Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 11 – Christianity and Empire

1.  What a great chapter (as opposed to last week)!  Hall’s basic thesis here is that the Christian Empire serves as an oxymoron…a bold contradiction of values and agendas.  He begins with the assertion that empires need religion; then backs it up with numerous examples throughout history…the greatest of these being Rome and the United States. 

What do the Roman and U.S. empires have in common in this regard?  Where are these oxymorons most visible today?

2.  Next, Hall discusses what empires find attractive about the Christian religion.  The most attractive ingredient was the Christian emphasis upon the unity of the deity…of all things “under God.”  A second attractive element is its potentiality for triumphalism.  A third advantage is Christianity’s tendency to foster personal morality and to downplay or neglect social ethics.  Fourth, empires could count on religion to promote imperial authority.

Review and reflect on each of these four attractions.  How do they live on today?

3.  Hall then moves to the role of prophetic faith and the rub it causes against the empire.  He notes several clashes that emerge.  First, prophetic faith is oriented towards truth.  Second, the prophetic tradition never allows its hope in God’s purposes to blind it to the actual negations that mar existence under the conditions of history.  Third, prophetic faith manifests a particular awareness of and concern for those whose suffering is the greatest…those victimized by the dominant culture.

Where, exactly, has the church failed and succeeded in each of these historically?  How is the church managing these three roles today?

4.  Hall contends that contemporary Christians are living on the edge of empire.  Christendom, the alliance of the Christian religion and imperial cultures, was always an oxymoron…one that finds itself in its final stages of decay.  But this is not all bad, Hall urges.  In fact, it is the stance that prophetic faith finds most natural. 

He goes on, “Because of its inherent contextuality, this theology constantly involves the submission of its theoretical ideas, doctrines, concerns and hunches to the realities of the here and now.  Therefore it is ready to make distinctions and to entertain paradox and nuance.”  But not all activity of empires is evil or unacceptable.  In spite of such, much good has emerged in certain pockets and corners of the empire that have promoted genuine Christian ethics and activity.  Hall cites the United States as one such empire that has elicited much good in the soupy mix of Christendom.

So, how does it feel to you to be living “on the edge of empire?”  What does it mean to you to be a faithful, participating Christian in America today?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 10 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer & the Ethics of Participation

*I have to admit, this chapter left me disappointed.  It was slow and arduous reading, with very little in the way of good discussion material.  So, let’s touch briefly upon the major points and see what we can get out of this chapter together.  ;-)

1.  Bonhoeffer is the contemporary champion of Luther’s “theology of the cross.”  Hall divides his chapter into four distinct sections as he flushes out this theology.  First, we have, “The Theology of the Cross as the Link.”  While few of us share in the scholarly concern over Bonhoeffer’s earlier versus later works, we can all benefits from the common appreciation of his life-story.  “There are not two Bonhoeffers, only one.”

I have no idea why Hall includes this information in this introduction…do you?  Did I miss something?  Please jump in!

2.  Next, Hall asks, “What is the Theology of the Cross?”  In this instance, it is the “essential thread” that runs through the complex tapestry of Bonhoeffer’s life and work.  Hall then proceeds to discuss at great length the various interpretations of this theology by myriad theologians over the centuries.  This is a lot to take in! 

As you consider Hall’s eight terse observations (only seven are numbered), did any of them interest you?  Did you connect with one or more in any meaningful way?

3.  Next, Hall discusses, “Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross.”  Finally, it gets interesting!  As Visser ‘t Hooft writes, Bonhoeffer insisted that “the church must stop defending itself and its particular “religiosity” and simply be present in the world for others, as Jesus Christ was.”

“Instead of pursuing a God who carries us off to some ecstatic supranatural sphere, discipleship means pursuing the God who penetrates more and more deeply into the life of the world…that is, among the abandoned, the abused, the suffering, the marginalized.”

How do you draw a distinction between Christian faith and “religion,” per se?  Where was Bonhoeffer headed with this?

4.  Fourth, we have, “The Ethic of the Theology of the Cross.”  Basically, Hall directs us from a world-oriented theology of the cross to an ethic of the cross, which is participatory in character.  “Bonhoeffer’s contribution is to envision and embody a community of the cross with an ethic of imitation, or participation, as the church’s societal vocation and presence.”  Hall suggest we move from social to personal ethics as a means of engagement (invoking sexual orientation as an example).

What does it mean for us to engage in Christian ethics, and where “in the world” are we called to participate?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 9 – Beyond Good and Evil

1.  Hall introduces us to renowned atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, whose infamous writing serves as a powerful backdrop against the mystery of good and evil.  Hall’s thesis here is quite “anti-Nietzschean,” which he presents in three parts: 

First, “Over against the contemporary drift towards ethical relativism, good and evil are permanently legitimate distinctions, the steady contemplation of which is necessary to the survival of civilization.”

