UTS Round-up: Assorted Links

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David Wagschal

A few stories that caught my attention this week…

Although no longer our “issue du jour”, a couple of interesting developments for same-sex marriage:

  1. A Pew study that came out this week showing that support for same-sex marriage in the US is growing — even among Evangelicals. Note the age-breakdown in particular.
  2. Speaking of which, Germany legalized same-sex marriage (finally). Bit of a political move, but Merkel has been biding her time on this one.
  3. Which reminds me: for my American friends, did you know that Canada’s Conservatives (pretty much our Republicans) ended official opposition to gay marriage about a year ago?

In politics and economics:

  1. The Atlantic ran a much-shared article on the demise of “White Christian America”.  My worry here: the constant association of “Christian” and the forces that Trump represents. Man, we’ve got a lot of damage-control to do…
  2. But here is an interesting, if not altogether encouraging, article on the growing progressive/liberal political opposition to Trump. (Thanks to a friend at church for sharing this one a few weeks ago!) What is really intriguing here is the hint that some progressive/liberals are trying to find an entirely new way of engaging politically — one that transcends left/right, and one that is not just a left-leaning mirror of the conservative political machine. Hmm.

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UTS Takes on Political Theology

About the Author
David Wagschal

Here’s a question that has been nagging me: has Christianity being playing a role in the erosion of liberal democratic values that we’ve been witnessing across many western democracies?

In the last few months I’ve been prepping for a short studies series at my church on “Christianity in the Public Square”.  I took the opportunity to brush up on “political theology”.

Political theology is the (relatively) new discipline of theology that treats the (relatively) old question of the relationship of the church and the public sphere – i.e. the state, civil society, and broadly the entire socio-political realm.  It’s very popular in today’s academy.

I somehow knew that I wasn’t much going to like what I started to uncover in this literature.

Sure enough, I’ve discovered that there is plenty of fodder here for anti-democratic and anti-liberal thinking – and not simply in obscure or radical corners. Right in the mainstream there are voices that are uncomfortable with some of the central pillars of modernity: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion (and freedom FROM religion, very important), freedom of expression – even freedom of political choice, freedom of self-determination, and human rights.  There are counter-voices offering robust support for democratic and liberal values, but they often seem to be out-shouted by their opposition.

So is Christianity playing more of a role in our current neo-conservative political backlash than we might like to admit?  If so, what can we do about it?

Over the next little while I’m going to start walking through some of this literature by posting reviews of prominent works and figures. I’m going to work two angles in particular:

1) What are the theological roots of some of the anti-liberal attitudes?  As always, my key critique is not simply about this or that political position: it’s about the “deep theology” that underlies the surface dynamics. What are the fundamental assumptions that lead Christian thinkers to certain positions? Is there a viable neo-Lutheran alternative?

2) How can we retain the good stuff of the pre-modern Christian tradition without the bad? A wave of neo-conservativism and neo-traditionalism has swept over most denominations – Lutherans included – in the last few decades.  As long as it’s been focused on things like ancient liturgy, patristic scriptural exegesis, virtue ethics, iconography, monastic spirituality, etc., it’s been pretty harmless. But what happens when we start to dabble in the political side of the ancient synthesis?  What happens when its political implications or logic begin to get worked out? Has this been feeding into the illiberal political trends we’ve been witnessing?  How can we can retain the good side of the pre-modern stuff without the bad? This is a very interesting question for me academically, since my area of expertise is exactly pre-modern systems of Christian polity and law.

Ultimately my goal is practical.  I feel all of us need to start to respond to the current political and cultural malaise.  There is maybe not much I can do about the broader socio-political situation. But by gum – theology and church history is something I do know.  At least in this area, I feel I need to start to #Resist!

First up: John Yoder, The Politics of Jesus.

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Christians and Trump: What to Do? [Essay]

About the Author
David Wagschal

Trump. What to do. Part 2.

Last post I outlined my take on the volatile and potentially dangerous political situation in the US.

This raised broader questions: How should Christians respond to such developments? What is the right place for Christianity in the public square?

In this post, I want to focus on some of the theoretical, theological aspects of these questions (questions of “political theology”). In future posts I’ll get back to more nitty-gritty, practical stuff – but I feel like we need to pause and look at the big picture.

  1. Trump: A Big Christian Moral Fail?
  2. Political Theology: Time to Shake Things Up
    1. That Pesky Gospel: No, It’s Not the Blueprint of a Divine Socio-political Order
    2. Christians: You’re as secular as anyone else. And that’s OK.

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Trump: What to Do? (Part One)

About the Author
David Wagschal
Part One: The Problem
  1. A Creeping Authoritarianism
  2. How did we get here? The Root Problems
    1. Trump CEO
    2. Death-throes of American Conservatism?
1. A Creeping Authoritarianism

So I think it’s clear now that the US is in some serious trouble.

Of course everyone is still hoping that things are going to normalize. We hope that Trump is soon going to settle down into a typical, if a bit “spicy”, pro-business Republican. “Yes, he’s going to be aggressive and a bit unpredictable, and he’s going to push boundaries, but fundamentally he’s going to stick to the rules, and play the game. Don’t worry. He’ll be kept in check.”

