Joy of joys– I have officially become a real PTS student! Some may say, Travis, I thought you’ve been taking classes at seminary for a year and a half already. This is true, I have been taking classes and getting credit, but to this point I have really only been a psuedo-princetonian. But no more! Yesterday I received my first volume of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (II/2). I look forward to reading it so that I can keep up with conversations here instead of making it all up as I go.
ps. this blog post is partially* tongue-in-cheek.
I went to bed last night at 7:30pm. That was after taking a nap yesterday afternoon from 3:30-4:30 pm. I believe that my body is in Recovery Mode after an intense week of writing final papers (55 pages and a take-home final!). Not only that, I believe my body is in Recovery Mode after what was, perhaps, the hardest semester of my life. Nevertheless, the exhaustion I feel is like the exhaustion at the end of a good work-out or a competitive game of basketball; not like the exhaustion of being tossed overboard and swimming for dear life. There is a sense of accomplishment and growth, and for that I am truly thankful.
Two classes in particular have challenged me this semester, though in different ways.
The first was Ethics and the Problem of Evil. From the beginning, the professor made it clear that it was not going to be a Theodicy class [i.e. how to justify God in light of the existence of evil]. Rather, it was an ethics class, meaning that our main objective would be to think about how we ought to respond to evil in practical ways. That being said, it quickly became apparent that there is a constant tension between practical responses to evil and theoretical concepts about evil. Our view of who God is and what the world in which we live is really like, affects the way we respond to evil and suffering. But! to think and wonder about God and the world in a detached way [i.e. from the relative safety and comfort of a seminary classroom] tends not to lead to a sufficiently deep description of the very real ambiguities that evil and suffering occasion. In the end, every attempt to “answer the problem of evil” with a tidy system did not do justice to reality and left one [me] feeling unsatisfied. And yet, and yet… one cannot simply avoid the problem altogether. The problem of evil, it seems, from an intellectual point of view is un-answerable. From a faith point of view, however, the most satisfying approaches we covered were the ones that were utterly realistic about the existence of evil and suffering, yet somehow found a way to confess the goodness of God in the midst of it [I’m thinking, especially, here of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s short-classic Lament for a Son].
The oddest thing that I found while taking this class, was that everywhere I turned, in all of my other classes, the subject material overlapped considerably. Recently, it dawned on me that there is a very simple reason for this. So much of what is done in theology and philosophy is an extended reflection on the following fact: life is often unimaginably difficult. There is a reason that the Bible calls Satan “the prince of this world” (John 12:31). If we take the time to be honest, and reflect upon the suffering all around us, and within our own lives (not something that I am very good at… optimism is far safer), we will see that something is terribly wrong. Thank God, however, that is not all there is to that verse: “the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (vv 21-22). After a semester of wrestling with the objections to the [all too easy] answers to the [all to often wrong] questions about evil and suffering, I am left with two things: hope and the conviction that hope is more important than answers.
The other class that challenged me was The Theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Before I took the class, all that I knew about him was that Wikipedia said he was the “Father of Modern Protestant Theology” and that Karl Barth tried “to overturn his influence.” Given the way that St. Karl seems to be venerated here at PTS, I was sure that this class would teach me how to dissect Schleiermacher’s harmful theology, showing particularly how far we have come since he messed up Protestantism during the Enlightenment. Much to my surprise (and probably chagrin) the professor (a renowned Barth scholar) taught Schleiermacher with grace and respect, never critiquing him based on criteria that were alien to Schleiermacher’s day, and more often than not, finding some way to affirm and even appropriate Schleiermacher’s intentions and instincts in a generous fashion. While I doubt that Schleiermacher will ever become a central figure or influence in my own theology [although who knows?], what I learned most in this class was not contained in the books we read. All semester I have described the task of reading and understanding Schleiermacher as “wrestling with a big-hairy monster.” Every time you think you have a handle on him, he breaks free and shows you that you do not. He will not be tamed by simple explanations or surface-level reading. But I am only stronger for having tried, and will only be made stronger the more that I do so. I suppose this is the case with any theologian worth his/her salt. They must be taken on their own terms. We must allow them to challenge our own presuppositions. Otherwise the playing field is not even and the game is pointless. The more honestly, vulnerably, and winsomely we play the game, however, the more God may use others to press us farther up and further in.
All in all, this has been the hardest, and best, semester of my life. The hardest part about it was the difficulty of the subject matter and the isolating nature of the work [lots of research in the library, not so much time to hang out with friends and wife]. The best parts, on the other hand, were the lessons learned about honesty and vulnerability, and the great conversations with classmates generated by the challenging material.
