Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections

Earlier this Fall a friend of mine and I decided to read a book together. After some deliberation, we chose Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections. I knew it wasn't going to be anything like his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", but I was still not expecting it to be so good. 

  • I was expecting polemic, but I found careful reasoning and nuance. 
  • I was expecting partisanship, but I found the Great Tradition. 
  • I was expecting an opportunity for me to exercise deep, critical thinking, but I found a brother in Christ. 

It's easy for our thinking to slip into polemic - not least when it comes to religion! But Edwards was almost always fair, sober, and careful. It's easy to try to score cheap points for my 'team', but to me Edwards read like a representative of the best of the broader Christian tradition. It's easy to step back and think about a book just with one's head, but to me Edwards became a kindred spirit. Reading Edwards was like reading Irenaeus or Augustine or Athanasius - full of excitement and surprises, while nonetheless feeling always familiar. 

A few years ago I read Stephen Long's Saving Karl Barth, a book unlike any other I have ever read (check out a review I wrote a few years ago here). I say that because Saving Karl Barth is a biography, but it is not the biography of a person - it is the biography of a friendship. Two of the most important theologians of the 20th century were friends. Both from Switzerland, they had a great deal more than that in common, but what makes their friendship so interesting is their differences and the way the tensions in their relationship shaped their theologies. Of course I'm talking about the Reformed firebrand Karl Barth, and the younger, more contemplative Roman Catholic Hans Urs von Balthasar. The upshot of Long's book is to suggest that Christians who disagree with other Christians should pursue a relationship of friendship rather than opposition. 

Edwards is a Calvinist, while I am not. But what a gift to spend time with a Calvinist and to find not a fight, but a friend.

How appropriate that I had such a relational, even emotional, reaction to Edwards' big book about Christian affections - our experience of passionate love for God. I'll post some thoughts about the actual content of the book in this space soon. 

God has an Israel

Digging through old drafts of blog posts the other day I found the following post, last edited April 2, 2010. It seems like a relatively complete thought, and I have no idea why I didn't post it then. So I'm posting it now.  In my reading from the Church Dogmatics this morning, ol' Karl was talking the Old Testament, and some of the things he was saying reminded me of a quote that I thought I had read earlier in §14. But I was wrong. Here's the quote, from von Balthasar:

All ancient peoples have their gods. The God of Israel, however, is distinguished from all other gods by the fact that he brings into being a people to worship him by his own free sovereign act of choosing - whether we look at the first manifestation of this choice of a people - when God called Abraham - or at his choosing his people when he led them out of Egypt at the hand of Moses (who himself had first to be called of God), thus making something like a nation out of a miserable collection of uncultured and demoralized slaves; before all this, in each case there is a free act of the divine initiative that can neither be foreseen, demanded, nor deduced. (Engagement With God, pp. 13)

I quite enjoyed the point that von Balthasar makes here. Israel is not a people who have a god named YHWH. Rather, YHWH is the God who has a people, Israel.

von Balthasar's Engagement with God

Hans Urs von Balthasar opens his Engagement with God with the observation that, "The world of today, when faced with the Christian Church, is filled with a sense of profound mistrust" (pp. 1). He goes on to claim that the probable reason for this is that people are more likely to "put their faith in the kind of activity that effectively changes the world, whatever the ideological background to this may be," and the church is no longer on the cutting edge of such innovation. So then, considering the wealth of options for political movements across a wide spectrum, if the church understands such action in the world, such 'good works,' as only being possible as works of the church, then "she would be likely to speak of a hidden presence of 'grace', to be discerned wherever men acted in this way, and to describe a man engaged in such activities as an 'anonymous Christian'." (At this point, the sudden and apparently underhanded reference to Karl Rahner made me laugh out loud.)

While von Balthasar appreciates the universal thrust of this line of thinking - for, after all, Christ's salvific ambition has greatly exceeded the boundaries of the visible church - he also wishes to proceed with caution. The gift of this interpretation is that it reminds us that "the Church at heart stands open to the world. But it creates the impression, particularly for those outside the Church, that the visible Church is nothing more than an institution, burdened with a quantity of rules, laws, and precepts as to what is to be believed and how life is to be conducted, whereas the very essence of the life of this institution can equally well be found outside its walls, scattered all over the world" (pp. 2). In other words, once the theory of "anonymous Christians" is widely accepted it becomes apparent that the political fruits of her purported purpose are pursued plentifully outside her walls, leading to the reduction of the church's role to the purely formal, and therefore robbing her of her credibility.

