28 January 2013

More Than a Feeling

More heavenly than those glittering stars we hold
the eternal eyes which the Night hath opened within us. Farther
they see than the palest of those countless hosts—needing
no aid from the light, they penetrate the depths of a loving
soul—that fills a loftier region with bliss ineffable.

—Novalis, Hymns to the Night, I 1


One of the first and fundamental dogmas with which Christian theologians grapple is the creedal affirmation that Christ Jesus is truly human and truly divine—one person in two natures—by using concepts of what it means to be human and what it means to be divine that are available in their cultures. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his most significant work, The Christian Faith, sets out to lay down a systematic account of Christianity during the course of which he focuses specifically on the ecclesiastical formulae that “in Jesus Christ the divine nature and human nature were combined in one person.”2

The occasion of its publication was the notorious or happy (depending on one’s vantage point) Prussian Union of 1817, decreed by King Frederick William III on the three-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which unionized the Lutheran and Reformed churches, effectively weakening the entrenched and newly invigorated confessional Lutheranism, thus unsettling the old guard. George Cross notes that, given the need for Prussian political unity and strength at the close of the Napoleonic wars, “Schleiermacher’s religious convictions and his patriotism combined to make him a supporter of the movement.”3 But he also foresaw dangers, argues Cross, that threatened Protestantism’s life, namely, a stringent conservative reaction to the ecumenical times. As heated controversy arose, the first edition of The Christian Faith appeared (1821).

Schleiermacher, by a broad treatment of the great topics of Christian theology, aimed at stemming the current running toward a narrow and intolerant orthodoxy, and at the same time, by bringing into relief the religious reality which underlies the different confessions of Protestantism, he hoped to deepen the consciousness of the unity and worth of the Christian faith. (ibid., 111)

Of course, the work transcends its occasion, by being a particularly well-suited piece of writing for this modern age, a time in which nothing can be taken for granted, by a young theologian who found himself “within a tradition to which [he was] personally committed [and] turned upon it the full arsenal of critical scholarship and let the theological chips fly where they might.”4

Since Schleiermacher assumes familiarity with his argument up to the point of the First Theorem on the hypostatic union (§96), it behooves us to traverse briefly two key aspects of his thought as they relate to his doctrine of Christ: (1) gef├╝hl, the feeling of absolute dependence (God-consciousness); and (2) his definition of God (construed as relation). The order is important, as it is only through that moment of absolute dependence within our consciousness that we “feel” any relation to the unknown beyond the world (i.e., “God”) and can thus say anything about it, subjective though that may be.

To be continued . . .

1 From Hymns to the Night and Spiritual Songs, trans. George MacDonald (London: Temple Lodge Publishing, 1992), 10.

2 Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, trans. H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), §96, 391.

3 George Cross, The Theology of Schleiermacher (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1911), 110.

4 Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 70. Cross goes on to note that the genius of The Christian Faith lies in its attempt to free Christianity from its traditional moorings (which have obscured its truth) as well as from construing it in merely moralistic terms, thus showing it to be the most natural and preeminent of all religions: “It was the work of a writer . . . who had held his mind open to receive whatever he might find nourishing to a hungry spirit in all realms of study and the philosophies of all schools” (Theology of . . ., 112).

10 January 2013

Growing Grace-Full

“But you, friends, are well-warned. Be on guard . . . . Grow in grace and 
understanding of our Master and Savior, Jesus Christ."

— Peter, in his second letter to the scattered exiles (3:17–18)

You say, “Dawson?” I say, “What?” You say, “Dawson . . . .”

I’ll never forget that common refrain coming from the mouth of Dawson McAllister, especially since it was at a youth beach camp in 1991 where he was speaking that I walked down the aisle for the first time of my life, a shattered young man. Whenever I blow it big, usually in private, and usually revolving around lust or arrogance or anger, I start to replay that moment of a muggy summer night in Florida, suddenly overcome with tears. I can’t help but wonder, what kind of tears were they?

That’s the question that has plagued me over the years, not least when I’m struggling with deep, personal sins. They weren’t quite tears of joy; they didn’t feel much like tears of sorrow. And that’s what worries me—the authenticity of that “conversion experience.” What was I crying about? My penchant for introspection drives me to categorize those tears. But they defy categorization. They mock me.

Then I remember those mysterious words penned by Saint Paul:
The moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That's why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. (Rom. 8:26–28)
. . . wordless sighs, our aching groans.” That sounds about right. Overwhelmed as I was at the end of that aisle, surrounded by friends and acquaintances, whispering encouragements and praises in prayer while laying on hands, my groaning was too deep for words. God the Spirit, that one person who most of all sees through my aloof facade, when I didn’t have the words to even attempt to explain why I got up and walked toward the front, were right alongside helping me along—indeed, giving me wordless sighs and aching groans, to the glory of his grace. I suppose that’s a category, but it still defies explanation.

Of course, that doesn’t dissuade theologians from attempting to do so (thankfully). One such theologian writes that what the apostle is speaking of here is “an agonizing in prayer, a mixture of lament and longing in which, like a great swell of tide at sea, ‘too full for sound or foam,’ the weight of what is taking place has nothing to do with the waves and ripples on the surface” (Wright comm. Rom 8:26–27, p. 599). The Spirit of the living God comes alongside and intercedes at that precise moment—the moment when the individual faces the ruin and misery of the fallen world, finding that no words can express his or her sense of futility and longing for redemption. The Holy Spirit, in other words, enables us to finish our intercessions, despite the outward cry being “reduced” to wordless sighs and aching groans. And they reach the triune God. Yes, they reach him like so many beautiful drops of love on the ear of her beloved.

The odd thing about this experience of mine is that I had no intention or desire for it to happen. Up to the very last moment, that is, even while walking down the aisle, I had no inkling of futility, no lamentation, no remorse. In fact, a close friend came over to me during the fifteenth chorus of “Just as I Am” and whispered something inaudible; I thought he had asked me to come up to the front with him. You know, support and all. “Sure,” I said, and proceeded to follow him. But by the time I reached the end of that aisle I transformed into a crumpled mess. And I didn’t know why. At that moment, indeed, knowledge was completely irrelevant. I’m the last guy wanting to be seen quoting Bono (to be super-cool, one must avoid, at all costs, doing what cool people do), but damn it if he didn’t write the perfect lyrics for what it was I felt (“Until the End of the World,” Achtung Baby):
In waves of regret and waves of joy,
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy.
You, you said you’d wait ‘til the end of the world.
So it goes—we, God-haters all, when the time comes according to his good timing, reach out and find, amazingly, his presence, because that’s what he promised he would do. The various authors of Holy Scripture write about this in various ways, and one of those ways is with the language of “election.”

But, contrary to all the over- and under-statements about this doctrine, election is not about being specially chosen to a place above the rest, as a part of some special club or something like that; it’s about being specially chosen to die to self, to be the salt of the earth and a light to the world—to have, in short, lives providentially shaped “along the same lines as the life of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8:29).

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