Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Transendence and Immanence

I recently started reading Paul Laughlin's book, Getting Oriented: What Every Christian Should Know about Eastern Religions but Probably Doesn't. I picked this up because I had previously read Laughlin's Remedial Christianity and found it a good mental exercise. I disagreed with a lot, but he worked through some good topics. I came into this book expecting more of the same.

The thing that had bugged me most in Remedial Christianity was Laughlin's rather uninspired exploration of the ideas of transcendence and immanence. And, to my chagrin, I got more of the same in Getting Oriented -- exactly the same.

I think it would be fair to say that one of the things Laughlin is dissatisfied with about traditional Christianity is that it has too much transcendence and not enough immanence. He wants to reinvent Christianity to fix that.

But I think the real problem is that Laughlin's insistence on rigid categories blocks him from seeing the immanence of God that is proclaimed in the Christian tradition.

Laughlin offers two definitions each for transcendence and immanence. He defines "high octane" immanence as a view wherein God (or Ultimate Reality) permeates, saturates or infuses everything and everyone "as their very essence" while "high octane" transcendence is a view wherein God is wholly Other. He complements these definitions with a "low octane" immanence that is God present in the world "but only in a manner of speaking: as an agent acting upon it" and "low octane" transcendence as a God (or Ultimate Reality) that is beyond comprehension. Using these definitions Laughlin claims that Christianity offers a view of God that involves high octane transcendence but low octane immanence.

He says the traditional Western God "must impact the Universe from beyond it through creative acts, rather than as an abiding, inherent, indwelling, intelligence" (his emphases). I don't think this is right. I think traditional (and especially pre-Enlightenment) Christianity describes God precisely as an abiding presence in the world.

After describing the high octane versions, Laughlin says, "In a perfect world, that would be that: 'transcendence' and 'immanence' would each have a single, univocal meaning...." I think this statement reveals more than he would like. He allows that this being an imperfect world they each have a "second" meaning. What he doesn't seem to allow is that they each have ranges and shades and subtleties.

Laughlin's conclusions about Christianity seem to follow from Christianity's firm and non-negotiable insistence on the ontological difference between God and Creation. Combine that with his narrow categories, and you can't conclude other than he does. But throw out the categories, and we have all kinds of possibilities. What is needed, I suggest, is an acceptance of the fact that Christianity wants to proclaim both high octane transcendence and high octane immanence, even if we lack the terminology to do so simultaneously.

Laughlin dismisses Christian mysticism as an insignificant minority report, but I wonder if he realizes he is throwing all of Orthodox Christianity in that statement along with some very deep and influential streams in the West.

He says the "weaker sort of immanence does not allow for God to become the world or anything in it." Now you would think that statement alone disqualifies Christianity for this type of immanence. But Laughlin kind of dismisses it as "the exception that proves the rule, perhaps" and in any event says Christians "would not see it as a theological compromise, simply because of its unique, once-and-for-all character." In other words, we're committed to transcendence over against immanence and aren't going to let the Incarnation distract us from that.

Now here's where he really gets my goat. He says, "every other Christian theological issue and topic including the understanding and treatment of the cosmos, time and humanity, must begin with [the insistence on God's ontological transcendence] and continue to honor it, in order to maintain the basic monotheistic framework of the faith, at least as it is traditionally understood" Ummm, Dr. Laughlin, that was the boat. You just missed it.

In point of fact, I would maintain to the contrary that every other Christian theological issue and topic, including our ideas about God's immanence and transcendence, must, absolutely must, follow from the Christian proclamation of the Incarnation.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Traditions in Christian Spirituality

I was browsing around on Amazon today and I stumbled on to the book series I've been dreaming about. Orbis Books has been publishing (for several years now apparently) a series called "Traditions in Christian Spirituality".

Click here to check it out.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Office

I generally tend to espouse the philosophy that time is an illusion, for strictly pragmatic reasons -- namely, if I can convince everyone around me that time is an illusion then it won't matter so much that I can't keep a schedule. For this reason, my attempts to adopt the habit of praying the daily office have generally not been successful.

But I'm giving it another try.

I recently picked up the Glenstal Book of Prayer which has morning and evening prayers for each day of the week and fairly short "prayer stops" for mid-morning, noon, afternoon and compline. Five days in I'm doing well. Having a simple book with psalms and scripture readings inline helps a lot.

How does anyone find their way through the Book of Common Prayer?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hitchhiker's Guide to Lutheranism

I was reading the Lutheran Handbook's hagiography of Hypatia of Alexadria today (p. 62) and the subsequent demonization of Pelagius, when I was struck by a parallel between the Lutheran Handbook and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the guide itself as described in the book, not the book). Check it out:

"In many of the more relaxed congregations of the Western Church, the Lutheran Handbook has supplanted the great Catechism of the Catholic Church as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many ommisions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least widly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper, and secondly it has the words HERE WE STAND inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover."

