Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Waiting for Gospel, by Ddouglas John Hall

Chapter 7 – The Identity & Meaning of the Self

1.  This essay is built upon Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s short poem, “Who Am I?”  As Hall notes, it considers three possible responses to the question it raises.  The first response is “Other-Determined Selfhood.”  Dependence on this response “leads to the dark side,” as Darth Vader would put it.  “To be dependent upon others for one’s sense of identity and purpose is surely one of the most demeaning personal forms of human oppression.”

Why is this response so prevalent today?  Where have you struggled with this response over the years? 

2.   The second response is “Self-Determined Selfhood.”  While all of us move between these first two responses, the second promotes the illusion of the “self-made man.”  Later, Hall writes, “Thus, from the third chapter of Genesis onwards, the quest for human self-sufficiency is shown to be the most pathetic of human quests: starting out to make ourselves great, we end by being smaller than ever.  Seeking, like the pair in the Garden, to be ‘like gods,’ we regularly end by being less than authentically human – and by knowing that we are…‘naked.’”  (Does it feel drafty?)

Again, why is this response so prevalent today?  Where have you struggled with this response over the years? 

3.  Our faith tradition, in an effort to hold the first two responses in check, turns to a third possibility: “Responsive Selfhood.”  Bear with me, here, as I share several choice quotes.

“Torn between the identity laid upon us by others and the self that we feel (or perhaps fear) ourselves to be, we lack both integration and direction.”  “And such a recognition ought to be regarded by us all as a matter of hope, for it affirms the importance – even the potentially redemptive significance – precisely of periods such as ours, periods of confusion and spiritual doubt.  Perhaps in these gray, twilight times real thought, as distinct from ideology and mere convention, is possible – and real faith, too, as distinct from rote religious habit and mere credulity!”

Does this ring a bell?  How so?

“The first (observation) is that this last and only satisfying response to the question of personal identity and meaning is a response…without being an answer.”  “Not an answer, then, but the presence of the Answerer: that is the response that Bonhoeffer receives, at last, to his, who am I?”  “Religion wants to have answers – preferably in very explicit, propositional form.  Faith, which is to say trust in the Eternal Other, is content to know that it is known…”

“The second observation: Because it refuses to claim finality for itself, because the Source of its confidence lies in a trust that transcends the self, faith is free to open itself to all the answers to the identity and meaning of the self that the human mind and spirit devises; it is free to discourse with reason; it is free to discourse even with doubt – perhaps even especially with doubt, including self-doubt.” 

Does this make you feel better?  How so?

“Humankind as a whole seems incapable of living with its own deepest questions, and will resolve them superficially – even knowing its answers to be superficial! – rather than living with trust in our creaturehood and in its Creator.”

“Whenever that self…finds itself once again thrust naked into the burning questions of its being, meaning, and destiny, it must again discover the only satisfying answer, the answer that is beyond all the answers: ‘Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.’”

Wow…that really makes me feel better!!  How about you?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 6 – The Theology of the Cross

God bless Douglas John Hall…but this had to be one of the most arduous essays he’s ever written.  It’s brilliant, of course, but entirely too lengthy, complex…and needlessly short on common vernacular.  I’m reducing this chapter to its basic points so we can attempt to digest the valuable theological nuggets buried deep within Hall’s eloquent, yet rambling, dissertation.  Uff da!

1.  Hall offers two preliminary observations.  First, Martin Luther championed the term, “theology of the cross,” and contrasted it with a “theology of glory.”  Second, Luther’s considerable thoughts and contributions are valuable, not only for their historical significant, but for their contemporary role, as well.  Hall directs his interest toward this second observation and application of Luther’s theology.  

What do you know of Martin Luther as an historical figure, and what do you see as his contributions to our present context?

2.  Hall sees the theology of the cross as having a “usable past.”  In seeking to frame the term, he notes it “refers to a spirit and method that one brings to all one’s reflections on all the various areas and facets of Christian life and faith.”  It cannot be stated concisely in a formula, but it can be recognized in various theological expressions.  

Briefly (ha!) review his “informing principles of this theology.”  How does each inform our faith?

- The first is “the compassion and solidarity of God.” 
- The second is “the cross as world commitment.” 
- The third is “honesty about experience (Christian realism)”
- The fourth is “the contextual character of this theology.”
- The fifth is “the refusal of finality.”

3.  Hall concludes with his meditation on the three Pauline virtues: faith, love, and hope…and how they effectively address the opposite of each within the theology of the cross.  

