Flotsam and jetsam (9/10)

Eccentric Existence 13 (social action)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

In the previous post, we discussed the pneumatological framework of Kelsey’s theological anthropology. And, we saw that Kelsey presented the Spirit as both gift and promise. The Spirit is both the gracious presence of God with his creation (humanity’s ultimate context) and the promise that God will continue to lead all of creation (humanity’s proximate context) toward its eschatological telos. This immediately raises the question of human action in the world. Do we have any role to play in the eschatological consummation of God’s promised purposes? If so, what is that role and how should we go about it?

The Meaning of Human Action

According to Kelsey, “Perhaps the most important anthropological question about our proximate social contexts is whether historical change…is meaningful” (478). Is there any for us to look at the messy, complex world that we live in, as well as the sin and brokenness that so often accompanies even our most well-intentioned actions, and still come to the conclusion whether there is any real meaning to the historical changes that we work so hard to achieve.

Do such changes amount to a movement toward any goal of such transcendent value that it redeems the suffering and loss? Or is unrelenting historical change finally sheer ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’? (478)

At this point, Kelsey sounds very much like James Davison Hunter in his recent work To Change the World. Both express significant reservations about whether we can have any real confidence about whether our actions really are leading to meaningful change in the world. Instead of working in accordance with God’s eschatological purposes, even envisioning ourselves as contributing to and ushering in God’s eschatological Kingdom, isn’t it entirely possible that we are instead acting in our own selfish best interests, furthering the sinful world orders that we seek to undermine? Does human action have any real meaning in this broken world? Or, are we hopelessly compromised in our sinfulness and can only wait in anxious anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s eschatological purposes. For Kelsey, it appears to be a little of both. He does want to affirm that human action in the world has meaning, but only in a highly qualified way.

The Ambiguous Nature of Human Action

If you’ve been following this series, this emphasis on the ambiguous nature of  human action should come as no surprise. Kelsey has routinely emphasized that sin, finiteness, and sinfulness all contribute to making it nearly impossible to systematize virtually any aspect of theological anthropology. Instead, at every turn we are confronted and frustrated by ambiguity and complexity. Human action in the world is no different.

First, Kelsey appeals to the Wisdom literature to contend that there is “no overall teleological order” (479). God did not create any single creaturely existence that precisely mirrors “the inexhaustibly rich and complex beauty of God’s glory” (479). So, the ambiguity of human action is integral to being God’s creatures. Rather than trying to find the ideal expression of God’s “will” in every situation, we are instead called to find the best expression of human faithfulness in our particular quotidian. And, it was precisely for this that God created us as creatures who have “their own time and space” (480). By giving us time an space to be ourselves, God creates the opportunity (and responsibility) to use that freedom for his glory. It’s our task to respond to this gracious gift in faithful hope.

Of course, our inherently creaturely complexity is rendered even more ambiguous by the reality of sin. Instead of just being manifold expressions of human faithfulness in our finite quotidian realities, the existence of God’s creatures is “radicalized into a living contradiction when their creatureliness is distorted in sin” (481). Thus, we fall into “inexplicable self-contradictoriness” (481) that renders human action opaque and often absurd.

Given these two kinds of ambiguity – the ambiguity inherent in being diverse creatures living in his manifold creation and related to by God in complex ways, and the ambiguity introduced by sin and its absurd contradiction of all that God intended – there is an inherent “ambiguity in every historical change that is apparently a change for the better” (484).

The Missio Dei

At this point, one would be forgiven for thinking that Kelsey was going to introduce a God-of-the-gaps resolution to the problem. Human action is ambiguous because of our finiteness and fallenness, but don’t worry, God’s action in the world will make sense out of everything. For Kelsey, though, the missio Dei actually introduces yet another source of ambiguity.

the missio Dei moves in God’s own very peculiar way sometimes with, sometimes against, and sometimes obliquely at cross-grain to the various trajectories of change that we can discern in our social and cultural contexts. (487)

Rather than clarifying the situation, we see that God’s action often works against what we might think of as the betterment of the world order and society. Indeed, Kelsey points to apocalyptic language as a great example of how the missio Dei often works against the natural currents of the world.

apocalyptic imagery concerns the structure of the cosmos, not the logic of history….Paul does not use apocalyptic rhetoric for that purpose. He uses it to describe a radical change in the structure of the world, a shift from an old creation to a new creation. (490)

We sometimes think that we can easily identify the ways in which God is at work in the world. But, what we are often doing is identifying God’s action with what we think the world really needs. When we see those things happening, we presume that it is God at work. Kelsey argues, though, that apocalyptic imagery forces us to consider the fact that God’s inauguration of the Kingdom through Jesus’ resurrection means that “all such principles used to constitute a socially constructive lived cosmos” have been radically relativized” (492-493). Instead of operating in accordance with our preconceptions and socially derived views of human flourishing, God breaks into the world and “unilaterally constitutes a new social reality, a new lived world” (496).