(Note: Those who haven't read Douglas Adams' book may not get this.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


My study of God's authority in the Bible is bogged down. It was going well until I hit Deuteronomy, but I balked there knowing that it's the most important reference point so far. If I have any hope of finishing this I'm going to have to rescope the project to limit myself just to the use of scripture within the Bible. My original scope was too ambitious for a short study. Hopefully with that in mind, I'll be able to return to Deuteronomy next Monday.

Why next Monday? The other reason I've made no progress in this study is that I've been tied up studying 1 & 2 Chronicles in preparation for a session I'm leading in a Crossways Bible study this Sunday. You might think the Chronicles are boring. I did before I started this. I basically saw these books as stripped down versions of Samuel and Kings with a few hundred genealogies and descriptions of the Temple thrown in. Show me just what the Chronicler has brought that was new, and there you will find things only boring and tedious.

But, O, not so. That's just the shell. As I've dug into it I've discovered a deep message of hope to people returning from exile. Right now I'm at Hezekiah's passover celebration. Far from being just a notice that "Hezekiah followed the rules," it paints a beautiful picture of a king rallying the Jewish people (both Israel and Judah) around the hope of God's deliverance that is the deep message of Passover even while the people face the imminent threat of destruction by Sennecherib (who has by this time conquered Israel but not yet invaded Judah).

It's a well known fact that the Bible repays serious study, but it always surprises me to find that that's even true of the dusty old books like Chronicles.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Sadly, missing the point

In college I had a favorite professor who had once trained to be a priest. He left the seminary and Christianity because of the absurdities he found in Christianity. The example he typically gave was the question of eating meat on Friday. As the story goes, he asked if someone would go to hell for swallowing a piece of meat on Friday that had been stuck in their teeth from Thursday's dinner. He was told, if it's more than an ounce yes, if it's less than an ounce no. I always just chalked this up to pre-Vatican II Catholicism gone wrong.

Of course, even in the rigidity of pre-Vatican II the question would not have been whether one would go to hell, but rather whether one needed to go to confession, but the point is basically the same.

This story came to mind this weekend as I was dividing up some hamburger to freeze in 1-pound blocks. I had never really thought before about just how big an ounce of meat is. It's nearly the size of a golf ball. So what my professor had been told was, if you have a piece of meat about the size of a golf ball stuck in your teeth Thursday night, and then you eat it during Friday's fast, you need to go to confession!

I have to wonder...did he really miss the point that badly?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

In Search Of....

One of the odd joys of writing a blog is seeing what kind of search terms lead people here. I check my sitemeter regularly to see this fascinating quirk of the internet. Of the last 100 visits to this blog as of this writing, 29 have come through search hits. Here's what people were searching for:
penultimate truth
Makeover + Culture
when did we see you
carl braaten
freshman ideas embarrassment
parable of the just judge
jewish story
problems with the 4 spiritual laws
gods civil law
carl braaten
a house built upon a rock
moses burning bush kushner
Walther Law and Gospel Lecture
C.S. Lewis, quote, conversion to Christianity
urban legends - mother theresa - people are unreasonable
"four spiritual laws" problems
sinning fish
the temptation of st. anthony biblical meaning
lectio divina lutheran
four spiritual laws plan, problem, provision
lutherans and st. francis of assisi
moses sucks
crime and punishment george guidall

No doubt this post will generate all kinds of strange search hits. I think "Carl Braaten" and "Four Spiritual Laws" are the top two things people search for that bring them here.

The Carl Braaten thing is a bit of an oddity, and frankly I'm a little sad about it. It yields a scary insight into the nature of internet-driven information. Braaten has been an influential and faithful theologian in the Church for many years, but if you Google his name, the top six hits are all commentary on the open letter he wrote last year to Mark Hanson. I'm number four, having been edged out by Al Kimmel (the Pontificator) and two articles from Ed Schroeder. Hopefully, over time this will fade.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Exodus through Numbers

The dominant mode of God's authority in Exodus through Numbers is obviously the giving of the Law. Since the authority of the Law bears direct analogy to the authority of scripture as a whole, the details here will be very useful to the theme of my study.

When God is telling Moses to have the people prepare for God's coming on Mount Sinai, God says to Moses, "I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after" (Ex. 19:9). This is very interesting. The point isn't for the people to hear what God says but rather simply for them to hear that God is speaking to Moses. This is very good since they are afraid to listen (20:19). The people yield authority to Moses.

This is ambiguous for our current situation. Is the authority to be understood as being with Moses (the text) or leaders of the people? Obviously I have some opinions about this, but I'm going to defer the question for now and see what comes up.

