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Thursday, November 27, 2003  

I have begun reading Karl Barth's lectures on Evangelical Theology. At the same time, I also can't seem to stop wandering through his monumental Church Dogmatics. As a result, I will be looking at his lectures through the spectacles of "Nothingness." Let me explain. I am really anxious to see that his remarks on Nothingness get grounded in Scripture, for otherwise they will end up either as poetic, mystical utterances or as philosophical, speculative conjecture.

In his little book Metaphysics (Prentice-Hall, 2nd ed, 1974) Richard Taylor said: "Men fear nothingness, and dread its approach."  And that was a really elegant way of giving substance to an idea that gave Kierkegaard dread and Sartre nausea.

Arthur O. Lovejoy wrote a whole book on its opposite, the plenitude of Being, tracing and detailing the idea from the earlier, simpler concept—"the world is the better, the more it contains"—to the modern complex doctrine that "It is, in short, a contingent world; its magnitude, its pattern, its habits, which we call laws, have something arbitrary and idiosyncratic about them." [See The Great Chain of Being, Harvard, 1964.]

Alas, no one has done as much for the idea of Nothingness, not even Heidegger or Sartre. Perhaps that's because we never know what to do with it, when we manage to get our minds around the idea. But isn't that what happens, or what we can expect to happen, when we approach the idea purely philosophically? We should always expect to end up, as Kant warned us, with antinomies. The outcome of Kant's dialectic, as expressed in his Critique of Pure Reason, is that cosmological inquiries will always result in hopeless antinomies whenever, by reasoning, we seek to determine anything complete about the universe as a whole: instead we get parallel, equally plausible, but nevertheless contradictory positions about the world.

Wherever we go with the attempt to make sense of Nothingness, or even how we start out, we still have to contend with the raw fact that Biblical cosmology must incorporate the idea not only that God's creative words are spoken in the backdrop of Nothingness but also that God is himself the author of Nothingness.

I am the Lord,
who has made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself  [Isa 44:24]

I look forward to having Barth make sense of the idea of Nothingness in this context—not as a philosopher, for I don't need to ponder another antinomy, but rather as a Christian theologian.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 2:39 AM |

Monday, November 24, 2003  

Now this is what the American Church has been waiting for! You have to get God Version 6.0.  But you need to approach this with an open mind, so first make sure you are wearing your Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 10:13 AM |

How to ward off dead faith.  Before I leave Bishop Spong to his self-made dung heap of rotting postmodern liberal theology, I have to make a distinction between what he thinks is going on in the Church and the very issue of relevance in general. The first is a critical construct, the second is a human trait, and until we appreciate the difference between the two we will always see rioting in the streets and watch people of influence, like Spong, strutting around mouthing slogans which, if said enough times, will leave you with "semantic aphasia," a painful disorder in which "familiar words lose their meaning and become mere sounds." [See Max Black, Labyrinth of Language, Mentor, 1969].

Let me juxtapose two strange sightings.  Sighting one: In a book I pick up now and again, What in the World is God Doing? (Global Gospel Publishers, 4th ed, 1998), C. Gordon Olson, speaking of Eastern Christianity, says that the Coptic Orthodox Church has been "very formalistic, monastic, superstitious, and dead" [p. 261]. Its death as a faith can be attributed in large part to its centuries-long isolation from the larger body of Christ and to its transformation into an edifice that has resisted vibrancy in both substance and message. The culture changes, but the church remains—and gathers dust.  Sighting two: Remember the original Star Trek series, with Captain James Kirk, Spock, and Bones, et al? The episode entitled "The Omega Glory" featured Kirk and his away party landing on a parallel Earth in which the Yangs are at war with their ancient enemies the Kohms. Oddly the Yangs worship the US flag; their invocation is a garbled version of the Pledge of Allegiance and their holy words, as Kirk finally discovers, are the preamble to the US Constitution. Of course, as Kirk also realizes, the Yangs are actually Yanks, and the Khoms are Communists—through centuries of isolation the Yangs (Yanks) of this parallel world have been left with a faith that is basically "very formalistic, monastic, superstitious, and dead."

