I want to start this lecture with some autobiographical fragments

By Melissa Carroll,2014-04-16 21:43
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I want to start this lecture with some autobiographical fragments



    The purpose of this course is to introduce and examine some major topics, issues and options in the understanding of the nature and tasks of Christian theology, with a view towards developing your own capacity for critical and constructive theological reflection.

Theology: As I understand it, Christian theology is making sense of the Gospel and

    all other truths that claim us most radically. As such it embraces both “faith seeking

    understanding” and critical reflection upon that faith. It starts from a recognition that we all live by convictions, and that among those convictions are what I call truths that claim us most radically. They shape who we are so fundamentally (i.e., radically) that we cannot even think about them without in some sense living by them. Take for example the conviction: “People matter.” Can you think about this without living by it? I think not. In that case it is a conviction that could be said to claim you so fundamentally that you must presume its truth. But we live amidst a variety of such truths, and the variations give rise to questions. Christians, Jews and Muslims are also most radically claimed by the conviction that God matters at least as much as people do, and that leads us to ask where our ultimate loyalties should lie. Should loyalty to God take precedence over loyalty to humanity and other creatures? Devout people have answered that question in a number of ways. So we have to make sense of questions like theseat least enough sense that we can get on with our lives. And that is the kind of sense-making theology requires. What makes theology Christian is when amidst such truths we find ourselves claimed just as radically by some recognizable rendition of the Gospel or “good news” of Jesus Christ.

    The Gospel: As your professor, I get the privilege of using my own rendition of the Gospel to shape the structure of this course. But a central aim of the course is to get you to articulate and support your own rendition of the Gospel. (The assumption here is that in taking this course at this school you consider yourself either some type of Christian or else someone in dialogue with Christianity.) Your rendition might look strikingly different from mine. What matters is that you articulate it carefully and

    support it aptly. I am supposed to model this for you, so let me start by presenting you with the Gospel as best I can formulate it here and now:

In eccentricity and brokenness,

    the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ

    embraces each and every one of us just as we are

    and draws us to embody that communion for all others,

    now and always.

    As you will see, each of the topics covered in this course is a variation on this one theme. I encourage you to construct your papers along similar lines.


    Required Texts

    Peter C. Hodgson & Robert H. King, eds., Readings in Christian Theology

    Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction

    Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite & Mary Potter Engel, eds., Lift Every Voice: Constructing

    Christian Theologies from the Underside

    Theology as Embodying the Gospel

    To repeat, Christian theology is simply making sense of the Gospel and all other truths that claim us most radically. Since that touches on just about every subject, theology often gives rise to exceedingly abstract formulations. That needs no apology. But at its heart theology is the most vital engagement imaginable. At its heart theology is not arguments, not static formulas, but a constant, lively interaction among all the most radical claims on our lives. It is a kind of conversation that never ends. Even in solitude the conversation goes on internally. And even when our attention focuses elsewhere, it goes on in the background. It is how we try to face the variety of claims on our lives with integrity.

    Everybody should engage in that kind of conversation, or rather own up to the fact that they are already so engaged and try to do it less haphazardly. Weighty thinkers have argued for this as a universal human obligation with varying degrees of success (and failure). I welcome the effort and have learned from it. But for those of us claimed by the Gospel, that kind of conversation is simply one of the most fundamental ways that we eccentric and broken creatures can embody the correspondingly eccentric and broken communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ.

    I cannot embody that communion without welcoming others as genuine others and seeking the same of them.

    I cannot welcome or seek welcome without facing the variety of claims our lives make on one another simply by virtue of their intersection.

    And I cannot face those claims with integrity without struggling to resist and mend the brokenness that infects everything we all do.

    At its heart, then, theology is at one with the pursuits of peace and justice and with the practices we traditionally call spiritual disciplines. These are all aspects of embodying the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ.

    It is theology’s distinctive and most important task to help us imagine realistically just

    how such an eccentric and broken communion could already be at work embracing and transfiguring all the mundane, eccentric and broken practices that make up our lives here and now.

