Pomo 101 [2]: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism – Smith chap 1

I had meant to have this post up a while ago. However, since the first post of this series we have experienced a bit of stress in our lives. My wife (who blogs here) had a surgical procedure related to some longstanding health issues and we were waiting for results from some biopsies concerning the possibility of cancer. In the meantime I found it hard to concentrate enough to type out a blog. But as one of her nurses told us, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” We ended up getting good news that Christie does not have any sign of cancer but she will have to undergo another surgical procedure in a few weeks. Prayers are appreciated. I have also been in the process of reading through Dan Stiver’s Theology After Ricoeur: New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology, which I had a hard time putting down. Besides being a very good introduction to the thought of Paul Ricoeur it is also one of the best recent attempts at a constructive postmodern, hermeneutical philosophy/theology. I highly recommend it (in the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that I was Dr. Stiver’s Grad Assistant during my time at Logsdon Seminary so I admit to being biased). In any case, I did finish it so I guess that means I should finally get to this post.

This is part two of an anticipated 12 part series meant to be somewhat of a primer on postmodernism in which we can hopefully glean some insights into what the postmodern turn means for epistemology, church practice, and theology. In the first post I gave an introduction to the series and a tentative outline for the series. A discussion partner throughout this series will be James K. A. Smith and his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism (WAoP) in which each chapter will get one post. I highly recommend this book as a very accessible introduction to many of the issues that will come up through the course of this series. In this post we will cover chapter one (pg 15-30) of Smith’s WAoP, ‘Is the Devil from Paris? Postmodernism and the Church’ which will serve as a further introduction to some of the themes that will surface throughout this series.

Raising the Curtain: The Matrix

Smith begins with a scene from The Matrix. “Welcome to the real world.” These are the words spoken to Neo by Morpheus after he is released from his imprisonment in the Matrix, a “neural-active simulation complex” designed by machines to control humans. According to Smith this scene replays one of the most ancient philosophical images: that of emerging from Plato’s cave. In Plato’s Republic Socrates tells how the masses are enslaved to a world of images and shadows as if they were chained inside a cave with their heads locked in position. All they have ever seen are shadows on a wall, cast by a small fire that sends light across small puppets. Because these prisoners have never known anything different they believe that the shadows are real, until one of them is released. This liberated prisoner makes his way outside of the cave, in the process realizing that the shadows were only images cast by the puppets. As he comes into the light he is blinded because he is accustomed to only darkness. The light of the real world is painful to those that have never seen it. The liberated prisoner first finds his way around by looking at shadows on the ground and reflections in water. These images are not cast by copies and cutouts but by the things themselves. The liberated prisoner slowly realizes what he thought was real in the cave was really a shadow of reality: a copy of a copy. Now, as his eyes adjusted, he could not only behold the shadow or cutout image of a tree, but the tree itself. What was clear to him now was that the world of his birth was not real. Clearer still, says Smith, is that he must go back into the cave, proclaim what is real, and liberate his companions.

Smith calls the character Neo in the The Matrix a ‘postmodern Platonic prisoner.’ Neo has been a prisoner his whole life, connected to hoses and lying in a pod of quasi uterine liquid. What he sees connected to the Matrix is not a darkened world of shadows but a Technicolor world of high-rises, coffee shops, and nightclubs. Neo’s own mind is the ‘wall’ on which the Matrix feeds a world of images. All the humans trapped in these pods are actually being harvested for energy by the machines. In the Matrix they believe themselves to be someone and somewhere else. Neo thinks he is Thomas Anderson, an average employee of a technology firm. Morpheus comes as Neo’s liberator, someone who knows the truth and ‘descends’ back into the Matrix to release others. When Neo’s questioning mind is no longer passive to the neural-active simulation of the Matrix the system flushes his body out of his pod. Morpheus and his crew rescue Neo. “Welcome to the real world,” Morpheus says. “Why do my eyes hurt?” asks Neo. “Because you’ve never used them before,” Morpheus answers. Neo vomits out of disorientation and sense of a kind of vertigo. As Smith says, “Its not easy getting used to the real world.” (17)

According to Smith, our contemporary culture, as well as the church, has experienced a similar dis- and reorientation – a similar emerging from place to another, from one construction of reality to another, from modernity to postmodernity. The cultural shifts and changes can be traced to the advent of postmodernity and the ‘trickle-down’ effect of postmodernism on our culture. This shift calls into question previously held sureties and rattles faith that has been to easily equated with Cartesian certainties. The result is a kind of epistemic vertigo. Confusing questions are raised and there is a sense of being lost. As Morpheus says to Neo, “I imaging you must feel a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.” As Smith says, “If the shadows we thought were real have been unveiled as mere shadows, doesn’t it feel as if the whole world were dissolving?” And even if this is the real world, “we’re not sure how to make our way in it.” (18)

