Evangelical Theology – Faith

And we’re back. Even though you have had a two month break from my half-baked musings on Barth’s Evangelical Theology, rest assured I haven’t been on a Barth-break. For me, it is all-Barth-all-the-time. This is neither bragging or complaining, but a recognition of what a wonderfully odd life I lead right now. Today, we’re taking a stab at his understanding of ‘faith’.

The chapter itself is fairly straight-forward. Barth’s spends the first half clearing the ground of detritus that masquerades as faith. A person’s having weighed the evidence and determined that ‘faith’ is the most reasonable option. No good. Faith as an assent to a set of propositional truths. Also, a no go. People becoming part of the divine essence through faith. Nonsense. Faith in faith. Laughable.

But that isn’t really what I want to talk about. Nor is it really what Barth wants to talk about either. Barth will go on to describe faith as an event, and if that thought is intriguing to you (as well it should be) then you can go read the remainder of the chapter. My thoughts from here are more of a riff on Barth then an attempt to ‘faithfully’ reproduce what he’s said. The question I want to consider for a few hundred words is the apparent dichotomy between faith as divine gift or faith as human response. Or to put it in slightly more crass terms, is faith something God does or something we do?

Now regardless of which end of the theological spectrum a person find him or herself, this isn’t a trivial matter. Huge questions regarding divine sovereignty and human responsibility lie in the immediate background. So some folks will read the scriptures and pick up on the strong emphasis on God’s sovereign faith-giving initiative. Certain passages from Paul’s letters lend themselves very well to this understanding. Others are uncomfortable with this overly-deterministic perspective and favor instead the scenes in the Gospels which depict a person making a choice to follow Jesus – or not. This conversation has a very long history and I don’t pretend to think that I have anything to contribute in that debate.

However, I do think that Barth’s language of ‘event’ and ‘encounter’ provides an opportunity to move beyond the stalemate that is, in fact, stale. God’s self-revelation in Christ (as mediated through scripture and proclamation) means that God chooses to freely disclose himself to the individual. That is to say that God takes the initiative. In that event of God’s self-presentation, the individual is freed to respond freely in faith. Again, not faith in some vague generalized sense. But faith in a very specific object – the God who has revealed himself in Christ. This preserves so much of what one wants to say about the dynamics of faith. God is the source and the object of faith. Humans cannot muster up faith on their own, but in the divine encounter they do really and freely respond in faith. 

Now, I say freely. But that suggests that they might have been able to choose otherwise. That isn’t quite what I’m saying. Perhaps a weak analogy will be a help here. Suppose one of my children is in the bottom of a well with no hope of climbing out. They are stuck there. Then all of a sudden good ole’ dad shows up with a ladder. I stick it down the well, climb in, tell them to jump on my back, and climb back up. Ok, lame – I know. But the key bit is that it took ‘faith’ for him or her to climb on my back, right?

Now, in this scenario it is a little silly to ask where the faith came from. Did I give them the faith? Did they generate the faith? Those kinds of questions seem to miss the point. I showed up, and that’s decisive. My showing up prompted them to have ‘faith’ in my carrying them out. And yet, one could say that I gave him or her faith by my showing up. If I hadn’t come then they wouldn’t have had cause for faith. Likewise, was it a free action on their part? Well, of course. Did they have the freedom to choose otherwise, I suppose so. But not really. Just because they had no alternative but to trust me doesn’t mean that their ‘decision’ to trust me wasn’t a free one.

Of course, the analogy breaks down in all sorts of ways, but the point is that the necessity of faith doesn’t in any way diminish human freedom. In fact, Barth makes the point that it is in this very encounter that a person is made free for faith. Unless God shows up, a person is stuck. Neither free, nor free to choose freedom. But whenever God shows up on the scene, he has given the gift of himself. And as someone once suggested,  “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”


Evangelical Theology – Commitment

So I have a tinge of regret for asking folks to read this book. It was meant to be Barth-lite, but this chapter is tough going. One of the challenging things about the book and Barth in general is that he doesn’t feel a need to illustrate with examples. Which means his theologizing/philosophizing ends up being pretty dense. That said, I do think there are some key ideas that can help us to navigate our way through.

