“Positive Christianity”

On February 24, 1920, at a public meeting in Munich the German Workers’ Party proclaimed a 25-point programme, drawn up originally by Gottfried Feder (1882-1941),[1] with a variety of social, economic, and political aspirations appealing to everyone except the Jews and the communists. It was intended as an instrument to draw popular support, especially amongst the lower middle classes threatened both by big business and by leftist elements such as the labour movement. It sought also to appeal to Christians—the twenty-fourth article concerned the church:

We demand freedom of religion for all religious denominations in the state so long as they do not endanger it and do not oppose the moral feelings of the German race. The Party as such stands for positive Christianity, without binding itself confessionally to any one denomination. It combats the Jewish materialistic spirit within and around us, and is convinced that a lasting recovery of our nation can only succeed from within on the principle: The general interest before self-interest (Stackelberg & Winkle, The Nazi Germany Sourcebook, 65).

Like the rest of the Party’s platform, this article is carefully worded to appeal to as broad a constituency as possible, here amongst the religious population. The Party ‘demands’—will allow—religious freedom without favouritism for each of the Christian denominations in Germany: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and United, covering most of the population across all geographical regions in the country. It will not bind itself to one or another of the Confessions, nor play them off against one another. Each will be free to maintain their own tradition and practice. The party stands for positive Christianity, speaking against ‘the materialistic spirit within and around us,’ and standing for an ‘inner’—spiritual—renewal of the nation, the common interest rather than ‘self-interest.’ Christianity will have a legitimate and respected place within the society.

Yet it is also the case that positive Christianity is a circumscribed entity, and that the promised freedom is freedom only within strictly defined limits. First, it is clear that freedom of religion does not include freedom for the Jewish faith—the anti-Semitism of the document as a whole is explicit even in this clause as it contrasts the inner spiritual dynamic of the Christian religions against the supposedly materialistic and self-interested character of the Jews.

More significantly, positive Christianity is a Christianity assimilated to the aims of the state and culture, ‘the moral feelings of the German race.’ It is a racialised and nationalist form of Christianity, legitimate ‘so long as’ they do not endanger the state or oppose these aims and feelings. The German Workers’ Party clearly intends to co-opt the church to serve its nationalist, racist, and political vision; anything that does not conform to Nazi ideology will be deemed ‘negative’ (Stroud, Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow, 7). The tragedy is that much of the Protestant church, especially, was complicit with this agenda.

The problem here is not primarily political but theological. The challenge is not so much that the church was being manipulated to serve a racist and nationalist agenda—which is bad enough, and a betrayal of its calling. Rather, the political problem and its devastating consequences were a symptom of a deeper and more subtle malaise. It was the church being placed within an overarching narrative alien to its true identity and being: the idea that the church’s primary service is to the state and culture rather than to the kingdom of God. It was the idea that the priorities of the kingdom of God could be identified with those of the culture. It was the idea that the church’s freedom derived from the permission of the state and that it was, therefore, a functionary or organ of the state and that, therefore, the state was its lord.

As it happened, freedom so long as, was not freedom at all, but servitude and betrayal. Hitler’s ‘so long as’ introduced an alien principle which determined the being and practice of the church. The church, accepting this circumscribed freedom, lost its true liberty in Christ. Where it gladly accepted the prohibition to oppose the ‘moral feelings of the German race’ it was unable to discern or affirm its distinctive calling as the people of God. Positive Christianity was, in fact, a misnomer: it was not Christianity at all, but an aberration. “It was, one might deduce, Christianity with no God, no Christ, and no content. It was the ‘politically correct’ version of an empty gospel” (Stroud, Preaching, 8). It was salt that had lost its flavour, fit only to be thrown out and trodden underfoot. 

To its great credit the Synod of the Confessing Church that met in Barmen in 1934 recognised this truth with great clarity:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in holy scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.     
(Barmen Declaration, Thesis 1).

[1] Roderick Stackelberg and Sally A. Winkle, ed., The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts (London: Routledge, 2002), 63. Note, however, Mary Solberg’s contention that Hitler wrote the programme in Mary M. Solberg, ed., A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement 1932-1940 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015). Hitler certainly approved the programme and refused to change it.

Neder: On Teaching & Learning Theology (Part 2)

(See the first part of this reflection here.)

