According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater
Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma
It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds
assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Radical Theology & The New Materialism

Book (P)review – Religion, Politics and the Earth
by Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins
Posted 28 May 2013 by
[Clayton Crockett, University of Central Arkansas, and Jeffrey W. Robbins, Lebanon Valley College, on their co-authored book, Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012]
When we were first invited to contribute to the Political Theology blog with reference to Religion, Politics and the Earth, the idea was for us to introduce the book.  But because of our extreme tardiness, it seems that opportunity has now come and gone.
While the book’s publication is still fairly recent by academic standards, there has already been a considerable amount of critical discussion and feedback about it.  This has happened in three primary settings.
The first was a public event held at Union Theological Seminary in New York on February 11, 2013 with Mark Lewis Taylor and Cornel West.  The purpose of this event was to subject our proposed new materialism to the challenge of a liberationist critique.  The entirety of this event – ‘Becoming a Brain: The New Materialism and the Challenge of Liberation’ – is accessible online here (Part One) and here (Part Two).
The second was a series of reviews and responses posted on the blog An und für sich.  The full length reviews posted here were by Anthony Paul Smith (in the main post) and Joshua Ramey (in this comment).  While the public event at Union raised the question of the connection between the new materialism and liberation theology, Smith and Ramey, each in their own way, raised questions about the vestigial supercessionist Christian overtones to our work.
The third was a coordinated blog tour organized by Tripp Fuller at Homebrewed Christianity.  The scope of the reviews and responses from the blog tour is too broad for us to respond to in full here, but the two lines of thought we found most felicitous as we continue to think through the ramifications of the new materialism are its connections with transformance art and with process theology.
So rather than re-introduce the book, we’d like to take this occasion to comment on the excitement we have felt by these various critical engagements.  After all, this collaborative, manifesto-styled book was written to generate new thoughts, inquiries and connections, to open up conversations.  Taking the evidence above, it has already achieved that goal beyond our wildest imaginations:
The New Materialism and the Challenge of Liberation
This event at Union Theological, planned by Bo Eberle and George Schmidt, was the result of an overzealous footnote and a well-timed question. The footnote – first penned by Robbins and then later cited by Crockett, and reflective of both of our respective political theologies – makes the case for the urgent need for a truly radical political theology, and along the way criticizes too quickly and superficially the traditions of both liberationist and process thought.  The question, posed by Schmidt to Crockett and Robbins at a session at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, was why we found it necessary to distance ourselves from liberation theology when to his mind there was more resonance and overlap than not.  We agreed then that our dismissive attitude was premature and unwarranted, and that the points of connection and convergence needed to be explored further – hence the invitation to Mark Lewis Taylor and Cornel West to interrogate and challenge our work from a liberationist perspective.
While Taylor rightly pointed out the need for us to give fuller attention to, and schematize, social antagonisms as an integral part of our radical political theology, West took the occasion to identify our new materialism as a new species of liberation theology, one that emerges from our starting point of the earth as subject.  This new species of liberation theology would be an alternative to those operating within a politics of identity.  Because we intend to continue this collaboration, we are eager to address the concerns raised by Taylor and follow through in explicating the ways in which the new materialism might contribute to a contemporary liberation theology.
Supercessionist Christianity
Smith identifies our book as a ‘synthetic manifesto,’ and admits to a certain excitement in our attempt to think things such as social media, art, religion and politics together with energy and ontology.  His hesitancy, however, comes from the book’s Hegelian – and thus, death-of-God Christian – overtones.  He points out that our discussion of religion only ever refers to Christianity, and that this privileging is symptomatic of an unspoken Christian triumphalism at work. This vein of inquiry is opened up even more by Ramey when his extended riff on our book includes the evocation of Norman O. Brown’s query on ‘The Challenge of Islam,’ the hermaphroditic Christ of Bruno, the gendered and engendering earth of Catherine Keller and Cleo Kearns, the divine eroticism of Karmen MacKendrick, etc.
We wish to affirm without qualification these deeply heterodoxical readings of religion, politics and the earth.  This is precisely the radical theology we are hoping to engender, even as the book itself is necessarily limited.
At the same time, we’d also want to push back a bit on the suggestion that merely by situating our work within a primarily (but not exclusively) Christian discourse, our work necessarily is guilty of a religious triumphalism.  Just as we sought to differentiate between two different concepts of the political – the politics of the state-form vs. the politics of the people – so too do we think it is possible to differentiate between kinds of Christianity, and that a meaningful and potent form of resistance might just as likely come from within as an immanent critique than from without. This is also the project and promise of John D. Caputo’s theology, culminating in his forthcoming The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. And our follow-up collaborative project to this work on the new materialism will be even more explicitly an insurrectionary theology.
On Transformance Art and Process Theology
For us, the Homebrewed Christianity blog tour on our book was an absolute revelation.  To have our book be the subject of such diverse and creative reflections was both gratifying and challenging.  Bo Eberle (here, here and here) and Tad DeLay (here and here) did incredible work summarizing and interrogating the radical energy proposal developed by Kevin Mequet, which was incorporated as a centerpiece of our re-conception of materialism as an ontology of energy transformation.
Nearly all of the bloggers picked up on our central argument with regard to digital culture and social media as a material form of biopolitics by which corporate capitalism becomes further entrenched and more real.  When we realize that the virtual is material we see how the sovereign rule of global capital is nearly infinite in its scope, from its dominion over the earth to the commodification of our most innermost, private selves.