Question: This is a good to point to introduce a question which Plato’s cave analogy and The Matrix bring up. That is: what is the nature of embodiment and knowing (epistemology) and how are these related. The philosophical background of Plato’s cave analogy is a dualism of mind and body. In fact, in much Platonic thought the body is a sort of prison house. Plato’s eternal (yet disembodied) ‘Forms’ are in a sense what really counts as real. In The Matrix though Neo’s unplugging is an act of embodiment. It is ironic then that in this paradigm of embodiment that so many were inspired to take up the impetus of The Matrix by playing the video game hours on end! In any case, as a generalization we could say (with philosopher Charles Taylor) that modernity has had a movement towards excarnation and dis-embodiment. In this we could ask, is the search for ‘objective’ truth a search for a de-situated, dis-embodied truth? But is not all our knowing in a very important sense incarnate…embodied and situated? We are faced with the competing narratives of excarnation and incarnation in our epistemology as well as our relating to others. Which narrative will we choose?

What is Postmodernism?

Smith offers Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism as an orientation to the world of postmodernism, the world in which we now find ourselves. He notes that for some it is the bane of Christian faith, the new enemy replacing secular humanism and the target for demonization. For others though, such as the emerging church movement, who seek to castigate the modernity of pragmatic evangelicalism and want to retool the church’s witness in a postmodern world, pomo is a fresh wind. Smith claims that in both cases though, postmodernism remains nebulous and “a slippery beast eluding our understanding.” (19) Postmodernism seems to take on a chameleon like quality: if seen as enemy, pomo is defined as monstrous; if positive, pomo is seen as savior! But this (re)making of pomo into what one wants it to be doesn’t help us to understand just what is postmodernism?

Smith notes that a historical thesis has been offered to the nature of pomo. This would be postmodern in the sense of ‘after’ modern. Attempts have even been made to link the advent of pomo to specific historical events – the student riots in 1968, the fall of the gold standard, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 3:32 pm on July 15, 1972 when the Pruitt-Ingoe housing development (a prize winning machine for modern living) in St. Louis was dynamited as uninhabitable. Its hard though to link pomo to one single event (and more likely that these events evidence an overall gradual cultural shift that is affected by both modern and pomo influences). Smith proposes instead that postmodernism, whether monster or savior, is something that has come out of Paris and French philosophical influences. Smith contends that most will nod their heads at this point but have not gone so far as to really engage the philosophical underpinnings. For instance Smith states that Brian McLaren regularly tips his hat to the philosophical but then brushes it aside as ‘too far removed from everyday life’ or not really needed to understand ‘cultural postmodernity’ versus ‘philosophical postmodernism.’

We will explore the common heuristic distinction between ‘postmodernity’ and ‘postmodernism’ in the next post. What is important to note here is the ‘Schaefferian method’ that Smith proposes for his analysis of pomo. In The God Who is There and Escape From Reason Francis Schaeffer offers a sort of trickle-down theory of philosophical influence. In particular Schaeffer analyzed the shifts of modernity beginning with philosophy. Thus, for him cultural phenomena tend to reflect philosophical movements, not vice versa. Smith suggests that his analysis of philosophical postmodernism might serve as a needed prerequisite to McLaren’s analysis of postmodernity and proposes a Schaefferian strategy in which 1) he feels we need to return to the philosophy itself in order to understand pomo (“We take culture seriously by taking ideas seriously,” Smith states) and 2) he sees himself as Schaefferian in that he wishes to offer WAoP to practicioners of ministry and postmodern searchers instead of just philosophers alone. The three philosophers that he wishes to engage in WAoP are Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.

In particular he considers three slogans most often associated with these thinkers. 1) Derrida: ‘There is nothing outside the text,’ 2) Lyotard: ‘Postmodernity is incredulity towards metanarratives,’ and 3) Foucault: ‘Power is knowledge.’ These slogans are usually invoked as mutually exclusive to confessional Christian faith. How could someone reject metanarratives and still believe the Bible? How could someone who believes in God not believe in the reality of things outside of texts? How could someone who believes God is love hold to a Nietzschean ‘will to power?’ In response Smith suggests that: 1) these are really bumper sticker readings; claims made without a context that perpetuate a number of myths about pomo and 2) that these three claims have deep affinity with central Christian claims. As such Smith intends to not only introduce us to postmodern thought but to also critique common Christian misunderstandings of pomo as well as to show that postmodernity is a condition that Christians in many ways should welcome. “Something good can come out of Paris.” (22) Smith says next that he is replaying a Hebrew strategy, later adopted by Augustine, Calvin, and Kuyper: making off with Egyptian loot. Just as the Hebrews left Egypt with Egyptian gold to be put to use in the worship of Yahweh (though misdirected at times) so Christians can find resources in non-Christian thought that can be put to work for the furtherance of the kingdom. In this way Smith states that WAoP is “an attempt to make off with postmodern loot for the sake of the kingdom.” (23)

