Category Archives: academia

Theology as prophetic orientation

In Christian traditions, God is the primary prophet. He tells us about himself, then has others convey this knowledge. The prophets in the Bible rarely, if ever, are saying something new about God. They remind the people what they already have learned. After the Torah, the rest of the Bible is mostly commentary, and warnings, and revitalizing.

So, then, what does God tell us about his own self? What does God tell us about creation? What does God tell us about salvation, judgment, promise, redemptions? What does God tell us about the Spirit? Who is God? A simple one? A multifaceted unity? A complex unity of three persons? How does that work? What does God want us to do? Be? How are we to gather together? Who is included? What is the human condition, the human struggle, human failings? God tells Moses that he is the God of their forefathers and the I am for all generations? So, that’s history, what can we know about God’s work in history?

The challenge in these questions is to take the insight of many different narratives and teachings and speak of God in a way that is coherent with God’s revelation and has meaning for us in this present experience so that we are oriented with integrity to God’s continued work that reaches to us from the future.

It behooves us to get this right. It’s a challenge and a task to speak of God that relates the I am to who we are.

The sermon notes (now from a couple weeks ago) continue to help me orient the discussion:
The Profaning of God’s Name

  • When the delivered Israelites go to Mount Sinai to receive the law, the third commandment is that they “shall not make wrongful use of the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
  • Ezekiel describes what the Israelites have done as a kind of corrupting or defiling of the nature and character of God. Because the people failed to enact justice and mercy but instead followed after power and the worship of idols, then the name of God was defiled. The people around Israel did not know YHWH as a God who hears the cries of the oppressed; instead they associated YHWH with the life of all the other gods.

That telling about God involves both a relationship and a study. A delving deeply into the revelation and considerations of God from those who have wrestled with his reality, living it out and filling out themes along the way. It is a spiritual task that involves the heart, mind, soul. There is no anti-intellectualism in Scripture, there’s no rejection of learning or study, indeed these are celebrated again and again, with the warnings coming in regards to false study or, often worse, ignoring God’s being or nature. Ignorance of God is no excuse, and intentional ignorance is worthy of judgment.

When we name God, we do not control God. When we call on the name of God, we are orienting ourselves in a situation of dangerous possibilities. God works, but God is who God is, not who we want God to be. God responds, but is not all things to all people. If we name God, then speak falsely of his character, values, goals, we are liable to judgment. It’s not mere strong language that’s being condemned in Exodus 20. “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” Misusing God’s name is about making God seem to others something he is not. It is abusing the relationship for our own power or benefit or pleasure. When we teach about God things that God does not see as true, we are misusing the name of God. The Jewish scholars sought to bypass the danger by no longer using the name of God, using ways to get around saying the name, lest they say it vainly. Jesus was not convinced by this workaround.

We are given the Name and we are given the name so as to encounter this God who is, walking rightly, with justice and mercy, in truth. Who is this God? What has this God done? What is this God doing? What will this God do? That is the prophetic task, and it is the task of those who claim to be theologians to find coherent ways to speak of these realities, teaching who God is to each generation, ever deeper so that the people may go ever farther in the calling this God gives.

So we need theologians as prophets. But that doesn’t let theologians off the hook. False prophets, after all, do abound.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

So opens 2 Peter 2. Jeremiah 14 has this to say:

Then the Lord said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. Therefore this is what the Lord says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine. And the people they are prophesying to will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and sword. There will be no one to bury them, their wives, their sons and their daughters. I will pour out on them the calamity they deserve.

If I’m commending the role of theologian as a prophet, then I can’t ignore the warnings that comes with such a task and such a title. To be a theologian is not a casual affair, though many have treated it as yet another among many academic specialties. Maybe for some it is. For those who take this God seriously, it is a serious task and calling.

Many in the past tried to get around the warning about wrongly using God’s name by no longer using the name God gave Moses. Instead of the Name, they used the title Lord or God. In most of our translations, the name of God is translated as LORD in all caps. Jesus wasn’t convinced by this false show of piety. It’s not the name that’s the issue, it’s what we’re representing as relates to this name. If we do oppression as Christians, the name of Christ is brought into the service of the oppression, and we are making wrongful use of the name. If we condemn or alienate in ways that aren’t aligned with God, we are misusing the name. We are appropriating God’s authority for our own purposes. That’s vain. And that’s dangerous.

Academic theologians are quite a bit in this danger. I’m not only talking of the ones that are more freely indulging in heresy or don’t believe in God at all. They’re liable to judgment, sure, but not really more than everyone else. There an obvious target. In the model of Romans 1, however, I’m more interested in looking closer to home. What about the theologians who speak the words of God but are primarily oriented in systems that have, to say the least, other concerns. The academic system, for instance, in which theologians are obligated to God somewhere five or six steps down the list. The academic system leads theologians to seek academic honors and gratification, to frame the discussions so as to please academic colleagues, to be respectable in their institutions and respectable in their guilds and respectable in pursuing the theoretical fads of the moment. Being an academic is a very privileged perch, after all, where one relies on the money of those going into debt to pay for a protected status.

