Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Shit Happens: Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in America

     Recently, we have heard that a significant majority of American evangelicals voted for and support the work of a president whose public and private behavior seems to be antithetical to the values and actions most valued by Christians. This was answered a few days ago by a meeting of apparently more progressive evangelicals at Wheaton College, a well-known evangelical institution just west of Chicago who loudly repudiated the president, and a subsequent candlelight march outside the White House, led by a prominent progressive evangelical spokesman and writer who had earlier established an independent church in the D.C. Area.
     So, what's going on? Who are these evangelicals, and why do they vote for a misogynistic, racist egoist and then insist they don't want anything to do with him? As a person from an evangelical background who is, frankly, unsure about admitting to the few evangelical leanings I have left, I want to explore that much further than either the mainstream media or the partisan journals (primarily Christianity Today, about which more below) tend to go.1
     The first thing, it seems, would be to define “evangelical.” Some years ago, Robert Webber, then a theology professor at Wheaton, wrote a book called Common Roots, in which he listed eighteen of what he called “Subcultural Evangelical Groups.”2 He himself was a product of Bob Jones University (BA '56); a rather fundamentalist sort of school, and a triad of seminaries: Reformed Episcopal, Covenant Theological, and Concordia (St. Louis). Eventually, he would end up as an episcopal priest and a specialist in worship methodologies.
     What is interesting about Webber's book, in addition to his typologies of evangelicalism, is that it was a direct product of his participation in a small group of evangelicals who in 1977 wrote the “Chicago Call,” a document offering a desire, among other things, to rein in the unchecked divisiveness of the evangelical churches.
Earlier, in 1973, a similar group of youthful evangelicals had produced the “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern,” which was pretty much what it sounds like. All of this—soon forgotten and largely ignored—in an environment that seemed, to many of those involved, mostly concerned with doctrinal purity and its own comfort level—the comfort of a movement that seemed, to its insiders, to have settled into place as the church to be reckoned with in the USA.
     Had the young lions consulted their aging herd leaders, people like Bruce, Packer, Henry or Stott (only Carl Henry was involved in these meetings—the 1977 Call—they might have heard why evangelicals, however valid the concerns of the younger lions, weren't going to take them seriously.  The herd leaders also had their “Chicago Call,” a 1978 document called “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” signed by nearly three hundred evangelical leaders, from William Ackerman to Ronald Youngblood. Why would a battalion of evangelical leaders happily sign off on a conference report presenting twenty-nine articles affirming and defining biblical inerrancy, but leave a handful of younger evangelicals hanging out in lonely witness? To understand that, we must return to the late nineteenth century, when American churches were facing what was known as the Modernist controversies.
     Modernism, to most people, involved some particularly opaque strategies in art, music and literature. When Igor Stravinsky's ballet Rite of Spring produced a near riot in 1913 Paris3, or James Joyce's novel Ulysses4 was banned in his native Ireland (and, for that matter, the UK and USA), that was Modernism. When scholars of language history produced new analyses of biblical books, that was also Modernism, and that required theologians to rethink some of the traditional readings of biblical literature. For most Christians, this was not an issue. For some, it was catastrophe.
     Traditionalists became increasingly shrill in their insistence that, for example, the earth was in fact created in seven days, as the first chapter in Genesis said; Moses wrote the Pentateuch (although the rabbis themselves regarded this as at best an interesting tradition, not a fact); Isaiah wrote all of his book, and accurately predicted future events around the Levant; and so forth. In England and then in the USA, a new interpretation of the Bible called dispensationalism or premillenianism alleged to preserve the traditional readings; in the USA, a 12-volume study called The Fundamentals not only insisted on what came to be called “biblical inerrancy,” but gave its proponents their name.
     After World War I, the fundamentalists became argumentative and occasionally rather strident. While revivals and other evangelistic efforts continued, with Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday at the head of the class, Princeton Seminary theologians like Hodge and Warfield developed a systematic reading of scripture that fully supported the traditional view of the Bible as literally true in historical fact, among other things. When the seminary leaders began to lean away from the strict readings of Hodge and Warfield, a young lion named J. Gresham Machen5 led a breakoff movement that established Westminster Seminary and continued the fundamentalist mission.
     As the second world war loomed, some evangelically minded leaders began to think of fundamentalist theology as a drawback to domestic missiology. Christians, they saw, should not allow themselves to be seen as angry, reactionary and intolerant. The answer was not to alter theological doctrines, but, in the best tradition of the successful businessmen who funded evangelicalism, to remake the marketing strategy. This produced what became known as neo-evangelicalism, practiced by the “new evangelicals.”6
     The neo-evangelicals, led publicly by such people as Wheaton grad Billy Graham, and the new evangelical periodical Christianity Today, began to gradually wean themselves from the most confrontational aspects of “evangelicalism.” Graham, for example, eventually began cooperating with local Catholic churches in his crusades; second- and third-generation evangelical theologians began to seek ways to include some non-fundamentalist sounding ideas in their presentations.7 Nevertheless, evangelical theology continued to sound, albeit with an altered rhetoric, very much like the Calvinist fundamentalism of the Princetonians.
     One example of the new evangelicalism was an Oklahoman turned California candy maker named Bill Bright. Bright, a member of then mega-church and evangelical center Hollywood Presbyterian8, wrote a small booklet called “The Four Spiritual Laws,” and began a very successful enterprise called Campus Crusade for Christ. Bright, with a smattering of seminary education (he matriculated at both Princeton and Fuller seminaries, but did not graduate from either), evidently spent enough time around the charismatic movement to hear about the idea of God being bound by his “spiritual laws” and around Princeton to hear about “permanent grace.” This resulted in a program that taught young college students the basics of sales, with the idea of convincing their peers to make a prayer of conversion, thus “saving” them.9
     Today, the most liberal evangelicals, sometimes called the “Evangelical Left,” seldom bother to deal with theology or doctrine, except to argue about otherwise evangelical/doctrinal hobbyhorses as abortion or LGBT rights. Still, evangelicals remain largely bound by their nearly two-hundred-year-old theology of inerrancy and its consequences in dealing with contemporary social and political issues.
     Today's evangelicals, as Pacific Lutheran historian Seth Dowland writes in Christian Century10, find themselves not only trying to market a saving faith while either pushing their theology into the background, or avoiding its anti-modernist implications, but also remaining increasingly trapped into positions that align themselves with the very fundamentalists the neo-evangelicals sought to escape.
     This is the result of many factors—regional animosities about slavery, the inability of white evangelicals to recognize their own racism (and anti-semitism), the refusal of fundamentalists to stay quiet and uninvolved—but most of all it may well be that neo-evangelicals, while leaving behind the blue-collar, agricultural roots of much fundamentalism, found a comfort level that precluded any sort of prophetic, perhaps confrontational religious activity.
     The postwar America of the neo-evangelicals was, despite involvement in Korea and a short recession, a triumphal, booming, prideful country. Challenges—communism, the space race, housing and education—were easily managed by American technology, know-how, and determination. Where mainstream (or in fundamentalist terms, liberal) Christians found the first world war a shock to their visions of a world continuing to evolve upwards in God's plan, the post-second war evangelicals grew into their marketplace. Evangelicals built inter-denominational publishing houses, upgraded bible schools into colleges, started evangelical ministries and...oops! Stuff happened.
     Martin Luther King, Jr. happened, Playboy magazine (and a dozen cut-rate imitators) happened.11 Vietnam happened. Timothy Leary happened. 1968 happened. Hippy “happenings” happened. The Jesus people happened. America started on its way to becoming something that would eventually be identified as “post-modern.” Re-fighting the modernist battles, as the baby boomers grew into adulthood and their parents segued into retirement, seemed pointless. But like good, if oblivious, post-modernists, the baby boomers and their successors did not continue to experience a nation unified by triumphalism and union wages. The old, modernist divisions reclaimed the country.
     The Falwells, Sr. and Jr., were reborn as funda-evangelicals. As Billy Graham passed, his brother took up the funda-evangelical torch as a Muslim-scorning, gay-bashing throwback. And, instead of Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump became a weird, scary, village-hunchback version of The Conservative.
     If polls show a significant majority of evangelicals supporting him, it may be because nobody at the polling centers no longer knows how to define an evangelical. Or it may be because the Christian church—that catholic church identified in the creeds—is in the midst of an identity crisis, in which the fundamentalist theologies grow in the Southern Cone, and the churches of the old Reformation and Counter-Reformation either grow closer or develop a new, post-modern identity. The ultimate expression of post-modernism may be a well-worn, but still viable bumper sticker:
     “Shit Happens.”