Perhaps. But the line between hope and denial can be a fine one. If we step back a little, there are a lot of signs that are pointing in a darker direction. It’s getting hard to ignore them.

Trump has been…

  • scapegoating the outsider (Mexicans, refugees) and subtly green-lighting a whole host of anti-minority prejudices
  • encouraging nationalism
  • systematically denigrating and bullying all established bases of power that intimidate him or are independent of him (intelligence, army, the central bank, judiciary, congress) — there is a very good article on Bloomberg about this
  • attacking and delegitimizing the press and undermining its trustworthiness and credibility
  • placing relatively inexperienced and politically “unattached” figures in key positions of power, who are therefore almost totally, personally dependent on Trump for their position
  • playing the security card

Does this sound familiar?

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Kicking the Gnostic Habit: The Problem of Faith as Knowledge (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order: Part Three

This post is the final instalment in my three-part series on the central doctrinal pillars of the classical, mainstream synthesis of Christian theology as it has developed since approximately the 4th C. (A bit earlier, to be truthful, but this isn’t history class…)

My central contention in this series is that there is a lot more wrong with this core synthesis than most of us recognize. But if we are going to move towards a new synthesis – which I think is now inevitable – we need to start to engage in a much more open and comfortable critique of these older ideas.

The final pillar in my triad is the idea that Christian faith is a kind of knowledge. This is the subtle but pervasive idea that Christianity is a religion of insight, wisdom, and knowledge. It’s the belief that Christianity is the ultimate “philosophy”, even in the broadest, ancient sense of the word as a wise or holy way of life.

It’s hard to get your mind around the idea that Christianity might not be this, at least not at its core — but once you do, the effect is pretty dramatic.

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The Problem with Deification (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part Two

 In this series, I’m exploring a few of the fundamental assumptions of what I call the “classical” or “imperial synthesis”.  This is the doctrinal mainstream of Christianity as it has developed since the 4th century or so. It’s most representative forms are perhaps the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Calvinist churches, but its assumptions have permeated most forms of Christianity.

My contention is that some of the core doctrines of this synthesis are much more problematic than is often acknowledged. Yet we are still so deeply “within” this synthesis that we rarely directly and frankly question its central ideas.

Last week I looked at the common notion that Scripture is the revelation of God – and the problematic idea that Christianity is somehow at core an exercise in biblical exegesis. This week: salvation as divine transformation.

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The Problem with Scripture as Revelation

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part One

I frequently have conversations with friends who ask me: “why have you abandoned the old patristic / Greco-Roman synthesis?”

By “Greco-Roman synthesis”, depending on the conversation, they might mean Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or, for that matter, traditional forms of Calvinism or even Lutheranism.

In all cases they expect that I will launch into a laundry-list of complaints about the institutional problems or moral stances of contemporary churches. They are surprised when I instead answer: “theology.”

Then follows a few uncomfortable moments when they realize that I seriously think we need to question several central pillars of the Great Church synthesis, that is, of the central trajectory of Christian doctrinal elaboration since at least the 3rd/4th C, whether in its eastern or western forms.

Their first reaction is to think I’ve gone a bit crazy. To be fair, even three or four years ago, my reaction would have been similar.

But abandoning the classical synthesis is easier, simpler and maybe more plausible than you might think. Read More…

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Luther Reading List Updated

About the Author
David Wagschal

Time to get this blog going again!

My reading list is still quite modest, and certainly a work in progress, but, voila:

David’s Annotated Luther Reading List – October 2016

Why read Luther?

  1. It’s amazing how few theologians really know anything about him.
  2. His influence, acknowledged or not, is incredibly pervasive (this guy’s already in your head in all sorts of ways).
  3. Luther represents something really very new and different. You may not like him in the end, but after you read him, it’s amazing how Barth or Aquinas, Athanasius or Calvin, Augustine or Pseudo-Dionysius … they all kinda start sounding the same. (Doubt it? Try it.)

Have fun!

Reforming Popes, Holy Councils: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

About the Author
David Wagschal

Change is in their air. There is no doubt about it. Even within the last 20 years we’ve seen a major change in the role of the church in society and in society’s view of the church. Internally, churches are experiencing increasing fragmentation and polarization as different groups respond to these changes in different ways. Almost all denominations are in the midst of some type of transition.

Recently we’ve seen some interesting developments within two of the oldest Christian confessions: the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. In the former, the pontificate of Pope Francis has been decisively reformist, marked by progressive “signaling” on all manner of issues, particularly the environment and the economy, but also gay rights and even abortion. The Orthodox churches have been keeping a lower profile, but they too are about to hold their first formal pan-Orthodox council in centuries. Topics include relations with other churches, the status of Orthodox Christians outside of traditional Orthodox countries, and a variety of ritual practices.

Both developments have created quite a stir within church circles (and sometimes even without). Commentators have been carefully weighing the nature and significance of phrases, statements, and each and every political move.

But when I encounter the commentary, controversy and buzz, I keep having the same existential reaction:

Does any of this matter? Really?

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