Review: Scientism and Secularism (2018)

m55690J.P. Moreland published Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology through Crossway this year. Moreland desires to assist the church in her response to the current intellectual milieu, in which truth is accessible only through rigorous application of the scientific method–implying that any “knowledge” obtained through other means is derivative at best, non-knowledge and harmful at worst.

I’m not totally convinced that scientism as Moreland understands it is the predominant mode of understanding at work in the world today; it certainly is a popular epistemology, though one among a number of others–common sense realism and intuitive knowledge epistemology, to name a couple. Nevertheless, insofar as Moreland’s guide is targeted at scientism as such, he is quite successful at flipping the tables and driving out smugglers of the anti-philosophical first principles of scientism. Moreland thoroughly strips scientism of its intellectual credibility, and for that reason alone it would be a handy resource for upcoming high school graduates on their way to college.

Moreland’s attempts at re-substantiating foundationalism as a workable epistemology can be forgiven. This book is quite adequate for the problem at hand. How should Christians respond to the privileged position the hard sciences have in our culture? Return the debate to the philosophical first principles, and work from there. Scientism is a bankrupt philosophy that denies its philosophical nature. Disassemble it in confidence.

I received a complimentary edition of this work from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.


Review: Crucifixion of the Warrior God (2017)

CrucifixionCover_FINALvol1In contradistinction to the work itself, I will attempt to keep this review of Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God as short as possible. CotWG is a massive tome. Boyd managed to stretch what ought to have been, at most, a six hundred page work into a fifteen hundred page behemoth. Verbosity, liberality in block-quoting, relentless criticism-hounding–this work reads as though it would never end, and the final payoff was not nearly as satisfying as it ought to have been for such a long work. The most interesting upheaval of traditional interpretation is nestled in the book’s middle third, with the last third mind-numbingly and minutely detailing aspects of Boyd’s proposition but mostly by way of anticipating criticism and responding in advance. It’s exhausting.

The book is so poorly written I’m unsure how it was published in its current form. Whereas I had initially thought that Copan’s throwaway line about misspellings was unnecessarily petty, it is difficult to take the book seriously when “altar” and “alter” are confused consistently for pages at a time, for an example, or when you can’t go more than ten pages without another blatant misspelling.

9781506420738That the book apparently never made its way to the spellcheck phase of editing actually underscores the greater problem, the problem which most contributes to its excesses:  there’s no way this book was seriously edited at all, because, if it were, the exhaustive footnotes, anticipatory defenses, and hundreds of pages of semi-historical theology at the front would have been severely curtailed in, if not entirely omitted from, the main body. Crucifixion of the Warrior God reads as everything-Greg-Boyd-has-to-say-on-this-topic, and that is a horrific experience for readers. “Trim the fat” is the most helpful–and most difficult–lesson I’ve ever learned about writing. To his credit, Boyd has subsequently published a much condensed, popular version of this argument.

That CotWG is so unfinished really does a disservice to Boyd’s aim. For all of its faults, Crucifixion of the Warrior God truly contains novel and intriguing ideas, points drawn from the text which have primed me to read “between the lines” for a greater christological unveiling. Boyd’s conception of cosmic warfare, and the degree to which such warfare may be veiled by contemporary translations, surely ought to cause us to pause as we read through purported Old Testament accounts of god’s work despite explicit mentions of ANE deities, like Resheph. Whether the text intends to refer to “Resheph,” the Canaanite god of plague, or merely to reshephim, “plagues,” is a question that would not even be recognized without knowledge of the god Resheph. These are just a couple examples of Boyd’s interesting reinterpretation of Old Testament texts.

Again, the problem with CotWG is that Boyd has made his argument’s upshot so inaccessible that even its benefits are undone because they’re situated in such a poor frame. A second edition would benefit Boyd, to be sure, but I’m also certain that it would benefit the church as she wrestles with the Old Testament and Christ.

Forever Young

N.B. This is the latest addition in my “old man yells at crowd” theme. I am a cantankerous old soul.

