Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Meaning of "Knowledge is Power"

During this most recent graduation season, I was reminded of the oft quoted remark in commencement addresses: "knowledge is power." As with all sentences with an "is" in them, the meaning can be interpreted in two different ways. It may seem like a simple equation, but it is actually unclear which way the equation runs. So I thought I would point out these two opposing meanings just to make sure we are reflecting on what we mean when we say "knowledge is power."

Meaning #1: If you have knowledge, then you will have power. The idea here is that the acquisition of knowledge results in social power. The one "in the know" holds a certain power over those who do not. The knower is a go-to-guy. This is the usual meaning at commencement addresses: "hey, don't worry that you have all this debt and will never make as much as your friends, because you have power on account of your knowledge."

Meaning #2: If you have power, then you will have knowledge. This is the opposite of the above meaning. Although the former is more traditional and therefore quite common, this meaning is gaining significance in our contemporary world. The basic idea here is that knowledge is really just power in disguise. Another phrase illustrates this: "the winners write the history." In other words, those who exert power have the influence to promulgate their view of what has happened and therefore generate knowledge. The social critic is the one who is able to unmask the power dynamics behind so-called knowledge. This need not be a cynical vew: if you want to be apart of the spread of knowledge, put yourself in a center of great influence.

Any thoughts?
Is there some other sense to the equation I have missed?
Which meaning do you usually imply when you say this phrase?
What happens when we mean it one way but it is taken another?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What Wesleyans Can Learn from Karl Barth (Part Two): Christocentric Procedure for Doctrinal Reformulation

And now for our second installment of "What Wesleyans Can Learn from Karl Barth."

Every tradition has its distinctive doctrine. Christian sub-groups foster their identity through the cultivation of their pet doctrine. Not only do they have a distinctive take on this doctrine, but they also place distinctive emphasis on it. The unique gift that each tradition offers the church universal is its distinctive doctrinal emphasis. Yet, the unique temptation of each tradition is to turn their distinctive doctrine into a trump card that subjects every other Christian doctrine to its service. The challenge for each tradition is to offer their gift to others while at the same time reformulating their doctrine in light of the whole Christian faith.

It should be uncontroversial that the distinctive Wesleyan doctrine is sanctification. Not only do Wesleyans have a distinctive take on this common Christian doctrine, but we lay particular emphasis on it as central to our theological formulations. To be part of the Wesleyan tradition is to be committed to “spreading Scriptural holiness across the land.” But as we spread this message, we run into problems because we begin to second guess it. We have questions about the legitimacy and appeal of the doctrine. So we have a choice to make: either keep affirming it with our fingers crossed behind our back, dump the doctrine entirely to focus on something else, or roll up our sleeves to begin reformulating the doctrine in a true and compelling way.

Hopefully, we choose the third option: reformulation. But if we choose this path, how will we go about it? What is the best way to reformulate a doctrine? Enter Karl Barth. He comes from a tradition with a distinctive doctrine that has created just as much (if not more) problems for them. Barth is a Reformed theologian. He hails from the Calvinist corner of the Christian community. (By the way, it is this reformed heritage that raises an eyebrow among Wesleyans about my interest in Barth and thus occasions this series of posts.)

The distinctive doctrine of the Reformed tradition is predestination. Barth wanted to stay true to his tradition by affirming this doctrine, but desired to reformulate it in a compelling way that took care of some of the inherent problems in this doctrine. Now I won’t go into the details of his reformulation, because what is most interesting to me is his procedure: he recasts the whole doctrine of election in Christocentric terms. He takes the triune God revealed in Christ as his central point and reorganizes the material accordingly. Thus, the electing God is not some unknown God above Christ, but rather Jesus Christ is the electing God. And the elected and rejected human being is not particular individuals, but rather Jesus Christ in his life, death and resurrection is the elect and rejected man. Surrounding the electing-and-elect God-man Jesus Christ is his chosen community of witness, Israel and the Church. The elect individual is the one who joins this community of witness to Jesus Christ’s election, e.g., the disciples. The reprobate is the one who fails to bear proper witness, e.g., Judas. This is only a sketch, so don’t make too much of it (see Church Dogmatics II/2 for the 500 page version). But you can see how this reformulates the doctrine of predestination in accordance with the central Christian affirmation that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

The lesson here is not necessarily to follow Barth is his specific reformulations (although detailed study of the content is the best way to learn the procedure), but rather to cherry-pick his Christocentric procedure for doctrinal reformulation. The Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification is certainly in need of a shot-in-the-arm. Few will argue with this, although there are many suggested shots. My prognosis is that we take our cue from Barth to rework the doctrine sanctification from the bottom up with Christ at the center.

What would that look like? Well, I won’t go into the details here (this is a life-long project), but simply point out one aspect of the doctrine that would benefit from such a procedure. When we talk about sanctification there is a lot of talk about natures: human nature and sinful nature. How do we know about these so-called “natures”? It would seem to me that the best place to start in a Christian reflection on human nature, sinful nature, and what the divine nature does to them, is the meeting of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. I intuitively suspect that starting here will yield fruitful insights about the way our “natures” are cured.

So that’s the second reason why this Wesleyan has taken an interest in Karl Barth.

Any thoughts?

