Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Problem of Death (Part I)

While the Problem of Identity may be the most important one in our cultural climate, the Problem of Death just may be even more central to the human existence. If it is not felt as pressing in our age, it is not because the problem has diminished, but because death has become such an abstract concept in our time. There are some rather dubious ways our culture has come to deal with the problem, such as the strong notion of "living on" in one's children, no doubt a result of the strong influence of biology on our way of looking at life. On the other hand, the problem of Death cannot be disregarded, because it crops up in other areas of our life instead.

The Problem of Death manifests itself as fear. We can fear many things: to loose a job, to be robbed, to catch a disease. These fears, however, are fairly easily traced back to an underlining fear of death. We fear to loose a job ultimately because we fear we will not be able to survive. Fear of loss of all material things go back on our longing to be safe from harm. We also fear the death of those we are close to. It is not only the thought of no longer being alive that we fear, it is death itself, wherever it manifests itself. We fear the loss of those close to us, because such a loss leaves us vulnerable.

The Christian faith presents the answer to the problem of death in the victory over death of Christ, and in His resurrection, understood as a kind of proof that we too one day will rise from the dead.

Now, what does this mean? I will gladly confess that this, to me, is the most difficult part of the Christian doctrine, and I think it can be no other way. Any theology that avoids to ask this question is betraying its purpose.

I think the above description of fear as a force that is found in all areas of life can be a key to understanding what the talk about Jesus being victorious over death is about. I already pointed out that Jesus, in being "one with the Father" was completely secure in his identity, and the notion that he was without sin indicates that no force alien to himself affected him.

Fear makes us vulnerable to such forces. Take for example the most clearly demonic force in our time, advertising. Few adds these days does not try to trigger our fears: fear of being unacceptable, fear of being ugly, fear of getting old, fear of getting sick. But this is true of almost any force that has power over a person: the boss can influence you only under the (unspoken) threat of firing you. In the end, all the laws of society is upheld, if not by the final threat of death penalty, at least by the threat of removing the right to decide what to do with life by imprisonment.

A person without fear can not be manipulated by any force. This is what we see in the life of Jesus. He is free from fear of death (mind you, this doesn't mean he finds it pleasant) and therefore free from all fears. This is why he can display this complete integrity in the face of all authorities. They have no way to force him to anything.

This means that Jesus has overcome death already before his death. By being free from sin he has overcome fear and death has lost its "sting".

How does this relate to the afterlife, and to us? I will continue this line of thought tomorrow.

I am... Moltmann???

Well, I am shocked. Even though I "agreed" full with all the questions that involved "the ground of our being" even though they did not describe Tillich's thinking very well, I only managed to get more than 67% Tillich. Moltmann, well, he's ok I guess, I think it was the question of paedo-baptism that was decisive. The real shock is Augustine though, whom I admire tremeandously.

You scored as Jörgen Moltmann. The problem of evil is central to your
thought, and only a crucified God can show that God is not indifferent to
human suffering. Christian discipleship means identifying with suffering
but also anticipating the new creation of all things that God will bring

Jörgen Moltmann


Paul Tillich


Martin Luther


Friedrich Schleiermacher


John Calvin




Karl Barth


Jonathan Edwards


Charles Finney




You can find the quiz here.

New Feed and som Behind the Scene Changes

I have a weak spot for statistics (its a bit of original sin I inherited from my father who was a matematician), so I decided to "burn" my feed, using FeedBurner.
The new feed, which should be a bit prettier, can be found by clicking on that orange logo to the right. It should also be selected automatically.

Anyway, If you have subscribed to the old feed, you may not see this post, and should re-subscribe to the feed that has the adress:

This is also reason for the various repostings of old posts last night, btw. Sorry about that.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Problem of Identity

Tillich said that the existential question of meaning was the most important one in “our” time. I think maybe our culture since then has shifted a bit, so today the question “who am I” is the most central one. This is a consequence of our fragmented society and the breaking down of all institutions of authority (see, I avoided the “p-word”).

