Sunday, March 30, 2014

God is gratuitous

As I recently shared with a friend, I am up to my eyeballs here at Emory in Religionsgeschichte: the study of religion as a body of human ideas and practices. In my case, the study of ancient Israelite religion(s) – and their god(s), including Yahweh.

The difference between the study of Christian theology and Religionsgeschichte is the difference between treating God as a counterpart to humans and treating God as a product of human psychology or culture. I like Langdon Gilkey’s formulation of this difference, resident at the level of language: “though God is the subject of all the verbs of the Bible, Hebrew religious faith and Hebrew minds provide the subjects of all the verbs in modern books on the meaning of the Bible” (197, “Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language”).

At first blush, this looks to be a fatal difference – at very least, the presuppositions of the one appear to exclude the other. What kind of theism could it be that is able exhaustively to trace its own evolution as a history of human religiosity?

In fact, I hope to write elsewhere about the question whether etiology – hunting down causes – can ever be a form of love (I think it can; imagine lovers retracing their history together, enjoying the process of ferreting out the hidden little causes for various happenstances along their way. So also with God). But for now let me say, I think that there is a kind of theism that can fully own up to its own history and need not resort to “supernaturalism” for a direct explanation of its course.

That may sound paradoxical, and perhaps it is. The word “direct” is important. Many Christians are familiar with the idea of “the God of the gaps,” that is, allocating to God’s agency those portions of our world and experience that as yet defy explanation in terms of immanent causality. Sometimes these are cosmological (“what started the Big Bang, then, huh? God!”) or aesthetic (“why do we marvel at sunsets? Well, God!). The problem with leaving God these (very marginal) areas of direct supervision is that they are always in peril of vanishing. No gap is durable enough that we can assert it as God’s permanent prerogative. What I had not thought through carefully before graduate school is the fact that the history of God is also almost completely amenable to immanent explanations. Nothing in the appearance and development of Yahwism screams undeniably, “a real, extra-human God was active here!” In other words, there are few gaps even in God for a God of the gaps to go.

This could result in atheism, to be sure. A perfectly understandable response.

Or – alternately – a rediscovery of the “worldly non-necessity of God” – as a deeply theological and indeed Christian truth.

This is what Eberhard Jüngel has been teaching me. In the introduction to his book, God as the Mystery of the World, he revisits the issue of God’s necessity (trans. Darrell Guder; Eerdmans, 1983). And he makes of God’s “worldly non-necessity” not an “alien element” but “a genuinely theological discovery” (22, 23). God can no longer be a “working hypothesis” for moral, political, and yes, religious matters (18). God as a direct explanation is dispensable to the modern world. God’s presence is gratuitous.

And that is the thesis that Jüngel develops: God’s gratuity. God is not shoehorned into this world as one amongst other directly observable causes. God’s activity originates in God’s own freedom alone. And the evidence of that agency is not marked by special fanfare or insignia (think Isaiah 53:2, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”). It is a freely chosen and lowly presence in human affairs! Veiled and yet discernible to the eye of faith. I.e., not directly readable off the surface of the world.

Jüngel furthermore argues that where God is conceived as necessary in the world, as occupying a chunk in the causal continuum, God is conceived there as Lord (21). That is, God’s attribute of effectual power is all that is needed for God to intervene as a causal force in cosmology or human religion. On such thinking, theologically, God’s power and God’s love work in coordination, non-competitively. But, in effect, Jüngel says that this is not the way of Christ. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you”—nor, says Jüngel, is it so with their God (Mark 10:42, 43), who renounced power for the sake of love by going to the cross. Nothing is more integral to Jüngel’s theology than the identification of God with the crucified Jesus.
The God who is necessary in the world was understood as the almighty Lord whose love and mercy appear secondary and subsidiary to his claim to lordship.  This is the earthly way of thinking of a lord: first, he has all power and then perhaps he can be merciful – but then again, perhaps not…the thesis of the worldly non-necessity of God is directed precisely against this view of God according to which God, as the almighty Lord who can be differentiated from his love, is necessary in the world (ibid.).  