From Rick Quinn, we learn how Elton John might be seen as a radical theologian (here and here).
And to Todd Littleton, we owe a profound debt for how successfully he demonstrates the practicality of our new materialism (specifically for an evangelical audience).  He is correct that the main theological import of what we are claiming as the new materialism is the doubling back and doubling down on the old materialist charge to change the world.  And one way to accomplish this would be for churches and pastors and believers to get beyond or over their soteriological obsessions.  Religion is about so much more than salvation.  One does not have to be a materialist to accept this point, but materialism – old and new alike – makes this its bedrock theological claim. Adam Moore certainly gets this point as well when he shows how our work on Art might contribute to new understandings and practices of liturgy and worship as ‘transformance art’.
And finally, from Austin Roberts, just as Cornel West claimed our work as a new species of liberation theology, so too does Roberts demonstrate the important connections between this new materialism and process theology.  The connections to John Cobb are real, and help us to further walk back our earlier dismissals of both liberation theology and process theology.
Thanks to these generous and insightful interlocutors, we are now in a position to remake the case for a radical political theology.  The issue is not, as we previously claimed, that there is no radical political theology.  But instead, there are many.  Our book, in spite of its blind spots and limitations, seems to have provided an unlikely – or at least heretofore overlooked – convergence between radical, liberationist, and process theologies.
Speaking for ourselves, we are certainly energized by the prospects.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Book Description
October 30, 2012 Radical Theologies
This book takes its leave with the realization that Western-driven culture is quickly reaching the limits of global capitalism, and that this reality manifests itself not only economically and politically, but that it is at once a cultural, aesthetic, political, religious, ecological, and philosophical problem.  While Western capitalism is based upon the assumption of indefinite growth, we have run up against real, physical constraints to growth, and humanity must face the real, physical ramifications of the short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive choices made on behalf of the capitalist machine.  While there is widespread angst and numerous scenarios of apocalyptic crisis and collapse, there is little or no comprehension of the problem and a coherent picture of reality is left wanting.  
Drawing primarily from the discourses of contemporary continental philosophy, cultural theory, and radical theology, the new materialism is being offered up as a redress to this problem by its effort to make sense of the world as an integrated whole.The book emphasizes three aspects of the current crisis: the ecological crisis, which is often viewed primarily in terms of global warming; the energy crisis, which involves peak oil and the limits of the ability to extract and exploit the cheap energy of fossil fuels; and finally the financial crisis, which involves the de-leveraging and destruction of massive amounts of money and credit. Each of these problems is inter-related, because money is dependent upon energy, and energy is a product of natural physical resources that are finite and diminishing. 
Rather than despair or the cynicism that passes for realpolitik, the authors will suggest that this crisis provides an opening for a new kind of orientation to thinking and acting, a new way of being in and of the earth. This opening is an opening onto a new materialism that is neither a crude consumerist materialism nor a reductive atomic materialism, but a materialism that takes seriously the material and physical world in which we live. This materialism counters idealism in its practical and philosophical forms, which constructs an ideal world that we wish to inhabit and then mistakes that world for the real one. Furthermore, in contrast to classical materialism which rejects religion as a form of false consciousness, this new materialism recognizes religion as an effective means of political mobilization and as a genuine source of piety, and thus does not oppose religion per se; instead, it opposes fanaticism and fundamentalism, including the fairy-tale expectations that a God or gods will rescue us from our predicament and punish the evil-doers while rewarding the righteous.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 206 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1137268921
  • ISBN-13: 978-1137268921
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A Synthetic Manifesto: A Review
December 20, 2012
An academic acquaintance wrote this and it represents my view of this book:
A Synthetic Manifesto: A Review of Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism
Thursday, December 20, 2012 -- Anthony Paul Smith
Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins are no strangers to readers of this blog. Both are well established figures within the fields of theology, philosophy and the liminal space between them that sometimes goes by the name secular theology and sometimes Continental philosophy of religion. Both are graduates of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University and Crockett now teaches as an associate professor of Religion at the University of Central Arkansas while Robbins is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. While their friendship has long been know, expressed in the academic realm through their co-editorship of the Insurrections series with ColumbiaUP, Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism is their first co-written book. The book, published in the new Radical Theologies series published by Palgrave Macmillan, is quite consciously written as a kind of manifesto for the practice and future of radical theology. Now, what this means is dependent of course on the figures who develop it, but by radical theology it is clear that people thinking with religious material outside of a confessional duty as well as those who are more explicitly confessional but still attempting to radicalize their confessional thought beyond any capture by that tradition's authorities. That is, radical theology cuts a wide-swath and it may be the only form of theology that is truly "big tent" in terms of its actions and not just as a propaganda move. However much such a movement might benefit from a manifesto, the disparate directions and materials with which various radical theologians engage with makes creating such a manifesto difficult and risks sedimenting their works and cutting off these radical theologians from the true, creative source of their power. At times it feels that Crockett and Robbins risk such sedimentation. However, what ultimately saves them from this temptation is their very synthetic approach. This is a book constructed not in the name of Crockett and Robbins, but through a multiplicity of names that are brought together in varying ways and with various levels of success under the standard "The New Materialism".