Question: Again, a pause for a quick question. Smith is rubbing up against a long standing debate in Christianity, that is, the place of philosophy in relationship to faith and theology. There has been for quite some time a dualism both in and out of the church. The attitude of many has been that since philosophers were supposed to somehow bracket their presuppositions that there could be no such thing as Christian philosophy. Alvin Plantinga has done much to change this view by arguing that the Christian philosopher has as much right to their ‘pre-philosophical opinions’ as anyone else. But, going back to Tertullian who asked “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” the church has had a long history of shunning ‘outside’ philosophy. Perhaps the irony here is that the Western Tertullian introduced the first trinitarian formula in Latin, tres personae, una substantia (three persons, one substance), but that it took interaction with the East and Greek philosophy (specifically ousia and hypostasis) to work out the orthodox trinitarianism of the Creeds. What also seems apparent is that the calls to keep theology/faith and philosophy separate come too late. We inherit a situation where they have already intertwined (though in the modern context the influence has been primarily in one direction in favor of philosophy).

Moving on, Smith suggests that while we should expect some areas of fundamental disagreement and need to critique some of their conclusions; Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault can help us to recover some truths about the nature of the church that have been overshadowed by Christian appropriations of modernity. Smith states, “One of the reasons postmodernism has been the bogeyman for the Christian church is that we have become so thoroughly modern. But while postmodernism may be the enemy of our modernity, it can be the ally of our ancient heritage.” (23) Smith suggests that Derrida’s claim that there is ‘nothing outside the text’ can push us to recover the centrality of Scripture for understanding the world as a whole and the role of community in interpretation. He suggests that Lyotard’s claim of ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ can help us to recover the narrative character of faith and the confessional nature of our narrative in a context where we find ourselves in a world of competing narratives. He suggests that Foucault’s claim that ‘power is knowledge’ can help us to realize the cultural power of formation and discipleship and the necessity of the church to “enact counterformation by counterdisciplines.” (23) In other words, Foucault can tell us something about being disciples.

In each chapter Smith begins with a discussion of a movie to illustrate some of the questions at stake. He then moves into a discussion of the author being considered that leads into implications for the church in both its theology and practice. Each chapter ends with a tour of a postmodern church in which he seeks to interact with those such as the emerging church movement that have attempted to respond to the postmodern condition. While sympathetic, Smith feels that emerging church proposals remain at times captive to modernist strategies. Smith argues instead that “the postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient, that the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition, and that the most effective means of discipleship is found in liturgy.” (25) A truly thoughtful engagement with postmodernism will prompt us to look backwards, with one eye continually on ancient and medieval sources providing interaction with premodern ways of knowing, being, and doing. These ancient sources provide a useful countervoice to modernity (for instance the medieval scholar David Burrell has noted the affinity between pomo and medieval theology saying that ‘postmodern’ could be rendered ‘anti-antimedieval’). Smith emphasizes that this isn’t the attempt to recover some sort of a mythical pristine tradition or paleo-orthodoxy. Instead a persistent postmodernism should embrace a ‘radical orthodoxy’ in a postmodern mode that doesn’t shrink from an unapologetic dogmatics, and in which a thickly confessional church “draws on the particular (yet catholic) and ancient practices of the church’s worship and discipleship.” (25) In this way, his last chapter considers how the best way to be postmodern is to be ancient.

Apologetics and Witness in a Postmodern World

It is easy to assume that everything has changed with the advent of pomo. But this is not true. Pomo and modernity seem to exist together in ways that are continuous as well as discontinuous. Pomo is varied and pluriform yet it does not break cleanly with modernism at some points. The result of this is that in the postmodern context we often see the intensification of modernism, such as with notions of freedom, the use of technology, and epistemological relativism. Also, Derrida and Foucault confessed that they were both, in an important sense, Enlightenment thinkers. However, there is also an important sense in which they are critics of modernism. Despite the intensifications and continuity with modernism, pomo still breaks with modernity in important ways. One of Smith’s aims is to tease out these discontinuities. A second aim is to explore the continuities between pomo and orthodox Christian faith. But Smith realizes that recognizing such continuities will be resisted by many due to the presence of modern presuppositions which masquerade as ‘biblical’ Christianity.