The thrust of his argument, however, is not to leave behind Rahner's concern for the universal, opting instead for the inwardness of the church so as to preserve credibility. Rather, he's going to pursue the "anonymous light" of Christianity exactly in its universal particularity. For von Balthasar, it seems as though this light is none other than the resurrected Christ, one who cannot be re-crucified - but whose disciples can. Thus the theme of Engagement with God "is to ask ourselves the question, what is this power or this brilliant light, from where does it derive, and what is the connection between the source of power that nourishes the Christian and his involvement with mankind?" (pp. 5).

For von Balthasar this quest will involve the fact that freedom, that ever present goal of modern humanity's thought and politics, is to be truly found not in any of its modern manifestations, but in the true Christian. What the modern world seeks so interminably - even restlessly - the church already has in Christ. It is the church and not Marxism, free enterprise, or Enlightenment reason; Christianity and not Freud's or Nietzsche's or deconstructionism's attempts to liberate us that "provides the one glimmer of the light of freedom in a world of murder and senselessness" (pp. 7).

The world's mistrust, as we said at the outset, is a problem, but not one whose answers can be found in the world itself (a move that dooms us to a further loss of credibility). The answers are already with us, in the legitimate freedom found in the person of the resurrected Christ.

I find von Balthasar's notion of 'credibility' intriguing. (I'm wondering if I should have picked up his Love Alone is Credible before this one.) It reminds me of Hauerwas' use of 'intelligibility', though it seems to go a step further. Hauerwas' concern in that one particular word 'intelligible' I think is more basic - he wants to make sure that we are saying something coherent, that the things the church says and does have at least the possibility of being understood by the world, and for that matter, by the church itself. 'Credibility' seems just a touch stronger, requiring intelligibility but then demanding that that which is intelligible be also believable. Hauerwas has a similar concern as well, and I think this is always what he wants to get at eventually when he uses 'intelligible'. He wants Christian witness to be understandable by both the Church and the world so that all might believe. I wonder to what degree von Balthasar's development of 'credibility' will end up differing with Hauerwas here. The emphasis on freedom is so far an attractive addition,

Stay tuned as I try to figure out not only 'credibility', but also how von Balthasar will deal with the universality of extra-church political action qua good works, connecting that to the particularity of the truly free life of discipleship to the resurrected Christ.

Herbert McCabe on Prayer

I've been reading a bit of Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe's writings lately. His style is always very engaging, sometimes humorous, and once in awhile profound. I've also been thinking a bit about prayer lately, mostly by flipping through von Balthasar's Prayer (sidebar: does anybody know any non-Catholic books on prayer that I would like? Bonus points if the book is Barthian, Anabaptist or Wesleyan). The following quotes are from McCabe's short essay on prayer in God Matters.

All prayer is going to have to take its meaning and point from the sacrifice of Christ; we shall simply have to scrap all the metaphors about the allpowerful kindly father up there whom we can sometimes get through to and draw his attention to what we happen to need; we shall really have to get back to the traditional view that all providence is in Christ, that predestination is the predestination of Christ - that no one comes to the Father except through Christ. (217)

The crucifixion says that the coming of the kingdom is not to be an achievement of Jesus but a gratuitous act of the Father's love. The kingdom is to come as a gift... Gift is an expression of an exchange of love. To believe in the resurrection, to believe in God, is to believe that the resolution of the tragedy of the human condition comes as gift, as an act of love encompassing mankind. The crucifixion/resurrection is the archetypal exchange of prayer and answer to prayer. (219, emphasis mine)

God is not first of all our creator or any kind of maker, he is love, and his life is not like the life of the worker or artist but of lovers wasting time with each other uselessly. It is into this worthless activity that we enter in prayer. This, in the end, is what makes sense of it. (225)