‘God is dead’. What Nietzsche meant.

It’s true. Nietzsche did say ‘God is dead’, but contrary to the way he is too often quoted (even by popular apologists!) Nietzsche was NOT referring to a being called God who had experienced death. He believed no such thing, and therefore was not making a theological statement. Rather, more subtly, he was observing that “the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable”. Here’s the full quote: “‘‘The greagod_is_deadtest recent event – that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable – is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. For the few at least, – the suspicion in whose eyes is strong and subtle enough for this spectacle — some sun seems to have set and some ancient and profound trust has been turned into doubt.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann <New York: Random House, 1974>, p. 297) This is clearly something of a sociological statement which aptly describes the birth of modern atheism.

The problem with bite-size theology. A thought on Tim Keller

Some time ago I posted a more critical comment about Tim Keller, whom in many respects I appreciate and admire. I argued that he is known to come up with very neat schemes and symmetries to organise his thought. This is clearly one of the things which makes him a great speaker and writer. However, I fear(ed) that sometimes his neat categories and schemes mask false alternatives, forced points, reductionistic treatments of more complex themes, and an excessive dependence on a particular and particularly narrow soteriological system. I finally found the perfect illustration. 

”Jesus lost the sonship that he deserved so we could get the sonship that we don’t deserve,” says Keller. The symmetry is perfect. The theology, questionable. First, I’d be curious to know how Keller arrived, exegetically, at the idea that Jesus “lost his sonship”. Secondly, if Jesus lost his sonship at the Cross, then it seems to me that the Gospel itself breaks down. For if Jesus didn’t die as the Son, and remain the Son through his redemptive death, even as he cried his cry of dereliction, he simply didn’t achieve salvation. I’m convinced that is not something that Keller wants to say, but his penchant for this sort of geometric stylistics gets him in trouble.

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How (Not) To Be Secular. A short review

Let me begin on a positive note. This is a very good introduction to Charles Taylor’s seminal ideas in A Secular Age. For those scared of Taylor’s ideatic behemoth, this will be a very easy path to walk into Taylor’s thought-world. Smith presents the main ideas and eye-opening categories in Taylor’s book with clarity and rhetorical panache.

As far as the negatives go, I wish he had more (pop) cultural references inserted throughout the book. The first few pages are somewhat deceptive, in that the personal address to preachers and pastors doing ministry in ‘a secular age’ fades, ultimately into nothingness, as the book progresses. It feels like Smith himself gets bogged down in Taylor’s intricate thought-world and forgets to resurface in order to reconnect with his practitioner-readers. Also, the book ends rather abruptly. Smith does not feel the need to offer broad conclusions, assessing Taylor’s contribution.

It would have been a useful feat to indicate and demonstrate practical ways of exegeting specific cultural practices, trends and artifacts using Taylor’s enlightening interpretive framework. 
Having said all of this, if no further merits can be tallied, the simple fact of introducing us to Taylor and making him more accessible is the book’s greatest strength and Smith’s merit, eclipsing any and all shortcomings. For this, James J. A. Smith deserves our gratitude.

Of work and ‘Christian work’

Below is another attempt to immortalise and, at the same time, paradoxically, carry forward a conversation about the relationship between Christian work (what I here call ‘Word-ministry’) and all other types of work.

Feel free to join the conversation:

My initial question was: from a theological perspective, is Word-ministry (the study, exposition, explanation and application of the Word of God in ecclesial, para-ecclesial, academic settings) a more important type of work that all others (e.g. writing software, banking, plumbing, knitting etc.)?

It was initially highlighted (by Daniel Manastireanu) that the answer would be affirmative only if the Kingdom of God and the Church were identical, but since they are not, all vocations are important. The question however is: Are they equally important? Before answering that question we honed in on the relationship between Kingdom and Church – a difficult and controversial topic.  Daniel pointed out that, “the Church is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. The church is the visible body of Christ in the world, setting an example of what the Kingdom could be for the whole world. The Kingdom is a wider concept. It is basically whereever God’s will is done, wherever God’s justice prevails, wherever there is obedience to God’s vision for life. Sometimes it happens in the church. Sometimes outside of it, sadly.”

But even if we highlight the distinction between the two, isn’t Word-ministry still more important insofar as it points people to the Ultimate Good/Truth/Beauty, which is salvation/union with Christ/reconciliation to/a living relationship with God? Sure, plumbing is good, it’s necessary; writing software is good, it’s necessary. These are all endeavours which contribute to the common good of God’s creatures, but the common good is not the ultimate good – knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection (Phil 3:10). So I ventured to say Word-ministry IS more important than other types of work INSOFAR it is a ministry which points people to the Ultimate Good.

