Saturday, November 9, 2013

Transpositions Imaginative Natural Theology Symposium

Over the course of this past week, Jim Watkins and I co-edited an Imaginative Natural Theology Symposium on Transpositions.  Contributors included Philip Tallon, Hans Boersma and Russell Re Manning with a book review from yours truly rounding out the conversation.

"Introducing: Symposium on Imaginative Natural Theology"

Philip Tallon, "Cultivating Ears to Hear Beauty's Call"

Hans Boersma, "Analogy, Sacramentality and the Place of Natural Theology"

Russell Re Manning, "Natural Directions in Natural Theology and the Arts"

Christopher R. Brewer, "Reviews: Bible and Interpretation, and The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology"

On a more personal note, one of the reasons that I came to St Andrews was so that I might be part of the conversation.  And what do I mean by that?  In Chapter 4 of his To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter outlines "An Alternative View of Culture and Cultural Change in Eleven Propositions."  What follows is an excerpt from this chapter.
Proposition Five: Cultural Production and Symbolic Capital are Stratified in a Fairly Rigid Structure of "Center" and "Periphery" 
This proposition is merely an extension of Proposition Four [i.e., Culture is a Resource and, as such, a Form of Power].  Let me put it this way: with economic capital, quantity is paramount.  In the ways of the world, more is almost always better, and more influential than less.  With cultural capital, it isn't quantity but quality that matters most.  It is the status of cultural credentials and accomplishment and status is organized in a structure that ranges between the "center" and the "periphery."  The individuals, networks and institutions most critically involved in the production of a culture operate in the "center" where prestige is the highest, not on the periphery, where status is low. 
And so, USA Today may sell more copies of newspapers than the New York Times, but it is the New York Times that is the newspaper of record in America because it is at the center of cultural production, not the periphery, and its symbolic capital is much higher.  Likewise, one can sell a hundred thousand copies of a book published by Loyola, Orbis, Zondervan, IVP, or Baker, and only 5,000 copies of a book published by Knopf, but it is the book by Knopf that is more likely to be reviewed in the New York Review of Books or the New Republic, or the Washington Post Book World because Knopf is at the center and Loyola, Orbis, Zondervan, IVP and Baker are at the periphery.  Influence follows accordingly.  By the same logic, one may be able to get as good an education at Bluefield State College in Bluefield, West Virginia, as one would at Harvard, but Harvard, as an institution, is at the center and Bluefield State is at the periphery of cultural production.  Therefore, someone with a credential from Harvard will find many more opportunities than someone from Bluefield State and will more likely end  up in a position of greater influence than the other. 
One could give myriad examples, but the point is clear: the status structure of culture and cultural production is of paramount importance to understanding culture and cultural change.[1]
It was after reading this section that I knew I had to come to St Andrews for St Andrews is at the center of the conversation that I'm interested in having (i.e., theology, theology/arts, natural theology, etc.).  To wit, Peter Barrett has noted: "The case for theological engagement with the arts − a recurring task − was argued notably by Howard Root in the early 1960s and has since been advocated by Polkinghorne (1994:44-45) and others, especially The Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Andrews University (Scotland)."[2]


Having said all this, it's been great to host and be part of this conversation on imaginative natural theology together with folks like Tallon, Boersma and Re Manning, and this gets at Hunter's sixth proposition: "Culture is Generated Within Networks."[3]  He explains:
the key actor in history is not the individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks.  And the more "dense" the network–that is, the more active and interactive the network–the more influential it could be.  This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.[4]
And this seems a fine place to end.  That said, stay tuned for the next installment … something's in the works.