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Guest post on Gollwitzer, Webster, and ethical biblical criticism

Check out my latest guest post over at Die Evangelischen Theologen! The title? "Helmut Gollwitzer and John Webster on Scripture, or, the problem of *ethical* biblical criticism."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Making Strange the Bible; also, Levantine god mergers

Maybe this is to open the professional curtain prematurely, but I'll do it in the name of public scholarship (also because it's a lot of careful work to do for only 2-3 scholarly peers ever to hear about, haha!). Here are two paper proposals I drummed up recently...illustrating several (very different) directions of my research.

Title: Making Strange the Bible: Historical Criticism and Science Fiction

Abstract: Critical biblical scholarship has since the early modern period re-contextualized the Bible to the situations that produced it, thereby “making it strange” to contexts of contemporary use. Theological students often experience this defamiliarization as perplexing. This paper, however, advocates for the theologically positive application of historical criticism by analogy with the eros of reading science fiction. If, following the work of Darko Suvin, Simon Spiegel, and others, science fiction can cause pleasure and generate new insights by introducing the strange into the familiar, historical criticism can do the same for the Bible. 

Title: Levantine El and the Question of God Mergers: El and Milkom in the Ammonite Onomasticon

Abstract: LBA Syrian evidence from Ugarit has played a decisive role in scholarly reconstructions of the IA Levantine god El. Mainstream accounts of Israelite religion rely on the Syrian profile of El to posit the merger of El with Yahweh; research on Ammonite religion sometimes proposes a comparable merger of El with Milkom. However, because of temporal and cultural remove, this paper recuses the Ugaritic evidence and reopens the question of the identity of IA Levantine El. I argue that the Ammonite onomasticon provides the most reliable index available to this god’s IA profile. After criticizing the existing onomastic taxonomies of Kent Jackson and Jeanene Fowler, I draw on prototype theory to produce a new and more precise classification. The body of the paper then makes a systematic survey of the Ammonite El onomasticon and finds that nothing more specific can be claimed about El than that he was a Levantine god: with benevolent, exalted, and destructive aspects, as well as astral associations. This paper also surveys the Ammonite Milkom onomasticon to compare against the profile of El. In the end, Milkom names show only that Milkom shared benevolent and astral properties with other Levantine gods. I consequently conclude that common scholarly claims about IA mergers of El with other gods such Milkom or Yahweh exceed evidential warrant – and should be abandoned.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

In accordance with the scriptures...

The spring semester of the Candler OT intro class overviews the prophetic writings. I recently read several student surveys in which students stated their hope that they will learn about the relation of OT prophecy and Jesus. This has caused me to revisit old, amorphous thoughts about (in the watchword of the Apostles Creed) Jesus’ “accordance” with the OT.

I don’t know what the students are bringing in with them by way of expectation. I imagine that some of them will be disappointed when lectures and readings demonstrate that key prophetic texts the NT applies to Jesus already possessed a comprehensible meaning in the contexts of their first reception. The virgin daughter of Isaiah 7:14 provided a time signature for Assyrian domination (Mt 1:23). The people who lived in darkness and saw a great light may have referred to the coronation of a Judean king (Mt 4:16). The actions of casting lots and counting bones in Psalm 22 comprised intense complaint language. In other words, these and so many other OT passages were not texts waiting like empty keyholes for Jesus to come along and unlock them. Many or most were not understood predictively in their own times. Furthermore, their interpretation as predictive finds parallel in the reading practices of the Qumran community. There, too, a Jewish sect that saw itself as living in the end times treated the OT like a code, which, when decrypted, exactly narrates their community’s experiences. The effect, rhetorically, is to shore up the group’s sense of equilibrium against setbacks and shame. Reading these out of Scripture turns them from chance defeats into manifestations of God’s will from all eternity. This, too, sounds like the NT’s use of the OT. 