God’s work in the world thus constitutes another source of ambiguity in the world. The apocalyptic inbreaking of God’s eschatological reign is so radically other that we often fail to recognize it when we see it.

Grace and Judgment

At this point, one could legitimately begin to wonder if Kelsey’s qualified affirmation of human action in the world is really a resounding “no.” Given all this ambiguity, how could human action have real meaning? For Kelsey, the answer is to recognize both God’s grace and his judgment on all human action. Since all of our actions are inherently ambiguous, we must anticipate God’s judgment on everything that we do.This judgment is not simply the result of ambiguity, since at least some of the ambiguity comes from our the finiteness and diversity of God’s good creation. But, God’s judgment falls on “our idolatrous reliance on culturally relative values to generate such blessing on their own” (499). Thus, we can never afford to fall into a complacent confidence that assumes God’s stamp of approval on our actions. Instead, we should recognize the diversity, messiness, and brokenness of human existence, seeking to be faithful in every situation, but always also anticipating God’s judgment on our every action.

At the same time, though, we anticipate with eschatological hope God’s gracious mercy.  “God drawing humankind to eschatological consummation does entail that, by the creativity of God’s free love, what has been distorted will be transformed, the threat of meaninglessness overcome, and living deaths liberated into true life” (500). Even while anticipating God’s eschatological judgment on our actions in the world, we can still stand firm in our hope that God’s grace is sufficient and that he will accomplish his purposes in the world. Human action is not thereby rendered meaningless, we are still called to live faithfully in our quotidian, but it is seriously qualified in light of the inbreaking of God’ eschatological Kingdom and the sinful ambiguity of our creaturely contexts.

Flotsam and jetsam (9/9)

Philosophy Talk Radio Show

Fellow philosophers, I found another resource. It is a NPRish radio show based out of San Francisco called “Philosophy Talk” (very “Car Talk”-ish). They have covered many subjects so you may find a few shows worth your time. Listen here.

Bloody bedtime stories

I was going to try and post something thoughtful and intelligent this evening, but then I ran across this article in Ten of the Bloodiest Bedtime Stories. That’s just not fair. How am I supposed to resist a title like that? Sure I still need to finish preparing my lectures for my Philosophy & Theology class tomorrow (don’t tell my students), but this is critical research that absolutely cannot wait. If I really thought about it, I know I could come up with a way of integrating this material into our philosophical ruminations. So, I’ll get to kill two birds with one stone. (See, the bloody imagery is everywhere.)

Obviously, I succumbed to the temptation and read the article. It was fun. Stupid Little Red Riding Hood stays inside the wolf’s belly where she belongs, two of those three whiny pigs get eaten, Belle’s father actually sells her to the Beast in exchange for his own freedom, the Little Mermaid dies and her beautiful prince marries someone else, and Pinocchio smashes Jiminy Cricket with a hammer. That’s outstanding. Why doesn’t Disney make these stories? They’d be so much better.

One question that comes to mind after reading these other endings: Do we coddle our kids too much or were the kids of an earlier era a complete emotional/psychological mess?

Moo commentary giveaway ends next week

You have until next Wednesday (Sep 15) to enter the drawing to win Douglas Moo’s commentary on Romans. You can find instructions on how to enter the drawing here. Good luck.

Do you need to attend your own wedding? Not in Montana.

In case you’re having a hard time getting into things after the long weekend, here’s a list from MSN on 10 Obscure Marriage Laws. My three favorites:

  • In Montana you can get married without either the bride or the groom actually being present at the ceremony. Just send proxies to stand in your place, and you’re good to go. I wonder if the proxies get to go on the honeymoon too?
  • In Kentucky, it’s illegal to marry the same man four times. Three times is perfectly fine. But, four times? That’s wrong.
  • In Truro, Mississippi, before a guy gets married he must “prove himself manly” by hunting and killing either six blackbirds or three crows. Apparently, the ability to kill things is a sure sign that you’re going to have a successful marriage.

Flotsam and jetsam (9/7)

Do I need a Master of Theology (Th.M.)?

One of the more common questions I run into as a Th.M. program director is, “Do I need a Th.M.?” That’s an understandable question. Before you spend that much time and money on a degree, you should be convinced that you really need one. And I probably answered that question a dozen times this past summer. So I thought I’d do my best to answer it here. Here’s my answer….No.

I realize that’s probably a surprising answer from someone who runs a Th.M. program, but the simple fact is that whether you are headed toward a doctoral program, local church ministry, or something else, I’m not aware of any Christian vocation that absolutely requires a Th.M. In virtually every sphere of life, the Th.M. is optional. So do you need a Th.M.? Probably not. It used to be the case that many Ph.D. program required that M.Div. students get a Th.M. as an academic upgrade to their largely ministerial degree before beginning their doctoral work. That is generally not the case anymore.

