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.

Review: Walking Through Infertility (2018)

9781433559310In his 2018 book Walking Through Infertility, Matthew Arbo writes for couples struggling with infertility and for those who would desire to help them during this time–particularly during the early stages of grief. Arbo offers a gentle but firm account of a properly Christian response to infertility–namely, a disciple’s call “to come and die” and an acquiescence to the sovereign rule of god.

I cannot speak from a firsthand perspective, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Arbo’s mode of writing as often discouraged the struggling as encouraged. It could be that such discouragement is due to weakness or poor discipleship; nothing written was out and out false.

Perhaps this tightrope of “hard truth” and offense speaks to the inherent difficulty of writing a book of this nature (i.e., pastoral, counsel-ish), whose aim ought to be saved for in-person pastoral care. However, were Arbo writing for pastors and counselors for the purpose of training them for this kind of care, the project would have been fundamentally changed. As it stands, the book is adequate for its purpose, although I found myself wishing for more rigorous and detailed interpretations in the early chapters.

The book shifts away from this forthrightly pastoral perspective for its final chapter, which addresses three of the major “last-ditch efforts” for those attempting to overcome infertility:  intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy. Surrogacy Arbo dismisses completely as a moral option, and IUI and IVF are themselves highly problematic as far as Arbo is concerned. The change in tone is obvious, and, while the subject matter is clearly appropriate for the work, it lacked a smoothing-out. Moreover, again citing what I wish the book could have been, I wanted a more robustly theo-ethical account of the shortcomings of IUI, IVF, and surrogacy. For the intended audience, it was surely adequate in the context of further pastoral care.

Walking through Infertility would be a valuable work in the context of local church pastoring for couples who are in the throes of infertility. Read by a pastor or counselor and a couple, this book could open conversations, which could in turn provide an opportunity for healing.

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

The Attender is Always Right, and Other Myths: Reviewing the Come Back Effect (2018)

9781493414109Young and Malm (“YM”) in The Come Back Effect seek to make a church’s visitors feel welcomed, loved, and at ease. They offer suggestions that can promote the hospitable atmosphere the church ought to inculcate in her weekly gatherings.

YM’s distinction between “service” and “hospitality” is duly noted. We can be like Martha, so wrapped up in serving our guest that we neglect to be with them (20). Second, their point that you need to budget for hospitality if you claim to be hospitable is fair enough (45). Finally, focusing on “values” for your team rather than on policies allows greater freedom to achieve your desired ends, especially hospitality (146).

Nevertheless, the book suffers from fundamental misconceptions of the church and her purpose. As helpful as their practical tips and tricks can be, they are rooted in a perspective that misunderstands and prostitutes the church. The Come Back Effect is a case study in the interrelationship between bad theory and bad practice.

I have no desire to rehash arguments made by the discernment trolls from underneath their bridges, but they rightly point out serious flaws in the “seeker-sensitive” ecclesiological model, of which Andy Stanley is a chief example. YM’s relationship to Stanley litters the pages of this book, and his influence is clear. Such deference is made to the “seeker,” the guest, and the customer that one quickly forgets for whom the church was instituted. (Yes, your Sunday School answer is appropriate here:  the church is for Jesus.)

Sunday worship ought to discomfit an unbeliever. Such unease comes not from being unwelcome[1] but from the stark discrepancy between members of god’s kingdom and members of the anti-kingdom. The hospitality in this book goes beyond being hospitable to selling the experience of the church, which turns worship into a commodity and the elements into grotesqueries to be hidden away. The supernatural strangeness of the Christian body is swept under the rug, hidden behind baskets of breath mints and clever branding. A church more concerned with appealing to visitors than extolling Jesus Christ will not remain a church for long. It may retain its facilities and its membership, but the sine qua non of the church–the unadulterated worship of Jesus–will be understated again and again, for the sake of relevance. At what point does a church decide it will pander no further? The Come Back Effect is so steeped in marketing and the hospitality industry’s understanding of hospitality-as-sales that the consideration is not even raised; in this respect, its frequent callouts to business-owners is unsurprising.