One possible way to characterize Barth’s theology is that it is radically Christocentric in nature. That is to say, Christ lies right at the center of his thinking about what it means for theology to be theology. Now for those who are taking the time to read this, this may not seem like much of a radical statement. Of course, “Christian” theology would have Christ at its center. However, doing Christocentric theology is easier said than done. Historically, it might be possible to identify competitors vying for pride of place in our reflections on God. So for example, if I’ve read Kant right (which I most certainly haven’t), he would look at Christianity and try to extract universal moral principles from it and say that is really the heart of Christian faith. There will be others that the might argue that there is no real ‘center’ to the Christian faith and that it is only an individual’s experience with the Other that we can observe, which is more or less a way of saying that humanity lies at center of religion. Another variant that is in some ways the logical outcome of the two ideas above is the conclusion that we really don’t need God, Christ, the Bible, or religion at all. We can simply observe the world as it is around us and through scientific inquiry we’ll arrive at true understanding. And on and on. So there is a sense in which one can understand Barth as a strong reaction to ‘theology’ done in any of these other modes.

While these ‘odd’ ways of doing theology isn’t the sort of thing that my Christian friends tend to buy into, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that each of the brief examples above find their bizarro counterparts in conservative/evangelical theologies as well. There is a strong tendency among Christians to lift Scripture up as a moral guidebook that tells us the right way to live and the wrong way. Those who believe that the Scriptures contain a moral blueprint or that they promote ‘family values’ are perhaps ironically kissing-cousins with Kant. Likewise, it would be difficult to overstate the determinative role that one’s private religious experience plays in shaping the average person’s understanding of their faith. “God really met me in that worship service. God spoke to me as I was doing my quiet time. I left that church because I wasn’t being fed.” All these kinds of statements betray that belief that the goodness or rightness of something is determined by my experience of it. And finally, lots of natural theology and historical-critical exegesis rests on the presupposition that our our ability to empirically observe things is enough to determine truth.

So when I say that Barth takes seriously Christ in theology, I am suggesting that his entire theological task is to come to terms with claim that Jesus Christ is God incarnate and work that truth through in every possible direction. What does that mean for our understanding of God as Trinity? What does it mean for our anthropology? What does it mean for our understanding of revelation and Scripture? What does it mean for our understanding of election? And so on.

Which maybe brings us, finally, to the content of this chapter. I’m not entirely sure how the term ‘commitment’ is meant to function here, but one thing he is making clear is that because the theological task is one centered on God, particularly God as revealed in Christ, being committed(?) to this particular God simultaneously constrains and frees our theological inquiry.

In the first of his three points, he is more or less restating what I’ve just taken a couple paragraphs to explain. Sort of. His talk of center and circumference is a way of saying that the theology is meant to be comprehensive in that everything is only properly understood in its relation to the core (i.e. God in Christ), and that the work of theology is to understand and explicate the ways in which the points on the circumference (e.g. election, etc…) is related to the center. All well enough, but he presses further to suggest that since the center isn’t a thing, a philosophical idea, or a scientific principle, but a Being, then all attempts to systematize those relations are provisional at best.

The second point he makes is broadly speaking about how we know anything, and Barth seems to suggest that the source of knowledge comes from God and not from our own ability to reason. He isn’t denying that we reason, nor is he suggesting that reason doesn’t have a role in theology. Rather, the issue is one of priority. God’s revelation takes precedence over our ability to reason. In fact, he will go on to say that all our ability to perceive, observe, and reason is made possible by the prior working of God for it to be so.

“Theology preserves its freedom by making use of every human capacity for perception, judgment, and speech, without being bound to any presupposed epistemology.”