Notes:
1This is partly based on my own experience, but also on the excellent work of church historians George Marsden, Mark Noll (both evangelicals), Kate Bowler, Sydney Ahlstrom, evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz, evangelical (Left) writers Rodney Clapp and Brian McLaren, the African-American churches' theologian and apologist Cornel West and the last great Princeton theologian, J. Gresham Machen.2Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1977/2009, pp.56-57.
3 Kelly, Thomas Forrest. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. New Haven, Yale UP, 2000, pp. 292-4.
4McNichols, Melvin D. Ulysses: Style and Mind. Unpublished dissertation, Univ. of So. Calif., 1991.
5Machen, in his classic study of the book of Romans, revealed an anti-semitism that was a sort of accepted, if not openly acknowledged, accompaniment to Fundamentalism. The dispensationalists manage the difficult task of combining anti-semitism with support for Israel.
6See especially George Marsden's Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1987).
7Regent College theologian Stanley Grenz, in 2000's Renewing the Center and 2001's Beyond Foundationalism, makes frequent reference to postmodern ideas, but ultimately rejects postmodern theologians like Frei or Lindsey, and cannot criticize doctrine based on biblical inerrancy.
8One of Hollywood Pres's best-known members was athlete-turned-evangelist Don Moomaw.
9I joined Campus Crusade briefly in the late 60s, but became disillusioned by just this approach.
10American Evangelicalism and the Politics of Whiteness, July 19, 2018. Retrieved 6/26/18.
11Interestingly, the son of Playboy's founder recently suggested that the magazine may no longer publish nude photos.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Embodiment and Holiness