    But the influences here are and should be multiple: our pursuits of peace and justice and our cultivation of spiritual disciplines are just as important for theology‟s health as theology remains for those practices.

    Questioning God?

    I want to address one topic that students tend to raise at this point: Some feel as if we‟re

    doing something irreverent here, asking all these questions. How dare we question God? Let me make three points:

    1) Most of the time, it’s not God we’re questioning—it’s what other people have told us about God, or an experience you or I thought we had of God, etc. That‟s all very


    human stuff. And how can we avoid that if we believe that in this life we never get beyond eccentric and broken responses to the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ? I can‟t make any human testimony a final trump card, beyond all question: not

    Scripture, not a church‟s teaching office, not me. That‟s why being part of a responsibly confessing community is so important. Our questioning should be responsible and sometimes reverent, but we can‟t avoid questions if we‟re honest about

    ourselves. Maybe my questioning sounds too light-hearted at times. So keep in mind that even then, at least in my better moments, the underlying context is one of reverence and responsibility, even if I don‟t mention it. In fact one reason why I have gotten so

    liturgical is to instill in myself the habits of awe, wonder, deep joy and delight in the presence of a mystery I‟ll never fathom. The light-heartedness is there because in

    God‟s embrace I have been freed to admit that none of the rest of us is God and that

    none of the rest of us needs to be God, and I find it amusing when we catch ourselves trying to be God anyway. So by all means, stay reverent, but lighten up a little. 2) Even if we question God, that’s a perfectly Biblical thing to do. And you‟d know that

    if you paid enough attention to the Bible. Abraham haggles with God over the fate of Sodom, Moses talks God out of getting nasty, Jonah chides God for not being nasty enough (if that‟s not a light-hearted book, I don‟t know what is), after reminding Job of

    who‟s who, God turns around and tells Job‟s friends that only Job‟s honest, bitter questioning tells the truth, not their pious platitudes, the Canaanite woman shows Jesus he can be more generous than he had thought, and I can‟t begin to list the Psalms that

    cross-examine God more bluntly than Kenneth Starr could ever dream. How can we avoid concluding that this is a God who wants to meet us in questions just as much as answers? If you don‟t dare to question God, you‟re just not Biblical enough.

    3) Atrocities in Christ’s name demand a questioning faith. It‟s because we haven‟t

    preserved that willingness to question that we can‟t begin to list all the people in the last two thousand years that Christians have at least wanted to see dead, and sometimes made that happen, just because they wouldn‟t stop questioning. As the heirs of those Christians it‟s our obligation to show a better and, I hope, more faithful way.


    Communion in Eccentricity & Brokenness: Revelation, Sources & Norms

    Lecture Notes

    Charles W. Allen

Hodgson/King, 31-59; 88-117

    Thistlethwaite, 265-297 (cf. 1-96)

    McGrath, 181-232

Revelation, Sources & Norms in Light of the Gospel

    Our understanding of God‟s self-revelation is the presupposition for what we think of the usual sources: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

    The principal norm for Christian theology is the Gospel, which already expresses a concept of God‟s self-revelation: We know God fundamentally because the communion

    of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ already embraces and transfigures us here and now, in our own eccentricity and brokenness (or more traditionally, our creatureliness and fallenness).

    The Gospel also reminds us that this communion is also eccentric and broken in its own peculiar way. This is especially manifested and confirmed in the life, death, and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth. The God who eccentrically created this eccentric world out of uncoerced love is also the God who follows that world into brokenness and actually embraces brokenness in God‟s own life in order to mend and transform ours.

    It is only recently and reluctantly that Christians have begun to consider that, if this is the kind of God we know, then maybe we should stop expecting our sources of revelation to be any less eccentric and broken than God has already been on our behalf. Our emphasis, I suggest, should shift from hiding behind doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility to a more communal process of mutual accountability in a “responsibly confessing community.”

    How do we know God?