The last point is about the general direction or disposition of theology. He calls it a ‘happy science’ because, in his view, it should be optimistic. Now, he’s well aware that optimism doesn’t always characterize what he calls the ‘little’ theologian, but he feels that it should. By way of example, with respect to judgment and grace, he says…

“There is no mistaking the fact that here man is made to hear a sharp and overwhelming divine No. But there is also no mistaking the fact that this No is enclosed within God’s creative, reconciling, and redeeming Yes to man.”

So on that note of optimism, have a great week!

Evangelical Theology – Concern

The two men with whom I share an office have different approaches to movies. One prefers to simply enjoy the experience of watching a movie and therefore gravitates towards the sort of film that seeks to entertain. This is the kind that you can appreciate knowing that the succession of images unfolding on screen is make-believe and therefore doesn’t have much to do with real life. My other officemate tends to prefer a film that tells its story in such a way that it makes demands of him. This is the kind of movie that, while telling another’s story, is actually telling our story. We don’t simply ‘watch’ these sorts of movies, but these stories draw us into them in such a way that we find ourselves as participants. We are invested. They make us think and in doing so they lay claim to us. I’m somewhere between the two. There are times when I like to be challenged and changed, but there are lots of times when the escapist in me simply wants to be ‘entertained’.

What is true about movies can be true for theology as well, and Barth’s chapter on “Concern” is essentially a chapter about being invested. His primary contention is that theology – true theology – will always be of this latter variety. While we might think that one can approach theology with an aloof detachment, simply an object of intellectual inquiry, by virtue of theology’s object (really subject, but that’s another post) one can never remain a neutral observer. In as much as one thinks he or she has maintained an ‘objective’ point of view, then ‘theology’ hasn’t happened. Perhaps it is best to let the man speak for himself…

When a man becomes involved in theological science, its object does not allow him to set himself apart from it or to claim independence and autarchic self-sufficiency. He has become involved in theology, even if his reasons for such involvement may have been very superficial, or, indeed, utterly childish. Certainly, he never knew beforehand what a risk he was taking, and he will certainly never fully grasp this risk. But at any rate he has taken this step. He is a theologian because he finds himself confronted by this object. His heart is much too stubborn and fearful, and his little head much too weak, but he cannot merely dally or skirmish with this object. The consequences can no longer be avoided. This object disturbs him-and not merely from afar, the way a lightning flash on the horizon might disturb one. This object seeks him out and finds him precisely where he Stands, and it is just there that this object has already sought and found him. It met, encountered, and challenged him. It invaded, surprised, and captured him. It assumed control over him. As to himself, the light “dawned” on him, and he was ushered up from the audience to the stage.

Barth seems to recognize some danger in turning this into an individual’s existential experience with God and seeks to head this off by anchoring this thought in “concentric circles” of concern. God’s concern is for the world, the church, and the individual. The individual finds herself encountered by God because she is part of the church and world to which God has chosen to reveal himself. It isn’t that the individual’s experience doesn’t matter, but it matters because she finds herself as part of church and world that God cares about.

And hopefully Barth won’t mind if I reverse the flow of concern. If the theologian finds himself ‘concerned’ with God because God has chosen to move from the largest circle of concern inward – world to individual, then a “captured” theologian is one who isn’t concerned solely with God and even less so by his private theologizing. Rather the “ushered up” theologian is one who necessarily finds his concern with God expressed in his concern for the church and the world.

Or maybe a more Piper-ian way of coming at this would be to say “enjoying God forever” is a far cry from being interested in or amused by God. All that said, one begins with a concern for God. In beginning with a concern for (or thinking about) the church or the world, one will tend to think poorly about both. And yet thinking about God that doesn’t end up leading one to be ‘concerned’ with the church and world hasn’t been true thinking about God.

So… anyone seen a good movie lately?

Evangelical Theology – Wonder

God became a man.

Just in case, the enormity of that last statement didn’t overwhelm you, allow me to repeat myself.

The eternal omnipotent deity came into the world as a breathing, eating, sleeping, pain-feeling human being.