     When, as a youngster, we left the familiar precincts of the Friends and moved into the Wesleyan orbit, I encountered something new. I'd been raised by Christian parents, gone to a Christian church, lived on the campus of a Christian (Friends) college, and rather assumed, I supposed, that I was a Christian. Apparently, though, it took more than just growing up Christian to be Christian. The matter of conversion began to come up as I grew older—more on that another time—and something else: holiness.
     The holiness I refer to was a product of the Holiness Movement of the mid 19th century in the US. Largely a Wesleyan development, it was born of a concern with social gospel—especially abolition and temperance—living a Wesleyan-style sanctified life free of sin, and a “Third Great Awakening“ desire to reform the waning evangelicalism of mainline Protestant churches. It produced, most famously, the Salvation Army, and other denominations, including the Johnny-come-lately Nazarenes and my own Free Methodists.
     A hundred years later, my church's concern with holiness seemed to me to be mostly about avoiding “sinful” occasions, such as dances, saloons and movie theaters, as well as the diversions usually found there, including smoking and drinking, and the loose women, gamblers, queers and other undesirables who frequented them. The many-time Prohibition Party candidate for President, for example, was a product of a distinguished (and presumably holy) Los Angeles family of Free Methodists.
     For a splinter group to drift a bit, or perhaps to rest on their laurels, as the initial disaccords fade into inconsequence, is understandable, and even predictable. (The upstate NY Methodist conference that ejected the founder of the F.M. Church has since repented of its action, officially, and the F.M.s now cooperate with the parent organization in publishing and theological education.)
It may even be that with time the F.M.s will grow closer to their Methodist forebears as both enter together into the postmodern era of understanding. And it may be that cows will take wing and fly themselves to the stockyards.
     When I consult a reliable evangelical definition of holiness, I get the following: “...holiness is a cutting off or separation from what is unclean, and a consecration to what is pure.”1 Catholics follow Aquinas, calling it “...a very real though hidden separation from this world...a great strength of character or stability in the service of God.”2    Whether one prefers the Mosaic turn of the evangelicals or the Thomist version of the Catholics, it is clear that holiness seems to require a life centrosymmetric to the Divine; a life of service. Simply avoiding sin could be seen, in fact, as a kind of passive-aggressive modus vivendi. If I'm not sinning, I must be okay, right?
     Well, no. A host of church fathers,3 headed by Augustine, point out that service, whether defined as love (the Christian commandment) or virtue (the Greek philosophical/Thomist version) requires not only the negative, the refusal to act in sinful ways, but the positive, the requirement to symptomatize. (Yeah, it's a fifty-cent word, but I kinda like it. Think about it.)
     One can argue that there is a moment when holiness strikes, and that is that. The Puritans did, the Wesleyans and the charismatics do also; even a variety of Calvinists also continue the 17th-century idea that acting holy and being holy are identical.
     Of course, there is a bit of a problem with holiness. A flaw in the diamond. A fly in the ointment. An itch where it can't be scratched. A …. you get the idea. It's called sin. Wesleyan sanctification or saintly virtue notwithstanding, sooner or later, everybody does it. Sta. Teresa did it in Ávila the sixteenth century, or so she said, and so did St. Teresa of Calcutta in the twentieth.
     In the Reformation, and particularly the Reform branch of Geneva and Calvin, holiness was derived from instruction in biblical truth from the pulpit. Inculcated with proper notions, behaving as instructed, and cognizant of grace, believers would, hopefully, join the holy elect. But which are the elect?
     Absent some divine sign—maybe a halo descending upon one entering the chancel—the only determination was a social one. Those who lived the holiest life could be, generously, assumed to be among the saints. And the holiest life was no longer the one devoted to churchly orders, but in the new, renaissance capitalist communities, it was one devoted to being a productive citizen, contributing to the building of a holy society to come, perhaps the New Jerusalem of the Radical Reformation. Acts—observed behavior—determined holiness.
     This Reformation notion found perhaps its most extreme realization in the American fundamentalist “new evangelicals” and the holiness movements' insistence on the primacy of all individual Christians' (and their churches') role as evangelists. Church services were little more than quests for converts (no service could conclude without an altar call); personal holiness depended on home Bible reading and prayer; and “witnessing” at work and school—in the absence of full-time mission work—was the least one could do.
     The quest for holiness thus skipped over the second of the Reformation's three solas—sola gratia. Grace may be God's, but behavior—i.e. works—can be evaluated socially. This is the point where my academic background begs me to insert some quote from an authority to buttress my point. Instead, I'll insert an anonymous note scribbled carefully by a previous (and skeptical) reader in the margins of one of my used books, Robert Webber's Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1999).
     Webber, in discussing the Nicene Creed's “Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church,” says “This confession is not about the church, but an experienced reality of Christ's presence in the church.” (p. 84). My previous reader, painstakingly using a straight edge to guide (and cramp) his gel-ink pen, writes “when was this ever experienced?”
     Which is, ironically, pretty much what Webber was writing about—that the church is not and never has been especially holy, at least as theologians and reformists imagine holy; that is, as perfect inclusions of perfect, sanctified and/or elect people. The church is like a collection of professors, lawyers, mechanics or doctors—folks engaged in the practice of their faith. Like the professionals in our metaphor, they don't always get it right.
     In America, since the Puritans of New England fled even the Long Parliament days back home, the sine qua non of holiness has been “consistent God-fearing behavior,” as Sydney Ahlstrom describes it in his magisterial history of American Christianity.4 But, Michael Polanyi provides a glimpse of what holiness can mean to a postmodern/postchristian believer in his discussion of tacit knowledge.5
     Tacit knowledge is not the knowing created by immersion in theological arcana or Sunday sermonizing. It is knowing established by the constant habit of doing. It might begin with an descriptive outline of something, but by developing a behavior thus described, the knowing becomes not only ingrained as habit, but more fully grasped and put to use in ways that resist description.
     Two examples: one is riding a bicycle. One begins with a set of training wheels, a careful push from a caregiver or teacher, a few words of advice, and a somewhat hesitant, staggering start, punctuated, perhaps, by a skinned knee or a bruised elbow. Cut to the adult breezing down Figueroa Avenue on a ten-speed, making constant instinctive alterations of balance, flipping through gears, inches from passing automobiles, relaxed and even guiding the bike back and forth without hands on the handlebars.
     Or, one glances across Alumni Park and glimpses a friend near Tommy Trojan. There is no method or description that can explain how it is we recognize that one individual in the crowd, but we do.
     A man who lived at the beginning of the Reformation, but joined the Brothers of the Common Life, wrote “Today thou confessest thy sins, and tomorrow thou committest the very same thou hast confessed. Now, thou art purposed to look well unto thy ways, and within a while thou so behavest thyself, as though thou hadst never such purpose at all.”6
     “I would I were able, at least for one day, to do Thee one worthy service.”7
     The history of reform movements within Christianity, from the beginning, is that sooner or later the original piety and enthusiasm fades, to be overtaken by forgetfulness, misdirection, dissension, greed or fear. Dominican missionary friars become Inquisitors, pious Presbyterians become slave-masters, humble evangelists become proud plutocrats. Individuals, as well, find the road of life in Christ to be difficult to sustain over a long haul.
     As I was writing this, a new pope released his statement on holiness, in which he writes not as a theologian, but a pastor: “My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us 'to be holy and blameless before him in love (Eph 1:4)'8.”
     Francis' lengthy document is one I must spend some time with, but at first read it is evident that he gets it. This is a guy worth listening to.
     I leave with this idea: that Holiness is difficult to imagine or teach, but it can be learned.

Notes
1Baker's Encyclopedia of the Bible, quoted in Kay Arthur, “What is Holiness?”, https://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/june-2007/what-is-holiness/,. Retrieved 4/17/2018
23 Pope, Hugh. “Holiness.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. NY: Appleton, 1910. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07386a.htm. Retrieved 17 Apr. 2018.
3Yes, there were a few mothers, too. My favorite is Sta. Teresa of Ávila, whose La Vida de Santa Teresa de Jesús and El Castillo Interior (which influenced Descartes) ought to be required reading for people interested in holiness.
4A Religious History of the American People, New Haven, Yale, 1972, p. 145.
5Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension, Gloucester, MA. Peter Smith, 1983.
6Thomas À Kempis. Of the Imitation of Christ. Ch. XII, 6.
7Ibid, X, 4.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Resacrilizing Prayer

Resacrilizing Prayer

    I shall only tell you, that as there is one sort of prayer wherein we make use of the voice, which is necessary in public, and may sometimes have its own advantages in private; and another, wherein through we utter no sound, yet we conceive the expressions, and form the words, as it were, in our minds; so there is a third and more sublime of prayer, wherein the soul takes a higher flight, and having collected all its forces by long and serious meditation, it darteth itself (if I may so speak) towards God in signs and groans, and thoughts too big for expression.1
Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man

     It's just a lot of bunk...based on personal intuition.2
John F. MacArthur (Pastor, Grace Community Church
and President, The Master's Seminary).