For example, Smith notes that our faith, as well as our apologetics is compromised by modernism when we fail to appreciate the effects of sin on reason. When this is ignored we adopt an Enlightenment optimism about the role of ‘neutral’ reason in the reception of truth (and end up seeking to build a Christian America under the banner of natural law). Classical apologetics operates with a modern view of reason whereas presuppositional apologetics is postmodern in that it recognizes the role that presuppositions play in what counts as and is recognized as truth. Pomo can be a catalyst for the church to reclaim its faith, not as a system dictated by neutral reason, but as a story that needs ‘eyes and ears to hear.’ The responsibility of the church then is not rationalistic demonstration (as in much of contemporary apologetics) but kerygmatic proclamation (of the Word made flesh empowered by the Spirit, not the thin theism that a neutral reason yields). Smith states it starkly, “unless our apologetic proclamation begins from revelation, we have conceded the game to modernity.” (28) And ultimately, this new apologetic (which is ancient) is one that is proclaimed by a community’s way of life together. “The church doesn’t have an apologetic, it is an apologetic.” (29)

Question: Again, a pause for another important question Smith touches on. That is, what is the role of natural law and theology in the churches witness? It is understandable that one would want a common starting point or to emphasize ‘common grace’ in the public realm. But we also have to ask if such an approach not only leads to a watered down, lowest common denominator faith (what else can we expect when we are trying to make everyone happy) but whether it might also threaten particularity by obscuring important differences that need to be recognized. Is Smith correct that the ‘neutral reason’ that natural theology/law (ironically) presupposes produces a ‘thin theism?’ This is not to say there is no such thing as natural theology, general revelation, or common grace. But what is the role of these things when it seems that we interpret them by special revelation? What would happen if we didn’t appeal to a modern notion of ‘neutral reason,’ but recognized the perhaps necessary role of our presuppositions?

From Modern Christianity to a Postmodern Church

Smith goes on to say that if he is opposed to the epistemology of modern Christianity then he must also take issue with the ecclesiology (or lack thereof) that is part of the modernist version of Christian faith. Within modern Christianity the base ingredient is the individual. The church then is a collection or aggregate of individuals. When matters of faith are a private affair between the individual and God modern evangelicalism has a hard time articulating what role the church is to play – other than a place to meet other individuals who also have a private relationship with God. In this model what matters most is Christianity as a system of correct truth, not the church as a living community embodying its head. In the modern version, “Christianity becomes intellectualized rather than incarnate, commodified rather the site of genuine community.” (29) Smith, in reaction to this, confesses with the Apostles Creed that he believes in the ‘holy catholic church’ (little c) and that he believes the very notion of the ‘holy catholic church’ undoes the individualism endemic to much of modern evangelicalism. As Smith states, “we would do well to recover a much maligned formula: ‘There is no salvation outside the church.’” (30) This means not that some ecclesial body is the sole dispenser of grace but that there is no Christianity apart from the body of Christ (ie, the church). “The body is the New Testament’s organic model of community that counters the modernist emphasis on the individual.” (30) The church does not exist for ‘me’ and salvation is not simply a matter of intellectual mastery or emotional satisfaction. What we need is not so much answers but a reformation of the will and heart. For Smith the church is where God renews and transforms us; a place where the practices, sacraments, liturgy, life, and praxis of being the body form us in the image of Christ. Nothing is more countercultural than a community serving the Suffering Servant in a world of consumption and violence. Smith concludes, “the church will have this witness only when it jettisons its own modernity; in that respect postmodernism can be another catalyst for the church to be the church.” (30)

Final question: What is the nature of the church? This is a pressing concern and in my opinion Smith is on to something. But we need to ask: should we even bother trying to recover the formula ‘There is no salvation outside the church”? What are the role of practices, sacraments, and liturgy in forming us into Christlikeness? How does the church become incarnate and communal rather than intellectualized and commodified?

Why DesperateTheologian – Part 3

This is the third part in a three part series exploring I why call myself the DesperateTheologian. Parts one and two can be found by clicking on the links. I am probably the world’s most sporadic blogger, so this series has been extended over quite some time. A large reason for my blogging unreliability I think has come from not really knowing what I wanted to do with this blog. I do aim to start posting regularly. However, I don’t make any definitive promises and I hesitate to specify what ‘regularly’ means – life does tend to happen you know. In this post I have three main aims. The first is to pick up where I left off with the “Concluding Theological Primer” in part two and to share some more thoughts about how I see theology and my general theological agenda (this makes up the bulk of the post). The second is to give some ideas as to what I want to do with this blog. And the third is to give the reader some idea what they may find here.

[Note: Some of this a repeat from post two. My plan is to edit all three parts together into a single piece and post it in the ‘WhyDesperateTheologian’ page to the right and tab up above.]