Again, the danger in response is an anti-intellectualism. So, we have the intellectuals on one side who serve idols of status and power and vanity. On the other side, we have those who serve the idols of ignorance and whatever whims of religious culture they might be part of. Who are the ones who seek God first, who speak deeply with learned discernment about who God is and what God is doing?

If a theologian truly is in the role of a prophet, then it’s not really feasible to find theology entrapped in the power structures of either academia or the church, where the systems dis-orient the message so as to co-opt the name.

That’s not to say that theology can’t be truly prophetic in academic or ecclesial circles. It’s just it’s a dangerous and difficult task. To be worked out with fear and trembling rather than arrogance. We don’t have idols of gold or silver or wood. We do have idols of conferences, tenure, publishing, and collegiality. Or for those of us who are on the underside of academia, we have idols of jobs, of networking, of benefits. What does it take to get those things? Sometimes it seems like we need to co-opt the name of God, use the language and message of God, living our calling vainly, in order to gain a place at the table.

We associate YHWH with the life of all the other gods of our time. And people then realize the theologians have little or nothing to say about God himself.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

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Theologian as Prophet

As my PhD in theology is still somewhat fresh, and my career is in what might be best called a nebulous phase, I think a lot about what it means now to be a “theologian.” I’m a professional at that, after all, so I should really know what that profession is about. I’m still wary, honestly, about using that term as it seems so, well, grandiose. But, what else would I say?

That’s what my professional education and training is in. Evagrios of Pontus would suggest that a theologian is someone who prays truly and someone who prays truly is a theologian. I’d like to think that I fit that, or at least I fit that better as I go along in this life. Is that it then?

Jeremiah

I like Evagrios’s comment but I mig ht make a suggestion, one that incorporates that and extends it into a profession. Dare I say calling? Is there a charism fittingly labeled as “theologian” in our era?

I tentatively think so. I’ve been considering this for a while and my musings got a spark in the sermon notes printed in the church bulletin this past Sunday. (For the sermon, here’s a video)

There’s four sections in the notes, and so I’m going to do a post per section, adding my musings to the comments by Scott Daniels. I think the role of theologian can (though certainly not must) fill the role of prophet, and as such this gives theologians both a calling and an orientation in the church, something both theologians and the church have often ignored.

From the notes:
The Work of the Prophet: Deconstruction and Reconstruction

  • The prophets fulfilled a very important–if dangerous–role in the nation of Israel. Generally speaking, there are three key leadership roles in the OT: prophet, priest, and king. The problem with kingship (and the prosperity it represents) is that it seems inevitably to erode the radical uniqueness of God’s people in the world.

Who serves the role of “king” in a Christian sense? Jesus, of course. As savior and lord, Jesus is the head of the church, he is king of kings and lord of lords. There can’t be two heads and while we may certainly have power structures in churches and society, there’s only one in charge of the mission. It’s a messianic mission empowered by the Holy Spirit. Messiah and Spirit and Father. The king in the OT was a cultural accommodation, meant to provide a visible headship, an immanent analogy. Of course, a king hates being limited to analogy so often took on airs of absolute power. Nowadays, there’s none that can or should serve that role.

We have immediate access to God through the Son in the Spirit, and any hierarchy is more parliamentary than royal in function. That being said, kings represent the temporal order of things, the political and legal systems in this world. We do have those systems and wherever else our allegiance might be, we participate in these systems. Who is our king? Who defines our status and participation, who is included and excluded. That’s a big question, but moving away from the present one. Let’s move on…

  • Priests take care of the day-to-day spiritual needs of the people and administer the worship taking place in the temple. Priests, however, tend to be status-quo kinds of leaders. They are no less prone to corruption than are kings. Too often the priesthood becomes a religious prop for the reigning monarch–whether they are good or bad.

Priests are the key players in the religious system, a system that involves making connections between the transcendent and immanent, between the ethereal and earthly. It also involves navigating perceived paradoxes in life, giving meaning to our role in the universe. The trouble is that in this system, there is the expectations of the system. People expect the system to function in a predictable way. Priests (or pastors) are conditioned to performing their duties in a predictable way. The establishment of a rhythm is itself part of the system. But in times of corruption or issues of life or faith that are outside the orientation of the system, a person can find emptiness, desolation, exclusion.Prophet-Elias-Grk-ikon

I encountered this in junior high and early high school, during a season of extreme financial stress in our family, coupled with major health issues, there was no resonance in the churches or youth groups. They were oriented towards middle and upper middle class religious system.