How do we, as Lutherans, embrace and promote these virtues in our context?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 5 – The Identity of Jesus in a Pluralistic World

1.  Hall addresses Christianity against the backdrop of religious plurality, which continues to gain momentum worldwide.  Christianity is essentially and fundamentally Christocentric.  Contrary to popular thought, there is no negotiation here.  The temptation, Hall notes, is to shift from Christocentric to Christomonism (not to be confused with my favorite grilled sandwich, the Monte Cristo).  This dogmatic conservatism quickly becomes fundamentalist, relying on “Jesus is God” as an overarching emphasis on the divinity principle.  The first corrective to this is the humanity of Jesus.

When did it become apparent to you that Jesus was “fully human?”  What process of worship, study, or discussion brought you to this important realization?

2.  “The other chief doctrinal guard against Christomonism is the doctrine of the Trinity.”  “Behind it there is an absolutely vital need of Christian faith to be Christocentric whilst remaining monotheistic – or in other words, to pay the closest attention to Jesus Christ without, in the process, displacing or replacing the transcendent God.” 

So…how exactly does this fully “human” Jesus participate also as the fully “divine” Christ of the Trinity?  As if that isn’t hard enough, what is the nature and relationship between the eternal Christ and the historical Jesus?  (Don’t sweat it…no one has ever adequately or definitively answered either question!)

3.  Now we move to “the scandal of particularity”…and who doesn’t love a good scandal every now and then!  But this is the greatest scandal of all…“that Jesus is the crucified one: a ‘crucified God!’ (Luther) – a stumbling block to the religious, and a scandal to the worldly wise.”  Hall points out that all religions single out “one person, one constellation of events centered around this one person.” 
Why?  “Because there is no grasping of the ultimate that does not pass through the sieve of some proximate or penultimate reality; there is no experience of the absolute that is not conditioned by something relative; there is no sense of the universal that is not mediated by some particularity.”  Got that?!

“How does your “particular” function for you?” Hall inquires, citing spouses and children as examples.  In this case, he invites us to seriously consider, “How does the particular called Jesus, the Christ, function for Christians?” 

How do you answer that?  How do others answer that? 
How is inclusivity – grace through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus – perhaps the greatest scandal of all?

Finally, Hall claims, “God, in Jesus Christ, does not give us Christians the Truth; God only allows the Truth, the living Truth, ineffable and uncontainable, to live among us.”  How does such a position and belief assist us “to recognize and to honor others who look beyond themselves for what is ultimate, even when these others are not looking specifically towards Jesus?”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 4 – Where in the World Are We?

Hall introduces this chapter with the help of Chicken Little and the head-ducking ostrich, representing two extreme reactions to the situation at hand.  He asks, “How, as a religious faith, did we arrive at this point in our sojourn?  What were our expectations?”  He then frames the discussion around two imposing changes or metamorphoses:

1.  First, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity resulted in its “adoption by empire” and the “transmutation of Christianity into Christendom.”  Recalling Hall’s numerous examples and the ramifications of this development over the centuries, how have the expansion and alignment of Christianity with political and cultural powers contributed to its current malaise?  How does this weakening alignment serve and/or hinder the Church’s mission today?  Give examples of each.

2.  The second great change or metamorphosis is “nothing less than a reversal of the process of Christian establishment begun in the fourth century: that is, it is a process of disestablishment...the de-Constantinianization of Christendom.”  Hall also refers to it as “the sidelining of Christianity.”  The cultural establishment of Christianity in North America, while still significant, is rapidly and franticly loosing ground…“being edged out towards the periphery of their host cultures.”  Nothing in our past has prepared us for this shift: “that we must share the spiritual nurture of the world with many other faith traditions, and must learn to live without social props and political favors.” 

Where do you see this shift most visibly today, both nationally and globally?  How has this shift served to deflate or energize our motivation and efforts in sharing the gospel of Christ?

3.   Hall suggests this has led to a basic confusion about our identity and our mission.  He offers four basic alternatives:

- The first response is the ostrich syndrome…to deny it or just look the other way as long as possible.
- The second response is to blame the decline of the church on lukewarm – perhaps liberal – leadership, and set out to reverse the trend.
- The third response is to look for the continuation of Christendom elsewhere.

Where do we see each of these three responses today?  Why do they ultimately fail to advance the Church’s mission and witness?

- Finally, Hall breaks down the fourth response into three parts:

(1) Frankly and openly admit the reality of the humiliation of Christendom.
(2) Resist the temptation to regard this great change in purely negative terms, as though the failure of a form of Christianity meant the failure of Christianity itself.
(3) Try to give the process of our disestablishment some positive and meaningful direction, rather than simply allowing it to happen to us.

How might each of these give the Church “a fighting chance” as we navigate the uncertain waters before us?