Social media exploded as an international and cross-generational phenomenon in the late-aughts. We began to see more and more people embrace these platforms, being offered as public-private diaries, with many choosing to air online their grievances and exultations for their circles of acquaintances. Even now, I can’t help but be embarrassed frequently by the posts I thought were appropriate for the medium during my high school years; I frequently make use of Facebook’s “Delete Your Post” option on my youthful indiscretions. All that to say, in our naïveté we assumed our digital footprints would wash away with the tide of time, only to find after a decade that, no, all those silly posts still exist.

One additional aspect of social media’s dawn is less playful. (Note: whatever I say in the text to come has already been said better and before in this Boston Magazine piece, which appeared while I ruminated on this topic.) As social media’s reach expanded over time, and as this expansion coincided with my own formative, transitional years from high school through college, the experience of stumbling across informal death notices, i.e., twenty or thirty of my friends posting fond remembrances of the dearly departed, became more frequent. I don’t know whether there’s a statistical uptick in deaths of those who are between the ages of 15 – 24; in fact, data suggest the opposite. My perception was that deaths became an unwelcome intrusion into the normal rhythm of life. Perhaps the perceived increase is the result of our college years being the time in which we experienced our greatest increase in the size of our social circle. Another factor is surely that the statistical irregularity of a teenager’s or young adult’s death invites us to see ourselves in the uncommon occurrence.

In any event, unexpectedly, social media became not merely one’s corner of personal expression but also the place where others publicly mourn your death, inasmuch as a social media page is a public space. Whether in lieu of attending a funeral or reaching out to the bereaved, or perhaps accompanying those interpersonal acts, posting digital eulogies grew more prevalent over time–the result being that we were often seemingly the last aware of an acquaintance’s (or, worse, a friend’s) death.

I find social media an intensely harmful aspect of modern life; I’m not sure I could be more down on the phenomenon. Social media tends to reinforce our disposition to be incurvatus in se–turned in toward our self. We are naturally obsessed with ourselves, and social media exacerbates this problem by rewarding vanity, even vanity in the form of performative eulogies. How does this pertain to the grieving process?

Our capacity to grieve (and for grief!)[1] is limited within and around us by our digital landscape. Our ability to grieve well depends in part on the support system surrounding us, but the degree to which we have replaced our embodied connections with digital networks is the degree to which we have hampered our ability to grieve properly–that is, in a manner commensurate with our natural capacities and needs. Public-private diaries, and the rapidity with which the algorithm dispenses our posts, work against the slow, difficult, tremulous process of grief. I am three years removed and still processing the loss of my nephews, for example, though I have no expectation of “getting over” their deaths and have been reticent to grieve online.

Regardless, in addition to smothering our process for grief, the digital age places triggers or mechanisms for grief at our fingertips, in some cases catching us unaware, as when we forget the anniversary of somebody’s death and Facebook gently reminds us of the death notice from a previous year. Whereas earlier generations may have photographs or memorabilia of the departed about, that at least would have to be physically hunted for, while the deaths of our friends and family were commemorated online, and in at least a few instances their online profiles are still available, a few clicks away. They are perpetually memorialized in the recollection of their closest friends and family, who either recycle the deceased’s self-presentation (i.e., the pictures they themselves used online) or reuse their own digital pictures of the deceased from happier times. In either case, as grievers process through a medium that explicitly works against grief, the grieved-for can be caricatured into their own self-presentation:  the most readily available images of the deceased are the images they themselves chose for the public, which are (for most of us) chosen because they appeal to our vanity, and this modeled persona, our being-for-others, becomes our postmortem instantiation in the world. Whether it is simply so that we become our remembrance after death, I’m uncertain, but the particular way in which the self-manufactured digital self becomes or comes to replace others’ perceptions of self is especially problematic, inasmuch as incurvatus and being-for-others becomes coextensive.

The comparative perpetual youth of our deceased friends and family, as they appear to us “younger than they ought,” disallows our grief, insofar as we fail to grapple with distention and decay. I’m reminded of Agee’s A Death in the Family, a semi-autobiographical account of a boy’s grappling with his father’s death. The father’s family remarks throughout the work how full of vigor he was, but it’s the presentation of the corpse at the family home that finally silences the groaning. The reality of the corpse undoes the idealistic portrait of their minds.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to continue bemoaning this phenomenon. We would do well to divorce our selves, our digital selves, and our self-conceptions; that polygamy serves nobody when the end has come. What could be done? Short of utterly obliterating the digital space–a wholly unrealistic expectation? I would suggest we entirely remove the deceased from “public spaces” and construct a kind of digital graveyard, as morbid as it sounds. These already exist, but more often than not they’re behind paywalls. With social media’s ever-increasing reach into our lives, however, we run the risk of obliterating somebody’s existence, at least as far as their acquaintances are concerned, because their existence is constituted by their digital presence.