Crockett and Robbins write the book under the sign of a disaster. The disaster of our contemporary age whose name is in some sense Legion, but whose true name is Capitalism. This fundamental insight, drawn from Philip Goodchild amongst others, is put this way by the authors:
The problem is fundamental: Western capitalism is based upon assumptions of indefinite if not infinite growth, but the natural resources of the planet are finite. We are running up against real, physical constraints to growth, and the capitalist machine is desperately searching for more resources to fuel ever-shorter periods of apparent productivity or profitability, like a junkie shooting up more often with higher concentrations to get that same hight that is diminishing with each hit. [...] We will briefly lay out three aspects of our current crisis: the ecological crisis, which is often view primarily in terms of global warming; the energy crisis, which involves peak oil and the limits of our ability to extract and exploit the cheap energy of fossil fuels; and finally the financial crisis, which involves the deleveraging and destruction of massive amounts of money and credit. Each of these problems is interrelated, because money is dependent upon energy, and energy is a product of natural physical resources that are finite and diminishing. Rather than give in to despair, or idealistic wishful thinking, we suggest that this crisis could provide an oepning for a new kind of orientation to thinking and acting, a new way of being in and of the earth (my emphasis).
As this long quote shows, it is the disaster that conditions in some way the thought but, hopefully, does not determine it. The crisis is a call to think and to be in ways that are more creative and more interesting than the failed forms of thought and practice that are determined and reign under the capitalist crisis.
The authors then take us on a comprehensive tour through a number of very important loci for contemporary radical theology ranging from digital culture, religion, politics, art, ethics, energy, onto-neurology, logic, and the Event. Each of these loci are privileged as a central node for any contemporary form of thought that would respond to the crisis outlined above. Each is analyzed through Crockett and Robbins's understanding of the Hegelian dialectic where, in their reading, thought returns to itself as, in this case, the earth. What they aim to do with this conception of dialectics is bring together a number of disparate thinkers, to reconcile figures that normally wouldn't be thought to be reconcilable, namely a number of new Hegelian thinkers (Zizek, Malabou, and Badiou) with the work of Spinozist thinkers like (Deleuze and Negri). The synthetic aspect of each chapter is on display as the authors move from one thinker to the next, linking them as if they were simply amino acids to construct a DNA code that organizes a larger body of thought.
In many ways the authors are not the authors in the normal sense, setting aside that some of the chapter are co-written with a third (Michael W. Wilson assisted with chapter on art and Kevin Mequet co-wrote the two chapters on energy). Instead of a stable author there is a proliferation of names, different lines of thought taken and extended by some antagonistic name. A line from Zizek completed by connecting it to a line of Deleuze. In many ways the claims of the book will certainly be familiar to its readers. What is new is the synthetic form it takes here and ultimately its readers will need to decide if such a synthesis is possible, or if one of these figures or terms will overdetermine the rest, for the manifesto style of the book precludes the authors doing that themselves.
For my part, I found the book exciting for all the reasons stated above, but I remain suspicious of a certain Hegelian, and so Christian, overdetermination of this kind of radical theology proposed. One of the fundamental claims of the book is that the current crisis requires new alliances between the sciences, humanities, political movements, and religion. I, of course, agree with them on this point. However, the challenge is to make this a truly new alliance. For example, while some attention is given to ecology, it is only in the mode of disaster ecology or a discussion of global climate change. Ecology as such is absent from the chapter detailing a proposal for a new kind of paradigm for thinking about energy. I am unable to evaluate the validity of the claims made in this chapter, relating to conceiving of energy without heat, and I suspect that the authors wrote this with a bit of fear and trembling. But what did struck me is that, even if the proposal to look into the electromagnetism of the Earth as a potential for energy production holds up scientifically within physics, there would still require an ecological element that is missing. Ecology teaches us not that everything is connected, that's quite simply obvious when one just thinks about causation, but ecology is the science of those relations, showing where some links are more intense while others are not. All of this translates into material questions about the effects of some new human technology upon the wider human and non-human biosphere. Since much of this discussion of energy is predicated upon a kind of Hegelian vision, I can't help but wonder if the issue of reconciliation, ecological theodicy, is not laying underneath this proposal.
There is also the issue of the way religion, and thus materialism, is conceived within the book. The authors only ever reference Christianity and seem to privilege the Hegelian version of the death of God outlined in Zizek over other forms of religion. This is in some ways a result of the genre of the book. As a synthetic manifesto it will only really be able to respond to how things truly are within the fields it builds on and announces. And much of the new materialism, whether it be secular philosophers like Badiou or a philosopher playing a theologian which we sometimes find in Zizek, is predicated upon an unspoken supremacy of Christianity as the only religion that actually ends in the secular, that ends in a kind of productive atheism (against the New Athiest style atheism). For any truly radical rethinking of politics an engagement outside of the Christian form is called for. One where the notion of Event may too be suspect.
Yet, these criticisms aside, Crockett and Robbins have done us a great service by bringing together a number of exciting but disparate lines of research in their synthetic manifesto. It may help younger intellectuals develop and go forward in a genuinely new way that may yet just respond, at least within thought, to the contemporary crisis.
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Religion, Politics & the Earth
all over the Theo-Blogs!
April 23, 2013
Tad DeLay is blogging on the politics of energy.  Here it is… BAM!