Meanwhile, my family was struggling to eat and pay rent and struggled with knowing where God was in the midst of a crisis in which almost all our family and friends were Christians but we were left to struggle alone. For the most part–I had very close friends during this time that were sustaining influences, true community, even though I didn’t know then how to express my hurt or need. It was just life as it was and it had nothing to do with church.

The religion system just didn’t reach into our lives, and the religious system is also susceptible to corruption. Arbiters of heaven and hell, transcendence and coherence, can use this power for their own benefits, financially, socially, psychologically.

This is a big reason why I struggle with the emphasis of church as the kingdom of God. It leaves no room for critique. It also prioritizes the religious system as the whole experience of life. If you’re finding value or success in that system (as does, for instance, people Stanley Hauerwas) it makes sense to commend it. If you’re on the outside, then you’re told to get on the inside, because that’s where you’ll be filled. jesus_scrollThis isn’t to reject the religious system, but rather to suggest there needs to be a critical voice, one that calls the church (and its leaders) towards deepening, towards refocusing, away from tendencies that are not values of Christ’s mission or the Spirit’s work.

The Church, after all, may always be pointing towards a kingdom, but it’s not always the kingdom of God. Sermons, for instance, can be very powerful messages of God’s word. They also, however, can embed distortions and symbolize unfortunate power structures and disoriented theology (by prioritizing one person and one medium as the expression of the Spirit in a church setting). The pastor, for better or worse, is part of the religious system that is the church so reflects the values and priorities of this system, sometimes more than the people who are present, who are the people Christ values and the Spirit is working through.

The sermon notes continue:

The prophets, on the other hand, come from outside the political system (they are usually weird and antisocial in some way) and speak the word of the LORD to the king and to the priests. This is why they often are persecuted because they speak from outside the system, to the system. The word of the LORD from the prophet is therefore often hard for the people to hear. When the people finally are able to hear the deconstructing word of discipline from the prophet they are then able to hear the reconstructing words of hope from that also flow through the prophets.

To the system, but not of the system. That seems a great description of the role theologians can play. The idea that the prophetic must somehow be anti-intellectual or unlearned is a great mistake. Often it is the people who spend the most time with the texts who are able to discern the trends, the “signs of the times,” the message of God for a moment or generation. The Holy Spirit works in spontaneous ways but also in deeper gifts, charisms of learning and teaching and discernment.

The trouble, of course, is that theologians may give their allegiance to other systems. The education industrial complex system, for instance, which creates structures of power, meaning, identity, success that often orients a person’s passion into patterns that buttress the system rather than lead to truth or transformation. So, the idea of a theologian as prophet might be both a call and a challenge, for both the church and those who have made it their life to study and teach the ways of God.

There are more notes to muse on, so there’s more to come.

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Obedience is better than Sacrifice

Spoke on the atonement this morning. Flew up to Nampa, Idaho to join in with the Wesleyan Theological Society. Good time. Good people.

I’ve never really been all that interested in doctrines of the atonement. I was raised in a Christian family and so never had a dramatic conversion. And the other popular interest in atonement theories almost always are about drawing divisions in Christianity, using the cross as a bludgeon to attack people who don’t measure up to a perceived, generally parochial, orthodoxy. The conference theme was on atonement so I started thinking about it last Summer, and once that started, I got very interested in where my studies were taking me. So, over the last 2.5 weeks I wrote a 25 page paper as a beginning exploration of what I think is a somewhat novel approach. Well, novel in theology, it’s entirely throughout Scripture. That’s my argument and evidence at least. Got it down to 10.5 pages to present this morning. Seemed to go well.

Anyhow, here’s my intro:

Over the last half-century, there has been a shift in how we think about God’s eternal nature and work in this world. This relational turn in theology emphasizes a social model of the Trinity and with this a sociality of God’s kingdom rather than a political or hierarchical model. This is not, to be sure, a new conception.

The terminology of perichoresis—God’s eternal dance—has, for instance, been a key model especially in the Christian East for many centuries, dating back to the early church. In what follows, I will propose a model of the atonement that derives from this emphasis on God’s relationality. This is a preliminary exploration for what is a much larger project certainly in need of further refining and development. For the moment, I will propose themes and lay the groundwork for this approach that can be honed in future works.

A theology of the atonement involves two extremely important underlying questions. The first asks what is sin? Is it a violation of God’s honor as Lord? Is it corruption that leads to death? The tendency to establish a scapegoat? The devil’s capture of us in enslavement?

These questions point to the second key question. What is God’s primary pattern of interaction with this world? In the late twentieth century there was a shift of understanding of the human condition away from a strict legal construction and towards understanding sin as more of a disoriented identity that results in relational violations.