With respect to the grief process, it would undoubtedly be healthier for most of us to refuse to grieve online. Is there a healthy way to grieve online? I’m not sure, but I don’t believe there is.

[1] It’s a contentious position, but I’m partial to the idea that technology–particularly social media–harms our ability to process our emotions appropriately, whether through rewarding vices or through curtailing the process required to process well.

Statements and Social Power

MacArthur and Friends published a so-called “Statement on Social Justice” recently. It’s the second major statement made within conservative evangelical circles in the last year or so; the first, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s “Nashville Statement.” Both statements sought to clarify certain evangelical theo-political positions, and both were lauded by those for whom they were written. The Nashville Statement has over twenty thousand signatories — the Statement on Social Justice, over nine thousand — to date. These public declarations have clearly struck a chord.

They are not without their faults, however. Matthew Lee Anderson excoriated the Nashville Statement and then, remembering Zombieland’s second rule, had the wherewithal to double tap. While I don’t agree with everything that Anderson writes (a tall order, considering his prolificacy), Anderson has demonstrated an obvious, sustained, and rigorous pattern of thought on the particular ethical concerns currently impinging the church’s freedom to worship and be in the public square. His thoughtfulness is not mirrored in these statements, which is part of the issue he takes with the Nashville Statement in particular. Rather than resorting to a kind of knee-jerk reaction, Anderson’s measured reflection on contemporary trends is praiseworthy, and it serves the church’s advancement in coming years in a way that the defensive postures of the Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice do not.

That said, disregard the failure to conceptualize adequately theo-ethical concerns. Set aside the problems that Anderson outlines. Although I find his argument eminently compelling, I want to draw your attention to a more formal, or political, issue.

The church is a variegated body. I’m torn over whether distinctions are inherently vicious. (The argument that they are inherently virtuous is obviously wrong, as far as I’m concerned.) Nevertheless, the fact that the political body is split into various bodies is indisputable. We see a variety of denominations, and these each exist within or as distinct institutions. Most of these political bodies also exist within the spiritual body, although the precise nature of the relationship between the political bodies and spiritual body of Christ is a bit complicated. (For some, the political body of Christ is coextensive with the spiritual; for others, they are mutually exclusive; both positions are asinine.)

In any event, whether splits in Christ’s body are good or bad, they do exist, and at least part of what is entailed by their existence is a dispersion of the responsibilities of church discipline. That is to say, however local churches are structured, and to whomever they bind themselves (denominationally, associationally, etc.-ly speaking), the responsibility to discipline does not rest in the fragmented body of Christ as such but to this or that fragment, or to this or that collection of fragments. I gesture at some issues associated with discipline in this piece on satellite campuses, but I dwell on it in this piece on heresy. (If you have a few moments, read that article, and then continue in this one.)

The Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice depart from traditional models of ecclesial discipline, which both statements are designed to enable the church to enact. The perlocutionary aim of these statements is obvious enough:  clarify and provide social capital to particular theo-political perspectives so that the evangelical church has purchase to enforce these perspectives–that is, to enact discipline along these lines.

However, these movements are an attempt to circumvent the established mode of church discipline. These statements are not issued ex cathedra; of course, there is no formal institution that would allow for such a statement–because there is no attendant disciplinary structure to enforce adherence. And yet, framers of these statements certainly intend that their published words be heeded by the evangelical church. If that is the case, and if evangelicals lack the basic polity for such statements to be enforced de jure, what is the mechanism by which such statements are adopted by evangelicals at large?