[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World:  The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford, 2010), 36-37.
[2] Peter Barrett, "Seeing human personhood through science-religion-arts-ethics: an exercise in new-style natural theology."  Online: http://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/4289/Barrett.pdf?sequence=1
[3] Hunter, 37.
[4] Ibid., 38.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Rowan Williams Gifford Lectures 2013: No Last Words: Language as Unfinished Business

Last night, I enjoyed Rowan Williams' third Gifford Lecture 2013, "No Last Words: Language as Unfinished Business," from the comfort of my own home via the live feed available here.  The abstract for this lecture is as follows:
Intelligent life has something to do with knowing what to do next, and how to 'go on'. The focus of knowledge is not necessarily the would-be final, or exhaustive, system. We can learn something about the nature of knowing if we think about the sorts of knowledge involved in physical crafts, where a good and credible performance makes ever new performances possible. 
This also reminds us of the significance of our having learned our language from others and of our developing our thinking through exchange and not simply soliloquy. We speak in the hope of recognition. And our language carries in it a moment of radical trust in the meaningfulness of what we 'exchange' as well as an awareness of how we are all answerable to what is not only the aggregate of what we all know already. 
Again, the notion of 'unconditioned intelligent energy' comes into focus.
Once again, I've compiled a few notes from the lecture.

Shortly after beginning, Williams said: "The world we inhabit is already a symbolized world.”  And then: “What is said becomes a datum, allows something different to be said."  Here, it seems as though he was trying to get at the notion of development and interrelation in language.  Along these lines he noted that our speech is always time bound, incomplete, always in search of the perspective of another.  You might think, he said, that faith has an investment in finished stories, but as finite, "my thoughts and words are learned over time."  And so again, Williams wished to draw attention to the incompleteness of language, and this in contrast to the stability of faith itself, an intelligible way of going on (i.e., in the religious register).

Here, Williams turned to humility and dialogue, noting that we're “wrestling with what belongs to neither of us," and "always catching up with a reality never seen as standing still enough to be … fully embraced or mastered." "We do not," he emphasized, "possess or contain one another.”

The more I hear from Williams, the more I think of William Desmond.  Desmond is Professor Philosophy and Director of the International Program in Philosopy at KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium).

This video is an excellent summary of what Desmond is up to, particularly from 11:09–15:17.  In fact, I would start there if you're unfamiliar with Desmond as he gives a brief overview of his work, situating this paper within that larger framework.



It's bits like this that bring Desmond to mind:
Is there an overdeterminacy that isn't just an indeterminacy, and that while it allows determination, and indeed self-determination, can never in fact be fully exhausted by those two.  And I think that that's at play in the question of being true and also in the way being true brings us to a certain threshold of mystery.[14:54–15:17]
Williams has yet to mention Desmond, but I wonder if he's lurking in the shadows on Williams' thoughts in these lectures.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Rowan Williams Gifford Lectures 2013: Can We Say What We Like? Language, Freedom and Determinism

New College, University of Edinburgh
I've returned to New College in Edinburgh today for the second of Rowan Williams' Gifford Lectures 2013: Can We Say What We Like? Language, Freedom and Determinism.  The abstract for this lecture is as follows:

"If speech is a physical act, is it ultimately something we must think of as part of a pre-determined material system? It is difficult to state this without contradiction. Indeed, once we recognise the unstable relationship between what we say and the environment we are seeking to put into words, we cannot treat speech as simply another physical process. Further, we cannot ignore the way in which speech is ‘bound’ to stimuli that it does not originate (if we did, we could have no conception of what a mistake or a lie was). We use our language in order to enhance or refine our skill at living in a world that both demands understanding and invites us into the awareness of an unconditioned intelligent energy."
Once again, I've compiled a few notes from the lecture. Generally speaking, I had a harder time following this second lecture.  In any case, Williams began with a brief review of his first lecture, reiterating that “speaking is a material phenomenon.”

He went on to challenge a determinist theory of utterance.  Richard Rorty and Roy Bhaskar were significant dialogue partners.  With Rorty, Williams wants to say that what we say isn’t always determined by what’s in front of us.

“To understand how language works,” he said, “we need to understand its riskiness.”

Williams then went on to develop his argument in conversation with Walker Percy and others.

It seems as though Williams wants to say that language is more complicated than we make it out to be, and what we need is a broader conception of truth telling, one that takes account of lying as well as miscommunication, frustration and bafflement.


Williams said that language is characterized by freedom, but acknowledged that this is a complicated matter.  The uncovering of truth, the struggle for words … this is what most clearly underlines what language being characterized as freedom means.  