     Much of my blog so far focused on the conceptual universe; that is, looking at ideas and mental constructions as they relate to theological, hermeneutic, historical and social aspects of Christianity. There is, however, an aspect of Christianity that is at least as important as the conceptual, and yet often ignored, whether in modernist or postmodernist observations of the faith. Theologians call it pneumatology (which has nothing to do with inflating automobile tires).
     More simply, it is the role of the third part of the Trinity, introduced at Pentecost—the Holy Spirit. While Christianity is, as its name implies, centered on the kerygma of the sacrifice and atonement of the Cross, it is the Spirit that accompanies us on our daily journey through life. Catholic and Orthodox traditions have long recognized the role of the Spirit through the traditional rituals of worship and the work of the cloistered religious. The Reformation, however, moved worship further and further into a focus on biblical hermeneutics, now often called “explicatory preaching,” and away from the centering of the worshiper on more purely spiritual considerations.
     The division between experiencing faith through the spirit and the text is as pointed and divergent as the two quotes above. On the one hand, seventeenth-century Scots Puritan theologian Scougal attempts to verbalize the quest for realizing the presence of the Spirit. MacArthur, a Calvinist and dispensationalist, is understandably suspicious of something (specifically, contemplative prayer) that seems to lead away from the purely verbal experience of reading, and especially, we assume, what his own extensive glosses and sermons point to as its precise meaning.3
     Today, more than 300M Christians are part of a movement variously called charismatic, Pentecostal or continualist.4 It is most often associated with the Azusa Street Revival in downtown Los Angeles, while others point to the so-called Third Wave movement begun at St. Mark's large Episcopal church in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys and carried on at St. Luke's in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.5 At any rate, while some charismatic Protestants, wary of denominational hostility or “liberal” leanings, moved to create their own church organizations6, the movement has spread to virtually all corners of Christianity, including Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Reformed and Orthodox traditions.
     Whatever one's attitude toward the charismatic movement, all Christianity acknowledges the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and that we approach and deal with them through prayer. Some prayers are formal, carefully written and widely recognized prayers that we use to express ourselves in ways that allow us to focus on the meaning of our prayer, rather than distract ourselves with finding the words to verbalize. For example, the Lord's Prayer, or Our Father, is virtually universal through all Christian confessions, and sometimes the only memorized prayer known by evangelicals.
     The spontaneous prayer is prevalent in Protestant circles, possibly because it seems less “Catholic,” which until the twentieth century many Protestants considered to be full of heretical ideas and practices. Protestant ministers, at any rate, must develop a strong ability to publicly pray off the cuff.
     The book about prayer, whether offering prewritten prayers usable by individuals, or discussing occasions and approaches to personal prayer, is a staple of bookstores and organizations of all the Christian confessions. There are numerous examples of prayers in the scriptures and constant mentions that prayer of some type must be a significant part of Christian life and belief.
     Just how do believers move into a closer relationship with the Spirit? I would like to share one approach which I have found rewarding. This is not intended as a complete guide to prayer, nor does it follow a particular confession's distinct doctrine or dogma. It began, for me, with the Friends (Quaker) worship of my childhood, but has been informed by a wide assortment of people, from Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and interdenominational backgrounds, both ancient and contemporary.7
     This Is a six-step process similar to an ancient Christian practice often identified with St. Benedict, but widely practiced in various monastic and religious traditions. Pope Benedict XVI recommended it more than once, and it was also endorsed by Vatican II in 1965. Called “Lectio Divina” (divine reading), and developed and used primarily in the Catholic tradition, it nevertheless is not an exclusively Catholic activity.
     Why is it not used more in Protestantism?
     MacArthur's comment at the beginning of this entry explains a lot. Sola Scriptura, used at the beginning of the Reformation to repudiate, among other things, the Church's control over its members, led to a question: if there are no intermediaries between Christians and God, and it is only in scripture that one can find salvation, what happens if I don't have the scriptures handy, or I can't read, or I'm confused about what they mean?      The answer, of course, is to listen to one's own “experts,” the preachers, who will not only read the scripture aloud, but tell you just what it means.
Protestants thus, ironically, valorized an even greater demand for church-licensed expositors than had previously been needed, while discouraging methods of prayer or reading that smacked of the dreaded Roman church. One self-described fundamentalist website, in describing Taizé activities, might as well be describing Lectio Divina:
     “In short, [it] is an unbiblical attempt to connect with God. Scripture says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes by the Word of God (Romans 10:17), yet [it] dispenses with preaching. Rather, it relies on idolatrous images, repetitive chants, and mystical experience to manufacture a sense of unity and peace.”8
     In MacArthur's case, his dispensational theology requires both an extraordinarily strong insistence on a certain literalist reading of scripture and a correspondingly weak version of the work of the Spirit. Having thus delivered a low blow to an easy target, which I will probably have to confess as a lesser sin, let me get to the business at hand:

Step one: Silence

     I am not new to the notion of silence. Not only was it normal in Friends' worship, but I also encountered it in a retreat run by an ecumenical group of Navy chaplains in San Diego. We were dispatched into the woods surrounding our retreat building to spend hours in total silence. The woods provided a degree of distraction—birds chirping, rustling leaves and branches, colors and textures—but in the end, we were left to listen to our own minds.
     In my own life today, I enjoy not having to listen to a background of television chatter and radio music. I did not come to this easily. It took a year of enforced learning before I became comfortable being alone with no distractions.9 Entering silence, especially if one is not used to it, is both difficult and even a bit scary. Yet silence, free of distracting thoughts and close noises, leaves one free to concentrate on God.
     Notice I said concentrate. This is not the beginning of some mind-emptying Eastern meditation. I've done that, and it has its place. Instead, we are preparing to focus on scripture.
     If you are new to silence, or are bothered by outside noises, I suggest starting by practicing breathing. If your mother (or father) was not a voice teacher, like mine, or you did not spend your teen years under a good running coach, you may not know how to breathe. Breathing is controlled not by your chest, but lower down. If I asked you to take a deep breath, you probably would puff out your chest. (Welcome to last place in the 400-meter dash.) Instead of that, try pushing your belly out. The diaphragm muscles, located just below the chest, control breathing. When they contract, breath is pushed out. When they relax, breath enters. Two or three deep, slow breaths, controlled by the diaphragm, will oxygenate muscles, enhance relaxation and begin to take you to a quiet place.