Captured by the Triune God – Theology as Spirituality

In part two of ‘Why DesperateTheogian’ I shared about the deep struggle with doubt and grief in the wake and midst of Christie and I losing three of our babies to miscarriage (there were also a couple of devastating failed adoptions during this time – long stories I won’t go into here). It was in the midst of this journey through doubt and grief that I sensed within me a growing desperation. To be honest this sense of desperation is hard to pin down and describe. The best way I can describe it is that I was desperate in the same way that a suffocating or drowning person is desperate for air or in the same way that a starving person is desperate for food. The only thing was, at the time, in the midst and depth of the grief and doubt, I had a very hard time specifying what I was desperate for (I gave a list in part two but it’s important to note that this list is the product of subsequent reflection over time). What I did know was that my formerly propositionalist theology was not really much of a help. I see it as an act of divine providence then that I came across Stanley Grenz, who remains my favorite theologian.

Grenz presents us with a theology that is intentionally structured and shaped by the triune reality of God in which trinitarian concerns are not relegated to a footnote or single section in a systematic theology but instead permeates all areas of theology. It is in Grenz’s writings that I discovered the idea of perichoresis, or (all too briefly defined here) our participation in the divine trinitarian life of God, articulated first by the church fathers but seemingly lost in modern theology. I found that trinitarian theology (and the reality of participation in the triune life) spoke directly to my grief and doubt. I found trinitarian theology to be immensely practical while at the same time not sacrificing, well, the theological. In fact, through my study of trinitarian theology I became convinced more than ever of the overwhelming majesty, beauty, and sovereignty of God even in the midst of my doubt and grief. In the process I found a desperation for God (as triune) I had not known previously. In fact, it was if my desperation was being transformed – from that of the loss of hope to that of the finding of the ultimate ground of hope and the longing for deeper participation in the divine life. Though hurting, grieving, and doubting I was like a moth led the flame. In essence I went in search of a theology, and a way of doing theology that would give me some answers and alleviate my desperation, only to have my desperation transformed in the (re)discovered of the triune God.

In this sense trinitarian theology has also played a large role in the shaping of my spirituality into what is a trinitarian spirituality that is bound up within and can not be separated from trinitarian theology. I make no claim to have captured all of who God is; instead quite the opposite. I have been captured by the triune God. Some may feel that captured is too strong of a word here, perhaps to Calvinistic even. However, in my experience it fits perfectly. You see, in the depth of my grief, doubt, and despair I was quite helpless and powerless. I had no strength left to hold on to God on my own. I had to give up any pretense I ever may have had about ‘holding on to God’ in my own strength, capturing God, or making sense of things through a theological system alone. No, as I look back the only thing that held me (us really, myself and Christie) together and in place, as it were, was the grace and triune love (perichoresis) of God. I found that despite my lack of strength, this was a love that would not let me go.

The Nature of Theology

Theology and spirituality must be interwoven into the same fabric. Theology happens not through the mere systemization of propositions but when one ceases trying to capture God and is instead, having been drawn in by inexhaustible love and grace, captured by God. Apart from its divine source theology is really a rather weak thing. The would be theologian should be aware that theology is not something to be used to control God. Much of modern theology has been concerned with formulating doctrines through rationalistic methods, boiled down into the form of propositional statements, which are then formally systematized. Theology done (up)rightly should recognize that doctrines are not and can never become an end unto themselves without significant theological distortion and reduction. While, negatively, we can certainly avoid saying false things about God, as well as positively saying many true things, what we say will always have a sense of inadequacy. The triune reality of God is more grand and mysterious than any proposition can communicate. This is not a Sherlock Holmes type mystery that we solve by the use of our rational powers alone. God is not a puzzle that we find the answer too. In reference to the triune mystery the key words are not ‘problem solving’ or ‘sytematics’ but drawing, relational participation, and indwelling. We speak of God, not in the pretense of having God figured out, but because we can not remain silent about the triune God revealed to us ‘in Christ’ and through the Spirit. What must be understood is that what we call doctrines only function properly if the would be theologian is willing to hear from God. One should never confuse doctrinal formulation for either theological or spiritual depth. The intertwining of theology and spirituality ought to lead us to the intertwining of deepening knowledge of God with deepening communion of God which is expressed in a holistically embodied theological existence.

In contrast to the rationalistic, propositional, and systematic expression of theology found throughout much of modern theology I find it helpful to speak of the nature of theology in other terms as well. It is important to note here that rationality (or the use of reason), systematics, nor propositions are bad in and of themselves. They only become problematic when theology is reduced to these things as theology’s sum and substance instead of viewing them in a more holistic manner. Thus, contra the reductionism of rationalistic, propositional, and systematic modern theology I prefer to see theology as:

Not merely rational but…

  • relational – flowing from and embodied in communion with God and others, conversational in nature.
  • reverential – theology done under God’s sovereignty for God’s glory alone.
  • reserved – recognizing our own limits and the irreducible nature of God’s truth, epistemic and theological humility.