Such a view on the human situation is key in the theology of many contemporary theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. They both assert that attempts to establish our identity in a person, cause, activity, or goal other than God results in dis-integration—with God and with others—as nothing other than God can sustain identities into eternity. Such dis-integration requires re-integration.

However, models of the atonement have not derived, for the most part, from the starting point that Pannenberg and Moltmann, and others, suggest. This gap highlights the need for a new model, one that better incorporates contemporary understanding of the Trinity and anthropology.

This may also become a model that can include other models within its scope as it suggests the underlying priority, expressed through different themes, of God’s work throughout the Biblical narrative.

My initial conception is this: The relational trust between God and humanity that allowed for relational intimacy was broken through sin. God’s initiating movements then created contexts of obedience or disobedience as particular people chose where they would put their trust.

The expressions of obedience were insufficient both as a sustaining and as a fulfilling expression. The judgment of God expresses a relational displeasure, a response to betrayal and falsehood in attempts to instantiate ourselves through alternative means.

The cross becomes the ultimate expression of obedience and thus trust, denying false forms of identity and embracing the fullness of God’s promise. This act of obedience becomes the avenue of trust for humanity and the avenue of trust for God, who trusts those who trust the Son.

Such trust is first an ontological restoration as it orients a person within God’s field of force, his perichoretic substantiation that we call justification. This then re-initiates those who trust in the cross into a new transformative path of obedience, a new birth that re-constitutes the human identity and leads it to a path of identity reformation, which we call sanctification.

I’m not posting the whole thing because I’m considering what I want to do with it. It’s at least a book project, maybe my summer project now, but I may work on submitting the initial version as an article.

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Sessions with Moltmann

In May 2011, I had a chance to talk with Jürgen Moltmann in his study in Tübingen. I recorded our three conversations, but never posted them. This was research material for my dissertation. 03

Now that the dissertation is written and passed, I think now is a good time to post those interviews for anyone who is interested.

May 17-19, 2011 in Tubingen, Germany
Session One — May 17

Session Two — May 18

Session Three — May 19

In connection with the interview, I wrote a paper that gives context and provides a loose transcript of the conversations.

Posted in academia, adventures, Moltmann, theology | 2 Comments

Acknowledgments

Since only a small number of people will ever look at my dissertation (hopefully a much larger number look at the Fortress Press published version), I am posting here my Acknowledgment section that is at the beginning of the dissertation.  A way of more publicly to say thanks to the people involved in the process:

Acknowledgments

At the beginning is the end. The end of a long process of reading, writing, talking formally and informally with so many others. Along this way, I have had so many people who have influenced me in my thinking, in my faith, in my perseverance, pointing me towards a way of hope. Many of those I am not in regular contact with anymore and yet I would not be at this point if not for their influence. Thank you to my teachers at Wheaton for giving me the tools to explore theology and history, expanding not only my knowledge but also expanding my world, exposing me to the possibilities that Faith makes possible and giving me examples of how this can be worked out in the past and in the present. Thank you, dear friends who have walked a long or a little ways with me along the road. I value your friendship likely more than I ever expressed.

Others have had a more direct involvement in this process. Dr. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen stands out in this regard. He was a significant influence during my MDiv studies and years later when I was at another crossroads of vocation he invited me to apply to study with him at Fuller for a PhD. His graciousness throughout has been inestimable, and more than this, a graciousness mixed with a sharp eye towards stretching, training, and sharpening me. In many ways his mentoring took the shape of what follows, he spurred me on and gave space for my participation, always encouraging and with a sincere excitement about my progress. His sense of humor mixed with a depth of insight and mastery of so many topics serves as a continuing example of the kind of scholar I seek to be. While I do not quote his own works extensively throughout this present work, his stamp of influence is profound throughout, in major and minor ways. He is my Doktorvater and my friend.

Along with Dr. Kärkkäinen, I wish to offer thanks to The Center for Advanced Theological Studies. The fellowships provided throughout my PhD studies allowed me to begin and press onwards in these studies, a task that was well beyond my means except for their generous support and validation each year. More than financial help, those in CATS have served as wonderful mentors, exemplifying the best theological education can offer, truly combining a substantive integration of faith and learning, never interested in an isolating ivory tower, modeling how a life of study can also be a life of faith.

Dr. James Bradley bears special mention in this regard as he helped shepherd me through a minor in church history. This subject is a love of mine and Dr. Bradley exemplifies why I love this field so much. His constant graciousness and his pursuit of academic rigor is likewise a model to me as I press onwards in my vocation and my faith. I want to also thank Dr. Bill Dyrness who was my second reader and whose class on Theology and Beauty helped to wonderfully initiate my PhD studies. Jürgen Moltmann also deserves personal appreciation. He was gracious in responding to notes and in encouraging my theological studies. He continued to be gracious in opening up his home for a few sessions of conversations in 2011. His openness to me was a great encouragement and is a great model.  He truly lives out what he writes.