Step Two: Focus

      Once you are quiet, it's time to focus. In Friends worship, this is virtually automatic, but absent the surroundings of a roomful of people all practiced at, and doing, the same thing, it may take a bit to gather yourself and toss out distracting thoughts. I find that even with a Friends background, a short verbal reminder helps me. My personal reminder comes from the story of the thief crucified alongside Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he says. “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus replies.10 This story, I like to think, is recalled in what liturgists call the “Kyrie.”11 At any rate, reciting Luke's story to myself puts me in a good place.

Step Three: Lectio

     Lectio is reading. I am a fast reader, but I deliberately slow myself down for this reading, wanting to savor and experience the words. A bit of science here: when we read, especially something we've read before, we tend to anticipate and can easily “read” words that aren't actually there, or insert meanings from the past. When I learned to proofread in news writing, I would stand facing the typesetter and read upside down and backward, which vastly improved my ability to catch errors. There's another trick that some Lectio practitioners use, and that's to read the words aloud, or in a whisper. (Until roughly the 11th century, that's how virtually everybody read.) To “hear” the words as well as see them visually makes for a different, and often wonderful, experience.
     Now, what to read? There are no rules, but keep in mind that you're going to be thinking about this, and it's difficult to keep too much stuff in mind at once. I like to read a single story, like the story of the sacrifice of Isaac or one of Jesus' parables, or a short Psalm, or a short section from one of the prophets. Some like to read the scripture sequentially, from Genesis to Revelation; others follow a suggested reading plan, or a lectionary program.12 Some, like me, decide on the spot what to read. It's a good idea, and many of my sources recommend, to re-read the selection. Go slow.

Step Four: Meditation

     When I read good fiction—novels or short stories—I find myself almost witnessing the actions as if I was there. Similarly, good journalists can sometimes give me the same feeling about their tales. Some stories can actually move me to tears, or anger, or awe. Reading scripture, I believe, calls for the same level of involvement. Can we imagine ourselves accompanying Isaac and Abraham on their journey to the sacrificial site, or hearing the Psalmist proclaiming his composition? What does it look like, and sound like, and smell like? What clothes are we wearing, and how do they feel? Is the weather cool, hot, wet, dry? How does Abraham pick up and hold the knife? What is he thinking as they wend their way across the land?
     The key to scriptural meditation is to allow the scripture to speak to us, not to impose a reading upon it. There are many expositors, conservative, liberal, evangelical, fundamentalist, Catholic, Reform, and on and on, who are more than happy to tell us what scripture means. But we do not conduct meditation for their benefit; rather, it is for us to listen to God.

Step Five: Prayer

     It is a short, often imperceptible step from meditation to prayer. As we listen to the Spirit, we find ourselves replying. Replying can take many forms. Sometimes, we find ourselves, like Christ in Gethsemane, asking that we not be constrained to do what He wishes. At other times, we are worried about ourselves, our loved ones, or our community, and we ask for God's assistance, in whatever form He chooses. Or we may be confused, and ask for clarity; awed, and give praise; comforted, and give thanks; or simply rest in His peace.

Step Six: Contemplation

     Just as it is often a tiny step from meditation to prayer, one can sometimes slip into contemplation from prayer. If it does not happen, there's no damage done. The entire process becomes easier and more productive with time and repetition. At times, contemplation can be an all-encompassing, overwhelming experience; at other times, a period of quiet reflection. One thing it is not, is verbal. In the presence of the Spirit, awareness moves beyond prayer and into a realm indescribable. This is where the mystics, the Sta. Teresas and St. Benedicts of old and the Thomas Mertons and Basil Penningtons of today find their bliss. But it is not only the few, but everyone to whom the Spirit is available. At times, it seems that traditional Protestantism has so directed our attention to readings and preaching that many of have lost the sweetness of resting in the Lord. No accident that the charismatics are the fastest growing movement in the church.

A Final Word

     This is a flexible approach. Use it as you wish, how you wish. What is best for one Is not necessarily best for all. Pennington suggests taking about ten minutes. I sometimes take less, and often take more. One thing that is true, I believe, for all, is that developing a discipline is important. Set aside a time and/or place, and, as countless label directions specify, “repeat as necessary.”

Notes:
1Nicoles and Noyes, Boston, 1868.
3The heavily annotated MacArthur Study Bible is available in four English (ESV, NASB, NKVJ and NIV) and one Spanish (RVR) versions.
5Rev. Dennis Bennett's story can be found at http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/october/charismatic-renewal-movement.html. Retrieved 3/23/2018.
6Perhaps most famously, Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple megachurch in downtown Los Angeles (1100 Glendale Blvd.), and her Foursquare denomination.
7In laying out my method, I largely follow Dom M. Basil Pennington, but I have also learned much from- and highly recommend-- Thomas å Kempis, Sta. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola Fra. Thomas Merton, David Johnson (A Quaker Prayer Life). Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, Richard Foster, the Taize Community, and many others.
8https://www.gotquestions.org/Taize-worship.html
9I am forever grateful for my year at The Way Back house on 'A' street in San Diego.
10Luke 23:42-3. NRSV.
11Kyrie Eleison, Christie Eleison (Greek), or Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy (English).

12http://www.commontexts.org/rcl/ is a source for the Revised Common Lectionary .