That this affirmation doesn’t shock or astonish us is an indication of how much our theology/churching has gone wrong. We’ve grown so familiar with the idea that it nearly sounds trite. This is what more or less occupies the whole of Barth’s chapter on ‘Wonder’. In Jesus Christ, God has done something new and unimaginable. And yet, so often it neither sounds new nor does it exercise our imaginations very much.

It is worth noting, that this ‘wonder’ is radically theological in character. It isn’t the more generic wonder with the world in general. This latter sort of wonder is one that finds its moorings in modern romantic preoccupations with the world available to us through our senses. While there is undoubtedly much to hold in awe within the created order, there are disastrous theological consequences for too easily eliding the wonder of creation with the wonder of the Creator. It tempts a confusion that can effectively result in a collapse into pantheism. Which is ok if you that the direction one wants to go, but let’s be honest about where we’re heading.

The wonder Barth has in view here is more narrowly focused on the sort that is occasioned by a finite being’s attempts to comprehend, in any measure, that which is infinite. The theologian (professional or otherwise) who makes any attempts at this task will either find themselves quickly (or eventually) confronted with the impossibility of the task or they will rush headlong into something that is, in fact, non-theology. Perhaps another way of saying the same thing, the moment we cease to approach the work of thinking and speaking about God without a sense of awe and humility, we are doing something other than theology. By definition, thinking after a God who is entirely ‘other’ is an infinite task and is (joyful) work that can never be exhausted.

One response to the eternal mystery of God is to simply acknowledge the impossibility of saying anything definite about that which is wholly other, and therefore give up the endeavor completely. Yet, the Christian message is one that affirms in no uncertain terms that God – this infinitely ‘other’ God – makes himself known. Even our affirmation that God is infinite, mysterious, or awe-inspriing, etc… is itself a God-given knowledge, because for Barth all theological truth is God-given truth. Even the bits that we think we could have come up with on our own. Or as the quote below suggests, it is because we have been met by God at all that we know him as mystery.

Mystery is the concealment of God in which He meets us precisely when He unveils Himself to us, because He will not and cannot unveil Himself except by veiling Himself. Mystery thus denotes the divine givenness of the Word of God which also fixes our own limits and by which it distinguishes itself from everything that is given otherwise. (CD I/1, p. 165)

According to Barth, if we don’t encounter God as mystery, then we simply haven’t encountered God.

We’ve left the chapter at hand and are venturing away from the shallow end of the pool, but maybe the thing to hold on to from the present chapter is Barth’s belief that to be engaged in theology will necessarily involve a sense of wonder. Not simply (or even primarily) about the reality we are able to perceive through our senses, but a wonder for one who exists outside and yet upholds that reality.

“Kids think with their brains cracked wide open; becoming an adult, I’ve decided, is only a slow sewing shut.” Jodi Picoult

Evangelical Theology – The Community

We’ve almost crossed the fifty page mark in our ‘whirlwind’ tour through Barth’s Evangelical Theology. At this rate, we’ll finish the two-hundred page book around the time I finish the PhD. Nonetheless, we forge ahead. Barth’s chapter on “The Community” raises two significant issues – 1) the role of theology in the Church, and 2) the role tradition plays in the Church and its theology.

Barth suggests that the church exists because it was called into being by the Word, then continued to be called into being by the Word’s witnesses. This call originally came through their preaching, but continues through their writing. And the church today is called to continue to witness to the Word not only through ‘silent’ acts of compassion, but also through continued proclamation. Now one might quibble with how silent compassion really is, but most would agree that there is an important relationship between gospel actions and gospel preaching. Jesus and the early church did both in abundance, and my guess is there was never a question of one taking priority over the other.