Coercive power, effected through the use of social/political capital. The individuals responsible for the Nashville Statement (Moore, Mohler, etc.) and the Statement on Social Justice (MacArthur, White, etc.) are well-known figures in evangelical circles. They individually have significant cache, and grouped together these evangelical leaders exert an especially outsized influence on evangelicalism. Such influence isn’t necessarily improper. But when it is utilized in this context, as a means of working around established institutions and ecclesial polities, it violates the autonomy of local bodies and their institutional relations. While evangelical leaders are not appointed through an official channel, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that there are de facto figureheads within evangelicalism. John MacArthur’s nickname “The Evangelical Pope” is elucidative. Issuing these declarations “[without] any pretense of ecclesiastical authority” is a bold denial of the reality of the situation. Church leaders who do not sign statements are called into question, whether or not they have good reason not to sign. The shepherds are called into question by the sheep for their refusal to submit themselves to an exertion of social power, which has no formal authority over them. In terms of form, exercising power in this manner is totally backwards. (Unless we’re in the midst of a new reformation? We’re not, but it could be argued that would be a sufficient cause to subvert ecclesial institutions. I did so in an earlier paper.)

There are ways to issue these statements without violating the formal structures of the church, but it’s a much more difficult task within the evangelical movement because it is not a formal church polity. First, those who wish to issue statements could refuse to purportedly speak on behalf of or to evangelicals as such. Second, those who issue statements could incorporate key denominational and congregational leaders, but specifically those who exercise political authority–not seminary presidents, best-selling authors, and commission leaders. Evangelical statements should either be curtailed to specific denominations or associations, or they should be developed with input from institutional leaders. Failing to do either results in a statement from nowhere exerting authority everywhere.

Satellite’s Gone

Let’s talk about satellite campuses for a moment. Within evangelicalism, the satellite campus model is a way of structuring a local church’s membership across several campuses, typically locally. It’s similar to the episcopal model of church polity. For episcopal church governance, a certain area is governed by a bishop, and individual church bodies (specifically, the clergy) within that area answer to the bishop. By way of example, episcopal churches include the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches; the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches; and the Methodists. Quite a rich tradition.

Churches with satellite campuses have a few obvious similarities to the episcopal model, but they also depart radically. In terms of their shared features, episcopal churches and satellite churches both function essentially under the authority of one figure: the local bishop or the lead pastor(-ate) of the “main campus.” (In my experience, the most typical church to embrace the satellite campus model is the non-denominational, “baptist-lite”[1] church, in which the authority of the congregation or the elder board are either entirely or substantially subsumed into the single person of the “lead pastor” [or, perhaps, “pastoral team”], who functions as a bishop. This has its own, serious problems.) The other “campus pastors” within the satellite model function more or less as “parish priests,” and they are tasked with administrating campus events, such as Sunday worship, Wednesday church, etc. The campus pastor/parish priest is accountable to the lead pastor/bishop.

Satellite campuses, nevertheless, diverge from the episcopal tradition, and in my estimation these divergences are quite damning to the satellite campus model, particularly in its worse manifestations.

The most significant departure has two facets, but it can be summarized as a loss of congregational autonomy. These two facets are integrally linked though distinguishable. First, the lead pastor exercises a higher degree of functional ruling on day-to-day affairs than a bishop ordinarily (and in terms of best practice) would. This is the case simply by virtue of the organizational distinction (or lack thereof) between a main campus and its satellite.

Second, the satellite campus does not exist as an independent body. “Independence” ought not be understood in either a strict or an absolute sense. Rather, think of it in terms of freedom of direction. The worse examples of the satellite model display congregational dependence most clearly. Satellite models frequently have campus pastors, who “serve at the pleasure of the lead pastor,” to mangle the phrase. Campus pastors are, therefore, often bound to the “vision” set by their lead pastor or pastoral team. At its most grotesque, campus pastors lack the freedom to genuinely preach to their congregation, relying instead on a simulcast (or even recording) of the main campus’s/lead pastor’s sermon. Ironically, commodifying the preached word in this manner devalues it.

Satellite campuses at first glance share a great deal in common with church plants. Nevertheless, whereas church plants are (hopefully) begun with the goal of eventually functioning as an independent, autonomous church body (howsoever defined per political [i.e., “of polity”] model), the satellite campus is by its nature not privy to that end. The satellite campus more often than not exists as a brand extension into a new locale. The main body is furcated into a number of different bodies, each of which the church hopes will grow, but none of which are expected to become independent.