Friday, March 2, 2018

Power and Protest:
Zephaniah

     As I entered a retirement center reception not long after my mother's funeral, I was buttonholed by a stranger, a smartly groomed youngish man in a monocolor blazer and power tie with an American flag button prominently displayed in his lapel. On my good days, with mom's lessons in polite behavior in mind, I usually find a relatively neutral way to disguise my reactions to such characters. This was not a good day. I had just dealt with my dad, who like mom had been, was well along in the awful grip of Alzheimer's. Before I could recollect myself, I reverted to what is sometimes one of my default, but authentic personae—salty, profane, blunt professional sailor. The stranger bounced off me like a green-as-grass Ensign shopping yet another “really great idea, Chief!”
     What the unwelcome visitor represented was a movement that has been a bullying undertone in Washington state politics for a good bit of my adult life: an active, doctrinaire, well-organized religious right. It's a movement that in our northern neighbor has managed to control Republican caucuses and place a varying number of legislators in national offices, mostly from rural, agricultural counties. (In my current home to the south, Oregon, political parties are so disliked that few candidates advertise their affiliations outside the official ballot. I, born in Los Angeles, am growing to like—gulp—the Beaver State.)
      Divisions, controversy and the like seem to be universals among societies. Just as I find many of the actions of the religious right in the USA to be distasteful, so too do many of their followers dislike (I imagine) this blog, smacking as it does of “liberal” (I prefer “mainstream”) ideas and agendas.
     Apostolic Christianity, for example, moving from an occasionally oppressed minority to a decidedly favored status under Constantine, swiftly and happily did what all revolutionaries aspire to do, become the bosses that then replace the old status quo with a new one, preferably without the presence of significant opposition. That Constantinian mainstream, of course, had its critics, some of whom ended up repressed, often violently1, and others of whom ended up splitting into the Protestant version of Constantinianism2 (though not without several violent episodes over what form the Reformation would take).
     A critical turn for the future Christian church, especially for their Old Testament scripture, occurred in the period between the accession of Hezekiah to the Judean throne in 715 BCE and the death of King Josiah at Meddigo in 609. This was the period of Judean prosperity and importance.    Following its successful defense against the Assyrian siege, Judah welcomed a flood of Israeli refugees, many of them from the professional, priestly and merchant classes of their wealthy northern neighbor, following the collapse of the urban center of Samaria. Jerusalem, the country-cousin counterpart of Samaria, grew quickly into an urban center, its suburbs drawing the pastoral and agricultural people in for both protection and access to the Jerusalem marketplace. Scribes were needed for government, trade and the new suburban records center, and priests to administer the Temple and other religious activities, and to use their scribal training to build the new libraries.3
     Both Hezekiah and Josiah stood out as religious reformers against a background of Hezekiah's worldly sons. Yet, reform means change, and the transition from a relatively second-rate kingdom to a rich, urban one means even more change. Behind the scene, and at times in the foreground, lurks conflict—rural values against urban, one set of priests against another, natives against newcomers—and with the conflict comes that traditional voice of change, the prophet.
     Hebrew prophets, whose voices make up much of the Old Testament material, exist within a complicated position centuries in the making. It is marked first of all by alienation. Prophets are not comfortable doing business as usual. The everyday routine of society, the accepted values and ideas, the procession of events that casts its participants as actors with lines and speeches written by all that has gone before, seems foreign to prophets. Their attention is fixed outside the walls of the city or the confines of the village.
     Because the everyday is the everyday, it is powerful. Language itself is made possible because people agree to common signifiers, with accepted, common signification. To convince people to even consider sharply different, even alien ideas, let alone grow to accept them, requires prophets to become powerful presenters of those ideas. Their tools for doing so, on the one hand, are traditional and familiar to their audience, but on the other hand, involve using the kind of language that will kickstart their audience's attention. That is, in order to challenge power, one must first sneak in, and then explode.
     Zephaniah occupies an intriguing position among the latter prophets—we don't know whether he precedes or follows the emergence of Deuteronomy at Josiah's court—but he certainly is a voice of reform, of a return to the days of Hezekiah.4 To accomplish his mission, he asserts himself in a position that is familiar—recalling the fearsome power of the one god—and popular—criticizing the accumulation of wealth by the new plutocrats and predicting the fall of Judah's rivals and old enemies.
     To someone seeking a “literal” reading of Zephaniah, his predictions of the utter destruction of Judah, and indeed the entire world,

     I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord...
     I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth. (2-3; NRSV)

seem a bit far-fetched, even for the times. Still, to people whose vulnerability to famine and the bloody conquests of neighboring kingdoms and empires is ever close to mind, despite their recent prosperity, such metaphors have a powerful impact.
     I remember standing in the playground outside North Queen Anne elementary school, watching huge new Boeing 707 jets fly low from the south Seattle factory, engines whining, and the occasional four-engine prop airliner doing the same, wondering if this was the day when an atomic bomb would suddenly drop from a similar plane. Inside the school, we had monthly drills involving drawing thick black window blinds against nuclear flash and huddling under our desks.
     Later, I understood how suddenly and unpityingly a force, whether made up of former neighbors or big, fiercely armed strangers could visit sudden death, starvation and dislocation on humble villagers and city dwellers alike in a place whose name, “the Nam,” became a synonym for horror for my generation. Only in a country whose memories of local strife are generations removed do such images slide by with little impact.
     We must also notice that these are not the words of a 21st-century heir of two or three centuries of modernist thought, to whom the notion of a one-to-one correspondence between words and things, the absolute, literal truth of language, is second nature. Like a Chris Rock or a Richard Pryor, the prophet uses “unreal” and “distorted” language to penetrate everyday, surface patterns of discourse and expose raw, hidden nerves of fear, discomfort and unease. (It is perhaps no accident that English poets at the outset of the Enlightenment turned to satire.)
     Having gotten his audience's attention, Zephaniah returns to the local. Identifying the officials, merchants and powerful who have turned away from Hebrew tradition and begun to accumulate wealth and assume “foreign” customs. He uses the homely metaphors of sacrifice, lamps, even the fortifications that saved Jerusalem from capture to illustrate his call.
     It is not simply the new urbanites and backsliding tribal members who come in for condemnation. The five cities of Philistia, prosperous from their positions near the seacoast and the trading roads, the traditional enemies of Moab and Amon to the east, and even the people of Cush and Nubia who must join the “Great Satan” of Assyria in falling under the sword of the Lord. Interestingly, the desirable seacoast will not be destroyed, but become the possession of Hebrew shepherds, no longer forced near the city for protection.
     In the end, says Zephaniah, everyone will once again adopt the “true speech” (perhaps a reference to Genesis 11?) and live without shame in the Lord's world.
     The protest and promise of Zephaniah resembles something that those of us of a certain age experienced hearing from the more radical 60s and 70s activists, from the Weather Underground to Baader-Meinhof: the promise of violent protest leading to a sort of socialist utopia. Che Guevara, of course, turned out to be an ineffectual egoist who died futilely in the backwoods of Bolivia, the Paris rioters went back to their studies and joined the French bourgeoisie, and Soviet tanks ended the Prague Spring.
     So, what is Zephaniah up to? Does he really think that Josiah's reforms will have a lasting effect on the Hebrew community, after several hundred years of failed efforts (that will soon, as we know, end up in the exile)? To reflect on Zephaniah, we should do exactly what an unceasing stream of ministers and preachers have proposed (often with no idea of how dangerous such urging could be): stop imagining that Zephaniah was schooled in a modern time, learning to write in modern genres, but consider him in terms of his own connection with God and his fellow Hebrews.
     Prophecy, to a modern, is about doing something that has value in a rational, scientistic world: prediction. We value scientific theories, for example, on whether or not they produce repeatable, predictive results. A theory, indeed any rationally developed series of actions or activities, should always produce the same results, products or answers. Take a pill, and those nasty symptoms disappear; follow a map, and arrive at Las Vegas; watch a movie, and the hero vanquishes the villain and wins the girl; petition God, and wait for the answer.
     To Zephaniah, prophecy was something like a mix of those editorials the Washington Post inflicts on me each day, and Walt Whitman scribbling the “trashy and profane” Leaves of Grass.5 Zephaniah saw around himself a world infused with meaning, and sought to capture that meaning using the tools available to him. To recapture something of his meaning is to suspend, for the moment, our expectations about text, to imagine the images and metaphors he lays out, to relax, absorb and meditate on the various meanings available to us. For Zephaniah—and the Bible—is all those, and more.