The second chapter of Neder’s book considers ‘Knowledge.’ Neder argues that true knowledge of God is possible, but it also involves existential participation in the life of God—faith and obedience. Theological educators therefore have a responsibility to think with their students, assisting them to ‘engage in the art of theological imagination’ (50), so they can envision and explore the existential implications of what they are learning. Their responsibility is to think with the students and not for them; they must not confuse indoctrination with education (52)! The aim is to help students think for themselves under the lordship of Christ and within the communion of saints. Neder suggests that teachers’ attempts to side-step the existential implications of doctrine—the pastoral task of theological education—may disguise moral and intellectual cowardice.

Again, the knowledge of God is possible, though only in Jesus Christ who is the epistemological foundation and criterion of all our knowledge of God. Neder approves Barth’s recognition that Feuerbach had in fact given the church a great gift: much Christian teaching falls prey to Feuerbach’s critique, though ‘the only way beyond Feuerbach is through him’ (57).

For the church to avoid the mistake of confusing theology with anthropology, confusing talk about God with talk about ourselves, its thinking must be governed at every point by God’s own self-revelation in Christ. . . . To the extent that Christian theology loses sight of him, or submits itself to some other criterion, it wanders into the dark. . . . Learning Christian theology is a process of learning to read reality in the light of Christ—learning to ‘take every thought captive to obey Christ’ (57-58).

Thus, the knowledge of God involves decision and choice: one simply may not remain undecided in light of the reality revealed in Jesus Christ:

In a pluralistic context, committing oneself passionately to one option among many may seem arbitrary, irrational, and absurd, but the inevitable alternative is to drift along in the current of contemporary society and thus away from a life of integrity and coherence (51).

The chapter includes an excursus on the development of academic theology. Neder notes that prior to the medieval age even the most sophisticated theologians shared an essentially pastoral aim: to guide the church into the truth of the gospel and to equip Christians to live more faithfully and intelligently as disciples of Jesus Christ (45).

But the movement into the context of the medieval university does mark an important phase in a gradual parting of the ways between academic theological scholarship and the life of the church—a division that would in the modern period harden into estrangement. . . . If Christian theology wanted to be accepted as a responsible form of intellectual inquiry, it would have to submit itself to a supposedly universal and objective standard of rationality, one that floats above any specific context or tradition, even when doing so precludes primary Christian affirmations (47-48).

The third chapter, entitled ‘Ethos,’ argues that who the theological educator is communicates and authenticates their teaching—in the perspective of the hearers—or undermines it. A theological educator is a witness rather than a detached observer or commentator. Only one seized by the ‘subject matter’ [= God] of theology can communicate it. The plausibility of our teaching depends on this.

No matter how objectively true our claims about God happen to be, we cannot escape the fact that we are the ones making those claims, and the movement of our lives, whether toward or away from the truth, affects how plausible those claims will sound to students. . . . If our lives do not somehow witness to the truth, somehow reflect and attest the truth in our own limited ways, students will not find us credible… (72-73).

Good credible teachers sound like—themselves (77), though they direct attention away from themselves to another. They are aware of the limits of their knowledge, vision, and authority.  There is a coherence between their teaching and their life. But there are also significant threats to be avoided in theological education. Neder speaks of a lack of theological existence, a failure to live in and toward the truth. He speaks of vanity, an excessive concern for one’s own reputation and advancement, and of a deadening professional familiarity in which our teaching somehow becomes disconnected ‘from its living center in God himself’ (76). These dangers undermine the credibility of our teaching. Worse, they hinder the living truth from impacting the lives of students.

Just Arrived

This could be the biography we have been waiting for: Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict by Christiane Tietz. Karl Barth died in 1968 and until now we have not had a full and critical biography. Many books contain a brief overview of his life, and most of these draw on Eberhard Busch’s 1976 Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts.

The work by Busch, Barth’s last assistant, is justly regarded as a classic and is in itself an immensely important resource. Despite its quality and wealth of biographical data, however, it is not a critical biography. Hopefully Tietz’ volume will fill this lacuna.

I came across the German edition in Dresden in 2019 and didn’t know it existed. It was published in 2018. I bought it as a reading goal for when my German has been recovered sufficiently. To have it in English, though, is a blessing. (On a side note, I owe an incalculable debt to translators of theological works, especially G.W. Bromiley – and Bible translators, of course! May their tribe increase.)