Where is this ethical relativism most prevalent today?  (Let’s look far and wide as we address this question.)  Why does our survival depend on the steady contemplation of good and evil?  Why does Nietzsche’s “value-prioritizing” fail to deliver any kind of moral stability?

2.  Second, “Contrary to every type of moral absolutism, good and evil are inextricably interwoven in the fabric of our actual living.”  Hall expounds: “For serious Christians, moralistic solutions to profound ethical questions are especially frustrating because (usually in the name of true-believing Christianity!) they promulgate simplistic moral teachings that misrepresent and distort the more penetrating moral insights of biblical faith.”

Hall urges us to distinguish biblical faith from the dangerous biblicism of old morality.  Biblical faith understands that…“our lives in the actual living of them are inevitable strange admixtures of good and evil.” 

Hall asks, “Can anyone be called good, really?”  And I ask, “If not…why?”  (Paul and Jesus have great answers for this!)

3.  Third, “Human authenticity depends upon a grace that is indeed…beyond good and evil.”  Citing his much-earlier reading of a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, Hall concludes, “In the last analysis, it is not ours to untangle the mysterious intermingling of good and evil that constitutes a life; that the authenticity for which we long and toward which our goodness is indeed a striving, can be realized by us only as a gift – only as a grace that is indeed…beyond good and evil.”

And finally, this gem by Hall:  “What divine grace offers…is a new freedom: the freedom to end preoccupation with one’s own moral condition; the freedom to become ultimately concerned, rather, with the good of the other.”

What role does God’s grace play in your understanding of and coping with good and evil?  Consider sharing a real-life experience of this freedom…moving from self-concern to other-concern, with the help of God.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 8 – What Are People For?

1. In Hall’s introduction to this chapter, he states, “There is probably no more immediately important theological and ethical task for Christians today than that of developing a worldly theology of human stewardship.”  He follows this up with a protracted example of Montreal’s irritating non-responses to global warming and environmental degradation. 

This is where the theology of stewardship comes in.  “What is the chief end of man?”  He responds alternatively, “The chief end of the human being is to be God’s faithful steward in a profoundly threatened creation.” 

What are the practical implications of this statement for us as individuals, as congregations, and as a nation?

2.  Hall goes on to reframe his discussion by lifting up Wendell Berry’s book, What Are People For?  That’s it, Hall declares!  That’s our primary anthropological question for Christians today.  He notes the explosive growth of the human population, along with the destructive footprint we have left upon our planet.  “Do we have any positive purpose at all?” he asks.  Is it all doom and gloom in the end?  Many have adopted a cynical, nihilistic attitude in this regard. 

Again, Hall draws us back to the symbol of the steward.  In doing so, he juxtaposes the biblical model with the common contemporary model of steward as “manager,” which Hall labels as “theologically and apologetically stupid beyond belief.”  The human being is not equipped to be the CEO of creation!  Take a few minutes to reflect and elaborate on the national and global destructive footprint we face today. 

Why are we such poor “managers” of God’s creation?

3.  Hall states that biblical stewardship consists of two poles: accountability and responsibility.  Accountability implies limits to the human steward’s activity.  The earth is not ours to do with as we please.  This eliminates any perceived status, “as if the human were separable from or superior in relation to the other creatures; the emphasis rather is on calling – vocation.”

The steward is accountable AND responsible.  “The Hebraic-Christian tradition has a high anthropology; it expects much of the human – not only in the realm of deeds, but also in the realm of understanding.”  Hall notes that some ecologists feel that the human species is the great villain that ultimately threatens our planet’s existence.  In a dramatic example of public confrontation, Hall cites the question raised in a university gathering, “If Man is the problem, wouldn’t the world be…better off…without him?”  Hall responded, “So far as we know, homo sapiens is the only creature that indulges in valuation…”  “Are we only problematic creatures?  Or do we, could we, make a difference – not only for our own species, but for all?”

What do you think?

4.  In conclusion, Hall says, “I think that Christians must indeed be and become, in this skeptical and often despairing world, the defenders of humanity.”  “We must also be prepared to stand up for the capacity of human beings qua human beings to understand, to care and to try to effect change.”  This is our collective responsibility…one that “belongs to our Protestant heritage…to remind our fellow humans that we are accountable to Another.” 

We are capable, Hall says, of an astonishing kind of responsibility…including thought, understanding, articulation, and acting.  Such stewardship, as keepers of God’s garden, “is not an idle or merely idealistic vocation; it is a real possibility.”

Where can you imagine and envision such possibilities?  What is our role in addressing such change?