Joe Carson has some questions for the assumptions of radical theology & will blog on energy later in the week.

Matt Ritchie, lawyer and theologian, has been blogging on the book.  Is God Dead?, What is the New Materialism?, & the Logic of the New Materialism & the Courts.

Jonathon Snyder will be blogging on digital culture.

Maria Drews shall be sharing her wisdom about the book.

Rick Quinn gave an Elton John inspired taster & drops some more goodness this week.

Scott Cowan will bring the blogger excitement to the political theology blog.

Adam Moore shall be blogging on the Art chapter this thursday.

My favorite Southern Baptist, Todd Littleton, shall bring the #awesomesauce on friday.

David Adams discusses the book in less than 1k words!

Austin Roberts drops some Cobb & gives a great Process inspired reply.

Pastor Darren examines the understanding of religion in the book from one who rocks the pulpit.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Comparing the Stages of Cognitive Development (Jean Piaget) to the Stages of Faith (James Fowler)

New Ways of Thinking — Part One
John W. Hawthorne
May 28, 2013
I’m working on a book chapter summarizing literature on social psychology and learning as it relates to students attending Christian universities. Today I worked my way through Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and James Fowler’s stages of faith.  It helped me think about three things: 1) the transitions described by Piaget and Fowler may be particularly difficult for evangelical young people to navigate, 2) Christian colleges are especially significant as that navigation is taking place, and 3) the transitions of thought process or the lack thereof is at the center of many of our issues in the evangelical church.
Stage theories have their limits, which I’ll speak to shortly. But there’s something significant about exploring shifts in cognitive processes. They suggest that students aren’t simply involved in learning new stuff — they’re developing entirely new ways of thinking.  Those new ways have their own risks and challenges.
Jean Piaget identifies four stages:
  1. Sensorimotor Stage: infants respond to environmental stimuli
  2. Preoperational Stage: pre-school children acquire language and learn to take the perspective of others.
  3. Concrete Operational Stage: roughly equivalent to school years. Children adopt rigid categories and classifications. Imagining situations other than the current is very difficult.
  4. Formal Operational Stage: begins in the teen years. Child is able to use formal processes to consider hypotheticals, alternatives, and contrasts between situations.
James Fowler, adopting ideas of Piaget and Kolberg, identifies six stages of faith development:
  1. Intuitive Projective Faith: young children have an imagined sense of things, clinging to stories but operating in a free-form sense
  2. Mythic-Literal Faith: school children see faith as connected to right and wrong and have a tendency to take metaphors literally
  3. Synthetic-Conventional Faith: teens are balancing a high commitment to conform to religious authority with simultaneously working through issues of personal identity
  4. Individuative-Reflective Faith: young adults begin to take responsibilities for their own personal views but struggle with difference from their past patterns
  5. Conjunctive Faith: associated with mid-life periods, faith is able to handle paradox, conflict, and abiguity. Certainty is not as highly valued.
  6. Universalizing Faith: for a limited number of individuals, faith becomes generalized rather than particular with an openness to justice for all people.
When I consider the students I deal with on a daily basis, they’re generally in transition between Piaget’s concrete operational and formal operational stages. In terms of Fowler, they’re moving from Synthetic-Conventional to Individuative-Reflective. A central component of the educational experience is to provide the context in which these new ways of thinking are explored.
There are many problems with stage theories but I’ll mention three. First, people move through the stages at their own pace. Not everybody who enters college is ready for formal operational thinking. (I’ve known some professors who are more comfortable with synthetic-conventional faith!) Second, the movement between stages is really more of a sense of back and forth. Some days are conjunctive and others are individuative-reflective. Some topics are concrete operational while others are formal operational. Third, these transitions are not easy. When students start to individuate their faith, they often feel like what they “have known” (that is, adopted from their parents) is crumbling. They need solid support as they’re exploring transitions.
I’ve written before about the young evangelicals I’ve been reading. As I said in that post, these are characteristically people of deep faith who are trying to think in new ways (individuative-Reflective). In my first post on this blog, I wrote of Rachel Held Evans’ story from Evolving in Monkey Town. Hers is a classic story of moving from concrete operational to formal operational thinking. The more she works out her questions in public forums, the faster she’s moving toward Fowler’s Conjunctive Faith.
There are some more sociological implications of these developmental stages. There are subcultures that inhabit a particular stage and place normative pressures on their members to think accordingly — not just to agree with conclusions but to process information in a particular way. They take pride in holding to a concrete, conventional faith. (I worry that some really desire the mythic-literal faith of elementary aged children.) If folks in the membership start thinking otherwise, they’ll feel great pressure to get back in line or leave. Pete Enns’ post yesterday gives voice to what it’s like to be in that pressure-filled situation.
I have other friends who valiantly attempt to engage concrete/conventional thinkers in dialogue on Facebook (looking at you, James McGrath and Karl Giberson). I’m always impressed by their efforts to confront those who claim evolution is of Satan or that Obama is destroying the world. They want their dialogue partners to engage in a level of thought Piaget would admire but it never seems to happen.
These notions of how people think are related to the general patterns we’re seeing in the evangelical world. The more today’s youth embrace the open postmodernism of cultural diversity, the harder it is for them to manage synthetic-conventional faith. The more they cling to mythic-literal faith, the hard it is to navigate the society. Kinnaman’s work on disaffected youth is consistent with such a pattern. Even if they aren’t lost to Christianity (as one Christianity Today headline worried) they are thinking about that faith differently.
Another very interesting pattern is occurring later in the age cycle. The Barna group found that church involvement for those over 40 has dropped significantly over the last decade. Michelle Van Loon has been conducting some informal online surveys (reported here) to unpack that result and we’ve been exploring ideas about what factors contribute to the change. It may be a family-focus that doesn’t speak to empty nesters. It may be burnout or care for aging parents. It may have something to do with our focus on seeker-sensitive services. I wondered today if it might not be that some of the 40+ crowd are moving into Fowler’s Conjunctive Faith while their congregations are barely making out of Synthetic-Conventional.
In short, how we organize our thinking appears to matter a lot. It speaks to how information is (or isn’t) processed and the kinds of conclusions that are open for consideration.
My next post will look at some of the same issues from the perspective of mental schemas, heuristics, and other patterns of meaning-making.