Christiane Tietz is Professor for Systematic Theology at the University of Zurich. Before that she was Professor of Systematic Theology and Social Ethics at the University of Mainz. The book has been translated by Victoria J. Barnett, one of the general editors of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English edition.

The book has gone to the top of my reading list for the winter break. At 488 pages it may be the only book I read over the break! But, it comes with pictures.

Neder: On Teaching & Learning Theology (Part 1)

Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith
(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), pp. 158.
ISBN: 978-0-8010-9878-9

Adam Neder has written Theology as a Way of Life to provide a theological account of teaching theology so that the teacher’s activity is not out of step with their subject matter. His approach presupposes a Christological anthropology informed by Kierkegaard, Barth, and Bonhoeffer, and is offered as an alternative to another prominent model of Christian education, championed especially by James KA Smith. Smith’s model, considered appreciably by Neder, ‘conceives Christian education as largely a process of socialization in which students are habituated into the Christian life through repetitive practices that lead to virtue’ (5), itself a reaction to the idea that Christian education is often based on the faulty idea that all Christians need as essentially thinking creatures is new information that adds up to a Christian worldview. Against Smith’s contention that ‘we are what we love,’ Neder argues that ‘we are who we are because Jesus is who he is’ (6). That is, Jesus Christ establishes the truth of human identity in his life, death, and resurrection.

Good teachers give their students freedom. They offer students space to make up their own minds, to find their own ways forward. Aware of their fallibility, the limitations of their perspective, and the difference between their knowledge of God and God’s knowledge of himself, good teachers don’t seek to reproduce themselves in students. Of course they want to be persuasive . . . but . . . their goal is not to create loyal soldiers who repeat and defend the master, but to train students to listen to God’s Word, discover their own voices, and respond to Jesus Christ’s  call in their own ways (13).

In the first chapter on ‘Identity’ Neder unpacks several anthropological and pedagogical presuppositions. First, reconciliation with God is an accomplished and objective reality for all humanity; this is our true being in Christ, the essence of who and what we are. Every person is loved, reconciled, and called by God—including all our students. Christian existence, then, is a matter of becoming who we are so that our existence corresponds ever more closely with our essence. This, however, remains a process of becoming as the Spirit grants us grace time and again to entrust ourselves to him. The corollary of this is that to turn away from Christ is to turn away from one’s own true being. Our persistent tendency, however, is to refuse to receive our lives from Christ. ‘We enter into conflict with him and thus into conflict with ourselves’ (30). Neder is arguing for a life of faith, not in place of virtue but as the means by which the Spirit enables our lives to ‘become transparent to the life of Christ’ (29). This is not so much the habituation that enables one to live virtuously (in their own power?), but a cruciform life in faith in which his power is made perfect in our weakness.

Second, since only God can reveal God, we remain always and utterly dependent on the Holy Spirit if our students are to know Christ. Only the Spirit can open their ears, eyes, and hearts to the love of God. And therefore, before and above all else, the theological educator must pray. For Neder, this is the essential pedagogical task of the theological educator.

Our lives are ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3) in order to be received and embraced. That subjective response is how we become (in ourselves) who we already are (in Christ). . . . The summons to discipleship is a summons to live with the grain of one’s identity in Christ rather than against it. As this happens we become images of the image of God. Our existence, the shape of our individual lives, coheres with our essence in him (26; original emphasis).

Conceiving of the human self as a process, as both gift and task, implies that we are not simply ourselves in a straightforward way, nor do we become ourselves all at once. At best we are on the way toward becoming ourselves. At most our existence is in process of becoming aligned with our essence. But this is a constant struggle. . . . To be clear, our identity in Christ is stable and unchanging, but the existential shape of life together with him is not (27-28).

Scripture on Sunday – Ezekiel 23

It has been quite some years since I last read Ezekiel, and at that time I found myself asking, “Will this book ever end?” One of the benefits of intentionally reading through the whole Bible is that you will read even those bits you may have avoided! This time around, I find Ezekiel captivating, absorbing. The book has not changed; I must have!