At this point I am almost half-way done with my seminary career. And while it has by no means been easy [especially the living in Jersey part], life is a gift, and today it feels that way. The words of Sheldon Vanauken come to mind: “If its half as good as the half we’ve known, heres hail to the rest of the road”
My friend Drew showed this to me the other day but I was in the throws of finals so I have only gotten around to putting it on here today…
If any of you are either (a) into philosophy, (b) in graduate school, (c) interested in emerging church discussions, or (d) you just remember talking about postmodernism in high-school english class, you might find this website to be the most ridiculous thing you have ever seen
It is called the Postmodernism Generator… With the click of a button, it generates an essay on postmodern themes using nothing but overused, trite philosophy jargon combined with meaningless prefixes and/or suffixes. The funny thing is that you can read half-way through one of these without really knowing if it is gibberish or scholarly work!
Here are some examples of topics generated at random:
The Reality of Failure: Subdialectic Appropriation in the Works of Smith
The Capitalist Paradigm of Discourse and Sartreist Existentialism
The Neodialectic Paradigm of Consensus and Rationalism
Narratives of Economy: Neocultural Feminism in the Works of Joyce
Reinventing Constructivism: Subcultural Marxism and Neotextual Narrative
Hours of fun… I’m so glad I don’t have any classes to distract me from this thing.
Last night, Sarah and I (and her parents – the Lut’eran Ministers) went to an event at the seminary hosted by the Center for Theological Inquiry. It was an interview session with NT Wright, bishop of Durham, who is here in Princeton working on the next volume of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Like all of the other theological nerds, I was very excited to see him speak. All semester I have been scanning the study carrels in the library and the crowds of people walking along Nassau Street hoping to see him. My master plan is to *accidentally* spill my coffee on him, apologize profusely, and then offer myself as a study assistant for the remainder of his time here, free of charge. I’m still waiting for that to happen, but at least I have had the chance to hear him speak while he is here.
Because the format was that of an interview, he did not speak on a “topic” per se. Most of the questions focused on how to be an academic in the service of the church–how to hold those two world in tension without using “two bibles: one for personal devotion, and the other for academic study.”
The most profound moment of the night, for me, came when NT Wright answered a question about Modernity and Postmodernity. While acknowledging the great advances of Modernity (he said he didn’t want to have dental work performed by a postmodern dentist–or a premodern dentist for that matter) he went on to explain the freedom that postmodernity brings to the academic and theologian. Modernity, Wright explained, tended to lead to dogmatic statements such as “Now that we no longer believe that sort of thing…” or “Now that we know that all truth is relative...” or “Now that we have taken this or that into our own hands…” that left little to no room for an open, honest conversation about spiritual matters. Postmodernism, on the other hand, called those sorts of statement in question. That, he said, is a good thing. However, he was not idealistic or romantic about postmodernity either, as if postmodernism is the cure for all of the church’s ills. He used the following metaphor. Postmodernism is the equivalent of the Secular Fall Story. Modernism was an age of optimism and progress, in which the church and world were thought to be on an upward trajectory toward achievement of the perfect society – the kingdom of God, if you will. And yet, in reality, the age of “enlightenment” did not make humanity better, more just, or more loving. Instead, it led to two world wars and the horrors of the Nazi death camps – in other words, it led to a humanity that was more efficient at exterminating and destroying each other. The reaction to this effect of the age of modernism has been an extreme reaction against any all encompassing stories of progress or meaning – in the words of Jean-François Lyotard “incredulity toward metanarratives.” This for Wright, signals the “Secular Fall.” Implied in this analysis is the conclusion that postmodernism is not the answer. If anything, it provides the context in which we must try to move forward – looking for ways to participate in God’s work of redemption. How are we going to redeem this world? Part of the answer for Wright lies in culture. We must seek to engage and create culture in ways that help people find their own place in God’s story – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration [my words, not his]. I find this to be a helpful way of thinking about postmodernism – not an answer, rather a reaction resulting from the fall of the secular myth of progress – now, we must begin to look forward constructively and creatively seeking to redeem a world that is all to familiar with its own brokenness.
NT Wright is a good role model for those of us who hope to be intellectually honest, academically precise, and most importantly to encourage people to trust in Christ. In person he is winsome, engaging, and self-deprecating. Last night was a real treat.
This week I attended the Princeton Theological Seminary Student’s Lecture on Mission. The presenter was Dr. Scott Sundquist, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his lectures, “Time, Cross, and Glory: the Christian movement as Missio Dei,” Professor Sundquist described the task of helping Communist Chinese Economists learn how to study Christianity. They were interested, he said, in Christianity’s ability to reform the culture and morals of a society. And yet, they did not even understand the meaning behind the most basic Christian symbol: the cross. “Can one study Christianity from a materialist-communist perspective, without distorting it with one’s own worldview? Can Christians study their own history in a postmodern environment that has a disdain for the historical? What is the interpretive key that can unlock the meaning of Christian history?” These are the central questions that Dr. Sundquist sought to answer in his lectures. In this post I’ll briefly explain his interpretive “keys:” time, cross, and glory—drawing implications for the formation of a missional theology for the Church today.