New Ways of Thinking — Part Two
John W. Hawthorne
May xx, 2013

Be Amazed by God's Weakness... Not by His Divine Power!

Cirque of Unclimbables, Nahanni National Park, Northwest Territories, Canda

I am not familiar with today's author, David Henson. Not his beliefs. Not his theology. However, in today's article I felt he has touched upon a subject that we have looked at before. A subject that asks how we are to imagine God's power in relationship to God's creation. A creation which appears all-powerful, and oft times, out-of-control, or unsubmitted, to God's rulership.
I say "all-powerful" because many of the astronomers, cosmologists, and physicists of the world become geeked-out over the depth, the wonder, the strangeness of our infinite universe (or universes!). In the eyes of a godless science it only sees unending power stretching across the vast voids of time and space. But for the Christian scientist, s/he sees the God of the bible who stands behind the universe's emptiness and amazing wonders. Who Himself had cast its beginning from the span of his hands and very heart. Who has shared Himself through a universe and creation which we sometimes tremble before in its displays of deadly power and terrible acts of random destruction.
Certainly we know God's creation to be out-of-control.... Are we ourselves not the essence of this statement by our heads, hearts, souls, and spirits, as we strive against one another instead of with one another? Are we not unsubmitted to the Creator God of the universe who fills our hearts with timeless wonder before the ant or sun, the rainstorm or rolling expanse of mountain, desert, and saged prairie? Before endless meadows, the violent turbulent seas, and endless icy plains of snow and tundra?
And yet, in the sublimity of God's holy creation He would empty Himself of His omnipotence and share this power to His handiwork... to we ourselves as even to the created realm we find ourselves... to use, work, and live within, by His allowance, will and divine submission of power. To wield His creative majesty as would please ourselves and not Himself (not that I would ascribe existential willfulness to mortal-less matter... ). For this is the essence of creative indeterminacy and human free will. To exert power at the behest of the created thing or man. To allow the wind to become a deadly storm. The water a fatal force. Or man a wicked thing.
More simply said, when God did create, He created at the same time the freedom that we find in ourselves and observe within our ecosystems, sun, moon, and stars. This "creaturely freedom" the bible calls "sin." For in the granting of indeterminacy to nature, and of freedom to man, God did allow for its immediate affects and causations. But, God did also immediately begin exercising His divine sovereignty (how could He not by being who He is!?!?) by implementing His plan of redemption back to all. This we have observed in the progressive evolution of the universe, and of nature, and of man. However, within this redemption is the purposefulness that is held in what can be known as the "weakness" of God.
And it is to this biblical expression of God that I have found today's article quite helpful. So rather than asking the wrong question of "Why isn't God all-powerful?" Or by making the incorrect statement that foolishly asserts "God isn't all-powerful!" Let us behave our theological tempers and learn to appreciate the "weakness of God" emanating pervasively throughout His creation. And to likewise discover what this means to us, most implacably. That God has granted to man the use of His power. That it is we ourselves who must bear God's divine responsibility of using our freedom aright. That it is we who bear His divine accountability. Who must seek to behave our human willfulness. To learn God's heart of grace and merciful forgiveness so that we might more ablely share some small portion of God "Power" back with one another. And to the ecosystem that we live within.
To me, this is the better question to ask. Questions that we should ask of ourselves. Of our responsibilities within the larger redemptive scheme of things. And to pay attention to the smaller nuances of the biblical record as pertaining to Jesus who not only was God's representative to us on this earth. But was very God Himself come to show to us God's "weakness' in the wisdom of His purposeful creation. To show to us what it meant to "empty" Himself of His divine power in submission to the flesh through Incarnation; to the powers of this world; to the cross of redemption; and to the sinful freedom of man's willfulness.
This then is the ultimate example bourne by God's "servitude" to the redemption of both man and cosmos. That in the re-ordering of all things according to His will, mind and heart, it is God's purposeful "weakness" that we most find God. Not by demonstrations of His creative power (not that we haven't observe this in the biblical record). Nor by His amazing feats of coercive miracle (again, something we have also observed within biblical passages). But by His willing submission of His power to redeem all. Be amazed at that... and not by God's subjective use power demonstrations for we-of-little-faith. Rest then in the sleep of Jesus, wearied upon a boat at sea, thrashed by violent waters, and know even then that our God reigns!
R.E. Slater
May 29, 2013
Sleeping Through Storms: Rethinking Theodicy, Natural Disasters and God’s Omnipotence
May 28, 2013
God is not all-powerful.
At least, not in the ways we tend to define power.
For us, power means that we get our way, that we can impose our will upon the world around us, that we can conform others into our images in order to achieve unity and security. In our minds, we equate power with control, sovereignty.
So, when the world spins out of control as it did in Oklahoma this week, and at the Boston marathon a month ago, and at Sandy Hook Elementary six months ago, we begin to wonder what happened to this all-powerful God to whom the skies and seas and nations are supposed to bow.
Are the heavens really declaring the majesty of God when an E-5 tornado destroys an entire town?