This morning I read chapter 23, the story of Oholah and Oholibah, two infamous sisters representing Samaria and Jerusalem, respectively. The prophecy is of brutal judgement on Jerusalem, similar to what occurred in Samaria. The allegory portrays the two kingdoms as wanton, prostituting themselves for favours and pleasure, but ultimately despised, mis-treated, and even killed by their lovers. Yahweh handed the Northern Kingdom of Israel over to the Assyrians. He will abandon Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians.

The language and imagery of the prophecy is sexually explicit, violent, and female. The two cities are portrayed as licentious women whose adulteries signify their alliances with foreign powers, and their participation in the nations’ idolatries. They lust after the ‘big swinging dicks’ of Assyria and Egypt—I read the chapter in the Jerusalem Bible where the translation of verses 19-20 is particularly vivid:

She began whoring worse than ever, remembering her girlhood, when she had played the whore in the land of Egypt, when she had been infatuated by profligates big-membered as donkeys, ejaculating as violently as stallions.

But the behaviour of these sisters is intended to disgust:

They have been adulteresses, their hands are dripping with blood, they have committed adultery with their idols. As for the children they had borne me, they have made them pass through the fire to be consumed. And here is something else they have done to me: they have defiled my sanctuary and have profaned my sabbaths. The same day as sacrificing their children to the idols, they have been to my sanctuary and profaned it. Yes, this is what they have done in my own house (vv. 37-39).

Thus, Yahweh calls for the sisters to be judged, violently shamed, and destroyed. They will be stoned, and hacked with the sword. They will be robbed, stripped, and left naked, their noses and ears cut off, their children slaughtered, their houses set on fire.

What are we to make of this language and imagery, of this kind of passage in the Holy Bible? I have not read any commentaries or studies on Ezekiel, nor any feminist interpretation or criticism of the passage. In light of the ongoing problem of violence against women in Australian society, I imagine that some will find this text distressing or offensive. Others will be at a loss; some, perhaps, will move on quickly to less disturbing, more amenable readings. How do we make sense of a passage like this?

Although I am a novice with respect to Ezekiel, I can offer some reflections. First, we must remember that the passage is an allegory and is speaking not of women per se, but of nations—the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and their capital cities, Samaria and Jerusalem. The imagery is metaphorical, and the (truly terrible) judgement is directed toward the nations not toward women in particular, although, the horror will fall on the female as well as the male members of these communities.

Second, the use of sexual language to portray covenantal faithfulness and faithlessness is not uncommon in the prophets (see, for example, Jeremiah 2-5; 31; Hosea 1-3; Ezekiel 16; cf. Song of Solomon). The covenantal relation between God and Israel is understood in terms of a marriage, with fidelity and betrayal understood spiritually rather than literally. Israel’s ‘adultery’ is its idolatry, its giving itself to another lord other than Yahweh. Ezekiel has laboured this point continually in his earlier chapters.

Nevertheless, that such explicit language and imagery is used in this passage suggests that rampant sexual immorality was also an issue in Judah, accompanying the practice of idolatry and the fruits of prosperity. Further, that Ezekiel intends to indict the women of Judah for their immorality is suggested in verse 48: “I mean to purge the land of debauchery; all the women will thus be warned, and ape your debauchery no more,” though I acknowledge that this reference to other ‘women’ could also be a reference to nations.

But why would Ezekiel target women with this criticism? Shouldn’t he more appropriately aim this criticism at men? Actually he does, in chapter 22:

Where there are people who eat on the mountains [= idolatry] and couple promiscuously [note the link between idolatry and sexual promiscuity]; where men uncover their father’s nakedness; where they force women in their unclean condition; where one man engages in filthy practices with his neighbour’s wife, another defiles himself with his daughter-in-law, another violates his sister, his own father’s daughter… (vv. 9-11).

The men, too, are condemned for their sexual activity, using language that suggests that they have abused their power, at times violating and forcing themselves on women. It is a truism that it ‘takes two to tango,’ but in some of these cases it was not the tango but rape. Nevertheless, sometimes and perhaps often, women were equal or willing participants in the activity, and Ezekiel has condemned both men and women for their immoral conduct, though admittedly, his language in the twenty-third chapter is more lurid.