Monday, November 4, 2013

Rowan Williams Gifford Lectures 2013: Representing Reality

Last December, I had the privilege of attending Denis Alexander’s Gifford Lectures 2012 in St Andrews.  This week and next, I will be attending Lord Williams of Oystermouth’s (aka Rowan Williams) Gifford Lectures 2013 in Edinburgh.  The details of the lectures are as follows:

4, 5, 7, 11, 12, 14 November 2013
New College, University of Edinburgh

For those of you who are not familiar with the Gifford Lectures, they were established under the will of Adam Lord Gifford to “promote and diffuse the study of natural theology” and have been delivered annually since 1888 at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews.  You can learn more about the lectures via the Gifford Lectures site as well as these books:




Williams’ first lecture is titled Representing Reality, and the abstract is as follows:

“When we speak about the world we inhabit, we do so in terms that go well beyond simply listing the elements of what we perceive; that is, we construct schematic models, we extrapolate, we invent, and we use our imagination. If we think harder about what is involved in representing things (rather than simply describing or replicating them), we may discern something more. We may discover that the way believers talk about God is closely linked to the ways in which what we call ‘ordinary’ speech seeks a truthfulness that is more than simply replication. Moreover, we may understand how speech is regularly stimulated to do this in moments of linguistic crisis or disruption.”

All that being said, what follows are my notes from the first lecture.

Williams began by noting that it has become commonplace in the Gifford Lectures “to kick over the traces and protest” (e.g., Barth, Hauerwas).  “I admit,” he said, “to sharing some of this unease.”  And yet, he went on to speak of rediscovering, redefining and in the end, renewing something about natural theology.  

He went on to ask, “How might one go on speaking of God in the ordinary world?”

From what I can gather, Williams wishes to reconfigure natural theology as a method or practice in which we develop the discourse to its breaking point (i.e., strategic silence).  Language and representation loomed large with a distinction between description (i.e., careful analytic account) and representation (i.e., expresses the presence in another mode) being deployed throughout.  Regarding more or less explicit metaphysical commitments, he noted that we presuppose dependence (i.e., dependence as an inalienable aspect of finite being), and analogical fluidity.  Not surprisingly, he covered quite a bit of ground (Buddhist meditation, neuroscience, etc.), so much so that I hesitate to summarize, and so perhaps it’s better to think of these notes as reflections on bits of the lecture.  If the first lecture is any indication, these lectures will be better read than heard, and so I’ll be especially glad to see them in print. 


There were six questions, three of which touched on the arts.  Most interesting to my mind was Williams’ response to the second question in which he said something like the arts are a language, not beyond language, but one of the most dramatic or conspicuous ways that we’re brought to the edge.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: The End of Apologetics

Myron Bradley Penner. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, x + 180 pp., $19.99/£12.99 paper.

"This is a book about apologetics. Or, more precisely, it is a book against apologetics."[p. 4] In fact, according to Penner, "apologetics itself might be the single biggest threat to genuine Christian faith that we face today."[p. 12] What we need, says Penner, is "an entirely new way of conceiving the apologetic task."[p. 12]

And what might that look like? For Penner, this new way of conceiving the apologetic task might be described as Kierkegaardian. More fully, Penner explains: "We need to shift from an epistemological focus on the rational justification of Christian beliefs to a hermeneutics concerned with explicating and understanding the life of faith."[p. 16] He continues: "Rather than framing the issue in terms of an apologetic defense of Christian belief, I prefer to consider a postmodern apologetics in terms of the concept of witness–a prophetic witness, to be clear–for it orients us to the task differently and generates a completely different set of goals."[p. 17]