Not merely propositional but…

  • phronetic – practical wisdom expressed in ‘fitting’ theological virtues enabling us to make ‘fitting’ theological judgements about the true, the good, and beautiful.
  • prosaic – practical wisdom that is incarnated in everyday life, theology that can move from the prose of Scripture to the prose of contemporary culture.
  • perichoretic – theology that above all else finds it ground, grammar, and goal in the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Not merely systematic but…

  • situational – the recognition that all theology arises within and must be ‘situated’ in particular forms of life and cultural contexts.
  • systemic – each aspect of theology is interrelated, intertwined, and interwoven with all the others and can not be neatly separated but must be considered in relation to each other.
  • story centered – realizing the importance of narrative context and situatedness for the theological task, the central narrative being the narrative of Christ.

The Shape of the Theological Task

Here I repeat something that I’ve said often in other contexts: we are all theologians. In one sense we are all theologians because we all believe something about God (“theo-logy” literally means “words about God” or “teaching about God”). But we are also all theologians in how we live (our narratives), not just what we say (our propositions). Our lives are inherently theological! The question is what kind of theologians we are going to be. This brings us back, I believe, to the interdependent and interwoven character of theology and spirituality. Theology is about making us into a particular kind of people…or if you will; a particular kind of theologian – the kind that love (up)rightly, as well as know (up)rightly and do (up)rightly. The task of theology itself is a kind of spiritual discipline that is just as much an art (if not more) as it is Wissenschaft. The task of theology is a kind of spiritual discipline involving just as much prayer and contemplation (again, if not more) as academic study, a discipline that weaves these things together into the tapestry of life. The kind of spiritual formation resulting from such discipline is, then, our continued response to the reality of being captured in and by God’s triune love and grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world and God’s mission in the world. Such formation involves the transformation of the whole person for the purpose of embracing one’s role in the grand theo-dramatic narrative of redemption and has its source in the divine life of God. As such it can be nothing other than wholly theo-logical!

To this end of forming and shaping us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ are the development of theological virtues such as humility, trust, receptivity, and patience (and we could name others), but the one that stands out to me the most (perhaps because it seems to be in such short supply these days) is the virtue of wisdom. These theological virtues not only work to shape us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ but in turn also shape the way we carry out the theological task. Theology is not just about producing really smart people. Rather it is a discipline of wise discernment which leads to wise living as well as the development of what I like to call fitting ‘theological instincts’ which contribute to what I referred to above as a ‘holistically embodied theological existence’ lived to the glory of the triune God.

Such a theological vision will necessarily emphasize the interdependency of theology and praxis. The dominate model it seems in modern theology has been to split or divide theology per se (which is viewed as a kind of theory that is usually propositional) and praxis (as represented by ministerial or ecclesial practice). In this, the theory and praxis are treated as rather distant cousins that one must choose between. However, I do not believe this should be the case. Theory and praxis should never be divorced, dichotomized, or bifurcated from each other, for while they are both distinct expressions, theory and praxis are both endemic to the theological task and intertwined with each other. Ultimately, the interplay of (up)right loving (orthokardia, being), (up)right knowing (orthodoxy, thinking), and (up)right practice (orthopraxis, doing) contribute a holistic theological hermeneutic for life itself. In view of this I have taken to theologian Miroslav Volf’s view of seeing the task of theology as involving a whole way of life. Most specifically I have come to see theology as my/our participation in the divine, trinitarian life of God that is trinitarian, narrative, and missional in nature.

The shape this theological praxis takes is first of all trinitarian. Though it may seem a rather obvious thing, the triune God must be the center of theological discourse. However, God as Trinity went conspicuously absent in much of modern theology. One of the most important theological tasks I believe is the re-discovery, re-embracing, and re-living of a robustly trinitarian faith. In particular, a theology of participation is a trinitarian undertaking flowing from the triune identity of God as the ground, grammar, and goal of all theology. It is connected to the divine life (the perichoresis of which Father, Son, and Spirit are all communal participants) having been drawn into this participation in the divine, triune life ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is nothing other than participation in the trinitarian praxis of God.