The question of Identity is obviously primarily the problem of a young person, though it seems to be asked by older persons more and more. It can also be an aspect of the question of death, because we tend to ask what of me will remain; and it is part of the question of meaning, because meaning is about the relationship of the self and the world.

To be a complete person is to have, at the same time, a good sense of who one is, and to be part of a community with other people. If either of these two poles is lacking a person is not complete. There has to be a balance: to much “Me” is to be egoistic, to much “We” is to be without a will of one’s own. This is what the Christian tradition calls sin, and I have discussed it at length already. I will only add that Christian tradition has tended to emphasize the egoistic part, pride, and overlook the tendency not to be in charge of one’s own life. This is one of the many important point’s feminist theology has brought up: “Traditional” sin is very much something that the traditional male role tends to, while the kind of sin that consist of not being responsible for one’s own self in fact is the role society, with the help of the Church, has given women.

In what way does Christianity address this problem? Humans are created by God. This is the most fundamental part of the Christian doctrine. In this lies a sense that our “I” is given us. In other words, when we aspire to find out who we really are, we are exploring the will of the Creator. But this can easily be vulgarized into the idea that God has our life planned for us, and if we only find out what this plan is, we can live happily.

However, God has created us free, and this means that it essentially up to us to decide what we fill our “I” with. This is the great paradox: We are created by God as we are, and we decide ourselves what this is. In a way we create ourselves, but God is present in that creation.

Being created is to be free, but this freedom carries and imperative: We must accept this freedom. If we live life without accepting this freedom, we are living in sin. We are either letting other forces overpower us, or we believe that we are able to control things that are beyond our power.

To be able to find one’s identity it helps to be aware of what forces are exercising control over us. This is important in a theology of decline, because these forces are also responsible for the destruction of our world and culture. It is in the interest of these forces that we become consumers who live in an illusion of power, while the only real choices we make are which multi-national product we choose to distract us from our true selves. To overcome the question of the Identity is a strong blow to these forces indeed, because a person who is secure in his or her own identity cannot be manipulated easily.

Creation theology alone cannot overcome the problem of Identity. To be saved from sin we need Jesus Christ. How are we to understand that Christ is to save us from a false identity? We cannot answer this question properly without addressing the question of death, but we can manage pretty good by taking Jesus as a model for how to live. When Jesus says that he and the Father is one, he says he is under the influence of no other force than the Creator: i.e. he is living in complete harmony with his identity. This is what it means when we say that Jesus was without sin.

The Church addresses the question of identity especially in the sacrament of baptism, which I will return to in another post.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Wittgenstein and St. Isaac of Nineveh

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54

Thus knowledge is the ladder on which a man ascends the height of faith, but which he does not use any more when he has reached faith. For now we know little out of much and we understand little out of much. But when perfection has come this little becomes useless.
St. Isaac of Nineveh: Ascetical Homiliy 51

Fire in the Porvoo Cathedral

The Porvoo Cathedral of "The Porvoo Communion"-fame (the union between the Lutheran Churches and the Anglican Communion) burned tonight. The Well-known roof of the cathedral was destroyed, but right now it seems the interior can be saved.

The cause of the fire is not known at the moment.

The Porvoo Cathedral is the see of the Swedish-speaking finnish Lutherans.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Identity, Death and Meaning

If the Church is an Icon of the future world, then all the Church does, including its theology, is saying something about our future hope. This means that what God offers us in this world could be described as a fore-taste of what will be reality in its fullness after death. When the Church or theology does not give a reflection of the eschatological Kingdom of God it is no longer (or at least at that moment) church, and the theology is bad.

In an earlier post I mentioned three existential questions or problems that I consider central: Identity, Death and Meaning. By existential I mean something that is a part of existence as such, they are not problems that are “contextual”, in the sense that they are related to a particular culture. But they will obviously take on different characteristics depending on the particular situation one is living in. In my up-coming posts I will explore these three existentials thoroughly and ask how they will function in a theology of decline. Today I will say something general about the three of them.