Members of satellite campuses are shortchanged by the model. Insofar as these campuses function true to form, members are left with either a campus pastor handcuffed to the main campus or a simulcasted presentation of a sermon. By a minimalist definition of “church,” in which a church is constituted by the administration of (1) word and (2) sacrament, the satellite campus model denies its members a fully-flourishing “church.” Again, this denial can most clearly be seen in its worse instantiations. A simulcasted sermon is not a sermon. (Axiomatic, I know, but I will stand by this. Perhaps fleshing out to come.) And, less worse though still condemnable, a campus pastor who does not have the freedom to preach that which this church body needs–rather than that which that church body needs–cannot totally “preach the word.” He’s hamstrung.

I don’t want to suggest that there’s nothing positive to the model. Yet, the satellite campus model fundamentally misconceives the church. Again, there are better and worse examples–healthier and unhealthier. Nevertheless, satellite campuses are healthier when they are treated more as semi-autonomous-lurching-toward-autonomy than as functionally dependent, derivative bodies.

[1] I have my friend Daniel Drylie to thank for that phrase.

The Realsymbol and the Very Presence: Reviewing Being Salvation (2017)

9781506423326_0Karl Rahner is inscrutable. Like all the midcentury Germans, reading him is equivalent to walking through muddy pit. As fast as you’d like to go, you can go no faster than the prose will allow, and Rahner’s infamous multi-clause paragraphic sentences force you to take your time. This would be fine and dandy on its own. Unfortunately, Rahner makes extensive use of terminology born in the continental philosophy of Heidegger and Friends, which forces even the most voracious readers of philosophy and theology to take their time reading him.

All of which makes Brandon Peterson’s Being Salvation: Atonement and Soteriology in the Theology of Karl Rahner such a delight. Peterson writes with such clarity and depth of insight that you may even begin to doubt your facility with the English language. How could you miss these features? Or, how is Peterson able to so simply spell them out? The infamously opaque Rahner is opened up, and prominent contours of his project are distilled.

One often neglected aspect of Rahner’s work that Peterson draws out is Rahner’s absolute reliance on the Jesuit tradition. Frequently misrepresented as a baptizer of philosophical discourse, Rahner was in truth deeply committed to Ignatian spirituality, and Peterson demonstrates the centrality of this spirituality quite adequately–not merely as a stand-alone trivium but as an explanatory characteristic of Rahner’s work in toto.

Being Salvation is concerned chiefly with Rahner’s take on soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. To get there, Peterson establishes the fundamental importance of Ignatian spirituality and disentangles Rahner’s notion of “Realsymbole” (symbolic realities) from our vernacular use of “symbol” as well as the more theologically-oriented notion of “Vertretungssymbole” (symbolic representations). Whereas the one is an intrinsic, self-expressive mediation of one’s “very presence,” the other is extrinsic and arbitrary. In understanding the Logos as the Realsymbol of the Father, Rahner understands Jesus not merely as a happenstance revelation of the Father but the “very presence” of god among people; there could be no other mediation, in other words.

One interesting extension of this argument, which Rahner makes, is that inasmuch as the Father’s Realsymbol is the Logos, the Logos’s Realsymbol is the Church, and the Church’s Realsymbole are the sacraments–baptism, communion, marriage, etc. These each mediate the “very presence” of their realsymbolisch counterpart. Of course, such line of argumentation may very well be the reason this work is warranted, as Protestants tend to accuse Rahner of understanding the Logos as a “mere symbol” of god rather than a “symbolic reality,” the distinction between which is blurred in part thanks to Protestant conceptions of the symbolic nature of the communion elements.