My point isn't about Star Trek, Yankees, or even the revival of the Coptic Orthodox Church, but how a faith gets to the point where it is essentially moribund. Evangelical preachers in the Wesleyan tradition have long known the difference between shaping a ministry to the culture du jour and the ministry's actual message, which is Scripture and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When the message and the shape become one thing, however, there is engendered a fork: on the one tine, the faith can lose its shape and its ecumenical spirit and become a dust collector; on the other tine, the faith can become indistinguishable from the culture itself, always keeping its shape intact but at the same time losing its message in the flux of cultural change. We see this here now, first as the Coptic Orthodox Church (although other examples can be found), the second as the recent bizarre behavior of the Episcopal Church in the US (although other examples can be found). The retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, can't seem to see the fork, and neither can the Episcopal Church's first non-celibate gay bishop coadjutor, V. Gene Robinson. A good part of Jewish history has been the story of prophetic entreaties to avoid the subsumption of Jewish faith and worship under the general fabric of the world's seductive cultures. Why must the Christian too have to make that choice again and again? We shouldn't. As Paul said of Jewish history: "These things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did" [1 Cor 10:6] and "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" [1 Cor 10:11].

I spent a decade in the business world, and in that time hired many business consultants who always had "new, innovative" ways of improving worker productivity. Looking more closely at what the consultants offered, what they brought was never really anything genuinely new: it was yesterday's consultant wisdom but recycled with a catchy name or spin. One could say the same thing goes on in education, no less than in the fashion industry. The message remains the same, but it is presented differently to different audiences, new generations, and it always seems like the wheel has finally been invented. The message becomes relevant by being personalized. Perhaps this is why evangelists now study marketing: to learn the tried and true methods for shaping the message, without also losing the message in the medium.

My point is this: people like Spong and Robinson, blinded by the halogen high beams of postmodern liberal thought, now are unable to discern the difference between the message and the shaping of the message in evangelical expression, and are therefore totally ineffective shepherds of the Episcopal Church, incapable of protecting their flocks from the wolves of culture. In an effort to keep their brand of Christianity "relevant," which is what every human wants, they would leave out the message entirely, because the medium is just so very impressive. Don't drink from their cup—it's a dribble glass.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 12:09 AM |

Sunday, November 23, 2003  

Spong sings to the rotting carcass of postmodern theology, and it doesn't stink pretty.  I spent last evening at Barnes & Noble reading the weirdest book, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born (HarperCollins, 2001) by Rt Rev John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ. The book has been out for a while and, intrigued by the title and Spong's reputation, I wanted to see what was what and ended up in an easy chair in a corner of the bookstore, reading it through in paperback. In the end it was so bad I couldn't bring myself to buy it after all that. So thank you, Barnes & Noble, really.

Spong almost had me gagging when I got to his chapter, "Beyond Evangelism and World Ministry to a Post-Theistic Universalism," and watched him cram Christianity into the black hole of a mystical humanism. Heads turned when I coughed up "What the hell is this?" I was in a time warp and around me swarmed Paul Tillich ("God is not a being, but the ground of all Being"), Harvey Cox in his St. Augustine mask, Thomas "God-is-dead" Altizer, and other liberal theologians from my past. Spong based his book on his William Belden Noble lectures at Harvard University, but I can't figure out why anybody didn't throw vegetables at him, or at least accuse him of plagiarism—or, worse, irrelevance. This is not to say that the liberal theology that came out of the 1960s and 1970s isn't worth repeating. It is worth repeating, but it isn't worth believing: there's a difference here. Fads come and go, and in the flux of cultural change the worst of these fads sometimes leave behind droppings. Spong has picked up all these droppings and put them together in a book and thinks that he's saying something profound by poking a stick at the fetid mass—"Look, it moved, I swear!"

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 8:59 PM |
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