Only the most deranged and pathological of leaders suggested in the tornado’s wake that God was in control of the situation or was somehow, ultimately, responsible for the deadly twister. That includes, apparently, folk like John Piper and our own president, who seemed to imply that the tornado was a part of God’s plan. I’m sorry, but tornadoes are not part of God’s plan. Most of us can admit that without losing our faith, just like we can admit that God isn’t really calling the shots when it comes to jet streams, weather patterns and 200-mile-per-hour winds.
Instead of attributing the destruction to God, we tend to reassure ourselves that, in spite of it all, God is with us in the destruction, with us in the suffering, weeping with us. What we imply in this, but don’t often say, is that, deep down, we know God is not in control. And secretly, we give thanks for that. Naturally, we then ask where exactly is God in the midst of tragedy and suffering. This existential question doubles as an unconscious and fragile prayer of thanksgiving and relief. While we may feel desolation and alienation from God in the midst of great natural disasters, we also feel grateful — hopeful, even — that God isn’t orchestrating all the pain and destruction in the world. It is a relief not to be worshipping a God who sends tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, disease, and pestilence. It is a relief not to pray to a God who indiscriminately kills children with the same heavens which declare God’s glory.
God is not in control of the weather. Thanks be to God, God is not in the business of controlling anything.
But if God isn’t in control in the midst of such destruction, then who is? Something more sinister? Maybe something more dangerous than a sinister being. Perhaps no one — and nothing — is in control. It is a scary and disorienting thought to begin to consider God isn’t our bodyguard protecting us like the divine Secret Service from the suffering and tragedy in our world.
We find this idea jarring because I think we misunderstand what divine power is. God doesn’t control the weather, because that isn’t the nature of God’s power. God’s power is something stranger, more paradoxical.
God’s power is in the act of becoming empty (kenosis), in becoming one of us.
God’s power is in incarnation and immanence, not omnipotence and distant transcendence.
In the gospel of John, Jesus tells us that when we see him, we see God. There’s a popular aphorism based on that notion, suggesting the radical nature of the Christian faith is not that Jesus is like God, but that God is like Jesus. And Jesus is in the business of emptying himself of power to the point of utter alienation and forsakenness by God. So what if God is indeed like that, like Jesus?
But, you might argue, there is a story in the gospels about Jesus and his power to control the weather. And it’s true. In the gospel of Mark, a terrible storm rises on the sea, threatening to swamp the disciples and the boat they are in. They are terrified, undone at the prospect of capsizing and drowning. They are baling water from the boat, struggling with wind-whipped sails, hanging on for their lives.
Jesus, meanwhile, is sleeping.
“Don’t you care that we are perishing?” they finally shout at him to wake him.
Jesus rebukes the wind and commands it to quiet down. “Peace! Be still,” he says, and it is a rebuke directed as much at the disciples as it is at the wind.
The disciples marvel at his power, asking, “Who is this, then, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
We are like the disciples. We want God to calm the wind and seas. We want to shout at God, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you see we are perishing? Don’t you see so many of us — children, even! — have already perished? Wake up, God! Stop sleeping when we need you most!”
Like the disciples, we believe the power — the divine — is in the ability to control things. We assume, like the disciples, that the miracle is in Jesus rebuking and calming the storm.
But if you notice, Jesus only reluctantly uses his power. He doesn’t seem to want to do anything. He wants to keep sleeping! He goes so far as to rebuke his disciples for even asking for his help. He calls them faithless. This storm-calming power isn’t the kind of power Jesus came to demonstrate. Rather, it is the exact kind of power Jesus came in order to give up, to empty himself of. It is the same power he rejects when he refuses to throw himself from the pinnacle when he is tempted in the desert, the same power he turns down when he refuses to kneel before the Adversary, that same superficial power that controls earthly things.
As much as we might like, this isn’t a story, I don’t think, about Jesus’ ability to control the weather. He is bothered to do it and is bothered that his disciples even asked. This is a story, rather, about how little we believe God to be with us in the midst of an overwhelming storm. It’s about how, deep down, maybe we don’t really believe that a God-with-us is actually enough. It’s about how what we really want is a God who is in control. And it is an indictment of the disciples and of us.
I don’t really think the miracle in this story is about Jesus calming the storm and taking control. The miracle in this story is that Jesus with the disciples in the water-logged and weatherbeaten boat, experiencing the same terrible storm, the same terrible waves, the same terrible danger.
And that alone should have been enough.
God’s power isn’t in the control of creation or of people, but in being in covenant and relationship with them. It isn’t in imposing the divine will or insisting on its own way but in sojourning with us as we fumble around and make our way in the world. God’s power is not in miraculous interventions, pre-emptive strikes in the cosmic war against suffering and evil, but in inviting us to build a kingdom out of love, peace and justice with God. God’s power is not in the obliterating of what is bad in the world, but in empowering us to build something good in this world — even if that is something as small and life-changing as constructing storm shelters at every public school on the tornado-strewn plains.
And isn’t this true power? Instead of enforcing control and solutions onto the world, God’s power is revealed in coming alongside us, journeying with us, suffering with us, and even staying with us in the boat when the storms come.
The omnipotence of God isn’t about having all the power. That’s would turn God into an insecure narcissist. Rather, the omnipotence of God is in the sharing of power.