Slightly altering the order of presentation, let us first consider the central Christian symbol—the cross. Why is it that among the world’s religions, Christianity is the only one whose symbol is one of suffering? Not only the cross, but also the Eucharist (“My body broken…my blood shed…”) and Baptism (a symbol of the death of the old self). According to Dr. Sundquist, “Suffering is the key to understanding who God is for us.” At the center of the Christian religion is a suffering savior, who identifies with the poor and oppressed and is willing to suffer on their behalf. In order to understand salvation from a Christian perspective you must understand both “missional incarnation” (God-with-us) and “redemptive suffering” (God-for-us).
This, of course, has implications for Christian ethics and ecclesiology. If God chooses to reveal God’s self in this two-pronged way, then Christians who are being faithful to God will follow suit. The combination of “missional incarnation” and “redemptive suffering” in the ethical sphere, Dr. Sundquist calls “cruciform apostolicity.” Those who follow Christ will bear the risk of suffering, as demonstrated in every major revival in Christian history, according to Sundquist. Suffering, then—while not to be sought, in and of itself—is to be expected in the pursuit of faithful witness to the suffering God.
And yet, suffering is not exactly what the Christian faith is about. As Protestants, we use a cross and not a crucifix. The cross is empty, as is the tomb; the emphasis is on the victory over suffering that Christ has secured through resurrection. Similarly, in the Eucharist the risen, alive Christ is with us and in us. As for Baptism, the Church would not grow at a very fast rate if we left people underwater! Those who die to the old self are then raised to new life. The good news of the Christian faith is that suffering, while certainly a reality, does not have the last word. The paradox of the Gospel is that it is precisely in suffering that Christian glory is revealed. The Scriptures, according to Dr. Sundquist, present suffering that leads to glory is a normative experience for the Church (e.g. 1 Peter 1:10-12, 1 Peter 4:12, Ephesians 3:8-13, Romans 8:15-19). Once again, the implications are apparent. If suffering leads to glory, then suffering is not pointless. We can endure suffering because we know that God is with us in it, and that God has a plan beyond it. Presupposed in this view of suffering and glory is the third aspect of Dr. Sundquist’s lectures—a certain view of time—to which we turn presently.
Christianity is a radically historical religion. In Jesus Christ, we have a God who entered history, acts in history, and has a purpose for all of history. His-story is going somewhere, so to speak. Of course, this is also a very Jewish way of understanding history. The Hebrew Scriptures emphasize the importance of God’s creating activity (Genesis 1-2), God’s acts within history (e.g. the exodus), and God’s future fulfillment of history, described as new creation (Isaiah 65-66). This view of history as a linear metanarrative challenged Platonic Greek thought which the early church encountered, and continues to challenge both Eastern views of history (as cyclical), and postmodern views of history (as irrelevant).
The Church must properly understand and emphasize God’s role in the creation of history in order to properly understand God’s redemptive acts in history, and God’s redemptive purpose for history. Only a God who is sovereign over history is one who can redeem through suffering—and redeem suffering itself. Otherwise, the suffering that we encounter is more often viewed as a result of a created order that we need to escape (ironically a pitfall of both Buddhism and fundamentalist Christianity!). Or, conversely, when the Church loses sight of God’s sovereignty in history, Christians seek to enact redemption on the horizontal plane, by their own power. This was the false optimism that seems so naïve to children of the postmodern generation when they look back at Christians like James Dennis and the Student Volunteer Movement (“…to evangelize the world in this generation”). The reality, however, is that redemption is always an act of God, and any hope that Christians may rightly hold must be grounded in the future consummation of history that will be a result of God’s initiative, and not our own (although God certainly works through human agency—thus the tension!). When we understand God’s sovereignty over creation and history we are guarded against the opposing threats of hopelessness and triumphalism, and thus freed to practice “cruciform apostolicity” in the sure hope of ultimate redemption and glory.
BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new. I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due, Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end, Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue. Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine, But am betroth’d unto your enemie: Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe; Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free, Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
The language of Donne’s Holy Sonnet No. 14 is disarming. Donne deals with the anguish of loving God, yet being bound to sin. To do so he uses graphic, violent language: “break,” “batter,” “o’erthrow,” “imprison,” “ravish.” This language is juxtaposed with the language of redemption: “mend,” “make me new,” “free,” “chaste,” and “love.”
In my Ethics and the Problem of Evil class this week, this poem caused quite a stir. The class seemed to be divided into three camps. (1) Those who thought the language was inappropriate when used of God, completely irrelevant for pastoral settings and/or just plain shocking. (2) Those who defended Donne’s language and sought to explain what he was trying to say, and (3) Those who were shocked and yet intrigued, who were divided inwardly and reserved judgment
I am currently writing a short paper arguing for my own reaction (which you will have to read to know). In the meantime, however, I would love to hear from anyone out there who may happen to read this entry. What do you think about Donne’s poem? What was your initial gut response? Or, what can this poem teach us about life with God?