But historical consciousness deals a deathblow to this simple view of OT prophecy. This is no small loss! At stake is the relationship of the two testaments to one another, and the legitimacy of Christian claims about Jesus as the embodiment of God’s formerly attested will. At present, a cottage industry of NT specialists is dedicating itself to resuscitating some theologically charged version of typology: the argument is that, although the language of OT prophets does not refer straightforwardly and directly to Jesus, it “echoes” forward, as it were; Jesus lies very much within its trajectory.

There may be some merit to that sort of heady defense of, say, Matthew and Paul’s OT citations (which otherwise can look pretty undisciplined). My own instinct about the matter says that the nature of Jesus’ accordance with the OT cannot be found at such a “lexical” level. That is, his correspondence to God as known in the OT probably doesn’t reside in the specifics of his birth, his betrayal, the number of days he was interred. Rather, Jesus fulfills the OT will of God at a “grammatical” level: in the “deep structure” of his ministry, murder, and deathless new life. Spotting the conformity of Jesus to the OT does not require a lexicon of individual texts but a sense of the warp and woof of the entire former testament.

I haven’t ever really tried to articulate this conviction before, publically. What I mean is this: Jesus’ ministry embodies the OT God because in the historical works, God is always faithful to raise up a voice to challenge the people’s complacency and oppression. Jesus’ works of mercy embody the OT God because in the stories of Elijah and Elisha, God makes a way out of no way for the desperate widow and the childless mother; because in thanksgiving psalms, God leads the homeless to a home and the hungry to plenty; because in the legal materials, God watches out for the defenseless and vulnerable. Jesus’ proclamation of God in search of the lost embodies the OT God because in the exilic prophets, God’s fidelity gathers the displaced objects of his anger. Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and sinners embodies the OT God because in the prophets, God is a God of pathos, who suffers with his broken people. Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies the OT God because all the prophetic works feature judgment oracles followed by prophesies of restoration; God’s wrath always precedes God’s greater, deeper healing. The participation of believers in Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies the OT God because in the tales of the monarchies, the fate of God’s people depends on the fidelity of God’s representative, the king; they thrive when he obeys. The call of God’s people to be a worshipping community embodies the OT God because in the priestly writings, the holy God dwells at the center of the encampment; because the psalms thrill everywhere with the praise of God. This is all quite imprecise, I know, but I think that in these and a thousand other ways, the events of Jesus’ life resonate with the deep structure of the OT.

This matters to me not because the legitimacy of Jesus as the image of the invisible God hangs in question. Rather, the logic works the other way: I fear that Christians are increasingly unable to use the language of the OT wholeheartedly. One of my professors, Brent Strawn, is slated to release a book later this year on why The Old Testament is Dying (Baker Academic, 2014). In it, he uses the extended metaphor of language death to describe the situation of the OT in the churches. Before they are abandoned permanently, languages enter a phase of terminal illness, recognizable by pidginization with other, dominant forms. This is, on his read, the condition of the OT in much Christian preaching (and thinking!). One way to remedy this prognosis, in my view, is to re-connect the OT with language that is already meaningful to communities of faith. If important NT themes or characteristics of Jesus’ life still meaningfully excite contemporary Christians, then these are also potential avenues through which the OT could regain significance for them, since it is the theological bedrock and inspiration of the second testament. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Dream Course

Surfacing momentarily from the desperate grading and paper writing here at the close of the semester…

In spare moments, I have been dreaming: of how to teach an intro Old Testament class.

Dale Allison’s (informal) analysis of Bible courses taught in seminaries across the US – as well as an old SBL study I can’t find now – indicate that Bible instruction, regardless of conservatism or progressiveness, focuses mostly on “historical context”: that is, reimagining the Bible back into the sociopolitical situations that produced it and within which it first made sense. Bible teachers are prepared professionally to archaize the Bible; hence studying Akkadian, Ugaritic, and all the rest of the gang. And pedagogically, what we offer is more of the same: a strong dose of historicization.