This leads to a third observation: the prurient language used in this chapter might lead some to picture this predominantly as a female sin. This, of course, is nonsense and misrepresents the nature of the issue (it takes two…). Nevertheless, Christian history—and not merely Christian history—has repeatedly left the impression that female sexuality is dangerous, that women are wanton, wickedly seductive, and thus in need of corralling, suppression, and harsh treatment if they are caught acting ‘inappropriately’—however a particular culture will define that. This is problematic and has often led to the suppression of women per se, and not merely the ‘inappropriate’ activity concerned. Further, this perspective can used to legitimise the use of violence against women in the interests of deterrence, of redeeming the group from shame, of preserving or restoring one’s affronted honour, and so forth.

Here we arrive at the nub of the problem I raised earlier: the imagery used portrays God using retributive violence against the sisters which seems to legitimise such violence against women. And here, I can only note that (i) he is speaking of nations, not of women; (ii) that this is a prophecy of divine judgement which is a divine prerogative—and here we must consider the divine abhorrence of the kinds of sins clearly delineated in Ezekiel; (iii) that the text is clearly allegorical and imaginative, not meant to be taken with a wooden literalness; and (iv) that other texts, especially Malachi 2:17, declare God’s hatred with respect to male-on-female violence. I might also note that in Ezekiel’s culture, it is the male who acts publicly, who wields power. By identifying the nation as a degenerate woman, the prophet is mocking and shaming the men. These observations only serve to place this problem in a larger setting, and do not fully mitigate the issue. Unfortunately, those bent on abusing their power will likely seek any justification they can for their actions, and fail to heed any interpretation that challenges their assumption.

Finally, as we think of the implications of this passage for contemporary application, the analogy is properly applied to the church rather than a modern nation-state, for it is the church who are God’s covenanted people. The church, therefore, is warned against throwing herself at the world, seeking its favours and pleasures, selling its soul and body for its approval. God’s terrible judgement was directed against his people—something we dare not forget.

 Photo Credit:
 Elena Maximova in Carmen (Royal Opera House), October 2015
 Photo by Catherine Ashmore; Posted by Opera Montajes

The Splintering of the Evangelical Soul

An interesting article in Christianity Today by Timothy Dalrymple, president and CEO of the organisation. The article, “The Splintering of the Evangelical Soul,” is a diagnostic-explanatory account of why,

Couples, families, friends, and congregations once united in their commitment to Christ are now dividing over seemingly irreconcilable views of the world. In fact, they are not merely dividing but becoming incomprehensible to one another.

Although we inhabit the same reality, Dalrymple says, we inhabit different ‘worlds.’ The article explores sociological reasons for the splintering of the evangelical worldview that gave the movement a sense of cohesion in a former generation. It explores what he calls the ‘informational world’ shaping the belief structures of people in our culture, the interplay of information sources and a person’s plausibility frameworks that filter information sources and content. Three informational sources are critical and evangelicals are in the midst of crisis with respect to each of them. The sources are media, authorities, and community.

Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist and scholar of American religion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently said he has studied religious congregations for 30 years but has “never seen” such an extraordinary level of conflict. “What is different now?” he asked. “The conflict is over entire worldviews—politics, race, how we are to be in the world, and even what religion and faith are for.” What I have offered above is a model for understanding how we have come to such a pass, and a mere suggestion of how we might begin the generational project before us.

We are not without hope. Lies ring hollow at the end of the day. Hatred is a poor imitation of purpose, celebrity a poor replacement for wisdom, and political tribes a poor comparison to authentic Christian community. We are a people defined by the resurrection of the Son of God. We are called to be redeemers and reconcilers.

The article is worth reading, especially for those interested in the future of evangelicalism.

Image: that used in the article;  Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Kimson Doan / Unsplash / imtmphoto / Getty Images

Theology & the University: An Interesting Discussion

The Brisbane Chapter of ANZATS (= Australian & New Zealand Association of Theological Schools) conducted an interesting discussion today that I was able to join by Zoom. The discussion was titled, “Theology and the University: Queen of the Sciences?” Two essays were distributed prior to the discussion, and three papers given during the session on related themes.

The two essays distributed were John Webster’s “Regina Artium: Theology and the Humanities” (from, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason) and Linn Marie Tonstad, “(Un)Wise Theologians: Systematic Theology in the University,” IJST Vol. 22, Number 4 (October 2020).