My parents supported me through the ups and the downs, believing in me when I was confident about God’s work in my life, and believing in me when I wandered a while through a wilderness. They taught me to follow Jesus from my earliest days and have continued to be not only my family but my also my friends and a key part of my spiritual community. They are my mentors in life, in pressing onwards, in seeking after God in the good times and in the struggles, able to talk over the deep things of Scripture or theology, laugh together in considering the absurdities of life and celebrate together in the triumphs. I owe them much more than I can possibly say.

Amy has been my dearest friend, my constant encourager, my love of my life. She is a faithful follower of Christ, and I love being a team with her in this journey. I treasure her wisdom, her passion, her heart, the way she radiates the fullness of Christ, the way she hopes with me and for me, constantly pointing me towards God’s work. She is also much better at grammar than I am and helped me sort out many issues in what follows, fixing all manner of punctuation and being willing to tell me when something just plain didn’t make sense, as well as encouraging me when she read something that she loved. In big and small ways, her assistance is invaluable and I treasure beginning a new phase of life with her, our first that doesn’t involve PhD studies. We made it, my love.

This work is about the church. And while it may be wonderful to see transformative ecclesiology taking shape sooner rather than later, the reality is that any transformation of the church is like turning a cargo ship. It doesn’t happen quickly. With that in mind, I realize that what follows is an expression of hope for future generations. Along the way of writing this, one particular member of this future came into my life, my daughter Vianne, who was born very early in the morning on Easter, 2012. I continue to see the task of theology in all its forms as a way of helping provide for her a way forward in her own faith and hope and participation with Christ. She is a constant delight and a wonderful gift from God. I dedicate this dissertation to her, with hope and with expectation that she will see the wonders and promises of Christ become ever more present during the course of her life.

San Dimas, Maundy Thursday 2013                     Patrick Oden

Posted in academia, dissertation musings, ministry, missional, theology, Vianne, writing | 12 Comments

Fragments

This is the sort of stuff that gets cut out of my dissertation:

If God is determined to liberate and God then promises this liberation, the issue at hand is not simply one’s own experience of suffering at a given moment but also God’s very identity as able to surpass the historical contingencies and fulfill the promise. God puts his own identity, essentially, at risk in making the promise. In other words, with the promise it is not only about us, but also about God being faithful to himself and in his faithfulness to himself he is faithful to us. It is in this accomplishment of faithfulness that God, then, can be identified as God, as it is only God who is able to surpass all in order to accomplish all. God becomes knowable through the promises he makes and the promises he keeps. “I am” becomes “I am the God who brought you out of Egypt.” This then expresses God’s intent to be known through the horizon of history as the promises and the fulfillments identify, clarify, and substantiate his revelation of his self.

Posted in academia, dissertation musings, theology, writing | 1 Comment

Truth, Beauty, and Yodeling Pickles

Peter, “It’s just a bit of silliness really.”
JM Barrie, “I should hope so.”

~from the movie, Finding Neverland

There’s something about theology and ministry that makes me serious. Now, that’s not a comment about how seriously I take it, or these are topics of great concern that merit only very serious attitudes.

It’s more that these topics, for whatever reason, seem to cause a shift in my personality. I become very serious. Don’t believe me? Read this blog. It’s very serious, mind-crushingly serious, alienatingly serious. I can’t even remember the last whimsical post I wrote here. I can’t remember, for that matter, the last whimsical anything I wrote. I try to post on what I’m thinking about, but since this is an entirely sporadic blog (liberally sprinkled with “sorry I haven’t written for awhile” sort of posts), I’m not really even sure what the goal of this blog is and it’s certainly not a cross section of what I usually am thinking about.

This has become my serious side. It’s the side of me that doesn’t let itself out in most social situations, and the side of me that, for whatever reason, is both an integral part of who I am and the choices I have made, yet I don’t express in other situations.

Remember the pensieve from Harry Potter? It allowed one to store memories, pulling them out like threads then storing them in a bowl.

This blog, and writing in general of late, has been my pensieve for seriousness. Scroll down, read the earlier posts. Very serious stuff. The writing at least. The pictures are more about beauty.

Truth and beauty, that’s the stuff of life, yeah?

Only for the longest time whenever I’ve had to describe myself or add a tagline I’ve used the phrase “a lover of truth, beauty and occasionally silliness”.

That really does sum up my personality. Only there has been a plain lack of occassionally silliness in my writing. And honestly, I miss it. I’ve been thinking for a while about how to get it back in but, of course, as my main writing task these days is my dissertation and dissertations are, as a rule, especially soul-crushingly serious even within the already serious genre of academic writing, I’ve not a lot of mental space for indulging my whimsy.