But that’s not the issue with which Barth is wrestling. He is more concerned with making clear the role ‘theology’ is meant to play in that. Barth’s main point is that theology is meant to serve the church by providing a guide to its proclamation. He suggests that when the church’s speech is ill informed by theology, “Instead of being helpful, it can be obstructive to God’s cause in the world by an understanding that is partly wrong or wholly wrong, by devious or warped thought, by silly or too subtle speech.” Another way of saying this is that proclamation of the Word inevitably involves making theological claims about the Word, and when a church isn’t theologically self-reflective it comes to bear in its preaching (and I would add, to the life of the community as a whole). Good theology doesn’t guarantee good preaching, but bad theology inevitably leads to bad preaching.

Now it is too easy for one to make lofty claims about what theology is suppose to do and be in the life of the church, and so Barth reminds us that theology is for the church. In his own words…

“Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be only concerned with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community.”

The church is served by theology when careful theological reflection is taken seriously within and for the church. My own sense is that some church cultures view theology with a certain amount of suspicion. Some of the wariness is undoubtedly deserved. In as much as theology is self-absorbed and cares little for the life of church, then the criticism is warranted. However, to simply write off theology because it is overly concerned with ‘right’ thinking and ‘abstract’ concepts is a (theological) decision that doesn’t serve the church very well. The theology of “non-theological” churches could undoubtedly use some revisiting.

In the same way that churches run the temptation of loosing themselves from the fetters of theology, or at least a certain kind of theology, Barth recognizes (or anticipates) a similar mistake with regard to tradition. In fact, given that so much of theology is embedded within tradition, in some ways it is one and the same move. This may be why Barth makes similar statements about the way tradition is meant to function in the thinking and life of the church. The church is meant to ‘trust’ it, ‘respect’ it, ‘learn’ from it (which also assumes it will learn it). By the same token, tradition – like theology – serves the church by informing its theology, preaching, and practice while not lording over it. Hence the statement, “There is no heterodoxy worse than such orthodoxy!”

Now I’m no contemporary-church basher. My beloved home church would be on the ‘cutting edge’ of a host of church-y things. But in as much as the evangelical church in America thinks that it is the first church to get it right since the Bible was written, it is not unlike the adolescent who thinks he/she has nothing to learn from a parent. Some children grow out of that phase, while others carry the adolescent mindset all the way through adulthood. In the States, a society that is in many ways obsessed with youthfulness and adolescent culture, the church’s tendency towards fadishness and style over substance comes across as especially juvenile. Both child and parent are well-served when they attend to the Word that binds them.

Karl who?

Most of you reading this are aware that I am currently working towards a degree in theology at the University of Aberdeen, but you probably don’t have a clue what I’m actually studying here. When I’ve talked about it in the past, I’ve been fairly brief – Barth and Warfield on the doctrine of scripture. I’ve come to realize the error of my ways and I recognize that this doesn’t actually mean much to most people. If I took some creative license and went with “What do Rob Bell and John Piper believe about the Bible and why does it matter?” then I would be speaking in terms that get closer to what the majority of my readers (North American Christians) would more readily understand. Which perhaps begs the question, why am I not writing on what Rob Bell and John Piper believe about the Bible? A question for a another time.

The main reason I’m taking the time to post is to invite you to read Karl Barth along with me. Tempting, I know. Let me give you a short sell on why you should consider reading Barth.

He is often described as the most influential theologian of the 20th century.
He is both revered and reviled.
He has had a profound impact on my thinking about God, the Bible, the Church, and the world.
He is Swiss.
He will at time leave you perplexed while also leading you to worship. He might even go so far as to say that your state of perplexity is an act of worship.

I’ve never been much of a salesman. Anyway, I’m planning on reading some ‘easy’ Barth with some friends, and if you want to get in on the conversation consider this your invitation. We are planning to work through his book “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.” By way of full-disclosure, ‘Evangelical’ and perhaps even ‘Theology’ don’t mean entirely the same thing that most of us are accustomed to. This probably has to do with his being Swiss and working during the mid-20th century. It is a book that emerged from a series of lectures that he delivered late in his career during his only trip to America. So I guess one could think of it as his attempt to introduce his thinking to an American audience after a lifetime of scholarship.
51rhmRn9O6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ok, so clicking the cover or HERE gets you to where you can buy the book. Or if you don’t mind reading online, you can find it HERE for free. (Sorry. I didn’t realize that this is a university resource. Bummer.)