I initially planned to say that these are not related to the Holy Trinity in any particular way. Then it occurred to me that maybe they are. Identity is certainly something that is closely related to being created, Death is very much something that has to do with Christ, and I think meaning is a good perspective on the Spirit. But since I think it may be possible to argue for the inclusion of other existentials than the three I have chosen, this cannot be considered a part of the doctrine of the Trinity, but rather a kind of entry point to the mystery of the triune God.

I think it is possible to argue that Christinity, as Tillich would say, gives answers to these three questions contained in existence. But the dedicated Tillich reader will notice that these are not the same existentials that Tillich discuss: instead of guilt in his system I talk of identity. The reason for this is that I do not want to equate sin with guilt, as has happened especially in German theology. Sin is the central problem for the question of Identity, just as Meaninglessness is the problem for the question of Meaning and fear is the problem for the question of death. But guilt is not only experienced because of a deformed identity, but rather it is a fundamental feature of the human existence that lack in all these three categories is experienced as guilt.

Also, these three questions do not exist separately from each other (perichoresis!). They all form aspects of the other two problems. I will discuss this feature in my coming posts.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Faith and Theology: Me on Tillich

As a part of Ben Myer's series of why we love theologians, my text on Paul Tillich appeared the other day. Have a look. The rest of the series is coming along nicely as well!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Negative Theology or Why Theology is the Coolest Thing Ever

I thought I would take some time off from my pessimistic theology to do some negative theology...

Actually, the first rather serious theology book I ever read was Vladimir Lossky's wonderful The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, a strange introduction to theological studies if there ever was one - not only because Lossky insists on quoting Greek at length without ever translating. But the text had a profound impact on me, and it was especially the notion of negative theology that struck a chord with me. Since then this has been the norm by which I judge all theology. If it tries to speak about the unspeakable, then I'll pass, thank you very much.

Negative theology became a formulated theological principle with the enormous popularity of Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite and his writings, but was something the early fathers followed instinctively. The classic text is Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, which Gregory interprets as a story about approaching God. Gregory describes how Moses in the beginning meets God in light (the burning bush) but later in a cloud or darkness. This is interpreted as meaning that one does not proceed in knowing God to ever greater clarity, but towards greater obscurity, until one reaches darkness.

This idea is rooted in the experience of the limits of our language. Evagrios of Pontos taught that one had to labor for a long time to be able to not think in images and words about God. His ascetic practices aim at emptying the mind. This is not, however, to "surrender to the void". It is only the mind that has learned to not think about an image that can do God justice, because any image we use will become an idol.

That is why Dionysios Jr. (as one of my mentors call him) claims that positive theology has value mainly for the beginner. The beginner needs to say: God is powerful, God is Creator, God is Person. Later he or she can move on to more abstract images: God is light, God is truth, God is Love. But then one must proceed beyond this terms, because God is ever greater that what we can possible imagine, greater than what we can think into this terms. Then theology becomes negative: God is not limited, God is not mortal, God is not created. This is what the Nicene creed says: an awful lot of words beginning with "a". But according to Dionysios one has to go further. One must put all images behind oneself. Thus: God is not light, God is not truth, God is not Love.

God "is" not.

This is the path of the mystic. But one has to walk the path, one can not just pick up on what is found at the end of the path. This, in the orthodox tradition, lead to the development of the distinction between God in his energies and God in his essence. About God in his energies we can say something, because this is God revealing himself as loving, creating, saving, sanctifying. This is truly God's nature, but this is not what God "is". What God is in his essence we can not say, because that is completely beyond all human abilities.

Now, here is why I think this is incredibly important for all theology. Theology is the only human activity that has the limitations that are present in all disciplines humans undertake built into the system. All sciences and philosophies presuppose certain facts, and build upon them. The law of causality if nothing else. Theology builds on this great presupposition, but unlike all other disciplines, who try to avoid it, Theology chooses to call this presupposed fact God, and worships it.

This means that, unlike what many "fundamentalists" think, Christianity is not built on a secure ground, or fundament. Rather, it is aware of building on something which it cannot say anything about, and this makes the system open. Theology has this great "openness" right in the middle of it, it works at studying everything that surrounds it. This secures that theology never becomes a static, monolithic system. Because of this "openness" theology can adapt to the situation of living individuals, because it is itself living.