Notes
1I especially commend the digging up of Wyclif's bones so that he could be “burned” at the stake.
2I realize I'm skipping over the departure of the Alexandrian Coptic church, the splitting off of the Orthodox churches, the curious role of Armenia, etc., but I think my point is made.
3See Schniedewind, William M. How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2004), esp. Chs.4-7, and Friedman, Richard Eliot Who Wrote the Bible? (NY, Summit 1989), esp. Chs. 4-5.
4On the emergence of the Deuteronomic corpus—Deuteronomy through Kings—see Friedman, Ch. 5.

5John Peter Lesley-a contemporary-quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Whitman#Leaves_of_Grass.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Anteriority of God:
A Meditation on Silence

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. 1 Kings 19:11-13 (NRSV)

     In both Genesis stories, God precedes us and our world; he is the creator. He comes face to face with us in the garden and delivers our exile in person. God also speaks to Noah, and to Abraham and Moses, but while he remains always anterior in terms of the precedence of time, he also moves gradually, biblical book to biblical book, from face to face spatiality to a certain removal, a distancing. Job is an exception. God's longest biblical speech is, ironically, delivered not to an Israelite, but to an easterner, and it emphasizes not His immediate presence, but his awesome and remote power, his unknowability.
     It is a stark contrast to the immediacy of human representations of the divine, idols that can be touched, propitiated, entertained, gilded when the economy is on the ups, or broken and burned when the conqueror breaks through. Israelites, seeking the comfort of a presence, a face, also turn regularly to the familiar comfort of idols, thus leading God to, as the storytellers say, turn his face away. Always, though, he also inspires heroes, kings and prophets to lead the strays back to the fold.
     In doing so, he sometimes speaks directly, but more often through dreams. God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, but by Elijah's time, the wind, though powerful and destructive beyond any human power, is no longer God's chosen vehicle for speech. Elijah becomes a fugitive, hunted into the wilderness, hiding in a cave. When his surroundings erupt in fury, he huddles inside, Instead, Elijah waits for quiet, the “sound of sheer silence.”
     American songwriter Paul Simon rose to prominence after penning a song he called the “The Sound of Silence.” The song, which begins “Hello darkness, my old friend,” was written in Simon's favorite place of inspiration, behind the closed door of his bathroom, the water running and the light turned off.1 Almost like a dreamer in a dark bathroom (in his case a cave) Elijah also seeks darkness and secrecy behind his cloak as he goes forth to meet God, lest he actually see the God who also hides His presence.
     By the time of urban literacy and royal libraries—a time that begins with Hezekiah and blooms under Josiah—the presence of God in the Word is no longer announced by the sort of personal appearances or angelic messengers that so mark His presence in the days of oral tradition. Instead, we find such muffled, almost desperate certiorari as Isaiah's “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken:”.2 Prophets have become eloquent and passionate writers, but there is no voice of God, only the routine, passive and rote nod to tradition of “The word of the Lord that came to...” Isaiah, or Micah, or Amos.
     Ezekiel, who experiences the trauma of the Assyrian destruction of the Jerusalem of scribes and libraries, is the exception. In dramatic prophetic language, once in Babylon, he fervidly reclaims the authority of the original, oral tradition. God, in his vision, has Ezekiel eat the text, the scroll (which tasted “sweet as honey”) and only then turn to speaking the word to a rebellious people.
     God, at least the biblical God, pretty much disappears once the returned exiles rebuild the temple. In the books of the intertestamental period, banned from the Protestant canon (largely because of the absence of God?), we see, often sans the immediate presence of the divine, the Maccabean/Hasmonean resistance to their more liberal fellows and Greek paganism. God remains in the background; it is priesthood and the temple that stands for orthodoxy, while orthodoxy replaces God.
     Out of the silence, however, arrives the incarnate God. In a brief ministry, Jesus explodes orthodoxy and establishes a new vision of divinity. The question, perhaps, is whether the new vision becomes like the old:

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”3

Notes
1Eliot, Marc. Paul Simon: A Life (NY, John Wiley & Sons, 2010), p. 40. Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sound_of_Silence.
2Isaiah 1:2 (NRSV).

3Simon, Paul. The Sound of Silence on Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. (NY, Columbia Records, 1964; remixed as single, 1965).