Not sure how fast we’ll read or what venue we’ll use to discuss, but we’ll get it sorted out. This is just the sort of thing you want to be reading while recovering from the Turkey coma that many of you will slip into over the next few days.

love and wrath

As I was preparing for some teaching I’ll be doing this Sunday, I came across this great quote in Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. I can’t believe that I didn’t include it a few months ago when I was doing my round-up of Volf-isms.

Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgement, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others. We have to bring it home as well. I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do. I knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested. It’s God’s wrath, not mine, the wrath of the one and impartial God, lover of all humanity. If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself – when I deserve it.

Also, once we affirm that God’s condemnation of wrongdoing is appropriate, we cannot reserve God’s condemnation for heinous crimes. Where would the line be drawn? On what grounds could it be drawn? Everything that deserves to be condemned should be condemned in proportion to its weight as an offense – from a single slight to a murder, from indolence to idolatry, from lust to rape. To condemn heinous offenses but not light ones would be manifestly unfair. An offense is an offense and deserves condemnation.

Nice cheery thoughts to get you ready for a Happy Thanksgiving!

Currently Reading: The Awakening of Hope

With all this talk of camping and the outdoors, I may be losing some of my theology-nerd street cred. So maybe it is time to dive back into some thoughtful reading. Today’s post isn’t quite full-on over the top boring academic theology; we should probably ease our way back into this.

Over a year ago, I had the pleasure of reading Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability. I not only love what he had to say, but how he said it. So when Alison told me that he had written a new book, I couldn’t wait to dive in. His new book is called The Awakening of Hope:Why We Practice a Common Faith.

As I expected, this new book is filled with poignant reflections on the Christian life – particularly as it is lived in community. This doesn’t come as a surprise, largely because so much of what Wilson-Hartgrove draws from is his own experiences in the Rutba House, a new monastic community in Durham, North Carolina.

The table of contents gives a good sense of what one might expect in picking it up…

  1. Pictures of Hope
  2. Why We Eat Together
  3. Why We Fast
  4. Why We Make Promises
  5. Why It Matters Where We Live
  6. Why We Live Together
  7. Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill
  8. Why We Share Good News

I’m only about halfway through, but he has already given me lots to think about. Each of the topics he addresses are things that I’ve previously encountered and spent some time reflecting on, but he comes at them in ways that I haven’t really considered before. Or I guess maybe a better way to say it is that we share a similar view or opinion, but the way he expresses is how I wished that I had.

Some great thoughts here on infidelity and trust…

Infidelity is a tendency deep within us. But it also comes to us through the constant barrage of powers at work in this world’s broken systems. Because sex sells we are inundated daily by the suggestive poses of women and men to whom we’re not only not committed but whom we do not even know. Their images come to our senses not as icons in which we might glimpse the divine but as products to be consumed. This pornographic imagination is extended to real estate, destinations, entertainment events, and even educational opportunities. Our broken economy does not invite us to ask how we might be faithful to our people and place but rather how we might use them to satisfy our base desires. Infidelity is sold to us as a good … To make promises is to proclaim that a culture of mistrust has been interrupted by One whom we can trust. It is to live as a sign of God’s faithfulness, even as we struggle to grow into fidelity ourselves. We make promises because we’ve glimpsed a picture of hope and know that it points us toward the life we were made for.

I’ve probably re-read this paragraph a dozen times and it is no less convicting the twelfth time through as the first. If the second half of the book is as thought-provoking and spirit-stirring as the first, I may need to take a breather before forging ahead.

Anyone out there reading anything great right now?

victim or perpetrator

I realize that these quotes from Volf over the last few days have been life changing for you, but it needs to come to and end. But before we wrap things up, one last lengthy quotation on the need for repentance on the part of the victim.  That’s right, the victim. I know it seems beyond strange to suggest that victims have a need for repentance, but that is because we have a compulsive need to see everything in terms of all-or-nothing. And by “we,” I mean church people. Or maybe Americans, in general. Honestly, don’t most human beings suffer from this inability to see things in shades of gray?