What Is Theology and Who Does It? Parts 1-3

by Roger Olson
            It may sound like a simple question (or two simple questions), but it’s not. I’ve been a “professional theologian” (someone who gets paid for being one) for thirty-one years and before that I was preparing to be one for several years. The dream of being a theologian probably formed in my mind during seminary. I sensed that I would never understand my Christian faith as fully as I wanted to without being a theologian myself. And I desperately wanted to understand my faith. But the roots of my vocation go back to childhood. I was raised in a pastor’s home and in a “high demand” church. Jesus and the Bible saturated our home, not just our church. And I always had an inquiring mind. After church I would often quiz my father about the meanings of hymns we sang and of things I heard in his sermon or in my Sunday School lesson. I didn’t always find his answers satisfying and that sense of dissatisfaction with answers stayed with me and grew stronger as I matriculated at our denomination’s college where I was spoon fed doctrines and not really allowed to explore them.
            The sense that theology might be my calling, however, really dawned in me during seminary. Some of my professors were brilliant, sensitive and very spiritual men and women who encouraged my inquisitiveness even when they didn’t have satisfying answers to my questions. My main textbook in “Systematic Theology” was Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics (3 volumes) and I loved it. Reading it propelled me to read deeper and wider in scholarly theology so that I eventually read in Barth, Tillich, Moltmann, Pannenberg, etc. And, yes, I also read portions of the church fathers and great Reformers—especially Calvin (Institutes). I knew I was an evangelical and determined to remain one, so I explored evangelical theologians. I found Carl Henry dry as dust but Bernard Ramm exhilarating. But my favorite was Donald Bloesch and I read everything I could get my hands on by him.
            My own faith family (broadly defined) rejected my thirst for theology and my calling to become a theologian. Nobody in it had ever done that without “losing the faith.” Seminary was routinely called “cemetery” and my determination to study theology led indirectly, if not directly, to my exclusion from my faith family which was saturated in anti-intellectualism. That I was attending seminary was bad enough, but when I announced my acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Religious Studies (with a concentration in theology) at a secular university my spiritual mentors rejected me entirely.
            All that is to say that my earliest experiences of becoming, and then being, a theologian - someone who professionally conducts research in and teaches and writes theology - were negative—so far as the people nearest and dearest to me were concerned. I will never forget the day before I left to study theology in Germany (during my Ph.D. work) I attended a family reunion. A dear uncle who was a wonderful Christian, but untutored in biblical studies or theology, took me aside and said “Roger, remember, there’s such a thing as an over educated idiot.” No one congratulated me or patted me on the back or said anything positive about my studies or my calling or my goals. I could easily detect a great hesitation and even uneasiness about what I was doing. It was considered dangerous and a waste of time. They all would have preferred I went directly from college into ministry—preferably as a missionary.