The description of the tabernacle and its building has a bit of the character of "God said...and there was..." from Genesis 1, but the two events being separated by the incident of the golden calf adds a fascinating twist to this. God forgives his reprobate people, and they follow his commands precisely.

The incident of Korah's rebellion is nearly enough to make a Catholic of me. Korah's complaint -- "All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them" (Numbers 16:3) -- sounds an awful lot like the priesthood of all believers. Against this God affirms the authority of Moses.

But perhaps this is relevant not to a three-tiered church, but to my earlier question about the authority of Moses (i.e. in the text), in opposition to the authority of the people of God simply as people of God. In that context, it could be an argument against experience as a source of authority. That is, the people of God do not have their own authority simply because they are people of God. They are still subject to God's appointed authority whether that be Moses or scripture (or, I have to add as at least a possibility for discussion, the Church).

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Corruption of Scripture: An Aside

As a sidebar to my investigation of the Bible's portayal of God's authority, I wanted to think a bit about the idea of the corruption of scripture.

Bart Ehrman has a book titled The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. This is obviously a polemical title. It appeals to a paranoia in our culture. This idea of the orthodox corruption of scripture popped into my head tonight as I was reading Richard Nelson's The Historical Books. In the section I was reading, Nelson was talking about the historical development of biblical texts. Our modern idea of authorship is that of a single person sitting down and writing a book. But biblical books, Nelson says, tend to be products of a community over time. The text is tinkered with as needed before it reaches its canonical form. For most scholars, I take it, this is a commonplace.

So here's the thing. The title of Ehrman's book says that early orthodox Christians corrupted the scriptures. But I would claim that the orthodox community produced the scriptures. This is the way biblical books are "written", right? The community has a book that they use in their life of faith. Something isn't quite as the community believes it should be, so they fix it.

If we look at the biblical book, whatever it may be, as a book of faith meant to serve a community of faith then there is absolutely nothing wrong with the community tailoring that book to match its teaching. It's what we would expect. To say that the book was "corrupted" would seem to imply that there was an earlier time when an author produced a book that was flawless (dare I say "inerrant") in its portrayal of the earlier faith, and a later community with different faith changed it (thus introducing error).

The problem, I suspect, is that Ehrman wants to use the Bible as a historical source to establish facts about the early Christians, whereas the early Christians wanted to use it as a book of faith.

Obviously, if we were to start editing the Bible today to make it say what we wanted it to say, that would be a bit suspect. But at some point the process of redacting was not only permissible, but was in fact necessary to produce the optimal product. The question, I suppose, is what is the statute of limitations on making changes to Holy Scripture?

But I suspect this is a wrong approach to the question. More important is the intent. Is the Bible being changed to make it a more suitable source for winning an argument? (I think this is what Ehrman actually claims.) Or is it being tidied up to make it a more accurate reflection of the faith of the community?

Friday, September 08, 2006

God's Authority in the Exodus

Well, at this rate I should be through the Bible within a few years. Anyway...

In the story of the Exodus the whole theme of human action versus the will of God breaks into open conflict. In the first couple of chapters, we get more of what we saw in Genesis. God promises the increase of Israel. Pharaoh decrees that they be kept in check. Not only does God prevail (in part due to faithful human actions), but Pharaoh's very decree leads to the positioning of Moses for his future calling.

Fast forward to Moses in the desert and we see a different mode of God's authority -- one that I passed over with Abraham when God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gommorah -- dialogue! God wants Moses to go to Pharaoh to deliver God's people. Moses doesn't want to. But rather than imposing his will (as he will with Pharaoh) God talks to Moses about it. Ultimately, Moses (like Abraham before him) gets a concession.

Then Moses goes and speaks to Pharaoh. There we learn that God's people talking to unbelievers isn't the way God exerts authority over them -- at least not in this case. So now the behind-the-scenes God of the Joseph story steps forward for an all-out smackdown.

In the Passover narrative, we get for the first time a hint of scripture making a self-reference. I've been studiously avoiding consideration of the implication of the author writing with the intention of having authority, because I wanted to wait and consider what the text itself says about itself. Exodus 12 doesn't quite give the people scripture but there is the first explicit reference to future generations being told of the things that are happening.

So, in what way does the tradition established mean to exercise authority? It says, "when your children ask, 'What do you mean by this observance?' you shall say, 'It is the passover sacrifice of the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.'" (Ex. 12:26-27) So, the intended use of the tradition is to cause future generations to remember the story of what happened. The next sentence is interesting. Moses has just finished speaking, giving instructions for the establishment of this tradition. As soon as he finishes speaking the next word of the text is this: "And the people bowed down and worshipped."

As the exodus proper comes to a close, I see this pattern developing: God's authority among the people of God is exercised primarily through God's words, whereas God's authority among the other peoples of the world is exercised primarily through what happens. This isn't always the way it works. God's authority among the sons of Jacob in the Joseph sequence is exercised through providence, and God's authority against Moses is asserted in word as well as deed. But it seems like a general trend.

