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

    whose absoluteness is defined in terms of unsurpassable relationality. My intent in saying this here is not to make God any less absolute, any less “God.” It is to say that our secular or philosophical notions of the “absolute” or “ultimate reality” have to be challenged and re-defined by the God we have begun to know, from our confessional starting point, in the Biblical narratives and especially in the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ. The God we know in this way is still, most emphatically, God. And there is no other “God” above, behind, or beyond this God

    (sorry, Paul Tillich).

    Nevertheless, philosophical theology has its place: by borrowing and critiquing God-talk from surrounding cultures it may offer us any number of credible ideas about God‟s abstract “essence” or “nature”, i.e., what God is (or at least might be). They may even

    make the existence of something like God look more credible to some of us, if not to everybody. Charles Hartshorne is a good example of this.

    But faith is not simply a matter of assenting to ideas about God‟s nature. It is a matter of

    responding with all that we are not just to ideas about what or whether God is, but to whom God is for us here and now and how all of us got to this point. And that requires telling and weaving together all kinds of truthful stories first, and only then looking to more “generic” ideas about God, human beings, etc., letting them illuminate those stories, but not letting them take over.

    Let‟s take a moment and look at one traditional way of coming at the concept of God somewhat generically, to see some of its strengths and weaknesses.

    According to Augustine, and later Anselm, God is "that than which no greater can be conceived," i.e., the being greater than any other conceivable being. Such a being, they concluded, must possess all "great-making" properties to the fullest extent that they could conceivably be possessed all at once by a single being. (Note that "greater than" can mean "bigger than," "better than" or both.)

    Fine. But Augustine at least noticed that people can disagree about a) which properties are truly great-making (See Augustine On Christian Doctrine, I.7) and b) which great-

    making properties are compatible with each other. So this doesn‟t settle anything.


    Many classical theists have contended that such a being must be the most powerful of all, affecting all others unsurpassably, while remaining immutable, beyond being affected in any real way by any others. So God was held to be incapable of genuine compassion. The reasoning here was apparently that, yes, compassion may be a great-making property in its own right, but it was not nearly as great-making as immutability. So compassion had to go. Thus Anselm: "Thou art compassionate in terms of our experience, and not compassionate in terms of thy being ... because thou art affected by no sympathy for wretchedness" (Proslogion, VIII).

    So what did they do with all the Biblical stories that portray God as one who can be affected and even changed by us? Those have to be taken more figuratively, they said. So in effect they admitted that their concept of God could not do equal justice to all the portrayals of God in the Bible, and that‟s a very telling admission.

    But our century has produced some revisionary theists. Not all of them are process theologians, though they‟re the most familiar. But Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Jurgen

    Moltmann and Joe Jones belong here too, along with Clark Williamson and Marjorie Suchocki. Unlike Augustine or Anselm, they regard being unsurpassably affected by all others as a property every bit as great-making as immutability and the ability to affect all others unsurpassably. And they contend (at least Schubert Ogden does) that all these properties are compatible if we make a distinction between God's nature (or essence: "what God is") and God's actuality (how this

    God exists from one moment to the next). God's nature is indeed immutable, and the fact that God exists with certain essential properties is likewise an immutable truth, but God's actuality is unsurpassably "mutable" (and thus really capable of compassion).

    Obviously, this doesn‟t do equal justice to all the Biblical portrayals of God either, but I suspect it does justice to more of them than the classical model, and it certainly seems closer to the Gospel.

    I tend to side with this revisionary group, but the challenge here is to put all this in the context from which our faith actually arises, the problem being that you can get so caught up in debating abstractions that you forget why any of them might have mattered.

    We are not responding to what God is or how this God exists from one moment to the next, but to whom God is and has been in communion with us here and now and

    with all that has brought us to this point.

    In other words, given the inescapability of our confessional starting point, the only kind of God we can know is one who can be truly present as God in such relative

    circumstances as ours.

    But this (according to Barth, Rahner, and before them, Hegel) is precisely the point of Nicea, Chalcedon (you‟d better know or learn quickly what those two terms mean),

    and any decent sacramental theology: that the absolute can be, in some way, absolutely present in the relative.