Nevertheless, that Jesus mediates the very presence of god on earth is central to Rahner’s soteriological account. Rahner rejects substitutionary models of atonement/salvation in favor of representative models, which he developed from his work in the patristics. Borrowing extensively from Irenaeus (specifically, his account of recapitulation), Rahner works from three basic principles to articulate his representative soteriology:

  1. Christ represents his people to god. Corollary:  we reciprocate through participation in Christ. The account Rahner gives seems to suggest that all people are god’s people; such would be an interesting concept.
  2. Christ represents god to the world. He does this through two mechanisms:
    • Eternal mediation–in Rahner’s words, “The ‘heaven’ to which the saved attain is not a pre-existing place or even state, but a reality which comes into being with Christ’s own resurrection, for he is himself salvation’s content, god made present to creation.” The Logos is and has always been the Realsymbol of the Father, and as such is “god made present to creation.”
    • Basileia–Jesus Christ is the manifestation, instantiation, ground, potentiality, and actuality of god’s kingdom on earth. There is no other realm for it; it exists purely in and through the Messiah.
  3. Salvation exists constitutively (rather than merely normatively) in the person of Jesus. Without Jesus, there can be no salvation. Jesus as the mediation of the “very presence” of god serves as the only possible means through which god’s presence could be manifest in the world, which is to say salvation.

Rahner’s corpus is certainly not an easy one to tackle. Peterson’s Being Salvation, however, provides a helpful scaffolding for students. Peterson dismisses Balthasar’s critiques of Rahner and, over the course of the book, illuminates some of the more difficult aspects of Rahner’s thought. I look forward to jumping back into Rahner’s work with Being Salvation under my belt.

I received a complimentary edition of this work in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Body Parts (2017)

9781506418568Michelle Voss Roberts published Body Parts: a Theological Anthropology through Fortress Press in 2017. In sum, the work is an attempt at integrating anthropological insights from non-dual Shaivism, a variant of Hinduism, into the broader Christian anthropological schema (23). That is to say, Roberts wants to incorporate the illuminative aspects of non-dual Shaivism to correct or strengthen the traditional imago dei model in Christian theology. The inherited model for most Christians (via Aquinas, et al) is an association of the imago with that which separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom–viz., rationality.[1] Human rationality, in other words, is the foundation upon which the imago dei is erected. Roberts disagrees, instead pointing toward a model in which the imago consists in the web of attributes belonging to humanity–but not to humanity in particular. (14)

Dysfunctional views of the imago motivate Roberts’s project. She outlines three key models and their limitations: (1) substance anthropology, in which value comes by virtue of a capacity; (2) functional anthropology, in which value comes by virtue of what we do; and (3) relational anthropology, in which value comes by virtue of our interdependence.

I am sympathetic to Roberts’s concerns. The disabled are excluded from traditional accounts of the imago, simply because their grasp on the sine qua non of “human” flourishing is so slight. I’m reminded of the problem in ethics, popularized by Peter Singer, of what to do with the perpetually comatose patient. What account of the human protects this sort of person (or persons like her), who lack a working, rational brain or who cannot perform a task or who do not relate to those around her? How do you affirm the inherent worth of individuals irrespective of their usefulness? Roberts’s chapter on “The Limited Body” touches on these issues well, though imperfectly. (The reinterpretation of original sin — the conditions within which we “overreach” our limits or fail to grasp our own finitude — is interesting, though certainly unorthodox.)

Nevertheless, the fundamental premise of the work concerns the incorporation of non-dual Shaivism into the Christian schema. In that respect, despite my fundamental agreement with Roberts on the inadequacy of the traditional model of the imago, I did not find her imaginative reworking compelling. There seem to be more fruitful avenues of exploration than Abhinavagupta’s “body parts”–the philosophical discourse on “dignity,” for one. Roberts should be lauded for the attempt. Putting these two widely divergent traditions in conversation was certainly an enticing read, but the result was not as illuminative as I had hoped. However, Roberts’s concern to include the disabled and the excluded in her account of the imago should characterize any future models of the doctrine.

[1] To be sure, grounding a human’s value in something can be an arduous task. Remy Debes, my former professor, outlines some of the philosophical problematics of “dignity” (a related, though distinguished, concept to the imago) in his 2009 article “Dignity’s Gauntlet,” which you can read here. I remember asking Dr. D about this article in his office as I was just beginning my philosophical training. He was (and still is) very generous with his time for his students and former students, and he has had a profound influence on my understanding of the art of teaching. “You are all philosophers,” indeed.

I received a complimentary edition of this work in exchange for an honest review.