This is why negative theology has to be present in all theology.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Church as Icon of the Next World

There is a point with my recent venture into eschatology. Even though I can feel the laughter of the worlds exegetes ringing in my ears whenever I quote a passage of scripture, I wanted to establish that we cannot reach a verdict about the nature of the coming existence by reason or revelation. Still I have argued that the belief in a life beyond death is essential to Christianity and that it is something we cannot do without, no matter how many sequels are produced in the “Left Behind” series. And here’s why:

The Christian Church is nothing more and nothing else than a projection of the future life on this one. Just as humans are imperfect images of God, the Church is an imperfect image of the future world.

This means that everything that the Church does – as Church ­– is reflections of the coming world. From providing shelter for alcoholics to celebrating the Eucharist – in all the Church does – as Church – we may catch a glimpse of exactly what our hope is.

I will explore in my following posts various aspects of the Christian Church and life as a Christian from this perspective, to finally say something about salvation, which must be understood with all these matters in mind.

I will also work more on ecclesiology, probably the most important aspect of theology in our time. Here I will only say that in a declining world, it is the mission of the Church to in an honest way point towards the new world. In a culture that is destructing it self, the Church must somehow be the one thing that points toward something different. The Church, as the image, or properly, the icon of the future world, must embody the Christian hope for all of creation.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Time Out!

First I have to say: This is so much fun! When I started this blog I could not imagine I would come into contact with so many thoughtful people!

Today, Byron has responded to several of my posts with very interesting comments. I will address some of them here. (See also this post.)

The first comment took me completely by surprise. In a off-hand manner, in my post on resurrection, I said that Christianity teaches that time will not be a part of life after death. Byron asks Why not? and refers to Moltmann. As a student of the patristic era, it is perhaps no surprise that I regarded this as self-evident. It is also no surprise that Moltmann has issues with this idea, since it is the same idea that made the early Church rule out suffering in God.

It is quite likely that the fathers got this from Greek philosophy, but they just could not believe that God would be affected by time, and it was clear that precisely the being-in-time of this existence was what made this world inferior to the next one. This is not just Augustine, I think it is pretty universal, at least from Origen onwards.

Time implies change, which made it impossible to think time together with God. If God is perfect, then he can't possibly change. That would either mean that wasn't perfect and needed to improve, or that he was perfect at some point and no longer is. The same would be true of us: if we are to become perfect in the future world, how could we imagine change in that existence? Ergo: perfect existence requires the non-existence of time.

This is how the ancients thought. Can we think differently? The problem would then be if we can imagine an existence where time exists and change is possible, but evil is not. Now, the fathers would say to this: "well if that is possible, why didn't God create a world like that in the first place? The whole point of this world is that in it we can change, get to know God, grow." Their favorite parable of world is that it is a school. In it, by the grace of God, we are in training to be able to exist in the future world.

Surely God had a reason for creating this world?

Well, maybe I have drunk too deeply of the old fathers, because I kind of think their argumentation is pretty good in this case.

However, my point in bringing up the whole question in the first place was to emphasize that we cannot imagine what life after death would be like without doing violence to Scripture or adopting imagery with pagan origins. I want to defend the right to not know what life after death is like. My point is not to replace one conception with another. Our hope is not thematic: it is open. (It is analogue with creation - it is open as well, we decide ourselves who we are) God is not a human creator who forces his will on his creation.

Against this Byron suggests that the women at the grave indeed spoke (though not in Mark, according to the best manuscripts... or was this some kind of test?), and were told to do so by the angel(s).

Yes they did talk. And the Church is founded upon their talking about it. And I do not suggest that we should cease talking about these matters altogether. But we should not say more than we can! Maybe this is why the gospels differ so much regarding the details regarding Jesus resurrection?

But what does it really mean for our resurrection that Jesus' grave was empty? We are not to be resurrected in this world, are we? I suggested a symbolical interpretation of the body in a previous post. There I gave some reasons I found this interpretation likely. In fact I have difficulty understanding what a resurrection of "the same body" (as the empty tomb suggests. Or does it?) would actually mean? I mean, my body is not the same as when I started writing this post, in terms of the molecules that it is made of! What constitutes my body in this perspective? My DNA? What if I have cancer?