Second, this theological praxis takes on a narrative shape. Such a participation in God can only be expressed in narrative form by participating with God in the grand, triune theo-dramatic narrative in the world. An important theological task here is to re-member, re-connect, and re-flect on the narrative dimension of theology. Here theology is not so much about the systematization of propositions but instead involves the interplay of the biblical narrative as the norming norm of theology, church tradition as the hermeneutical trajectory of theology, and culture as the embedding context of theology. A theology of dramatic, participative narrative theological praxis works to connect us with God’s very life as well as draw us, within our own particular narrative and cultural contexts, into the wider triune theo-dramatic narrative revealed to us within the biblical narrative ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, this theological praxis takes on a missional shape. Trinitarian praxis and narrative praxis find further expression in missional praxis. As God is active in the world, He is shown to be the missional God who calls His people into not only dramatic participation in His narrative but into missional participation and praxis, which must be grounded in the divine life (perichoresis) of the missional God. Theology as a way of life then is participation in the triune life and praxis of God that brings us into participation in God’s triune narrative and sends us outward in missional praxis to the world ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. It is here, in the area of missional praxis (connected to and flowing from trinitarian and narrative praxis), that the church is faced with the need for wise contextualization. An important theological task here is for the church to re-think, re-form, and re-imagine its ecclesial, missional, and (flowing from this) incarnational presence. As a result we can not divorce the theological task from the ecclesial context. As such theology should never be done in the ‘ivory tower,’ but must always be ‘ecclesial’ in nature, contributing to the trinitarian, narrative and missional praxis of the church. The church, in my view, should be a missional community of missional theologians who worship the one, true missional God.

To summarize then, I have come to see theology as both personal and corporate (ecclesial) participation in the divine triune life of God that is characterized by trinitarian praxis (our participation in the triune, communal life of God), narrative praxis (our participation in the grand triune, theo-dramatic narrative revealed within the biblical narrative and person of Christ), and missional praxis (our participation in the triune mission of God). In this I envision a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional theology that gives rise to a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional spirituality and way of living. This is what I see as the thrust of the theological task: theology as participation in the divine life; exhibited and lived out in trinitarian praxis, narrative praxis, and missional praxis.

My purpose and Agenda

So…why a blog? This is a question that I have been thinking about for awhile and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to do with this blog. With the question of why I refer to myself as the DesperateTheologain explained, the next question is why do I want a blog? Here are a few of the reasons that should give you an idea as to what to expect here at DesperateTheologian.

  • To share about the intersections between my story and theology. I realize that there is a widespread aversion to ‘theology’ among many and that the mere thought causes the eyes of many to roll back into their heads. At the root level I think that many who have this reaction simply don’t see in theology any relevance or import for living in the ‘real world.’ I will admit; this conception may have been well deserved in a host of theological expressions. But in my opinion, theology should never be divorced from the rest of life. I have found theology to be not only immensely practical but crucial. I want to explore the interwoven nature of story and theology (what we might call a storied theology).
  • To help me organize my thoughts. Some will be more organized while some will be me “thinking out loud” and perhaps even incomplete at the time. As a part of this, I do a lot of reading, mainly theological in nature. I am hoping this blog can provide a creative outlet for me, theologically speaking, that will help me process the thoughts from my reading.
  • To develop my ideas and hopefully maybe even get some constructive feedback from others – but only if you promise to be nice.
  • To keep myself in practice as far as writing is concerned. I don’t envision this being strictly academic in nature (I don’t plan on footnoting everything, who has the time) but I don’t want it to be non-academic either – if that makes sense.

Research Interests: Finally, these are some of my interests in my theological research that just may find their way into a blog post at some point.

  • Developing a theology of community that can find application within the church in the postmodern context.
  • Postmodern theology.
  • Post-foundationalist theology.
  • Gender issues, sexuality, and marriage from a trinitarian perspective.
  • The relationship between Trinity and scripture.
  • Philosophical/theological hermeneutics and hermeneutical philosophy/theology.
  • Theological ethics.
  • The ‘self’, theological anthropology, and the imago dei.
  • The contemporary emerging and missional conversations.
  • The intersections of trinitarian theology (my main area of interest), narrative theology, and missional theology.
  • And I’m sure Stanley Grenz will warrant a few posts as well. 🙂

Why DesperateTheologian – Part 1

Bad Blogger…Bad!!

I must admit I am really bad at this blogging thing. I have two main problems I think. One, I just get busy with other stuff – mainly research and writing for classes and such. And then there’s my X-box. No, not the 360 – I have the original one still on which I still love to play Madden and NCAA football. Really it’s the only way I get any “real” football during the off season. Yes, there’s Arena Football and NFL Europe but like I said I want real football (no offense to those that may like the Arena league or NFL Europe) but that’s a post for another time I suppose. Two, I just suppose that I have had trouble figuring out exactly what my purpose is for this blog. I’m not really the type that thinks anyone actually wants to read about my day to day happenings. My wife Christie (most will know here as C.C. blogs at lorelaicc and frankly is much more interesting than I am. I’m just not sure anyone would be as interested in me as they are of her. Its not that I don’t have ideas on things to blog about, I do! Its that most of the things I think of are theological in nature, and, well, I just don’t want to bore anyone to sleep! But still yet, I would love to have a place where I could “field test” some of my ideas, synthesize some of my research, get feed back and interaction from others, and explore the intersection between theology and real life (so I have already given this some thought). So, I am going try to get things really rolling with a series of blog posts under the title “Why DesperateTheologian?” to try to determine what it is I want to do here. The first one (below) gives some of the story behind why I call myself desperatetheologian…

Why call yourself desperatetheologian?