In Chapter 1, Penner takes the "modern apologetic paradigm"[p. 21] to task, singling William Lane Craig out for special consideration. Drawing upon Charles Taylor's A Secular Age,[1] Penner designates Craig's version of apologetics "secular apologetics."[p. 26] And what does he mean by that? He argues that Craig is "fully immersed in the perspective of modernity,"[p. 26] "conceives of truth, reason, and faith solely in terms of the modern epistemological paradigm,"[p. 29] and "contrary to how he seems to want to think about them, both knowing and showing for him are ways of describing how Christian belief is rational (in the modern sense). And this is due in no small part to his conviction that being a Christian amounts to giving intellectual assent to specific propositions."[pp. 30-31] What follows is a critique of the modern conception of reason, what Penner refers to an "the 'objective-universal-neutral complex' (OUNCE)."[p. 32] The gist of Penner's argument is that contemporary apologetic discourse is inseparable from the modern epistemic paradigm. He explains: "Despite what Christian apologists may tell themselves and others about how much they oppose modern philosophical assumptions or the dominant views of modernity, they nevertheless are in fundamental agreement with modern thinkers about which questions are the important ones, how those questions need to be answered, and why they need answering."[p. 46]

In Chapter 2, Penner continues his critique of Craig and his ilk, drawing upon Kierkegaard's "On the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle."[2] Penner suggests that contemporary apologetic discourse, and the academic debate in particular, champions a problematic approach to Christian witness in which geniuses (e.g., Craig) provide "epistemic assurance for us because they are 'leaders in the field'–they know more than the rest of their peers (and us), and their claims carry with them the weight of rational deliberation, insight, and brilliance."[pp. 49-50] Penner argues: "The apostle ... appeals not to reason but to revelation as the basis on which claims are warranted."[p. 51] He continues:
Our rational capacities have an open wound that must constantly be acknowledged and must continually give way to a word from God. In order to accommodate this, we will need to shift from an epistemological approach to something like a hermeneutical one.[p. 67]
And what does he mean by that? Penner explains: "If the modern epistemological paradigm is focused on the question, 'Is it (belief about the world/reality) true and justified?' the hermeneutical paradigm ... puts at the center of its inquiry the question, 'Is it intelligible and meaningful?'"[p. 68] Put simply, Penner is concerned with edification which is "deeply connected to hermeneutics as the motivation or goal of understanding."[pp. 75-76]

In Chapter 3, Penner develops this notion of edification, arguing that "apologetic discourse is first and foremost prophetic."[p. 82] He goes on to describe it as dialogical before outlining an ethics of belief. His conclusion is characteristically Barthian, even if Barth is only explicitly mentioned once, and this just before the conclusion. Penner explains: "The Word of God is always, Barth would say, an affront to all our human strategies to create meaning and significance apart from God, and all God's words to us call us from our self-sufficiency into a relationship with God–and the Word God has spoken to us and to which we witness as Christians is Jesus Christ, who has shown us a much more excellent way."[pp. 104-105]

In the penultimate chapter, Penner takes up the themes of "Witness and Truth." He summarizes:
I now wish to redescribe truth by changing metaphors from "correspondence" to edification. I do this in order to avoid the modern split between objective and subjective (as if they were separate spheres of reality), which privileges objectivity in truth and denigrates an emphasis on subjectivity as a relativistic denial of truth. By my account, truth (as subjectivity) is the sort of thing people need and desire because it is edifying. That is, what matters about truth is that it builds me up, is true for me, and is the kind of thing that connects to my deepest concerns as a self.[p. 110]
Immediately qualifying this, he notes:
But none of this means that we cannot think and speak about truth in objective terms at all. Edification is not merely a private event.[p. 111]
That said, Penner is suspicious of the "modern approach to truth," one which is "deeply metaphysical."[p. 114] More fully, he explains:
One way of labeling my focus on edification, then, is to see it as an attempt to talk about post-metaphysical truth. I am interested in how we think and speak about truth when we no longer think it possible to spell out exactly how our words and thoughts match up with reality, and when we believe our words and minds cannot do so exactly or exhaustively.[pp. 115-116]
Following Merold Westphal, and drawing upon Augustine, Penner advocates a personalized approach to truth in which "God's person is the goal of our pursuit," and "Truth becomes virtually indistinguishable from Love."[p. 117] From Augustine, Penner turns, not surprisingly, to Ludwig Wittgenstein's "language games," and then to Maurice Merleau-Ponty's "lateral universals" or "transversals" in order to argue for, not only a personal but also, a potentially universal approach to truth. In the end, then, Penner advocates a metaphysical agnosticism.

