Archive for January, 2009


… is as enjoyable as I remembered it! Even a short trip around the local park was a blast. Real appreciation comes from walking with them for about twenty minutes, then going back to boots. The reduced effort from not sinking into the snow as much is great, but I notice just as much how much more stable and comfortable I feel walking with them. The small motions your feet need to make in deep snow when wearing boots, just to fight against the slipping and sliding, are as tiring as working through the deep snow.

I think at some point mid-winter one forgets what it is to walk without worrying about and fighting against your feet. Un-self-consciousness in a simple activity is a bit of grace.

I may need to get some of these…


Learning from the social gospel

rauschenbuschThe future of Christian theology lies in the comprehension of Christianity into history. The future of Christianity itself lies in getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history.

So Walter Rauschenbusch in Christianizing the Social Order, published 1912. In his article “Walter Rauschenbusch and the Saving of America”, in A Better Hope, Stanley Hauerwas quotes this and responds: “Christian ethicists after Rauschenbusch will never write a line like that.”

It’s odd and fascinating to watch Hauerwas give a fairly sympathetic appraisal of a man who could write a line like that and who, as Hauerwas notes, more or less identified democracy as the Christianization of politics. The purpose of the essay is not to critique, but to explore a piece of the history of Christian ethics in America and understand its influence.

Rauschenbusch was the greatest, and one of the last, proponents of the Social Gospel movement, which argued against individualistic conceptions of religion and for social embodiment of Christian principles. The kingdom of God was a main theological touchpoint and the prophetic tradition, and its recovery by Jesus after laying dormant, its main Biblical and historical touchpoint. This was the movement partly responsible for Prohibition and for WWJD which, long before acronym bracelets, was the key phrase in social gospeller Charles Sheldon‘s In His Steps.

Hauerwas notes many interesting things about Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. As best I can represent them, one is the combination of “liberal” theology with personal piety: “That liberalism and pietism might be at odds is a later development that is inappropriately applied to Rauschenbusch and his social-gospel friends. Their ‘social work’ was but a continuation of their understanding of the significance of their experience of Christ.” The social gospel was about reform, “but it was equally about prayer, hymns, and devotional practices.” Witness Rauschenbusch’s Prayers of the Social Awakening, which includes prayers for morning, noon and night.

A second interesting point is that for Rauschenbusch, theology was history and ethics were journalism. There was a movement in history running through the prophets, through Jesus, through democracy for the poor and the common good. To do theology was to narrate this historical reality and his ethics were “theologically and morally informed journalism. He narrated the social realities of his day by redescribing them Christianly.” Seeing historical realities of justice embedded in the work of Jesus was essential. I’ll quote Hauerwas at length for an interesting comparison of Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr:

Beckley notes that Rauschenbusch never proposed any universal principles of justice; rather his emphasis on the importance of, as well as his understanding of, the content of justice was grounded in his analysis of socio-historical circumstances. This is certainly the case, but I think what must be further said is that justice does not play a central role in Rauschenbusch’s work. This may appear a scholarly quibble, but it is important if we are to understand the significance of Reinhold Niebuhr. Justice becomes the overriding term for Niebuhr, and for many who follow Niebuhr, exactly because they no longer share Rauschenbusch’s account of Jesus. Put simply, and in a manner that is simplifying, once you no longer have Jesus all you are left with is the dialectic between love and justice. (his emph.)

I can’t pretend to know how well Hauerwas is doing his analysis of Rauschenbusch, but I think it would be interesting to chart the modern incarnations or echoes of the social gospel movement on the axes Hauerwas points out. I’m thinking of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crowd, of the growing social justice and creation care concerns in conservative Evangelicalism, and the social stances of some of the mainline denominations (my own United Methodist church, e.g.). I have no desire for us to recapitulate Rauschenbusch, but I find the unabashed connection of social concern and practices of piety like prayer, hymns and devotion appealing. Do we see this anywhere now? My guess is yes for conservative evangelicals*; my guess for Sojourners is less so (although I’m not sure). For my own church (and some of the Sojo types too), I think there is a major temptation to subsume piety entirely  into social justice concerns, or (my church!) let them coexist in a sometimes-uncomfortable orthogonality.