To understand the name desperatetheologian one needs to know something of my theological journey.  I first fell in love with theology as an undergraduate religion major at Wayland Baptist University.  Unlike most I really did enjoy reading and studying anything theological.  At this point I understood theology as mainly propositional in nature.  This is to say that theology to me was about what we can say about God.  Propositional theology is, in short, all about what we can know about God.  It is statements about God that we can be sure are true.  This is in essence the approach to faith that I grew up with in church.  I was taught a basic Biblicist view that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God with the primary purpose to give us timeless, propositions that we are to believe and that govern how we are live and act.  The Biblicist view simply says that we believe what the Bible tells us.  So I did not hear a lot about “theology” per se growing up because, as I was told, “we just believe what the Bible says, not man made formulations!”  But especially as a newly “surrendered” minister I was instructed in doctrines and taught that these were taken straight from the Bible.  Truth be told though, everyone has some sort of theology.  Where I grew up it was just not called “theology” but “doctrine” and it was basically a propositional approach to faith.  When I first went to WBU I had been warned by some to be careful at college and not let all that I learned at college ruin my faith (in a propositional sort of way that is).  However, those concerned really had nothing to worry about.  Like I said I fell in love with theology, especially systematic theology.  I liked that systematic theology gave me a way articulating “deep” things of the faith.  I found that this kind of impressed people.  I also liked that systematic theology was well – systematic.  Every doctrine was put in its proper place.  It was nice, neat, and well “packaged.”  And the packaged part did not bother me.  If someone had a question – well, I had an answer.  So…theology for me as an undergrad was about what we could know about God and about having all the right answers and the Bible was the inerrant source of what we needed to know in this regard.

Now, some may read this and think to themselves, “What’s wrong with this?  Having answers is not bad and we do need to know about God, right?”  And to this I would answer a definite affirmative.  But a solely propositional theology simply does not do justice to who God is.  He is always so much bigger than any single proposition or list of propositions that we can come up with and systematize.  Now, I need to be clear here.  It is true that I was brought up in the faith with a basically propositional view of faith but I would be remiss not to add that those who brought me up in the faith also had a deep faith and loved God deeply and taught me to do the same.  And at Wayland none of my professors ever taught me to simply be content with a solely propositional faith.  I am thankful to Dr. Paul Sadler who taught me the importance and depth of our Baptist heritage and the importance of historical theology – though I did not realize his full impact on me as an undergrad.  I am thankful to Dr. Fred Meeks, who was/is my theological mentor (and now Dr. Dan Stiver at Logsdon Seminary) who always emphasized to me that it was not enough to know about God if one does not come to actually know God, Himself – though I again did not realize his full impact on me as an undergrad.

My wife, Christie (again, most know her as C.C.), and I moved to Ft. Worth and I entered Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary the fall after graduating from WBU with my degree in religion and what I felt was a firm grasp on theology.  However, before long C.C. and I would be faced with something that would shake the seemingly firm grasp I had on theology.  During my first semester of seminary we lost our first child to miscarriage.  I plan on sharing more in future posts so it will suffice to say that in the midst of our loss and heartache, to be honest, my propositions, the things I felt I knew about God really did very little to relieve my grief.  And the propositions of other Christians we knew at school and church really did little to help them minister to us in the midst of our grief.  Most other Christians did not want to talk about our experience…our story…our grief.  Those that did just said that we should just trust that God knows best and that He is in sovereign control of all things.  Some even suggested that Christie and I were lacking in faith because we were so shaken over the loss of our babies.  It was as if we should just be able to say to ourselves, “God is sovereign” and everything would just be O.K.

In the midst of my grief I must be honest that my propositions did not stand up.  This is not to say that they were no longer true.  That God IS sovereign remains true.  That God is holy remains true.  That Christ is LORD remains true.  Well, you get the point.  But my grief remained…our grief remained.  Sure I could comprehend the propositions I was supposed to believe in my head, but it was not my head that hurt…it was my heart.  It was here that I became, well…desperate.  I was desperate for something to help me make it though this grief and help my wife make it through – because there did not seem to be any going around it.  I was desperate for something to keep us in church when we felt so isolated and when so few seemed equipped to respond with anything that did not sound like a cliché to someone in profound grief.  I was desperate for others, anyone, to be willing to walk with is in our grief, to share our story with us.  I was desperate for a theology that could help me/us make sense of our loss and grief, a theology that could make room for our experience, a theology that would enable me/us to keep believing.  But I was also desperate for a theology that could transcend what we were experiencing, for something that was true and real despite our pain; that could hold on to us because we could not hold on by ourselves.  In short I became a desperate theologian.