In the final chapter, "The Politics of Witness," Penner is concerned with the social dimensions of witness. He explains: "My central claim in this chapter runs something like this: When our concern is with how we believe, not only what we believe, and when being in the truth is just as important as possessing it, then our Christian witness must be such that it is edifying to those who receive our witness."[p. 138] Drawing upon Gabriel Marcel, Penner argues for an approach characterized by appeal rather than coercion. "Appeal," he explains, "is concerned with the more personal question of being in the truth and engages others on the basis of our shared humanity."[p. 144] He continues:
When I appeal to someone, I remain sensitive to them as a spiritual being, a person, someone who–like me–has a project or task to be in the truth. When I appeal to someone, then, I ask them to believe me because I am interested in what interests them and I understand how they see the world. I remain open to the person and acknowledge their presence as an other, as having a face."[p. 144]
Penner then turns to Emmanuel Levinas and the face of the other,[pp. 150ff.] teasing out implications for Christian witness.

Positively, two things. 

1) The book is concise, and 2) I found Penner's discussion of Gabriel Marcel's distinction between coercion and appeal as well as the related notion of sympathy to be quite helpful and very much in line with my own notion of the gospel through shared experience (i.e., evangelism that is patient and poetic).

Negatively, three things.

1) Penner equivocates, treating William Lane Craig's so-called "classical apologetics" as representative of the whole. He notes: "Although Craig subscribes to what he calls 'classical apologetics,' his basic understanding of the aim of apologetics is essentially the same as apologists of other methods.  I address this further below."[p. 24n8]  Penner later clarifies: "Since there are a variety of avowed apologetic styles and methods used by Christian apologists, I must be careful not paint them all with the same brush."[p. 34] The problem is that Penner hasn't been careful.  Recall his previously quoted statement: "his basic understanding of the aim of apologetics is essentially the same as apologists of other methods."[p. 24n8]  This sort of equivocation results in a sort of straw man take down of the modern apologetic paradigm, forcing a decision between an apparent, but false, dichotomy.

2) In his effort to take down the modern apologetic paradigm, he accuses "apologetics experts" of "relegating Christian belief to the level of a consumer product that is bought and sold."[pp. 64-65]  He continues:
At the social and economic level, then, the contemporary God Debate at the very least raises the question of whether it really matters why or how one believes or disbelieves at all. Given the way in which these debates are conducted and commodified, and given the way they play off each other, the wider message might appear to be: "The reasons you believe are really not important; what is important is that you spend. Buy the books, the podcasts, and the tickets for the debates, lectures, and seminars; pay for your kids' tuition at certain schools and universities. An entire way of life (i.e., mode of consumption) and industry is at stake, not to mention academic careers and tenure (For the experts on both sides)!"[pp. 65-66]
And again: "The apologetics industry can only exist in conditions of permanent threat and therefore has a vested interest in maintaining a permanent state of emergency."[p. 65] That some may be doing what Penner describes is certainly the case, but this sort of behavior isn't limited to the modern apologetic paradigm. Paul, after all, mentions those who "preach Christ out of selfish ambition."[Phil. 1:17, NIV] More to the point, this is a classic tu quoque. How is it that Penner escapes his own critique? Is his book not part of this same industry?

3) His discussion of tradition [pp. 121ff., 168] might have engaged David Brown's Tradition and Imagination [OUP, 1999] as well as his Discipleship and Imagination [OUP, 2000]. Along these same lines, his discussion of Emmanuel Levinas [pp. 150ff.] might have benefitted from engaging Roger Scruton's The Face of God: The Gifford Lectures 2010 [Continuum, 2012], Chapter 4 in particular.

Recommended for students of apologetics and evangelistic methodology, this book raises important issues and questions even if it does require a fair amount of sifting, and this whether your sympathies lie with Barth or Brunner.