A person is all good or all bad. A marriage failure is all the husband’s fault or all the wife’s fault. Problems in education are all the fault of the teachers, or the students, or their families, or the system. Someone’s view of God is either entirely orthodox or it is heretical. For whatever reason, we are drawn to the simplicity of seeing things in terms of either-or.

However, it doesn’t take much sustained reflection on our part to realize that life is more complicated than that. Children misbehave not only as a result of their own inherent sinfulness, but also because of the dysfunctionality of their family, or the pressures of their peer-group, or even as a means of exacting justice – no matter how skewed their ideas of that might be. What is true for children is true for adults, and organizations, and tribes, and countries. Despite our desire to see things in terms of absolutes, our better selves know that no one person or country can bear all the weight of this all-or-nothing way of thinking. We all behave badly for different reasons and in different ways.

I’m not sure how I got off track here. Let’s get back to the matter at hand, namely Volf on victims and perpetrators…

Jesus called to repentance not simply these who falsely pronounced sinful what was innocent and sinned against their victims, but the victims of oppression themselves. It will not do to divide Jesus’ listeners neatly into two groups and claim that for the oppressed repentance means new hope whereas for the oppressors it means radical change. Nothing suggests such a categorizing of people in Jesus’ ministry, though different people ought to repent of different kinds of sins. The truly revolutionary character of Jesus’ proclamation lies precisely in the connection between the hope he gives to the oppressed and the radical change he requires of them. Though some sins have been imputed to them, other sins of theirs were real; though they suffered at the sinful hands others, they also committed sins of their own. It is above all to them that he offers divine forgiveness.

The most seminal impact of enmity … consists in transforming the violent practices of the dominant into the dominant practices … envy and enmity keep the disprivileged and weak chained to the dominant order – even when they succeed in toppling it … repentance creates a haven of God’s new world in the midst of the old and so makes the transformation of the old possible.

Victims need to repent of the fact that all too often they mimic the behavior of the oppressors, let themselves be shaped in the mirror image of the enemy. They need to repent also of the desire to excuse their own reactive behavior either by claiming that they are not responsible for it or that such reactions are a necessary condition of liberation. Without repentance for these sins, the full human dignity of victims will not be restored and needed social change will not take place … If victims do not repent today they will become perpetrators tomorrow who, in their self-deceit, will seek to exculpate their misdeeds on account of their own victimization. (from Exclusion and Embrace, emphasis his).

So I’m pretty much done subjecting you to Volf…

For now.

idol factories

I got Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace and his Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace at the same time. I chose to read Exclusion and Embrace first because it is older and from what I could tell it was his more pioneering work. However, if the decision was made based upon which book had the better cover, there would have been no contest.

Free of Charge not only has the distinction of being the more attractive of the two books, it is also shorter and easier reading in general. So if you are in any way tempted to dive into some Volf, this may be the place to start.

Here’s a little something to whet your appetite…

There is God. And there are images of God. And some people don’t see any difference between the two.

… They simply assume that who they believe God to be and who God truly is are one and the same. God is as large (or as small) as they make the Infinite One to be, and none of the beliefs they entertain about God could possibly be wrong.

But in fact, our images of God are rather different from God’s reality. We are finite beings, and God is infinitely greater than any thoughts we can contain about divine reality in our wondrous but tiny minds … When we forget that we unwittingly reduce God’s ways to our ways and God’s thoughts to our thoughts. Our hearts become factories of idols in which we fashion and refashion God to fit our needs and desires … Slowly and imperceptibly, the one true God begins acquiring the features of the gods of this world. For instance, our God simply gratifies our desires rather than reshaping them in accordance with the beauty of God’s own character. Our God then kills enemies rather than dying on their behalf as God did in Jesus Christ.