    This point of course seems to require that we redefine what "absolute" means: even the absolute, as absolute, must be in some sense relative or (better?) "relational."


    But this is actually truer to the root meaning of “absolute”: Literally, the word means 1“absolved,” “freed” (remember that absolution comes after confession in the daily office). It does not have to mean “aloof,” “immutable,” and it can‟t mean

    “unrelational.” In fact, if we say God, or God‟s character is freed, the first question I want ask is, “Freed from what, by whom and for what?” Those are relational questions.

    The short answer, as best I can give it, is, “Freed from external limitations, freed by

    (who else?) God, and freed for (what else?) communion with each and every one of us.”

    Thus (in agreement with process thought) God's absoluteness can be understood not as opposed to relativity but as an unsurpassable form of relativity: God is the one who, unlike any creature, lives in relation to all others (not just some), and whose

    relation to them is (as St. Augustine put it) nearer to them than they are to themselves.

    It is precisely because God is so near to us that we must somewhat paradoxically

    confess that God is utterly unlike anything else we know. (As Karl Rahner put it, the incomprehensible mystery of God lies not in God's remoteness but in God's "radical proximity.")

    God's eternity can likewise be understood not as sheer timelessness but as an unsurpassable form of temporality in which a settled past and an open future "interpermeate" within a living present.

    What does this have to do with the Trinity?

    “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy

    Spirit be with all of you” 2 Cor. 12:13. This is the earliest Trinitarian formula, most scholars think. Note that it does not refer to God as “Father,” though of course Paul does quite frequently.

    The rendition of the Gospel I keep promoting is intended to lean in a Trinitarian direction. But it is definitely pre-Nicene. It aims to preserve the first Christians‟ tendencies to weave the living Jesus, the Spirit, God, and themselves into such an intimate communion that nobody could get too clear on precisely who or what went where. There is in this Biblical cluster of testimonies an irreducible, eccentric and broken plurality, yet ultimately a stubbornly unvanquished relationalityall of which

    legitimately prompts and subverts later generations‟ attempts to sort things out too 2definitively.

    That is why my preferred rendition of the Gospel pivots around the term “communion,” in an effort to emphasize both the plurality and relationality of these earliest witnesses. I want to suggest that even God (the “Father”), the Spirit and Jesus Christ are who they are only in the context of that communiona communion that they are well-pleased to

    see going far beyond just them to call forth and embrace all creation and finally even us.

     1 I am indebted to Peter C. Hodgson for this point in his Winds of the Spirit (Louisville: Westminster John

    Knox Press, 1994), p. 147. 2 I first began to appreciate this after reading James D. G. Dunn‟s Unity and Diversity in the New Testament

    (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), in early 1978. It helped to resolve a number of troubling issues my first year in seminary was posing for me. Dunn‟s insight was later taken up and developed in an even more pluralistic direction in David Tracy‟s The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1981). See

    especially pp. 248-304. Interestingly, this book‟s appearance coincided with my first year at Chicago.


    That does not make communion a further reality (a fourth member of the Trinity?) behind or altogether beyond who they are, or even who we are. Communion, as mutual indwelling, interpermeation, perichoresis, etc., simply does not work that way.

    Nevertheless, my emphasis on communion does aim to make it just as much a focus of Christian contemplation and action as any persons involved, whether divine or creaturely. My hope is that this will help subvert our temptations to turn any “classic” accounts of that communion into another trump card.

    And that is why the term comes first in “the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ,” and why I tend to use that entire phrase in places where I might once have simply spoken of God, the Spirit, Jesus Christ or even the Trinitynot to supplant these, by

    any means, but to return them to a more dynamic context and meaning. It‟s a habit I recommend to you as well: try using it as often as you can.

    This certainly does make me some kind of Trinitarian. But as I said, the Gospel that claims me most radically is decidedly pre-Nicene, more closely reflecting the fluidity of earliest Christian testimonies (with little concern for what might qualify as the earliest).

    So while I consider myself a celebrant of Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, I am not a staunch defender of either.

    What I celebrate in them is where they resisted the temptation (better than their competitors) to sort things out too neatly, yet still managed to say something illuminating.