Webster argues that theology is not merely one discipline amongst the humanities but is in fact the ‘Queen of the (Intellectual) Arts.’ Using especially Bonaventure and also Augustine as his main conversation partners, Webster argues that all created intelligence and all creaturely intellectual work is a ‘gift from above’ (James 1:17), creaturely thought illuminated by the ‘Father of lights.’ This is a theological appraisal of the origin and goal of human intellectual endeavour.

For Bonaventure, theology describes what, according to Holy Scripture, the world is: the temporal passage of created being back to its creator. This history is irreducible to other terms, and so there can be no profane understanding of the arts of the mind, because creatureliness is basic. For Augustine, too, the arts of the mind are not secular, but of divine institution; but they are caught up in wickedness, and discriminating use of them – most of all in the interpretation of the Bible – depends on their being broken away from captivity to vice (187).

But this view of theology is difficult for many to accept:

Talk of divine motion . . . seems to us to threaten rational autonomy and responsibility. . . . God does not move the mind as an archer propels an arrow . . . God moves from within, not simply as a causal force from without. Yet in order to grasp this, we have to detach ourselves from the assumption that the natural life of creatures is secular life (188).

That is, all creaturely existence, including the work of the mind, occurs within the encompassing context of the divine origin and goal of all things. All the intellectual arts from designing and weaving a basket to abstruse philosophy are intended to lead us to God. In our fallen condition, however, this intention is hidden from us. It is the task of theology not merely to inquire about God, but to consider all things relative to God as origin and end.

This is why theology may be called the queen of the arts, though that appellation only makes sense against the background of a now lost understanding of the hierarchy of studies in which theology is the point at which the divine illumination of all things is made an object of contemplation (191).

Linn Marie Tonstad rejects this view as an attempt to justify theology’s place in the university, and indeed as an imposition of power with respect to the other disciplines in the humanities. She is concerned especially, with more aggressive approaches (she names Milbank as an example) which would launch a counter-attack against theology’s despisers whether by telling a better story, undermining the other’s foundational commitments, etc., in order to insist that unless these other disciplines are ordered to theology and so find a means of “participating in God’s self-knowledge . . . they are objectively and demonstrably null and void” (502).

Tonstad argues that theology is subject to the same epistemological and socio-cultural limitations and pressures that assail all the disciplines, and attempts to ‘master’ another is not only wrong-headed but ultimately futile. The university context inevitably shapes the way in which theology is practised:

The university values what is new and ground-breaking; it values the originality ascribed to a single scholar; it values radical programs or critiques of existing structures, discipline-shifting paradigms; . . . The pressure to distinguish oneself within a field offering shrinking rewards becomes ever more intense. . . . Theology, as a result, becomes a practice of self-protection (505-506).

She reasons from 1 Corinthians 1 that appeals to wisdom can be an attempt to mastery, but God chooses the foolish things of the world to bring to nought the things that are. Therefore, theology ought aim at foolishness and unmastery, a non-defensive theology of failure utterly aware of its own contingency and susceptibility to judgement.

Such a non-defensive position does not seek to colonize other disciplines by instructing them in their proper ends or by accusing them of being about nothing. For the text instructs theologians that God sometimes chooses what is nothing for God’s own ends, and it is not the business of the theologian to determine when God is doing just that (511).

I find I agree and disagree with both scholars and perhaps Tonstad’s suggestion that the university context distorts theological inquiry is most apt. She focusses on the economics of the university—neo-liberalism and capitalism are the enemy—though I wonder if the modes of rationality in the modern university are equally or even more problematic. This, too, may be part of her critique, especially when she speaks of the university rewarding the novel and the radical. As one engaged in queer theology—and a tenured professor at Yale—she also benefits from the system she critiques. The same was true, of course, of the late John Webster who enjoyed a celebrated career in prominent institutions in the United Kingdom. Webster’s rigorously theological approach to the question, though, has the merit, of insisting that human intellectual gifts and inquiry are graced, even if, under the conditions of the fall, they do not exhibit or realise the full intent of that grace.

In my view, the true home of theology is not the university but the church, though I suggest that Tonstad would reject this suggestion as well. The Yale theologian rightly warns against the kind of wisdom that seeks mastery or dominance over others, and rightly emphasises the contingency and limits of theological assertion. Her concern that theology be much more self-critical than critical of the other disciplines is not misplaced. My worry, however, comes from what she does not say here. May the Christian have theological confidence at all? Does the fact that we cannot know the truth comprehensively mean that we cannot know it at all? It seems she has problematised theological activity in order to propose a posture appropriate for theology while eroding or denying the possibility of any normative truth claims. While she has rightly intuited the social location of Paul’s ‘Corinthian wisdom,’ it seems she has emptied it of its content, and so of its saving power.