Friday, January 19, 2018

Postchristian: A Brief Prolegomena

     The notion of something like “postchristian” has been flitting around my personal space since the 1960s. It appeared first as the so-called “death of God,1” which our pastor tended to confute by frequent citations of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Francis Schaeffer, whose European vibes were far more reassuring to me than the collection of self-righteous Moody-ites I was accustomed to hearing from elsewhere. Then I started living as an adult in the contradictions and frustrations of late modern/early postmodern evangelical Christianity, which became a personally tortuous path in and out of church-less faith, Catholicism, Episcopalianity, and on to a embracing of something that is, at last, serene, stable and as Christlike as I want to be (God has a way of kicking me in the fundament further toward that ideal).
     In an earlier entry I mentioned reading Situation Ethics, and finding it essentially unremarkable (if a bit too dependent on utilitarianism) at a time when many in my community considered it somewhat blasphemous. In many ways, their problem can be traced back to Rene Descartes, whose seventeenth-century interpretation of rationalism and humanism based all constructions of knowledge on the notion of the “axiom.” One way to describe an axiom is to call it an assumed fact, which is a bit of a contradiction in terms.
     One place I ran across this axiom business in action was upon my arrival at Ohio State University2. One of the first pieces of faculty mail to hit my desk was a booklet announcing the conduct of a total, bottom-up review of all aspects of OSU, in the interests of “improving” this rather large and unwieldy institution. On page two, the president listed several assumptions that he said would guide the review. He specifically called them 'unchallengeable' and foundational. One of the first was the idea that 'good' research produces 'good' teaching. My guess was that this review would, nevertheless, not end up gutting the existing center for improvement of faculty teaching3. Nor, on the other hand, would it bring up the increasing trend among research universities for establishing teaching lines for gaining tenure, similar to the clinical tenure line already in place in medical schools. Oops?
      Building a structure of belief on constructions built from an axiom is often called, in theology at least, 'foundationalism.' It is a metaphor that appeals both to the need of theology to claim a divinely authorized validity and to its long-time dependence on philosophy, or something resembling philosophy, for its methodology. Unfortunately for theology, modern philosophers got caught out by the destruction of careful edifices of knowledge by postmodern realizations that apprehending reality was a much more complex proposition than could by realized by axiomatic structures. To put it simply, postmodern claims can be roughly synthesized by two notions:

     One, that axioms can be successfully challenged by counterclaims.

     Two, that breakthroughs in knowledge result not from continuing chains of logic, but from the ability to significantly controvert one's own axioms.4

     Thus, a couple of centuries of systematic or foundational theological structures began listing like the Torre Pendente di Pisa, propped only up by an inevitable flurry of emergency alterations or even stubborn denial by those who found themselves too tied to their old roots to take sustenance from the new.
     At first glance, it appears that Christians, particularly those involved in instructing and informing, or preaching and writing, might find it prudent to step away from postmodern ideas of knowledge, inasmuch as the fundamental axioms of Christianity—the existence of God, the Resurrection—are a matter of revelation, not human invention. It is preferable, after all, to maintain the status of outmoded, curiously old-fashioned aliens in a non-Christian society than to deny God.5
     The problem is, however, precisely that life is not an edifice, that once built, stands forever unaltered. Life is organic. While maintaining the same identity, it nevertheless grows and changes, lives and dies, and regrows as something both old and new. My sons, with the same DNA as their mother and father, are similar (“he's got his mother's eyes”) yet vastly different from their parents and each other. As for the grandkids—you guessed it. Religion should not ignore the difference between identity and change.
     Studying rhetoric in grad school, I was amazed to find that Aristotle was as relevant, and usually more so, than the contemporary experts, even though laughably ill-informed about issues of biology or astronomy. Paul, writing to the Romans, wrote lengthy rhetorical flourishes describing their shortcomings yet continually hammered away at the distinction between conforming to the law and living a genuinely Christ-like life.
     What we have discovered in postmodernism is that life is more complex, and yet simpler, than we thought in pursuing the ideal of a universe amenable to full understanding and ultimate perfection. Consider the notion of evolution that so worried us in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (and still does, in some circles).    On the one hand, we could not imagine, either on biblical or humanist grounds, that our ancestry might include the Homidinae. Yet, in an astonishingly dense contradiction, we also accepted and even reveled in the idea that we were somehow moving upward. Remember, Darwin didn't suggest any such concept—he simply said that species adapt to change.
     Deconstructionists, for example, live to identify and poke holes in common ideas and accepted wisdom, but once a formerly specious notion fades into obscurity, they lose interest—it's the new idea that grabs their attention. What they're looking for is the beginning of new ideas and interpretations—although we see in Derrida's late-life exploration of his Sephardic heritage that does not mean ancient expressions of wisdom are without value equal to new ones.
     In short, organic means fuzzy.
     Is there—could there be—something like 'fuzzy' theology?
     Some theologians have attempted to 'do' postmodern theology, while other scholars have brought postmodern notions to the study of biblical text. If there is a stumbling block along the way, is it often the complaint that postmodernists are good at finding fault with foundational ideas and methods, but fail to offer a path forward.
       Certainly postmodernists such as Michel Foucault or Jean-Luc Nancy could be and at times have been criticized for spending too much time, in Foucault's case on writing critical 'archaeologies' without discovering moral solutions, and in Nancy's case falling in love with his own verbal virtuosity and punning.6
     Good foundationalists simply cannot grapple with explorations that don't arrive at a firm, final closure. Nonfoundationalists accept that there are ultimate truths, but insist that those truths are, in a sense, unknowable.
     We are, after all, organic beings. We cannot escape our bodily existence. What is outside that existence is a matter of faith: faith in revelation, certainly, but faith itself is outside our linguistic ability to name, or explain, or, as is the case in much theology, place limits upon.
     Karl Barth, in discussing Paul's letter to the Romans, went so far as to say that piety (including theology) “...subordinates the Word of God to human words, revelation to experience, and finally the infinite to the finite.”7 (*Which did not, of course, prevent Barth from establishing lengthy and authoritative theological pronouncements of his own.)
     Postmodern theology, then, resembles more closely our own personal experiences with the ultimate mystery of God's presence; exploring rather than establishing, and openly acknowledging and practicing that it is a human invention and thus constituted by our kerygmatic8 interaction with revelation, not by revelation itself. 

Notes
1The phrase is owed to Nietzsche, but the present movement is generally considered to begin with the publication of Gabriel Vahanian's The Death of God ( NY, George Braziller, 1961).
2Sorry, I refuse to add the definite article on the grounds that its use is institutional puffery disguised as an ersatz and misguided reverence for school grammar.
3One unnamed but well-known and tenured deconstructionist scholar I met was currently working with her campus center for instructional improvement. Whether of not this impacted her subsequent appointment as a distinguished professor at a prominent Ivy League university is not reported.
4See especially the work of Michael Polanyi.
5Not intended as a not-so-sly dig at Hauerwas, Willimon or Clapp, all three of which I respect and admire.
6“Déclosion” and “éclosion,” for example, in his recent book Déclosion on deconstructing Christianity.
7Quoted by John A. Thiel, in Nonfounatinalism (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1994), p. 48.

8I also love, I admit, to invent words.