I say I don’t have a lot of mental space for whimsy, but isn’t it a matter of making space?

Did I post that part of my dissertation, the part I talked about making space is a significant part of our relationship with God and with others, not only something we do but something that reflects the image of God? I don’t feel like looking now, because that’s tedious, and as there’s few things more serious than tedium, I’m going to dodge looking for the requisite link.

Making space is good. But making space for whimsy and silliness? That’s something the desert monastics would certainly scold me about. Such a serious lot. And the trouble is that I have long taken them very seriously so while I disagree with their scowling about laughter and fun, I realize that there’s was often a depth of spirituality that I, in my best moments, really would love to discover. Maybe my blog has become an unintended reflection of my inner suspicions that theology and the Christian life really are, and should be, quite serious endeavors.

“A hermit saw someone laughing, and said to him, “We have to render an account of our whole life before heaven and earth, and you can laugh?”

That’s from the Desert Fathers. Not all those desert monastic really knew God, but the ones quoted in that book did, and much more than I do.

And yet… to a person, every mature Christian I’ve met or heard speak in person–those whose walks with God are deeper and longer and more thorough than my own–have a sense of humor. That’s always high on a list of relationship ideals, right, that the other person has a sense of humor? That was a big part of my attraction to Amy. She made me laugh.

“And you can laugh?” Yeah, I think so. Precisely because we have to render an account. And there are parts of my rendering that will be, to be sure, pretty ludicrous in the re-telling.

Theology and the Christian life are serious, to be sure, so merit a degree of somber interaction. However, when it comes down to it, both are also pretty ludicrous. We’re trying to come up with words that describe the creator and sustainer and ultimate identity of the universe, who we say is one but also three, God but also man, but not just a man, a man that isn’t like other men but is so much like other men that our very orthodoxy is dependent on testifying that this man is a man as much as other men but not like other men in all sorts of pretty specific ways, like the fact that he didn’t sin and like the fact that even though God incarnated as a man, this man didn’t exhaust all the identity of God even though he was fully God in every way, but since we also have the Father–who was with but not identical with this man, but be careful about using qualifying identical because then you have three gods instead of one; and this third one, or part or mode or person (but not separate person, more of an identity within the threeness of the oneness) is tricky because it’s not really a person, only it is, but more of a wind, or a breath, or a tempest, or a bird? or maybe a force but also a person because our trinity needs three persons and isn’t the beginning of a joke in which a son, a father, and ghost walk into a bar. So, the man died, really died, but didn’t die because he was raised from the dead and is now alive but not alive with us, with the Father, and with us in Spirit–which isn’t a pretty phrase meaning we’re thinking about him but he’s literally with us in Spirit–only to return again at some point which is always just about to happen for the last 1988 years or so.

I could go on and on. But you get the point. There’s an inherent ludicrous quality about theology that sort of inspires a bit of snickering when anyone tries to take it too seriously.

Yet people are very intent about taking it too seriously and if you don’t take it seriously they’ll be the first to remind you how serious to take it. But what do they know?

Really, all that seriousness is about trying to cope with the fact that much of theology, and much of our lives, and much of reality in general is ludicrous. Not because it’s meaningless. But because the meaning is so complex and intricate that our attempts to package it up in brown paper with neat little bows is ludicrous.

And because, I think, God has a sense of humor too, so whimsy is embedded in Creation. Our recognition of it is not dodging the main points of life, it’s indulging in them, recognizing and interacting with the world in a way that doesn’t take it as serious as many people want us to take it.

Finding the silliness, exploring the whimsy, letting go the absoluteness that seriousness seeks to impose, isn’t just a distraction. It is, I increasingly believe, part of our participation with God, part of recognizing the world for what it is–a ludicrous sort of place–seeing the contradictions and complexities as often displaying the ludicrous reality in which we now live.

Laughter is good medicine not because it’s a placebo, but because it helps us see the world rightly once more. Whimsy gives us perspective. And inasmuch as it does, it is, I think, holy.

“And you can laugh?” Yeah, I think so. Because we don’t just render an account our sins. We celebrate our salvation, and that is a feast, a joyous event, a reflection of the fact that this God, the God, our God, takes us seriously but not that seriously. He thinks us ludicrous too, and is willing to rectify our faults because of his love for us, not because we deserve it, because we’ve proven how serious we are about our salvation, but because he wants to. So he does. Ludicrous as it is, God saves us. It’s his whimsy to save the world. God is holy and God saves, becoming one of us so that we can participate with him. Foolish and scandalous as this might be, that’s what he does. And it makes me laugh, because it’s so thoroughly good.

Truth, beauty and occasionally silliness aren’t just a tagline, after all. They’re how I define holiness because they are how I see God’s identity expressed in this world.

They are, as such, also the expressions of love.