I'm not trying to be iconoclast here, I just don't know how to imagine it. I know that the fathers tended to interpret the resurrection of the body to have little to do with the physical body. (Origen's "spheres" are famous, but more often than not they believed that it had to do about a transformation of our personality). Isn't this us trying to say something about something we actually cannot say anything about? Maybe it is better to settle with the hope that there will be a resurrection and focus on living life here in accordance with the ideals we believe will mark that future existence?

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Need for Eschatology

I said a while back that a Christianity that focuses to much on the next world, so that it sees as its main (or only) purpose in “saving souls” in order to get people into heaven risks disregarding life in this world to the point of accepting a way of life that increases the suffering in the world and destroys the environment. A mentality that says that all that matters is to get people saved doesn’t worry about climate change or multinationals exploiting cheap labour.

But there is another extreme that is equally wrong. That is reducing the Christian eschatology to nothing but projections of ideals in this life on the next. This is an important aspect of eschatology, it is a form of critique of the present way of things, and can have a powerful homiletic impact. But if we reduce eschatology to this, then Christianity no longer has answers to some of the most important existential question humans ask.

I think the three most important existential questions in the human existence are: 1. the question of identity (Who am I?), 2. The question of meaning (Why am I here?) and 3. The question and fear of death. While Christianity can address question one rather well based on the doctrine of creation and by pointing to the example of Christ, the two latter are more or less dependent on the eschatology, at least in extreme situations.

The fear of death is not abolished by promising a life after death. This can have some effect, but it is not the central point of the Christian teaching on death. This I will return to in another post. But unless some kind of continuation beyond death is imagined, it is difficult to see what would be “Christian” about whatever answer one would formulate. Christ’s victory over death cannot be reduced to courage in face of our mortality.

The question of meaning, too, cannot be sufficiently (in a Christian way) answered without referring to life after death. Sure, in most lives it is meaningful enough to live life genuinely in harmony with one’s self in relationships with other humans. And this definitely is a Christian approach to meaning. Our life is meaningful when we live not for ourselves (by trying to be something on the merit of our own will), but for our neighbour (and thus becoming images of the Son who does not try to be the Father but lives in complete union with him).

But there are situations in this existence where such a life is impossible, for one reason or the other. We have to acknowledge that there are extreme cases where an individual cannot see any meaning at all with life. This would be situations of extreme suffering, caused by other human beings or by some natural cause, such as disease. In these cases Christian doctrine maintains that all life is meaningful, even if it is not possible to see any meaning here. The hope of a meaning that will be possible to apprehend only beyond death can be the only thing that gives strength to endure in an extreme situation.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A farewell from the Gay Restorationist

The "Gay Restorationist" has decided to give up blogging for one reason or another. A pity, his posts are very important. To have a opinion on homosexuality whitout listening thoroughly to the point of view of one has the experience of being homosexual (and follow Christ, in this case) is of course completely unacceptable.

Read his final thoughts here.

The Body and the Self

Steve Blakemore had some very reasonable questions regarding my last post on the resurrection. Since this questions offer me the opportunity to clarify some ideas that are important to me I will respond in a new post. Thanks to Steve then for taking the time to investigate my reasoning.

First, Steve asks why I "think it unlikely that St. Paul did not envision a real physical resurrection?" While it is unlikely that this particular debate will ever reach a point where everyone agrees, I can only offer my two cents. First, the immediate problem I see is the assumption that we can agree on what a "real physical resurrection" would mean, not to mention know what St. Paul would mean with such a phrase. Both the terms "real" and "physical" are modern concepts. My point is that even if one would attest that Paul did in fact believe in a real physical resurrection, one would still have to address what this means. I guess my interpretation is an attempt to address that question.