The effect of this archaizing is, for many theological students, perplexing. Of course, many seminarians lack basic Bible literacy and enter their studies with little invested in the Bible’s contemporaneity. But for those who come in with any familiarity or affection for the Bible, instruction that shows the Bible is an ancient, alien document that made sense in ancient, alien contexts can be alarming: a garrulous friend turned mute stranger.

This defamiliarization of the Bible used to be integrated into a program of political critique – a missile aimed, during the Enlightenment, at the edifice of Christendom; or (if Jonathan Sheehan is right), a clever ploy to keep the Bible central and credible when the university replaced the church as the engine of cultural meaning-making. In any case, mostly these no longer stand as relevant goals. Of course, historicizing the Bible still serves to interrupt fundamentalism, but this hardly justifies its centrality in seminary curricula across the country (particularly when theological conservatives have made historical contexts so much their métier!). The end result, in my view, is that an endemic scholarly and pedagogical practice now lacks programmatic coherence.

I vote to keep the practice of archaizing the Bible – but to refit it within a larger curricular goal. Taking the Bible out of its familiar moorings and making it strange is helpful insofar as it opens up space for a fresh and more compelling engagement. Historicizing is the rocket booster that takes the Bible out of familiar (terrestrial) orbit – but it needs something else, some other propulsion afterwards to make it a meaningful mission. This doesn’t always happen, in my opinion. Bible curricula excel at taking the Bible out of people’s hands, helping them to leave behind undeveloped and immature interpretations. But they don’t always replace these with something more adult-sized; being able to recite the Bible’s “original contexts” is about as far from an intelligent, religiously profound, new reading as an Akkadian legal text is from the Gilgamesh epic. These details are necessary, but preparatory. 

So that’s what I would want to introduce into an intro OT course, especially in a seminary context: intelligent, masterful, profound, particular readings of the Old Testament. Of course, content! Get people familiar with the texts. And of course, historical contexts! to make room for re-hearing these texts, now lifted from childish scaffolding. I’m not sure how to do this, or what authors would even count. Abraham Joshua Heschel? Walter Moberly? I would need to find commentators of stature for various portions of the canon, and I certainly wouldn’t limit my selection to Bible scholars. I also wouldn’t want only profound but sympathetic readings: let Regina Schwartz have her say, or Robert Warrior, or others who have found in these texts a fuel for injustice. The point would be, very self-consciously, to expose students to commentators working on these texts at a great human depth, with the passion of love (or the pathos of opposition). My own goal would be to inculcate love for these texts and their God – but I would be less irritated with students who hated the Bible in an informed, probing way than with merely a gaggle of little historians.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

God raised Jesus and other eccentric historiography

Though unacknowledged, the resurrection of Jesus looms large over the work of biblical scholars (yes, even also Old Testament/Hebrew Bible ones).

There is it that a mess of questions about God’s agency and historical science comes to a very fine point. The resurrection of Jesus in my experience usually stays off the conversational table at disciplinary functions: it is kept even by confessional scholars in a kind of sequester of piety, a privately sustained parenthesis amidst the running work of historical reconstruction. If in their research scholars provide exhaustively this-worldly explanations for all the phenomena preserved in the Bible, in a whisper they will sometimes make one exception to God’s activity: the raising of Jesus.

But this – as it stands – may not really be possible or responsible. Whatever the claims mounted, legitimately, from the side of theology for the absolute singularity of this event, like all other events the Bible describes, at least in theory, it either left some empirical residue – or it did not. Under all the strata of tradition and theologizing, some ancestors of later Israel came out of Egypt in a way that is detectable, in principle if not in practice – or they did not. Likewise, under all the supercharged layers of reception, some event with a detectable profile catalyzed the New Testament’s preaching about the resurrection of Jesus. And, crucially, something in the character of this event as experienced by its first witnesses called for an explanation that centrally featured God’s agency. What about the shape of the resurrection event demanded from the disciples that they point to God as its primary actor? And would we now accept that this shape demands the same causal explanation from us?