God's words to the people have so far had the following basic forms: teaching (Adam and Cain), promise (Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Joseph), dialogue (Abraham and Moses), and narrative. Of these, the narrative is the form most explicitly intended to influence future generations, and the intended influence is simply remembering of the story.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Stories of the Patriarchs

The stories of the partriarchs are somewhat less mythical in quality than the stories in Genesis 1-11, though the people involved are in many ways personification of later Israel (Jacob explicitly so). Curiously, they get precious little that could be characterized as "teaching" from God. Instead, the operative mode of God's authority in these stories is promise, though again with generous portions of providence.

The promises of God given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob aren't just information sprinkled into the narrative, they create the action. They are a means by which God brings his will to pass. I tend to think of Abraham as someone who heard from God all the time, but the text doesn't actually support this. Abraham only gets a few brief visits from God over the course of about 10 years and the few words he recieves must guide him.

But God isn't absent in between these theophanies. When Abram goes to Egypt and hands Sarai over to Pharaoh, God intervenes. I want to say "silently" but Pharaoh somehow knows why he suffered plagues. Likewise, when Abraham sends his servant to get a wife for Isaac, God acts without appearing.

The working out of Jacob's story is fasinating to me. While he's still in the womb, God gives Rebekah a promise concerning Jacob. Then Rebekah and Jacob lie, cheat and steal to bring about what God promised. Jacob's relationship with God is summed up in the incident where he wrestles to get a blessing. It seems to me God was determined to bless him either way, but at times the wrestling seems to unwittingly play into the will of God.

This theme finally bursts fully into view in the Joseph sequence. God reveals his will to Joseph in a dream. Everything in Joseph's life conspires against God's disclosed intentions, and it turns out all of it has turned out to bring about God's will.

So my conclusion is that in Genesis 12-50, the authority of God is exercised in two ways: divine promise and divine providence. As in chapters 1-11, God's authority in the world is seen primarily through direct action which come to pass regardless of human effort for or against them, but God's will enters individual lives through God's word.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Authority of Scripture

I've just begun reading N.T. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. So far I've taken away from it two basic ideas:
  1. The phrase "the authority of scripture" must be understood as shorthand for "the authority of God exercised through scripture."

  2. A properly developed understanding of the authority of scripture must be based in scripture.
Because Wright intended this as a short book, he does not go through his usual meticulous effort of showing the work he did to arrive at his conclusions. It seems to me, therefore, that it might be an interesting exercise for me, in the sort of sloppy and off-hand way befitting a blog, to think through the Biblical texts a bit and reflect on what I see there with regard to how God's authority is exercised, and particularly with regard to scripture. I ask the reader to kindly participate in this experiment by questioning my evaluations and offering additional perspective.

With that I'll begin...

God's Authority in Genesis 1-11

I am of the school that sees Genesis 1-11 as a sort of overture to the rest of the Bible, and my view of these chapters will be colored accordingly. I see these stories as more or less idealized settings intended to isolate certain aspects of the God-human relationship.

If I were a scholar I suppose I might separately investigate the views presented by J,E,D, and P and so on, but instead I'm a blog writer so I'll cavalierly lump them all together. But I digress....

Genesis 1 presents a perfect view of God's authority. God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. In chapter 2, a sublty is introduced, namely creation's dependence on God, "no herb of the field had yet sprung up—-for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth." So what happens happens by God's word, and nothing happens without God's word.

Here also we get a first image of God's authority exercised with respect to man. God's authority is exercised in the form of a command given to the man. Reading this through the lens of Israel's later worldview, I'm inclined to view this as God giving torah to the man, not strictly a command but rather teaching (still an insufficient word to replace torah). And when the man and the woman disregard this torah, God exercises authority through consequences. In chapter 4, Cain also receives a kind of torah from God (verses 6 and 7). Cain disregards the torah and God resorts to consequences.

With less thorough examination, I'll conclude that in chapter's 5 through 11 God continues to exercise authority over creation rather indirectly through what happens to the people. I'm not quite ready to start building a four-legged stool by saying that these people find God's authority through experience. Rather God's authority is exercised more or less independently of the people's perception of it. For instance, God wants the people to fill the earth (9:1). When the people in Babel build their tower "so that we do not get scattered all over the world" (11:4) God acts directly to cause their scattering.

This last conclusion may seem irrelevant to understanding how we can perceive and respond to God's authority, but perhaps that's the wrong way to approach the question. What I'm really seeking is an understanding of how God's authority is actually exercised and what the role of scripture might be within that.

Obviously, we have no scripture yet present to the people of Genesis 1-11, but I'm noting the torah given to Adam and Cain as a potential model for God exercising authority through scripture.