    With Nicea I can readily say that in encountering the “realistic narrative” of Jesus‟ ministry and destiny we encounter no less than “true God from true God,” “of one being with” the one Jesus called “the Father.”

    With Chalcedon I can readily say that the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ is,

    to paraphrase, a relationship of unity without confusion and distinction without separation (i.e., a relationship of interpermeation).

    But these councils also seem to have fallen prey to the neatly-sorting-out temptation as well, frightened as they were at the very idea that the Divine might suffer. Most of their current, self-appointed defenders have done a better job of keeping everything more relational, the ironic thing being that precisely for that reason they would all doubtless have been anathematized by the original councils, as would I. To emphasize communion in this way is already to introduce a note of eccentricity into this Gospel. We are, after all, speaking of a God whose very self is not a private, self-contained commodity but an open dynamism of self-giving to us in creation and 3redemption: at once the Giver, the Gift and the Giving.

    A God whose very self does not exist behind but in and through the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ is thus a God whose self is centered eccentrically.

     3For a fruitful development of the terminology of self-giving, see Stephen H. Webb, The Gifting God:

    A Trinitarian Ethics of Excess (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). I did not borrow this

    terminology directly from Webb. I borrowed it first from a doxology by Brian Wren, set to the hymntune Lasst uns erfreuen: "Praise God the Giver and the Gift. / Hearts, minds and voices now

    uplift: / Alleluia, alleluia. / Praise, praise the Breath of glad surprise, / freeing, uplifting, opening eyes: / Three-in-oneness, Love communing, / Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia." See Wren, Bring Many Names

    (Carol Stream, Ill.: Hope Publishing Co., 1989), no. 35a. It is only fitting that a poet gets the principal credit here.


    The practical upshot of this is that both we and God are truly ourselves only in true communion with true others (indeed a self is such a communion). And we thus know

    no other God than a God of “otherness.”

    But to speak of eccentricity alone doesn‟t go far enough. The God we know in Jesus Christ is a God whose self is centered not only eccentrically but brokenly. I‟ll repeat here something I said earlier: 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.

    Here is where I would direct attention to McGrath‟s helpful overview in the section, “Can

    God Suffer?” (pp. 248-256).

    We‟ve only introduced the doctrine of the Trinity at this point. We‟ll be coming back to it week after week, especially in our discussions of Christology and Pneumatology. But I want to raise one more point, namely, the way in which God gives God‟s very

    selfhood over to the courses communion actually takes in history.

    There are some very abstract things we can say about God without telling any stories overtly. They may give us some idea of what God is and whether God is. But only

    immersion in history can supply who God is, even, I suggest, for God. That is why the

    stories of Israel, of Jesus Christ, and other stories of liberation and redemption are never optional trappings—not for our knowledge of God, and not for God‟s own sense

    of selfhood. Yes, that‟s mind-boggling, but it just might be the Gospel.

    Once again, the God we know as Christians corresponds to the way we know God. That is what Nicea affirmed, and what Arius had (perhaps inadvertently) denied. Final words on expansive language for God

    I do fervently believe that the exclusive use of male pronouns and male imagery for God

    is oppressive in subtle but far-reaching ways. We need other ways to speak of God that don‟t reinforce a patriarchal worldview.

    Along with a growing number of feminists, I don‟t necessarily have a problem with retaining the language of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and even giving it a place of honor in worship. That is because in the dynamism of Trinitarian relations even these terms take on a subversive and liberating twist that some of their defenders may not have noticed.

    But the point of that is, if we are to remain faithful to the trajectory the Trinity outlines, we have no right to make this the sole, exclusive formula. And ideally no service of worship would use only those terms.

    My preference for “the communion of God‟s Spirit in Jesus Christ” is obvious enough. I‟ve also spoken of the “Giver, the Gift and the Giving.” St. Augustine spoke of the “Lover, the Beloved and their Love.” “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” has its problems, but not serious ones if used alongside more traditional formulations. One of the most popular formulas these days is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us all.” I could make a whole lecture on this subject alone, so I‟ll stop here.

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