But what do I mean when I say ‘more important’? There is a real danger that importance is equated with the intrinsic value of persons, in which case such inquiries are motivated by sheer vanity. Daniel explains: “I think there is a beautiful balance in the Kingdom. I cannot live out my vocation if others do not live out theirs. If we talk about importance, we talk about value. What would be the point of ascribing more value to one vocation instead of another, other than to, perhaps, stroke our egos of ministers of the Word? We need to be careful that we do not set ministers of the Word as more valuable than other people. If one can make the difference between one’s role or vocation and one’s value, then we can talk.”

Indeed, it is important to clarify that we are talking strictly of functional value  relative to the Ultimate Good – persons coming to know Christ. Saying, tentatively, that Word-ministry is more important than other types of work does not mean that the persons involved in Word-ministry (e.g. ministers/pastors/priests, academics, teachers in any number of settings) are intrinsically more valuable than persons fulfilling other vocations. Not at all. It simply means that the activity of ministering the Word is more important than, say, plumbing, insofar knowing Christ is of more value than the fixing of broken pipes in the grand scheme of things (key words are:’ insofar’ AND ‘in the grand scheme of things’). But broken pipes still need to be fixed. And it’s a good thing to have plumbers that can fix them. Code still needs to be written. And it’s a good thing to have software developers to write it. Histories still need to be put together and it’s a good thing to have historians teach us the ways, wisdom and folly of those who precede us. Different people will ‘hear’ different calls and come to fulfil different ‘callings’ (even those who prefer an alternative vocabulary for speaking about their work). There is a beautiful balance of vocations in the world . For some out there, the call is to minister the life-giving and life-shaping Word of God. It is a sobering, most important calling. But is it the most important?

I guess this question takes me back to where I started. And at this point I’m tempted to ask, self-deconstructively: Should we even be asking this question?  Or, more generously, can this question be asked and discussed in a way that is not motivated by or leads to vanity?

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On ‘good art’

A few thoughts on good art elicited by our visit to Musee d’Orsay and the Cartier-Bresson exhibition at Centre Pompidou: Image

Art does not have to be pretty. In fact, it should probably avoid prettiness altogether. Art should not always please in a narrow, hedonistic sense. Good art elicits reactions. It opens up less familiar vistas, it brings to mind ideas and stimulates the associative mind. Good art evokes sentiments not ordinarily entertained. It triggers dialogue, as art, I reckon, is most fruitfully experienced in community (even a community of two ). (More) realistic good art will do these things, but equally able will (more) abstract art be. One should not restrict (cosign!) oneself to a particular form and style of art, be it more or less representational, but purse the art that speaks and makes one speak.

I realise this set of criteria does not handle art that is morally problematic very well. But by bringing in moral criteria I would have excluded non-representational, abstract art (e.g. Kandinsky, Matisse, Mondrian, Klee etc.) altogether, which would not have been a good move.

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How to bash analytic philosophy

No, this is not a recipe, guide or manual, but a brief demonstration taken from David Bentley Hart’s most recent book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). As is always the case with Hart, rhetorical punchiness is not lacking. This is  a hart (sic!) text to swallow:

“Analytic method is depended upon a number of tacit assumptions that cannot be verified in their turn by analysis: regarding the relation between language and reality, or the relation between language and thought, or the relation between thought and reality’s disclosure of itself, or the nature of probability and possibility, or the sorts of claims that be certified as ‘meaningful’, and so on. In the end, analytic philosophy is no purer and more rigorous than any other style of philosophising. At times, in fact, it functions as an excellent vehicle for avoiding thinking intelligently at all; and certainly no philosophical method is more apt to hide its own most arbitrary metaphysical dogmas, most egregious crudities, and most obvious flaws from itself, and no other is so likely to mistake a descent into oversimplification for an advance in clarity.” (p. 47, my emphasis)

I confess I agree to a large extent, if what he says has been shorn of its rhetorical ‘noise’. I do think, however, that analytic philosophy’s keen eye for conceptual nuance and distinctions is an important intellectual virtue that even thinkers who prefer the ‘Continent’ are well advised to cultivate.

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Time Out on God

No, God is back, says Time Out, London’s  witty, snazzy, hipstersque weekly magazine:

“God. He’s back! Well technically, as a deathless deity, he never went away. But this year the Almighty is getting his hands dirty, first by hiring Russell Crow to build a bloody great boat in Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ (March 28). Next he’ll be inflicting plagues, floods and all manner of hindrances on the Egyptian army in its pursuit of Christian Bale’s Moses (and hi oh-oh-Israelites) in British director Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’ (December 5). He’ll even be turning up – voiced by Morgan Freeman and wearing a tie-dye T-shirt – in ‘The Lego Movie’ (February 14). Oh, God, is there anything you can’t do?”