Which is, I think, what theology should also be about. Certainly it’s what I want to be about, and I think finding the whimsy and humor again in my writing is a necessary part of my becoming a more developed theologian.

A theologian who is always serious doesn’t really know God.

I could go on and on, writing serious words about whimsy and bogging down in existential introspection about my own identity as a theologian and the seriousness of silliness as part of the theological project. But, that would be ludicrous, so instead, let us end with this, a yodeling pickle.

This post is part of the May Synchroblog. Here’s a list of other participants in this month’s bit of silliness:

Posted in academia, contemplation, missional, musings, personal, silliness, theology | 13 Comments

Hope and Oppressing

Some (unedited) musings from my dissertation:

Those who are investing their identity within oppressor oriented models — models where competition and domination are considered positive rather than negative — tend to rationalize their behavior in the context of their wider philosophical and social milieus. By participating with the crucified one, however, such rationalizations are discarded, seen for what they are—forms of self-alienation in the guise of self-fulfillment. Participants in forms of non-infinite identity are, ultimately, anonymous — they are without identity because their attempt at identity is contradictory and transient. They lose themselves in the mass of other objects, all flailing to be unique in a morass of historically tired attempts to assert themselves as unique. They define themselves by what they do, how they compare, how they control – but ultimately they remain anonymous as they are not differentiated in their identity through their participation with the fullness of identity, loved and empowered as subjects in God’s particularizing mission.

They are nonhuman inasmuch as they are distant from the only source of substantive human identity—the God in whose image they were created. Oppression is the active negation of such an identity, self-imposed exile from Kingdom, participating as subjects in the crucifying rather than in being crucified. In other words, those who seek to establish identity through means of oppression are given the pronouncement, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” There is no hope where oppressing promises hope, there is only hell.

That is precisely why a liberation of the oppressor is important. The oppressed realize there is no hope. The oppressors often do not. And in their deception they perpetuate sinful structures and behaviors, leading them and other inexorably towards death and dissolution.

Only the way of the cross includes the path to resurrection, and only by participating with the crucified God do we then have a substantive hope for not only salvation from but indeed and more importantly, salvation into. This salvation into includes those ultimate goals for which oppressing tends to be concerned—issues of fulfillment, identity formation, security. Because the cross entails the loss of identity, the resurrection is about more than resuscitation of that old identity into becoming a more successful version of the same. Jesus does not valorize who we were but awakens us to new possibilities in accordance with who we were always meant to be. The resurrection is not futuram but an advent, a novum of new life, a new thing, a new way of living.

The cross opens a person up to be a new person, emptying and forsaking, while the resurrection is the promise of filling, of new life. That is why salvation is described so many times as indicative of this new life, a new way of being in this world, rather than merely debts being paid or acquitting judgments. A person is “born again,” given a new start in who they are, as particular individuals no longer enslaved to the determinative history which preceded, but rather interpreting that history as a path of redemption that leads into, first, death of self, then resurrection of new self.

As this path gathers together people from all backgrounds, the blameworthy and the blaming, it entails another basic human need, that of community, non-competitive, non-authoritarian community where identity is not derived either by establishing identity over and against others, but by sharing in the identity of Christ so that each person becomes substantively able to participate as a free person among others, celebrating diversity in an infinitely complex unity.

Posted in academia, dissertation musings, Jesus, theology, writing | 1 Comment

The Crux of the Cross

A wee bit from my dissertation writing:

Moltmann writes:

When the crucified Jesus is called ‘the image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and god is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity. The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ.

Those who are forsaken, who are poor in Spirit, are blessed because in their forsakenness Jesus identifies with them; these are the people whose life share his own experiences and those are the people with whom he was cast. They are blessed because then, with Jesus, his future becomes their future. If then, the experience of Jesus is ultimately the experience and orientation of God in bringing salvation, only by identifying with those who Jesus identified with does one then identify with Jesus.

To identity with the forsaken one must let go that which one feels is one’s right, letting go forms of oppression so as to participate in community with Christ who suffered under oppression. Those who are oppressed, then, are liberated as oppressors no longer can justify their oppression, so no longer oppress. The broken relationships are healed when the oppressor lets go domination to join Jesus on the cross and is thus together with those who Jesus joined by going to the cross.

In light of the cross, the oppressor can no longer justify oppression by blaming the oppressed for the state of oppression, charging them with violations of blasphemy, or political unsuitability, or being God forsaken and thus deserving of human forsaking. In light of the cross, alternate forms of identity formation that always leads to some kind of oppression are put aside in order to identify with the man who challenged all societal forms of justification and identity. One cannot, literally, be with Christ while being an oppressor.