But, if you don’t actually need a Th.M., why would you bother getting one? Ah, now that’s a different question. Whether you should proceed with a Th.M. is not so much a question of whether you need a Th.M., but whether you need a Th.M. The job that you’re headed toward may not require a Th.M., but there are a variety of situations in which a Th.M. can be of tremendous value anyway. Here are several reasons that you may want to pursue a Th.M. even though it’s not absolutely required.

  • Filling gaps in your training. Let’s face it, unless you are a truly unique individual, you probably did not have time to pursue everything that you needed to in your Master’s degree. There’s a good chance that you prepared really well in some areas and less well in others. Even if you intend to specialize in one area of biblical/theological studies, a Th.M. provides you the opportunity to develop some of your secondary interests and fill some gaps in your preparation. Some of our Th.M. students come in with only the basics in Greek, Hebrew, systematic theology, or church history. These students use the Th.M. to fill these holes in their training.
  • Broadening your training. Other students were able to lay a good foundation in all the biblical disciplines during their undergrad and graduate programs, but still feel the need for greater breadth in their preparation. I entered my Th.M. at least partially because I wasn’t ready yet for the kind of specialization that would be required in a doctoral program. Specifically, although I intended to focus my Ph.D. in systematic and historical theology, my Th.M. allowed me to spend considerable time on Hebrew and OT studies. These were areas that I did not develop adequately in my Master’s training, and I wanted a broad foundation that included significant time in all of these disciplines. Others are interested in using the Th.M. to prepare for local church ministry, seeing the Th.M. as an opportunity to broaden their biblical/theological training further than they were able in their Master’s programs.
  • Determining your specialization. One of the more common reasons for pursuing a Th.M. is that you want to continue on to a doctoral program, but you don’t yet know the specific specialization that you want to pursue. You may be interested in both systematic theology and church history, both NT and OT, or both the Gospels and the Pauline literature. Without a little more focus, it can become difficult (if not impossible) to select to right doctoral program for you. The Th.M. gives you a little more time to pursue various interests so that you can  make the right decision about what you want to focus on in your doctoral program. As a matter of fact, it was during my Th.M. that I was finally able to settle on systematic theology as the focus of my doctoral program rather than historical theology or NT studies. So, the Th.M. proved very helpful for me in this area.
  • Developing your specialization. Other students know what they want to specialize in during their Ph.D. program, but aren’t yet qualified to pursue that specialization at the doctoral level. If you fell in love with Greek during your Master’s program, but didn’t have enough electives to develop sufficiently in this discipline, the Th.M. allows you the time to lay a solid foundation for succeeding in your doctoral program.
  • Developing more teaching areas. Many schools are looking for people who can teach in more than one discipline. If you only have a specialization in Old Testament Law and its ancient near-eastern parallels, you may find it somewhat more challenging to find a teaching position than the person who is qualified to teach introductory classes in a couple of different disciplines. A Th.M. lets you develop some of those secondary teaching areas that can be very attractive to administrators.
  • Deepening your biblical/theological foundations for effective ministry. This is actually somewhat akin to “broadening your training,” but I wanted to make it more explicit that the Th.M. can be a great degree for ministry preparation. It’s not just a pre-Ph.D. degree. As Mark Stevens helpfully pointed out, the Th.M. can help add depth to your preaching/teaching ministry and give you a chance to develop (further) your understanding of pastoral theology. Around half of our Th.M. students use the degree to prepare for a doctoral program. The rest are in the program to deepen their preparation for effective ministry.
  • Setting you up for future success. All of these really add up to the same thing. Although the Th.M. is not absolutely required for anything, there are a variety of situations in which a Th.M. can be very helpful in setting you up for future success in your doctoral program or ministry setting.

So, as I often tell students, the Th.M. is the one degree program that no one actually needs. (That’s why they don’t let me work on marketing material.) But, the Th.M. can be very valuable for a lot of people in quite a few different circumstances. Whether you fit in any of those categories is something that you need to work out.

Hugo Awards 2010

The Hugo Awards (science fiction) for this year are out, and here are the winners in the best novel category:

I’ve been meaning to read Boneshaker for a while now and just haven’t gotten around to it (so  many books to read). If anyone has any thoughts/recommendations about the other books on this list, I’d love to hear them. I need some fun reading to balance out the philosophical theology I’m reading for my Th.M. seminar this semester.

By the way, I’m currently reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Would someone explain to me why his books are so popular? I read Anathem last year and found it to be tedious, didactic, and way too long. So far, Cryptonomicon falls in the same category. If someone wants to straighten me out on this, please feel free.