[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007).
[2] Soren Kierkegaard, "On the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle," in the appendix of Soren Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Image Credit: Baker Academic

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Experiential Milieus and the Effort to Make Things Plain

Swiss L'Abri, May 2013
One of the challenges of doing constructive work is finding terms that name some previously unnamed phenomena, but do it in understandable terms.  Phrases such as "cultivating and creating alternative wisdom traditions" or "languages of immediacy" are precise and helpful to my mind.  That said, they're sometimes difficult for folks who don't spend every waking hour thinking about evangelistic methodology to wrap their minds around.

In an effort to communicate the content of GTSE more effectively, then, I'm trying several new ways of saying the same thing on for size.  For instance, in addition to talking about "alternative wisdom traditions" or "languages of immediacy" I'm trying "experiential milieus" on for size.  That one comes from Yves Congar's The Meaning of Tradition, though he actually talks about "educative milieus" (perhaps that would suit as well?).  I like it because it maintains a spatial sense, a space within which one might speak.

I also stumbled onto this way of getting the point across, and thought I might throw it out there for feedback.  I'm trying to explain this notion of shared experience, what I've previously referred to as a sort of vicarious, personal experience.  In any case, here goes:
The domain of personal experience becomes porous at this point, opening itself up to and drawing upon what might be called a reserve of shared experience.  
This reserve is a sort of collective wisdom, what might even be called a wisdom tradition, and is based upon commonly observable, shared experience.  So why not just call it experience?  Because we're not talking about raw experience here.  We're talking about reasoned reflections on experience, and that's why I like this notion of a wisdom tradition.  It's as if we're collecting our reasoned reflections on poetry, art or whatever up into a sort of book, a book of interpretations, of seeing this or that as something more or other than it's usually seen as.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Upcoming Conferences

In addition to my ISBL paper, "Counting and Dreams" Jonathan Borofsky as Scribe," I'll be presenting a couple more in the months to come.  That said, I thought I might post the abstracts for these papers to give you an idea of what I'm working on.

Leuven Encounters in Systematic Theology IX: Mediating Mysteries, Understanding Liturgies, October 23-26, Leuven, Belgium

Broad Sacramentality, Broad and Generous Liturgies: David Brown and James K.A. Smith
  • In the first two of three “Cultural Liturgies” volumes (2009, 2013), James K.A. Smith “employ[s] the term liturgy in a broad and generous sense.”(2009: 86)  The designation “broad,” in this context, calls to mind the work of David Brown, who, five years prior and over the course of three volumes (2004, 2007, 2008), has argued for a broad sacramentality.  Considering these works, as well as Brown and Smith’s larger corpora, I will summarize and compare their respective projects with special attention being given to their notions of revelation, interpretation and discipleship.  I will then argue that Brown might resource Smith’s project; more specifically, that Brown’s “hermeneutics of Pentecost and crib” might address Smith’s call for a “special hermeneutic” (i.e., a supplement to his more general creational hermeneutic), with Brown’s notion of revelation and change providing a more robust and theologically rich context for reading, and critiquing, Smith.  
Evangelical Theological Society, November 19-21, Baltimore, MD

Exploring the Possibility of an Imaginative Natural Theology: Considering Alister McGrath, Anthony Monti and T.J. Gorringe
  • With the recent publication of The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, it is fair to say that there is a renewed interest in natural theology, and not just in the realm of analytical philosophy.  Several have called for an imaginative approach, Alister McGrath among them.  Following T.F. Torrance, McGrath has cast a new vision for natural theology, one that presupposes the Christian view of the world.  Along these same lines, Anthony Monti has argued that art has the potential to suggest, point to and reveal the Trinitarian God.  Others have followed suit, often implicitly and unwittingly.  I shall argue, however, that McGrath and Monti, misunderstand Barth, and fail to deliver a Barth-approved natural theology.  T.J. Gorringe’s recent efforts will then be considered as having espoused something more consistent with Barth’s theology.  That said, it is no natural theology.  I will suggest, then, that one must choose between Barth and natural theology, imaginative or otherwise, a position that begs the question: Is a non-Barthian imaginative natural theology possible, and if so, what form might it take?