them” (§5). He prays that they do not despair:
At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning. (§6)
I hope and pray too the Church in Ireland can emerge from its darkest and most hopeless situation. You can find the full text of the Pope’s letter here.