The Come Back Effect could use a robustly theological account of the church. Its helpfulness is undone by this lack.

[1] Although, now that I write this, perhaps it is; perhaps the unbeliever ought to feel unwelcome in a house of worship, when they do not worship its god. We ought not be surly to strangers, but there’s no reason to suppose that gathering for Sunday worship is geared toward those who do not worship.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Review: Made for Friendship (2018)

36746758Drew Hunter published Made for Friendship: the Relationships that Halve Our Sorrows and Double our Joys through Crossway in 2018. Hunter insists on “raising our esteem for friendship” (14), and he succeeds by enhancing our conception of it. Distinguishing his view from the normal usage of “friendship,” Hunter goes so far as to define salvation as friendship with god (23) and to exclaim that “friendship is the ultimate end of our existence and our highest source of happiness” (19). No small part of our lives, then.

Hunter does well establishing friendship as an essential feature of our world, noting that god had to fill a lack in the prelapsarian cosmos when he created the woman, because it was “not good” for the man to be alone (41). This was certainly the most interesting argument of the book, as far as I’m concerned–and one which I will pursue further in my own studies; it suggests something a bit strange about god’s creative process, which, if true, means we’ve ignored important parts of the creation narrative.

Another interesting facet of the book is Hunter’s appropriation of Vanhoozer’s argument (123) that the Trinity created all things in order to further perfect its already perfect communion; the entrance of men and women into the perichoretic friendship of the godhead does not detract from the essential perfection of the godhead but adds to it. Again, if this is the case, it suggests a few things about divine simplicity and the nature of god.

These somewhat abstract concerns aside, Hunter offers a variety of solid reasons for embracing friendship and seeking out opportunities to grow in our ability to befriend. (Hunter disavows friendliness as mere courtesy, a point well-taken.) Friendship enhances our own lives and the lives of those around us, and we do well to become better friends.

At its core, Made for Friendship is pastoral. Hunter wants his readers to become more like the people god created them to be, particularly insofar as their “friendship” with Jesus is concerned. At times, especially toward the end as Hunter explicitly addresses friendship with god, the book felt trite. This is a shame, because to be called a “friend of god” is a high honor (Is. 41.8) and marks a kind of restoration of the Edenic communion (cf. Gen. 3.8, in its anticipation of the forthcoming break in fellowship).

Nevertheless, Made for Friendship succeeds where Hunter seeks to promote friendship as the particularization of that broad idea of “community.” He offers winsome and practical exhortations for those that desire to increase their aptitude for friendship. In that respect, Made for Friendship is worth the read.

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

Review: Practicing the King’s Economy (2018)

075740Rhodes and Holt penned Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give in 2018 through Baker Books. It’s a delight. (And I’m not just saying that because Rhodes ministers in the Memphis community!) The two authors make extensive use of the Old Testament as a well from which one can draw socio-ethical norms rather than merely as a place from which one learns one’s depravity in the face of god. In addition to their deft use of Torah and Nevi’im, the authors intersperse real-life examples of their principles in action and continually push the reader to make use of what they learn in the book. Practicing the King’s Economy would be a valuable contribution to the library of any church that is seeking to use their resources in a Christ-honoring manner.

The book moves through six principles or “keys,” each of which are likely to set off a series of alarms in certain readers’ minds. The authors begin with the Worship Key, the Community Key, and the Work Key, and they close with the Equity Key, the Creation Care Key, and the Rest Key. Before anyone assumes that this is just a bunch of lefty propaganda masquerading as biblical exegesis, one would do well to read the book for themselves. The authors firmly plant their feet in the biblical narrative and “draw out” their application from a solid read of the biblical text and of the contemporary culture.

They do not speak in generalities. Further, their forthright application of the text may cause some readers’ hackles to rise. Perhaps its indicative of somebody’s own unwillingness to take the Old Testament seriously as a normative text. Yahweh the King makes radical demands of those who would claim to belong to the kingdom; and yet, at the same time, the yoke is easy, the burden is light, and “it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut. 30.14).