I ask because “uniqueness” is a quality often ascribed to the resurrection, but which does not qualify an event for modern historiographers as God-generated. At a trivial level, each event ever is “unique” and, strictly speaking, unprecedented; analogy functions conceptually to bridge and coordinate each singular moment of human experience. But these instances of uniqueness, clearly, do not suggest God’s activity in any special way. At a larger level, in my own work, I encounter many potential forms of historical uniqueness. The nations that bordered Israel and Judah to the east (Ammon, Moab, Edom) shared with them nearly identical languages, very similar religions, and comparable histories of national development. And yet none of them produced a Bible in the wake of the crisis caused by Babylonian destruction and vassalage. Their religions did not survive as such. But the genuine historical oddity of Israel’s religion – its scripturalization – does not prima facie indicate that God had anything to do with it. Other, this-worldly explanations are available – but even if they are not easily forthcoming, at what point can God be invoked responsibly as a cause? We are never reassured that any gap in our set of explanations is sufficiently durable that God can permanently fill it.

But if – as I think is true – God’s activity is never directly, incontestably readable from the surface of history, then what does this mean for the resurrection of Jesus, which is clearly, on the New Testament’s interpretations of it, meant to generate faith in God’s intervention and not depend on it? How can we at once affirm the paradoxical character of God’s presence in human history – veiled and revealed, visible by faith and not by sight – and also the faith-catalyzing (indeed, literally visible) quality of Jesus’ resurrection? Must we with Bultmann repudiate Paul’s reference to the 500 living witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15, since the apostle certainly intends there to provide a verifiable basis for belief in God’s raising Jesus?
I will leave that question open to finer theological minds than mine. But the point I wished to raise at the outset of this post is that if it is ever responsible to call on God’s activity in connection with a this-worldly phenomenon – be it Jesus’ reappearance or the escape of slaves from Egypt etc – then we biblical scholars (including Old Testament/Hebrew Bible people) need to lay down our embargo on invoking God and develop suppler means of ascribing him agency. More pointedly: if we wish still to say with the New Testament that God raised Jesus (rather than only that Jesus' disciples somehow experienced him again after death, for which there are doubtless various immanent explanations), then we must attend to the thousand other places in the Bible where God’s work in human affairs is remembered and celebrated. We can’t be theistic readers of the Bible at one place only, even as singular a place as it is. 

(If this whets your appetite, one of the older posts of which I am proudest is also about the resurrection).

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Biblical scholars are boring

Most people I know who study and teach the Bible professionally got into this gig because they found the Bible religiously compelling – or religiously troubling (and hence, compelling).

Most of what they write and teach is not. Graduate school prepares us to say a thousand boring things about the book that we used to (and still might) regard as a source of blazing hope, radical challenge, or dreadful prejudice.

So much is common knowledge. People call on biblical scholars (seldom) if they want to be especially “responsible.” That is, if they wish to take into fuller account the vagaries of history – the shifting sands of textual transmission, the complex and detailed processes of religious evolution, the nagging, nitty-gritty texture of particular scriptural texts. Biblical scholars excel at qualification: the footnote: the technicality. I suppose that is a useful service. Perhaps in the high Enlightenment the work of biblical scholars represented a more widely meaningful achievement. Newspapers of the Victorian era ran stories about source criticism or the discovery of Babylonian texts, findings that called into question the reliability and uniqueness of the Bible. There was still enough Christendom around to feel the anxiety. Now, however, biblical scholars nitpick. No sizeable public (whether within or outside of religious communities) is enchanted or wracked by their research.

If as a class, biblical scholars are almost incapable of saying anything profound about the Bible, where then are the places where the Bible is generating new visions, new life, new radicalism? Where is it connecting with the deepest human realities of our day? Is it in the churches? Maybe some places. Most preaching that I am aware of, whether conservative or liberal, handles the Bible but glancingly, as a springboard for pop psychological reflection, calls to social justice, or reinforcement of one moral code or another. Is it the professional theologians? I doubt that also. Most of them treat the Bible even more weakly than beleaguered, multitasking pastors. Is it in some other sector of the academe? Are the comparative lit people rolling out explosive new readings of the Bible? Are the anthropologists or critical theorists? They are all producing interesting things on the Bible. Helpful things, maybe.