Now this is of course written in classic Time Out style. Glib, exhibitionistic irony and authorial self-infatuation permeate almost every cleverly crafted sentence. The funny thing is, this little paragraph sounds like it came straight from Dawkins’ pen. It’s hard to be sure on this one, because of the deeply ironic style, but it sure sounds like what we have here is yet another dawkinesque, supremely naive and ignorant understanding of God that has informed and shaped these witty lines about 2014’s biblically themed movies. Out of intellectual honesty I say it’s hard to be sure because, well, it’s all easy to misread irony, either by under-reading or by over-reading meaning into it. But If I am right, then it’s an ironic (and, oh, so… familiar) example of how ‘enlightened’, quick, culturally savvy atheists, the ones who report on and create popular culture, entertain the awfully primitive and erroneous notions of God and faith, vociferously ignorant of the nature of religious claims, the Christian tradition and grammar. This is the new generation of “confident, even strident atheist proselytisers who appear to know almost nothing about the religious beliefs they abominate (and, i might add, mock!), apart from a few vague and gauzily impressionistic daubs or aquarelle washes… who seem to have no real sense of what the experience of faith is like or of what its rationales might be. For the most part, they seem not even to know that they do not know.” (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God. Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Yale University Press, 2013, p. 20). It’s quite elementary, really: if you’re going to dismiss something, the sensible (rational (!) even scientific (!) ) thing to do is to ensure that you first of all have a good grasp of that which you are dismissing. No?

Now, I realise the author of that little paragraph in Time Out that got me started may not be worthy of the portrait and analysis I have  sketched above. Good for him/her. That said, I still think I’m right inferring from the style that he/she fits to template quite well. I guess it’s the ease, the flippancy, the self-assured zeal with which he/she talks about the comeback of God on 2014’s movie scene…

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Hobbit 2 (The Desolation of Samug): A thin ’phantasy thriller’

Micro-review:

The producers of The Hobbit (2: The Desolation of Smaug) must have been taking marketing lessons from the technology giants, particularly Apple (as painful as admitting that may be  ), spreading (plot) features across 3 films instead of packing it all into one, rich saga from the very beginning. I know, I know what you’ll say. It makes some artistic sense, but I think marketing is driving this one, considering how slim the book actually is. Go and see ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ for an all-cliff-hanger-kind-of-movie, which lacks the philosophical depth and the richness of dwarf banter of ‘An Unexpected Journey’. This is what I’d call a fantasy thriller if not a phantasy horror as orcs and other hideous creatures abound in some gut wrenching, protracted action scenes. Not my ideal sequel cup of tea. Don’t know about the upcoming third one…

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The attractiveness of sin and human perversity (Theological rudiments-2)

Perversion should not be understood here reductively in terms of sexual behaviour. It should rather be taken to cover all the negative alterations of our nature brought about by sin.

In showing the futility and even unreasonableness of shifting the blame for evil in the world on Satan,  Austin Farrer says: “The mystery of iniquity is not Satan, it is the sinful human will. Why do I ever refuse the better choice? Because the worse is attractive.” (Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, 139). Why is it attractive, we may ask? I will put forth two possible answers. The first is mine, the second is a distillation of Farrer’s. (1) A disclaimer: I’m perfectly aware this is by no means the only let alone the best  ‘ontology’ of sin. However, I do think it has some mileage. Now let me get to the point: Because sin is a parasite on the good, as the metaphor suggests, it is in the (ontological) proximity of the good. The good is beautiful (I’ll leave the discussion of the transcendentals at that for now 🙂 ), therefore some of the attraction/beauty of the good rubs off on the bad/sin. (2) The other answer to the question ‘why is sin attractive?’  is, in Farrer’s terms,  because of human… perversity. “Perversity is utterly inexplicable, and perfectly simple,” (14) says Farrer. It is inexplicable in that it is sheer unreason which resists all explanations, and it is simple “with the simplicity of idiocy and the mind that refuses to think.” Still, he clarifies, perversity is not pure idiocy or thoughtlessness since both “leave the field open for the operation of natural causes, the overflows of passion or the automatisms of habit.” Perverse choice, however, is an efficient cause, but one which “cuts itself off from reasonable grounds.” Perverse choice is efficient, but unreasonable, “miserably simple and hideously effective.” (141)

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God and time (Theological rudiments -1)

I am conveniently inaugurating a new category of posts I will call ‘theological rudiments’. These will be, as you’d expect, rather brief fragments of theological reflection that may constitute the rudiments of future, developed posts or longer articles. This is both an introduction and a disclaimer. It’s a disclaimer insofar as I am preempting comments along the lines of ‘these postings are so short and undeveloped , they are hardly worth considering’. I do hope in the not-too-distant future I will have  time on my hands for more elaborate contributions, but for now, these rudiments is all I can offer.

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A nuanced affirmation of timelessness is essential for preserving God’s transcendence. A god trapped in the flow of time is not the Most High God of the Scriptures. When I say ‘a nuanced affirmation’ I mean that timelessness is not THE description of God’s relation to time. I doubt there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ doctrinal formula for capturing God’s variegated relation to time. I am following Henri Blocher here. See his ‘Time, Times, Eternity in Biblical Perspective’ (Tyndale Bulletin, 52:2, 2001).
Timelessness does not logically preclude relationality (e.g. prayer) only in a most narrow, rationalistic conceptualisation, which we should decidedly eschew.

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