A second question: how are current groups grounding their appeals to justice etc? Where are they on the Rauschenbusch-Niebuhr divide — working from a grounding in the historical person of Jesus, or off of principles of love and justice abstracted therefrom? I know this sounds nebulous, but I think it’s important. I don’t know where to place conservative evangelical social concern. My recollections of God’s Politics and my browsing of Sojourners websites convinces me that they are leaning heavily toward principles. At my own church, I think definitely the same — we are not connecting social concern with the particularity of Jesus at all.

Do I read things correctly? And tell me, what ought we be learning from the ways the social gospel reinvents and relocates itself? If we can never repeat with Rauschenbusch that Christianity is getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history, can we say why?


* See here for an interview with Rick Warren in which he discusses the social gospel. Follow links there for a response from Rauschenbusch’s great-grandson, who argues Warren owes more to his great-grandpa than he realizes.

Big changes, people, big changes!

I’ve been informed that my blog title is no good. I guess this doesn’t come as a major surprise — I had a hard time thinking of anything in the first place. But I guess I have to agree with the person who informed me of this, that the title does basically nothing to draw anyone to the blog. In addition, to be honest, the current title sort of falls on the ears with a dull thud.

I’d be interested to know if anyone out there ever bothered to track down the source of the blog’s title. Everything you need to do so is in the About page. The new title will get more explicit explanation, something I need to do more of. Whether it has been apparent or not, part of my enjoyment of writing here has been laying down various pointers towards a common project. To be explicit now: that project is being the church — see my inaugural post. In the future I plan to be more explicit, but I’m reserving to myself the right to at least hope that those who can put together on their own connections between this post on Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and sermons and my first post (for example) will get more out of reading my blog than even I knew I put there.

At any rate, I need a title that will more explicitly signal the blog’s content and draw some more interest and interaction. While I work on finding one, the blog will stay here, but we’ll spice life up with some twists on my failed title. Enjoy!

Hauerwas: marriage and capitalism

from Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality” collected in A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy and Postmodernity:

Capitalism thrives on short-term commitments. The ceaseless drive for innovation is but the way to undercut labor’s power by making the skills of the past irrelevant for tomorrow. Indeed, capitalism is the ultimate form of deconstruction, because how better to keep labor under control than through the scarcity produced through innovation? All the better that human relationships are ephemeral, because lasting relationships prove to be inefficient in ever-expanding markets. Against such a background, the church’s commitment to as lifelong monogamous fidelity may well prove to be one of the most powerful tactics we have to resist capitalism.

This obviously cries out to be fleshed out at length, something Hauerwas doesn’t do in this short piece. Three pointers from the essay that might help in constructing marriage as resistance to capitalism:

  • Hauerwas calls for reshaping the church’s discourse on marriage around its practices regarding promiscuity, rather than ideas regarding sexuality. So formal commitment within the alternative polis of the church replaces negotiation of preferences.
  • He asks that all marriage be open to children, not in the sense that each must produce biological heirs, but in the sense that each must give an account of how it fits into an ongoing community practice that is procreative rather than consumptive. Mentoring, teaching, childcare etc. could all be filled in here.
  • And, of course, he rejects the romantic as the basis of marriage — moving away from marriage as desire-fulfillment.

I’d add

  • The marriage ceremony is an obvious place to work out a witness in the midst of capitalism, not just in the obvious ways like expenses and gift-giving, but in emphasizing the commitments the couple makes to the larger community and its projects as it receives their blessing.
  • This is a prime arena for an exercise of reclaiming the imagination, in the sense that Walsh and Keesmaat argue for in Colossians Remixed, regarding desire and need.
  • Periphery’s suggestion that gift theory would be really useful for Christian ethics might find especially great applications in conceiving marriage as a response to economics. It might be a really good language for working out the connections.

Read Jean with me — you know you want to

CS009556Having several years ago been shamed by Marilynne Robinson‘s essays* in The Death of Adam into feeling I ought to stop having impressions of John Calvin without actually reading any Jean Cauvin (as she prefers to style him)..