Perhaps it’s too tall an order, too high an expectation I have – or I’ve passed over isolated instances within each of the above named camps that do in fact draw on the Bible compellingly. I think that is probably true. But I am also thinking that the really arresting uses of the Bible do not happen in places that care about the “responsibility” that is the métier of biblical specialists. Because what is required of religiously – and humanly! – compelling exegesis is not technical prowess. That helps. But I believe what is needed is depth of character; depth of conviction; depth of openness to God; depth of pathos; depth of involvement in the world (I am reminded of Brevard Childs’ exhortation to a PhD student who asked how he could improve his exegesis. “Become a deeper person!” he is reported to have replied). For me, it is hard to parse out the difference between the seriousness of certain people’s faith-driven investment in the plight of the world and the seriousness of their use of the Bible. Perhaps there is none, in the end. But people like Bonhoeffer, Cone, and Käsemann stand tall, and behind them, their numberless confederates who joined in and contributed to their serious and sacrificial handlings of the Bible. Perhaps not up to scholarly snuff – “irresponsible,” even, in certain respects – but galvanizing.

Today I went and looked up a comparison I remembered Childs made. I will quote, from an article he wrote entitled “Interpreting the Bible Amid Cultural Change.” Remember, this penned by a man whose scholarly work fundamentally descended from Gunkel’s approach:
Hermann Gunkel, a leading Old Testament scholar in Europe, had written the definitive commentary on Genesis and, with an unmatched brilliance, brought to bear on his interpretation the full range of ancient Near Eastern parallels. For Gunkel, chapter 1 of Genesis was a reworking from a Hebrew perspective of the Babylonian creation myth, a reworking that retained much of the mythology in a broken, vestigial form. Gunkel emphasized Israel's unique ideological construal of a common cultural tradition, and he sought, in the spirit of German romanticism, to instill an aesthetic appreciation for the creative genius of this ancient, primitive document.
Then, in the winter semester of 1932, a young Privatdozent in Berlin, who was not especially well trained in Old Testament, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave a series of lectures entitled Creation and Fall with the subtitle A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3. Bonhoeffer began his lectures not with JEDP but with Genesis 1:1 : "In the beginning God..." He wrote:
The Bible begins with God's free affirmation, ... free revelation of himself. ... In the beginning, out of freedom, out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth. This is the comfort with which the Bible addresses us ... who are anxious before the false void, the beginning without a beginning and the end without an end. It is the gospel, it is the resurrected Christ of whom one is speaking here. God is in the beginning and he will be in the end.... The fact that he lets us know this is mercy, grace, forgiveness and comfort.
What a different vision from that of Gunkel! Were they even reading the same text? What caused Bonhoeffer to plunge suddenly into a new dimension of reality?
Of course, what is compelling to one will not be to another, and that has much to do with our communities and dispositions. There is a danger – especially for Childs, but for lots of us – that what we find religiously profound will simply amount to repetitions of our brand of orthodoxy, maybe in surprising new language. Gunkel’s condescending aesthetics didn’t move Childs, while Bonhoeffer’s Christological reading did. By the same token, Robert Alter may revolutionize someone’s world and Ellen Davis, another’s. But what I was struck by today – what provoked this post – was the fact that those in the biblical studies guild who most want to articulate the Bible’s present-day significance sometimes seem helpless to do so (whether by training or demeanor). Today in a New Testament Theology seminar, we discussed the work of James D.G. Dunn. We criticized him roundly for his failure to attend to the historical particularity of the NT writings. But I also raised a criticism on the other end: for as much as he wishes to affirm the theologically dynamic character of the NT, his book about it was pretty boring (at least religiously; as an obscurantist, plenty of it was enthralling in other ways).