Theology, as faith seeking understanding, has its own particular rationality as Webster insists. Certainly, it may be a critical venture, demanding the utmost exercise of our intellectual gifts. Yet it arises on account of faith and is directed toward the building up and promulgation of faith through the ministry of the church. Separated from this context, theology may be tempted to substitute a mode of rationality and an ethos contrary to its one foundation, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). The task of theology whether academic or ecclesial is not merely “therapy for [theology’s] desire for recognition” (Tonstad, 511), but the knowledge of him “who is made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Ignatius on the Spiritual Exercises

Last week I used introductory comments from Ignatius to define the Spiritual Exercises and their purpose. In 1536 Ignatius wrote a letter to a Father Miona in which he commends the Exercises. In fact, he implores his friend to take the Exercises and almost dares him not to enjoy and be benefited by them!

Let me repeat once and twice and as many more times as I am able: I implore you, out of a desire to serve God our Lord, to do what I have said to you up to now. May His Divine Majesty never ask me one day why I did not ask you as strongly as I possibly could! The Spiritual Exercises are all the best that I have been able to think out, experience and understand in this life, both for helping somebody to make the most of themselves, as also for being able to bring advantage, help and profit to many others. So, even if you don’t feel the need for the first, you will see that they are much more helpful than you might have imagined for the second.

See: Letter 6, ‘In praise of the Spiritual Exercises‘ in Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics, 138-139.

Evangelicals and Nationalism

Much has been written about Evangelical support for Donald Trump over the last few years. Was this support an aberration? How could so-called Bible-believing Christians have supported so unlikely a candidate? Why did they resonate with his rhetoric and policy positions? In a recent interview on Politico Elizabeth Neumann, herself an Evangelical and so a sympathetic observer, identified several reasons why some American evangelicals fell for this temptation.

Religious nationalism is nothing new, of course, and nor is it restricted to North American Evangelicals or Christians generally. Many Christian groups over the centuries have fallen in line with the nationalist aspirations of their political masters. Where the head of the church or religion is also the head of state, the problem is compounded. But the head of state need not be the head of the church for religious nationalism to take hold of a population or certain segments of it. When a nation views itself and its destiny in terms of empire, and where a cultural synthesis occurs between church and state so that the aims of the church become aligned with those of the state, the conditions are ripe for the emergence of religious nationalism.

Part of the problem here, as Neumann contends, concerns the authoritarian streak that runs through some streams of Evangelicalism. But part of it might also be traced to a theological malaise in which the Christian imagination has been subverted and co-opted to the vision of the secular order. In a brief discussion of the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany James Hawes argues:

It is worth hammering this point home: if you’re trying to forecast whether a random German voter from 1928 will switch to Hitler, asking whether they are rich or poor, town or country, educated or not, man or woman and so on will scarcely help at all. The only question really worth asking is whether they are Catholic or Protestant (The Shortest History of Germany, 164).

He cites Jurgen W. Falter: “Hitler’s strongholds were clearly in the Lutheran countryside.” Further, only 17% of Nazi voters came from the predominantly Catholic regions (Der Spiegel, 29 January, 2008, in Hawes, 164).

Why and how did this religious support for Hitler surge between 1928 and 1933. No doubt part of the answer to the story is the ongoing suffering and shame of the German people which Hitler manipulated to his own purposes. But the Protestants were vulnerable to this manipulation also for theological reasons. Over the preceding centuries, and arguably back to Luther’s appeal to the German princes to support the Reformation, German Protestantism had actively looked to political authorities for support and in return also supported the political authorities.

Karl Barth also recognised the theological roots of Protestant support for Hitler’s regime in the preface to the first part-volume of his Church Dogmatics, published in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power in Germany.

Or shall I rather bemoan the constantly increasing confusion, tedium and irrelevance of modern Protestantism, which, probably along with the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, has lost an entire third dimension—the dimension of what for once, though not confusing it with religious and moral earnestness, we may describe as mystery—with the result that it has been punished with all kinds of worthless substitutes, that it has fallen the more readily victim to such uneasy cliques and sects as High Church, German Church, Christian Community and religious Socialism, and that many of its preachers and adherents have finally learned to discover deep religious significance in the intoxication of Nordic blood and their political Führer? (CD I/1: xiv).