Having also done nothing about it in the subsequent time…

Having an interest in filling a hole in my knowledge…

And seeing no future time when I’ll be more likely to undertake this…

I’ve decided to join in on Princeton Theological Seminary’s program, in honor of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, to read through The Institutes in a year. The details are all here, where they post the daily (except no reading on the Sabbath!) readings in text and audio form, which you can even import into iTunes or something like that. Reading per day is actually not too bad, maybe a few pages, and the pleasant female voice who does the audio readings (at a leisurely pace) took twelve minutes for today’s text.

So join me! I have a bit of catching up to do, but hope to be able to sustain this. I mean, why not toss in 12 minutes over lunch at least for the opportunity to be able to say I did it later, let alone what I might learn in the process?

(Oh, and mark your dance cards now for Church Dogmatics in 2018, the 50th anniversary of Barth‘s death. At the rate the Institutes are being read, CD will take about 4 years.)

*The relevant essays are “Marguerite de Navarre” Parts I and II — if I remember correctly, Robinson is trying to recover some sense of the influence Marguerite may have had on Cauvin as a sort of patroness.

2,245 footnotes later…

rsgJust finished NT Wright‘s Resurrection of the Son of God, his massive argument for the historicity of the resurrection. One of the most interesting things about it is how Wright’s approach to the question of the resurrection is fitted to the theological content of the same.

In his first first chapter he outlines objections to a project of interrogating the question of the resurrection via historical study. One set is historical in nature and deals with whether it can be done — whether history has the tools or data to approach it. The second set is theological and questions whether it should be done — whether the ground of the Christian faith should ultimately be approached using anything but profession of faith.

Wright argues that history can approach the resurrection. He does so by, well, doing it… and doing it carefully, extensively (seriously, I counted up the footnotes) and strongly. And, in the course, a beautiful parallel between his method and the theological content of the resurrection emerges that answers the question of whether it should be approached using history. He is very concerned to argue that resurrection is not solely a cipher for a purely spiritual reality, having no place in the  physical or historical world. To grant that only faith and not history may access it is contrary to this. Further, approaching the resurrection historically, as Wright notes at the end of his book, is fitting in light of creation: “History matters because human beings matter; human beings matter because creation matters; creation matters because the creator matters”. It is also fitting in light of incarnation. Finally the resurrection’s ushering in of new creation parallels Wright’s suggestions towards renewed epistemology. The historical study of the resurrection inevitably brings one to worldview considerations, but out the other side of these, there is a new world accessible to renewed study.

All in all, an excellent book. Two questions about it:

  • Wright bases his argument in the belief of the early church. He notes that questions of authority and continuity still have to be addressed to draw conclusions for the modern church. How is this to be done, and will an approach with a foothold in history be able to do this, or does it require something else?
  • He approaches the Easter story via Paul first, then the gospels, which seems somewhat backwards, but is important in that his approach is via historical development, and Paul comes first. Where does this place him in relation to other theological approaches to the resurrection?

Don’t leave your post-Enlightenment worldview too far behind

A note for all those in the half-intellectual apologist wing of evangelical Christianity who the worldview wars above all else:

The challenge for any historian, when faced with the question of the rise of Christianity, is much more focused than is often supposed. It is not simply a matter of whether one believes in ‘miracles’, or in the supernatural, in general, in which case (it is supposed) the resurrection will be no problem. If anyone ever reaches the stage where the resurrection is in that sense no problem, we can be sure that they have made a mistake somewhere, that they have constructed a world in which this most explosive and subversive of events — supposing it to have occurred — can be domesticated and put on show … in the church’s collection of supernatural trophies. The resurrection of Jesus then becomes either ‘a trip to a garden and a lovely surprise’, a happy ending to a fairy story, or a way of legitimating different types of Christianity or different leaders within it. No: the challenge comes down to a much narrower point, not simply to do with worldviews in general, or with ‘the supernatural’ in particular, but with the direct question of death and life, of the world of space, time and matter and its relation to whatever being there may be for whom the word ‘god’, or even ‘God’, might be appropriate.

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (712)

[To be true to Wright, nothing is special about post-Enlightenment worldviews as a foil to cozy comfort with the resurrection; as he often repeats, the classical and first-century Jewish worlds knew as well as we do that dead bodies do not come back to life, and resurrection was as theologically, epistemologically and politically explosive in the first century as it can be in the 21st.]