One must be liberated from oppressing in the very nature of participation with the God who is the crucified God. In this we face a crossroads. A person is either with Jesus where he is, or they are with those who accuse Jesus, aligning themselves with those who were arrayed against him: the Jewish leaders, Pilate, the Roman soldiers. If someone oppresses they are not worshiping the God who is Jesus. The oppressors are the true blasphemers, the true rebels, the truly godforsaken. That is the crux of the cross.

Posted in academia, dissertation musings, Jesus, missional, theology | 1 Comment

A peace, not the peace

A bit from my dissertation writing this last week:

As a religious conflict between Jesus and religious leaders who did not have political power, the struggle discussed above was primarily a battle of wills—who really did have the authority to speak for God? This led to fierce opposition against Jesus, but was not the direct reason for his crucifixion. Jesus was not stoned, as a blasphemer would merit. Rather, his crucifixion was an act of the controlling legal authority of the time: the Roman Empire. Jesus was seen as someone who if not entirely himself a rebel at least contributed to fomenting societal disorder, and so could be blamed as a social agitator.

The teaching of Jesus clearly had societal implications and someone with his charisma and influence, along with his implicit assertions of being the Messiah, resonated with those who sought a renewed Kingdom of Israel in contrast to the ruling Romans. Rome did not concern itself with the religious debates Jesus had sparked but only sought to squelch potential uprisings, a potential that was, in Palestine, expressed through such Messianic pretenders.

The active opposition of the Jewish social leaders, like the Sadducees, and threats to social disorder caused Rome to take notice, and in taking notice take the path of least resistance in order to pursue what they asserted was their primary goal, that of peace. Rome ruled diverse lands by a combination of offering unique benefits and contrasting this with vicious reprisal. Those it could not sate it crushed.

Jesus did not, however, see Rome’s response as defeat, nor as true peace. In willingly submitting himself, he disputed ultimate Roman authority over him. Rome sentenced Jesus to death. Jesus refused to stay dead. An act of ultimate rebellion. In this he contrasted himself with Rome’s authority, and contrasted his teaching with Rome’s policies.

His way was a way of deeper peace, not through active rebellion but substantive refutation of Rome’s very ability to assert itself. His goal was much more than temporary forms of apparent peace through domination. He sought peace by uniting with those who had been left out of peace, who had suffered at the hands of peace-making, who had been sacrificed to maintain the peace-wielding power of others. Pax Romana thus came about through application of crucifixion. Pax Christi comes about through the reception of crucifixion.

Rome put people on the cross to bear the weight of the peace. Jesus, and those who follow him, face the cross for themselves, obligating themselves to a new way of being, not obligating others to suffer so that our life is more bearable.

This political reality did not only involve Rome. There were also the political aspirations of those who opposed Rome involved in the story of the cross. As it contained such social and political elements, the teaching of Jesus would have resonated with the Zealots, those Jewish men and women who actively sought political and social liberation.

Whereas the Pharisees sought religious reformation, the right orientation towards God in spiritual and religious matters, the Zealots sought the activism of God, the assertion of the right to rule and have political freedom, to throw off the yoke of their oppressors, a political zeal for liberation. “Like the zealots,” Moltmann writes, “Jesus broke with the status quo and those who maintained it into being.”

Just as the similarities of Jesus with the Pharisees brought both their initial acclaim and later their reprobation, so too did the similarities of Jesus with the Zealots awaken them to his possibilities as a leader but then infuriate them as he did not follow through with their political demands. Jesus was the friend of sinners—which alienated the Pharisees—and friend of tax collectors—which alienated zealots. When Pilate sought a way out of his predicament and offered to release a prisoner, the people chose Barabbas rather than Jesus, making a claim for who they felt was the more valuable.

Jesus was neither a good citizen of Rome nor a good citizen of Israel, he rebelled against both assertions of power in his resistance to domination and in his proffering an alternative kingdom. He was not the Messiah Rome could fear and so he was not the Messiah the zealots wanted.

From right and from left, from the two forces of political assertions of his time, Jesus was rejected—neither liberal nor conservative we might say enough and so spewed from both their favor. His favor was not what he sought, nor their definitions the way he defined his own identity. Those who insist on defining themselves through the path of zealot or Pharisee do so in contrast to the way of the cross, which is why such paths are alienating and competitive, establishing an “us versus them mentality”. Such forms of expression must, then, often be discerned by their divisiveness rather than by their rhetoric, which will often attempt to claim Jesus as their justification.

Both forms justify oppression either by themselves or by others as a way of pursuing a peace, a peace they say represents Christ but more often than not actually represents oppression. It is a justification of oppression that disguises itself through selective use of the message of Jesus and of those prophets who came before him.

Pax Romana is limited to some, and often restricts or opposes others. Pax Christi is for all, together. If peace insists that others bear the weight for such peace, and suffer under it, that is the peace of Rome.

Posted in academia, dissertation musings, Jesus | 1 Comment