Made some sweet Barth bookmarks today, thanks to the good folks from the Central Oklahoma Church Dogmatics Reading Group and Kerry of Kerry’s Loft. Want a set of your own? Here is the link. The bookmarks are based on the image above.
It is, along with feminism, according to Professor Stephen Prothero of Boston University. I like Prothero. His American Jesus is one of the most interesting books I’ve encountered about American religion. But I think he may have spoken too soon here.
There are a variety of feminisms and thus a variety of feminist theologies. Are all of them dead? And if so, did they all die at the same time? My own thinking is that the current trends of feminism in academic circles (represented by works such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble) have left behind the equality-centered and issue-driven feminism of previous waves of feminists such as Steinem.
There is an odd kind of totalitarianism among academic feminists, though. In my course work, it often seemed that some women in the class were simply not content until we looked at everything from a “feminist” point of view. The most egregious example of this was in a class I took on Christianity and Masculinity, in which the female graduate students began to complain that we were “not talking enough” about women’s concerns. Eesh.
In some respects, I often found academic feminism to be silly because, in my experience, it consisted of elite, privileged (and often white) women sitting around and wallowing in their own oppression. If you’re in an ivy-league PHD program, odds are you haven’t suffered massive injustice! And if you want to do justice, go work for Habitat for Humanity, because teaching a bunch of other women to see themselves as oppressed doesn’t really do much to make the world a brighter or more truthful place.
Nevertheless, feminist theology has some important contributions to make. Male theologians need to be called out for their unrecognized bias on occasion. As a pastor, my own view is that feminist theology stops being theology altogether when the identity “woman” becomes more important the One worshiped – the Holy Trinity, God in three persons. The gospel, after all, is not a call to self-actualization but a call to die to self and live to God.
Read Karl Barth – it’s all about Jesus!
But God made you without you. You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you. How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist? So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you. So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)
John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.
This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks. (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?) For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation. We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit. Awesome.
For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic. We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift. Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.
In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western. The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection. The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.” This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.
But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity. Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism. I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.
Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together. So I’m working on it. They say “build a bridge and get over it.” I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge. I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.
Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.” In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected). Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.
So it is with grace. God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us. (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.) No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.” Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.“ The response matters. It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine. Bite me, John Piper. Amen.
Barth wrote a lot on the church, and to be sure, much has been written about Barth’s view of the Church. I make no claim to be an expert on Barth, on ecclessiology (the study of the church), and especially not on Barthian ecclesiology. I’m only somewhat familiar with Barth’s project and am only now wading into deep waters by slowly reading a volume of his massive Church Dogmatics.
As you can follow along with my counter to the right, it is a tedious process, though quite rewarding. I chose to begin with Dogmatics II.2, because this is where Barth does some of his most original and interesting work revamping the Calvinist concept of election. I’m still trying to square this with my Methodist theology, but that will be a work in progress for some time.
This morning, I came across this gem:
As the church, the community [of God]…is the centre and medium of communication between Jesus and the world, having its commission to all who stand outside. (239)
To be sure, it is a small nugget, but profound nonetheless. At my seminary, we liked to talk about ecclesiology a great deal; this was related, largely, to an institutional bent towards the Roman Catholic tradition that as a whole was very fruitful. At the time, though, I found the bend toward ecclessiology an odd and not wholly necessary distraction.
But serving a local church has made me realize that we protestant Christians really do have a hard time articulating the “why” of the Church. I certainly was not told why I went to church as a child, or even why the Church exists. Also, in doing a recent study of The Shack, I challenged my people to think through the anti-church bias present in much of the book (which is, really, a modern bias as a whole) – assumptions that many of them (even life-long churchgoers!) shared.
Between the Catholic scandals, the defenders of the “house church” movement, and the New Atheists, the institutional church is under assault. We pastors desperately need to articulate the “why” of the Church to our people. If protestantism proves anything, it is that the conception of the Church as a collection of individual believers who come to get their spiritual fuel tanks filled (a consumerist model of church) cannot be sustained. Barth gives us a good starting place to rethink that practice: through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church is how Jesus reaches out the world and asks them to respond in faith and service. Like Israel of old, the Church exists not for itself but for God and thus for all the world.
P.S. If you want some help articulating the ‘why’, check out Gerhard Lofhink’s Does God Need the Church? It is, quite simply, marvelous.