I believe that I understand the present-day authorities of the Church better than they understand themselves when I ignore their well-known resentment against what should have been their most important task, appealing from authorities badly informed to authorities which are better informed. I am firmly convinced that, especially in the broad field of politics, we cannot reach the clarifications which are necessary today, and on which theology might have a word to say, as indeed it ought to have, without first reaching the comprehensive clarifications in and about theology which are our present concern (CD I/1: xvi).

A great danger for the church is that it loses its theological moorings and so substitutes other commitments and convictions in place of Jesus Christ—‘the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death’ (Barmen Declaration, Thesis 1, 1934). Barth, too, understood ‘there is within the Church an Evangelical theology which is to be affirmed and a heretical non-theology which is to be resolutely denied’ (CD I/1: xv). It is evident that the non-theology to be denied was the theological assimilation to National Socialism that occurred in the so-called German Christians.

Some—certainly not all—North American evangelicals fell into the same danger in their naïve support for the Trump agenda. This is not to say, of course, that everything Trump did was evil. But by accepting the Trump package, these evangelicals lost their ability ‘to discern what is excellent’ (Philippians 1:10) and in the end accepted and even celebrated a leader who exemplified a form of life alien to that of Jesus and his kingdom.

Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (ii)

Yesterday’s post asked what a spiritual exercise is. Today I continue unpacking Ignatius’ definitions to explore his intent for those undertaking the Exercises.

Ignatius gives the purpose of the Exercises: the overcoming of self and the (proper or ideal?) ordering of one’s life in relation to God. Expanded, this means that one undertakes the exercises to free oneself from ‘disordered attachments’ so that they may decide freely to dispose their life in accordance with what is good for the soul.

Ignatius presupposes that the self develops all manner of attachments which are detrimental to the spiritual life, although seemingly beneficial to the self. There appears to be a contrast between the ‘self’ and the ‘soul’ where the former identifies the person independent of their relation with God, while the latter speaks, as already noted, of the person in light of their relation with God. Ignatius presupposes that what is good for the self may not be good for the soul. What is good for the soul, however, will (ultimately) benefit the whole person. That Ignatius argues on Christian grounds is evident. He is presupposing a Christian understanding of life and after-life, of sin and salvation, etc., a worldview taken for granted in sixteenth century Christian Europe. What is good for the soul may in fact not appear to be beneficial for the self but makes sense in the light of eternity.

The word ‘attachments’ here is one of the “key terms in the psychological vocabulary of the Spiritual Exercises” referring to the feelings, judgements, and emotional structures and responses of the heart. Some attachments are positive while others are ‘disordered,’ perhaps opposed to reason and good judgement. These can operate in many ways and at many levels within the self, even to the point of altering perceptions of reality.[1] It likely is equivalent to what Jonathon Edwards and others referred to as the ‘affections.’ One’s attachments are disordered to the degree that they limit or hinder one from seeking and finding the divine will. Any commitment or judgement that constrains one’s response to God would, I imagine, be considered by Ignatius as ‘disordered,’ that is, as an attachment that is wrongly related to God and his will, and which functions therefore against the welfare of the whole person seen in the light of eternity.

Ignatius seeks an ordering of one’s life in freedom from disordered attachments. It should be noted that some attachments might preclude a decision to seek and find the divine will. The self is bound by its attachments in ways which turn or distract the person from relationship with God. It is also possible, however, that one might seek the divine will under the impulse of disordered attachments, by coercion for instance, or to find acceptance with one’s peers. Ignatius indicates that a true decision for God and his will can only be made in freedom.

Anyone undertaking the Spiritual Exercises or any form of spiritual discipline has already made a ‘decision for God and his will’ in some sense. Ignatius is obviously aiming at a deeper, whole-of-life, and transformational decision. He is aiming at the ‘overcoming of the self’ in its alienation from and resistance to God in favour of an existential deposition of the self into an entirely committed form of life—an existence wholly ordered toward God.

Then Jesus said to them all, “If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will save it”

(Luke 9:23-24).

[1]  Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), xv.