Would you agree that detailed reformulation is the way to go?
Is Barth’s Christocentric procedure commendable?
How might this play out in a Wesleyan reformulation of sanctification?
Specifically with regard to natures, what insights might be drawn from Trinity/Christology?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Critical Receptivity, or, How to avoid becoming a theological jerk

Recently a student of mine asked me if my theological studies have spoiled my capacity to enjoy a worship service. “Do you find yourself picking apart the lyrics or the sermon?” He sensed his own critical awareness rising and wisely wanted to avoid becoming a theological jerk – you know, the guy who sits in the back with arms folded judging the shallowness of church. I shared with him a bit of my own journey on this issue, and yet the question has stuck with me long enough to deserve a fuller response. So here goes.

Note: These reflections can be seen as a follow-up to last week's hunt for theological parapraxes. No matter how attuned we are to the church's slip-ups, we must diligently fight against arrogance. This is my own attempt to mitigate the danger of pride in my intellectual life.

Let me narrate the three stages of development I have experienced myself and witnessed in others on this matter.

Stage One: Critical Spirit. At some point, many of us have been turned on to critical thinking. It is common to happen in college, but I have seen it kick in before, after or without formal education. Critical thinking is that wonderful tool whereby we do not accept what we hear at face value but ask tough questions and think for ourselves. This is a wonderful tool, but it can be used for evil. The place where is becomes particularly dangerous is in times set aside for edification: preaching, worship, bible studies, etc. It's times like these that seem to be "spoiled" by critical thinking, as we put up a wall of questions that block the movement of the spirit within. Yet critical thinking is not a bad thing, and so we rightfully defend ourselves by saying that we are "loving God with our mind" or "testing the spirits." This defense is correct from a certain point of view, and such walls might be necessary for a time to hone our critical skills. But it is dangerous to stay here because we may become cold and isolated.

Stage Two: The On/Off Switch. Early on I discovered that I could not go on with such a critical spirit. I had to open up to edification from others. One option would be to simply reject my critical training. But my critical skills were given to me by godly teachers whom I trusted. So I had to find a way to be both critical and open to edification. So I created an on/off switch: I could turn off my critical tools for moments of edification. I would pray at the beginning of a worship service that God would quiet my mind and open my heart. I would "set aside all my learning" for the moment and seek the transforming power of God. Many of us in college and seminary adopt this kind of language and thinking. This worked for a while, but there were still problems. First, in a desire to prove my openness, I uncritically accepted all kinds of things that I would have questioned even in my pre-critical days. Second, I encountered the problem of a double standard: for which times of edification do I turn the criticism off? On what basis do I make such a decision? Third, I was not yet treating my critical skills as a good gift from God to be used in his service. During the on/off stage, critical thinking has not yet become a spiritual discipline.

Stage Three: Critical Receptivity. This is the stage I am trying to grow into now. My attitude or posture towards a time of edification is to listen critically in order to receive the spirit of the message/song/moment. I do not check my brain at the door, but diligently ask tough questions and examine ideas. But I do not stop there. I use these critical tools to adjust and modify inadequate ideas, hopefully refining them in my mind so that I can receive the benefit of the most edifying message. I use the critical skills charitably, searching for the most subtle way of restating the ideas put forth. I find ways to affirm what is right, gently set aside what is wrong, and develop everything in between. The result is that I have become an active and engaged listener. I am not sitting in the back with my arms crossed. But I am also not just removing the filter and letting everything in. Actually, I am in a sense even more receptive to edification than I used to be, because I am not just accepting someone else's ideas. Rather, I am processing their ideas through my critical tools with the result that their ideas become my ideas. Therefore, I am truly being changed. This is at least an ideal toward which I aim and a practice which I slowly learning.

Any thoughts?
Have you had similar experiences?
How have you dealt with the threat of intellectual arrogance?
Can we ever be truly receptive and simultaneously critical, or is this wishful thinking?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Theological Parapraxes

Do you ever hear a preacher or worship leader say something odd about God that made you do a double take? Have you ever been busted for one of these foibles yourself? Have you ever been humored by the implications of the statement? Have you ever realized after the fact that this unintended phrase revealed the mind the speaker?

I would like to give these moments a name: theological parapraxes. A "paraprax" is an unintended action that reveals one's hidden thoughts, first celebrated by Sigmund Freud. Although Freud was quite proud, he was not arrogant enough to give this phenomenon its street name: "Freudian Slip." A theological paraprax is an unintended statement that reveals one's actual theological leanings.

For instance, I recently heard a Catholic Priest preach a sermon on John 14:6. During his exposition, he accidentally switched up the verse . Instead of the only way to the Father being through Jesus, he said that the only way to Jesus is through the Father! Now this slip-up was an innocent mistake, and we all make mistakes. But this was more than just a mistake; it was a theological paraprax, for it reveals the structure of a Catholic theology of ministry and grace.

At the most obvious and most humorous level, one could hear the Priest's reversal of John 14:6 as implying that the only way to Jesus is through a "Father" - a Catholic priest. Now the Catholic conception of sacramental ministry is a lot more complicated than simple mediation of Jesus via the Priest. But I couldn't help but do a double-take. It is at least enough to raise an eye-brow.

At a deeper level, this theological paraprax reveals a Catholic understanding of nature and grace. According to the classic maxim "Grace Perfects Nature," the Catholic habit of mind posits a natural human capacity given by the creator ("the Father") which is actualized in us by grace ("Jesus"). So the only way to Jesus is through the Father.

Now am I implying that this sweet Parish Priest was thinking all this when he mixed up the verse? No. That's what makes theological parapraxes so interesting: they reveal the assumptions and trajectories of our formation.

Any thoughts?
What theological parapraxes have you encountered or committed?
Please share your stories!