    From the catechism of the New Zealand Prayer Book (p. 926):

    “How do we become aware of God? [Revelation]

    “By God‟s initiative in our thinking and understanding: by experiencing and reflecting on the wonder and mystery of creation, birth and death, love, guilt and the need to find meaning and worth beyond ourselves.

    “Where do we learn about God? [Sources]

    “Christians learn about God in the Bible, in the teaching of the Church summed up in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, and through sharing in the living community of faith.”

    As Christians our starting point is always confessional: our appeals to "reason" and "experience" are already shaped by various traditions in turn shaped by Jewish-Christian scripture, and these "sources" are decisive only insofar as they present us with truths that we confess to have claimed us most radically.

    To be “claimed most radically” by certain truths is something like what Christians and others have tended to mean when speaking of revelation: however we learn of such truths, they seem to wind up claiming us more than we claim them, as if they had a life, an initiative, of their own at least to a certain extent.

    A confessional starting point may sound arbitrary, private or relativistic, but it is not: it is not willfully chosen but claims us. And by definition to confess is to acknowledge


    accountability to others. Furthermore, even from a confessional starting point certain truths seem inescapable not just for us but for anybody.

    Our current intellectual climate suggests that all reasoning is in some sense confessionally rooted. (Indeed, this seems to be one of those inescapable universal truths.)

    This to some extent blurs distinctions between "general revelation" (reason and experience) and "special revelation" (scripture and tradition).

    Appeals to reason and experience are at best intriguing but inconclusive if detached from confessing how we are most radically claimed here and now.

    Appeals to scripture and tradition are similarly inconclusive if detached from confessing how we are most radically claimed here and now.

    This renders doctrines of "inerrancy" and "infallibility" pointless. We may be obliged to say that the ultimate source of confessed truth is unerring and in some sense absolute. But with a confessional starting point even appeals to absolute truth are fraught with eccentricity and brokenness.

    Nothing can save us from the risk of being drastically wrong. (Look at the story of Adam and Eve.) All we can do is take responsibility for risks we cannot help taking. That is precisely why appeals to scripture, tradition, reason and experience

    (including my confessed experience) are misleading apart from participating in a responsibly confessing community.

    A responsibly confessing community is one that a) confesses itself to be claimed by certain truths most radically, and b) confesses that its attempts to live by these truths are 1) fallible, 2) subject to self-deception (due to inordinate self-concern) but 3) still

    inescapable, owing to their radicality.

    Because its attempts to live by such claims are fallible, subject to self-deception, yet inescapable, such a community, to be responsible, must agonize over the extent to which it must welcome or resist the influence of competitive claims (and those who hold them). (Space must be allowed for responsible disagreement, but not all disagreement is responsible.)

    I would claim that these features characterize any community that makes claims to any kind of truth, but I am mainly concerned with how they work in communities formed around confessing and embodying the Gospel.

    How then do we know God in all this?

    We Christians begin to know God only as the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ claims us (embraces and transforms us) in our confessional starting point (just as we are), and our initial knowledge of God receives all the confirmation, illumination and correction it could conceivably hope to gain as we participate actively in a responsibly confessing community (i.e., one drawn to embody that communion for all others, now and always).

    As we‟ll hear more about next week, the kind of God we know as Christians corresponds to the way we know Goda God whose absoluteness is defined in terms of

    unsurpassable relationality.


    The Communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ: Doctrine of God

    Lecture Notes

    Charles W. Allen

    Hodgson/King, 60-87

    Thistlethwaite, 97-115

    McGrath, 239-256; 292-316

How do we know God?

    We Christians begin to know God only as the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ claims us (embraces and transforms us) in our confessional starting point (just as we are), and our initial knowledge of God receives all the confirmation, illumination and correction it could conceivably hope to gain as we participate actively in a responsibly confessing community (i.e., one drawn to embody that communion for all others, now and always).

    What kind of God do we know?

    The kind of God we know as Christians corresponds to the way we know Goda God