In large segments of American Christianity “theology” is almost a dirty word.
            And yet, whenever I explained theology as “faith seeking understanding” or “thinking about God” those same people, my faith family, would indicate that they thought that was something they did—better than any professionally trained “scholarly” theologian. And yet, time and time again, as I listened to and attempted to interact with them, I realized they knew almost nothing about theology. Their “theology” was folk religion. I wanted to move beyond that without leaving my evangelical faith behind.
            I hoped to discover a “world” where theology as I understood it—intellectually serious, even scholarly thinking about God (“the science of God”)—would be valued and where my vocation and training would be affirmed and used by people of God. That was my dream... but for the most part it has been dashed.
            My advice to young would-be theologians (in the sense I mean the vocation) is be prepared to be misunderstood and under-valued. Only go into it if you can’t do otherwise. For the most part, with notable and blessed exceptions, American culture and faith communities will not really value what you do. And you will often, even continually, be confronted with two attitudes among people of faith. One will be that you are wasting your time and theirs and unnecessarily complicating the Christian faith. The other will be that others do what you think you do better.
            During my studies in Germany my wife and I attended a Baptist church pastored by a “missionary” from the U.S. It was an English-speaking church with ties to the Southern Baptist Convention. The reason is that my wife and daughter did not speak or understand German. There were a few German-speaking Baptist churches in the city where we lived, but we settled on the English-speaking one for their sakes. (I often attended a German Lutheran church down the street before they joined me for the early afternoon Sunday worship service at the English-speaking Baptist church.) The pastor was a nice enough fellow, but he had no use for theology—except his own folk religious version of it. (He was not a seminary graduate.) I will never forget the Sunday he preached on the Christian’s attitude toward “secular culture.” He ended his sermon with “The Christian’s attitude toward secular culture should be ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up’.” I felt swept up and transported back to my faith family of origin and the college I [had once] attended.
I reveled in my doctoral studies in religion and theology but always held tightly to the broad evangelical faith of my seminary days.
            I walked into my first full time teaching position, in a Christian university, thinking my theological training would be valued and affirmed by people of my own faith orientation. It was an evangelical university with a strongly charismatic flavor. I had wonderful colleagues and many fine students—some of who come here occasionally (to my blog). The top administration, however, was just as anti-intellectual and anti-theological as anything I had ever encountered in my childhood and youth. The president (who was also the founder) forbid any philosophy major or department and was clearly suspicious of theology and theologians. He attempted to change course titles that included “theology” to say “doctrine” instead. “Introduction to Christian Theology” (which I taught in the undergraduate department) was to become “Introduction to Bible Doctrine.” Several of my colleagues in both the undergraduate and graduate departments of theology informed me that the president of the university was intentionally “untouched” by theology. Still, and nevertheless, I was left mostly alone in the classroom. I was free to select textbooks without interference and teach theology as I wanted to and felt led to.
            I left that university for several reasons, the main one being the top administration’s attitudes toward the life of the mind including theology. I could sense that I could never flourish there as a theologian. And I desperately wanted to enter into the “mainstream” of evangelical academic life by teaching in an evangelical Christian liberal arts college with a seminary (and perhaps eventually teach in the seminary). So I made my first career move—to a well-known and influential, growing evangelical Baptist college and seminary (now a university). I taught theology there for fifteen years and, for the most part, loved it. Again, I had many wonderful colleagues and excellent students. The constituency, however, was another matter. So were some of my colleagues and administrators.
            I will never forget the day I walked into the faculty lounge (to get a cup of coffee) and was introduced to a long-time member of the Cultural Studies Department—an anthropologist. He asked me what I would be teaching at the college and I replied “theology.” He scowled and said “Theology? We teach theology in our department.” It was the first shot across the bow of a long-standing debate about theology that would go on for years within the college. Some of my colleagues believed (and they were not alone among evangelical academics) that “theology” is a pseudo-discipline and that “real theology” was taught in other departments (than the Biblical and Theological Studies Department). One colleague in the Arts Department informed me that his works of art expressed Christian faith as well if not better than theology.
            Gradually I deduced that I was faced with a new form of antipathy toward theology—as I understood my professional discipline and vocation. It wasn’t anti-intellectual at all; it was simply rejection of formal, scholarly, academic theology as a distinct discipline alongside others in the academy. That rejection stemmed from various impulses; there was no one reason for it. But I found it to be common, not only in the college where I taught but in many other academic and religious communities—both “mainline” and evangelical.
            I entered theology as a career, a vocation, a life’s endeavor, for personal reasons of faith. I wanted to understand my Christian faith. But I also expected to find Christian communities that would value and affirm it and me. I at least hoped to be respected if I conducted myself rightly. What I often encountered, however, among both so-called “mainline” Christians and my fellow evangelicals was a suspicion of theology and resistance to it. (I worked for a few years under an administrator who regularly referred to those of us who taught theology as “you theology types” with a sneer in his voice. Most who shared his opinion were not as blatant about their disdain. Later, another administrator told me “Our students don’t need to know anything about Barth or Tillich or any other theologians”.)

Of course, there have been many exceptions. And they have given me hope and strength.
            ... Overall and in general, however, I have encountered mostly suspicion and resistance to serious, scholarly, academic theology—from secular people (of course), anti-intellectual Christians, and fellow Christians who do take the life of the mind seriously.
            The most dismaying party of people who are suspicious toward theology and resist it has been fellow evangelical (or just biblically-serious) intellectuals, scholars and academics—philosophers, biblical scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, etc. Many of them openly express the opinion that if “theology” has any value it is what they do and that theology itself, as a distinct discipline, is unnecessary at best and a pseudo-science (like astrology) at worst.
            Here are some reasons for that attitude. First, many evangelical scholars, intellectuals, academics have encountered - and been “burned” by - theologians who pontificate. They tend to blame all theologians and theology itself for those who have abused them. Second, many tend to think of theology, as a discipline, as esoteric and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously as a distinct discipline (in the sense the Germans mean by “scientific”—wissenschaftlich). In other words, they view it as speculative at best. Third, and perhaps this is a combination of the first two, many think that theology unnecessarily and even harmfully complicates religious faith, the Bible, and spirituality. One form this takes among some biblical scholars is the suspicion that theology attempts to impose harmony on the Bible—reducing the gospels to one account of Jesus’ life and ministry and forcing Jesus (or the gospel writers) to agree with Paul and vice versa.
            Perhaps the single most important, influential reason for the attitude I describe is the opinion that religion is primarily about ethics and/or spirituality and not doctrine. Therefore, the work of theologians is unnecessary unless it is simply the exposition of Christian discipleship and/or spiritual formation.
            No doubt some readers will think I am simply whining here—“I don’t get no respect!” (Rodney Dangerfield) Well, not really. I came to terms with this situation long ago even though I still find it dismaying—not because it hurts my feelings but because I think it hurts the churches.
            In Part 2 I will explain what I think theology really is and why it is a distinct and important discipline that should be valued and respected by Christians.
by Roger Olson
by Roger Olson