It is precisely at the point where the biblical command and prohibition appears to us as unreasonable, foolish even, that god is addressing us as ones brought into this kingdom from without. The unnatural strangeness of this kingdom over time becomes typical; the abnormal becomes normal–though not necessarily. It frequently grates against the kingdom out of which we were brought. And like a car that grinds its way to starting, we often find ourselves through kicks and spurts believing what is said of reality over against this anti-real world in which we abide. The hippie-lite, liberal-leaning ethos of Practicing the Kingdom and similar works will, I believe, be vindicated as a degree of faithful Christian ethics in late capitalism, naysayers notwithstanding.

Practicing the Kingdom forces us to reconcile the socio-ethical vision of god’s kingdom in the scriptures with the inherited kingdom of our world. One or the other will succeed in our hearts. Holt and Rhodes give a compelling case for the former.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Review: Textual Silence (2017)

9780813589916Jessica Lang offers us an interesting phenomenology of reading and writing, specifically in reference to works related to the Holocaust, in her work Textual Silence: Unreadability and the Holocaust (Rutgers University Press, 2017). I’ve been attempting to get a handle on what actually occurs when we read and when we write–how is it that we assimilate a book, a movie, a poem into our lives, despite the obvious separation between an author and her work or between an audience and the same? Although Lang specifically targets the body of material pertaining to the Holocaust, she touches on significant features of reading, writing, and experience as such.

The Holocaust is the indescribable experience par excellence. It is in this sense different from other significant events in history; the depth of suffering and the ruthlessness of industrial slaughter are both difficult to stomach, much less distill into another medium. The nature of the Holocaust does not permit the reader to understand fully what transpired; this derives, more basically, from the fact that the author is able neither to transcribe fully the events. Unwritability engenders unreadability. The reader attempts to jump back into the event through the author’s words, just as the author attempts to jump back into the event itself; however, the air gap between reader, author, and event prevents, or frustrates, this move.

Lang moves through three “generations” of Holocaust literature–those who experienced it as cognizant sufferers, those who can’t remember living through or are only related to somebody who did, and those who don’t have a substantial connection to the event–and each generation grapples with the unreadability of the Holocaust in a largely unique manner. Whether by relegating it to the backdrop of a novel about “other things” (3rd generation) or by struggling to understand it as one who walked through the camps (1st generation), Holocaust authors recognize the inherent unsuitability of words and grammar to convey the event. The logos-conflict rises most closely to the surface of works in the immediate wake of the Holocaust, but it’s omnipresent as far as the genre is concerned.

An important consideration is whether the Holocaust is wholly unique in its unwritable and unreadable quality, or whether this aspect belongs to our experience of the world as such. It seems clear, as far as I’m concerned, that the Holocaust stands on one end of a spectrum of unknowability but is not itself the only member of this spectrum; it’s extreme in kind but not in type. The Holocaust, by virtue of its extremity, is particularly unknowable, but human experience in general is not reducible to language. We are more than words can express. The Holocaust is not as such unknowable; inherent limitations of language and inherent aspects of human experience are mutually inexchangable. The gravity and particular absurdities of the Holocaust make intelligently expressing it more difficult, but difficulty as such is already baked into the project of expression.

By focusing her energy on the Holocaust, Lang clarifies features common to the relationship of expression to existence because the Holocaust so clearly demonstrates the inadequacies of language to facilitate wholly an understanding of experience. We can have faithful representations insofar as language is stretched to accomplish the task, but the inherent limitations of language begin to shine more brightly the closer one comes to entirely inexplicable moments or persons. This same difficulty is what gives legs to the apophatic movement in theology–although apophaticism (at least, in its naïve manifestations) fails to recognize the responsibility to use those tools at our disposal to speak positively of god. In like manner, we are responsible to speak and to write and to read faithfully of an event described, knowing that the unobstructed and the objective, all-seeing perspective are unattainable.

Textual Silence helps propel the conversation forward on this problem of reading and writing, albeit through the particular lens of Holocaust literature.