I have of course some reasons to argue as I do. Ancient culture tended to use the word body in a variety of symbolical ways. The best example is probably Plato who sharply separated the human being in body and soul. However a closer examination shows that Plato is not so much talking about body and soul as we post-Descartes understands them, but as symbols of to ways to live: according to the body and according to the soul. (There is a great study on Plato's Phaedo by Illham Dillman. Very hard to find though). It is rather similar to Paul's dichotomy between spirit and flesh. Ideas like these are very widespread in the literature of the time, which makes it plausible to believe Paul to was using the body in a symbolical way.

Further, the NT seems to stress the discontinuity with the present body in the descriptions of the body after resurrection. In 1 Cor 15 Paul says: "All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another."And: "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." Finally he talks of a spiritual body which unless understood symbolically must be some kind of insolvable paradox.

The descriptions of Jesus body after the resurrection point in the same direction: the disciples did not recognize him, he moved through closed doors etc. There is also continuity: Jesu body still carried the marks of his suffering - maybe a symbol of how this aspect of Jesus life was a genuine part of his person, and thus survived death. But Jesus case is special, because he was not a sinner before death.

In other words what Paul calls the renewal of the body, is, I would argue, this process in which the person becomes "new again", by the removal of those aspect of the personality that are not genuine.

Steve also points out that the talk of "self" is modern and is at risk of anachronism. Obviously this risk is always present in any reading of an ancient text. With the word self I understand not only the conscious "I" of a person but also what we today call the subconscious. I think this term is useful, because the biblical symbols (body, soul, spirit) have very different connotations today than they had when Paul used them. This is extremely complex an area, and, yeah, there is always a risk of anachronism involved. But one does not avoid that risk by using the same words as the bible. Rather, I think the risk is greater if one uses biblical terms without defining them.

Finally, Steve felt my "focus on release from negative influences and being one's 'true self'" might lead to gnosticism. I think I steer clear of gnosticism by emphasizing that we can only understand what our true self really is after death, i.e. there is no true gnosis in this life; and by stressing that what I consider negative parts of the personality that will be discarded in resurrection is not the body in its materiality, but those elements that have become part of the personality because of lack of responsibility over one's person. I.e. I do not believe that there is a pure eternal soul that needs to be purified from material elements, but that a persons self is continously formed by genuine and false aspects, based on the choices the individual makes in freedom.

For further clarification see my post on sin.

The Resurrection of the Body: Becoming Whole

I think it is important to be aware of how little we as theologians can say about existence after death. If one wants to attack a persons faith with the weapons of reason, surely the post-mortem existence is the easiest target.

The bible actually has very little to say about this. The common conceptions about life after death are based much more on Virgil and Dante than on Scripture. In fact, I think one can argue that what the Christian tradition actually states about what comes after death is essentially “negative theology”, in the sense that if we combine these pieces of doctrine, we end up with concepts that are completely incomprehensible to the human mind. It is a firm belief of the Church that time will not be a part that existence. Now, this in itself makes all symbols we use to describe the future world of limited worth, because time is such a fundamental component in this existence. And if we add to this statement the notion of the resurrection of the body, the most important symbol of life beyond death in the NT, the last pieces of our pastoral images of heaven crumbles to dust. What kind of a body can we imagine without existence in time?

Paul, of course, in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15), does combine these two statements. “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable” (v. 42). It is fairly clear that Paul means something quite different with the body here than the physical body have/is in this life. I’m no exegete, but I think we can get a clue of what he is talking about from Romans 6. Here Paul seems to use the body as a symbol for what we have come to be, in the sense of a deviation from our true selves caused by life in the world. “The old self” (v. 6) is what has we have become because of original sin (in the sense I described it in my previous post – the sum of all the things that affect our personality but does not come from ourselves).

The imperishable body is our personality as it would stand, freed from this deviation. In other words, the Christian hope, as Paul envisions it, is that death will only affect those parts of ourselves that are not genuine. Our true selves, freed from negative outside influence, will continue to exist in some way. This is also how I like to interpret that other important eschatological symbol, the judgment. It will be a separation of what is true in me and what is not, more than a separation of the good people from the bad.

The important question then is, what is this “true self”. Can we even imagine a personality apart from the influences of our environment? I think this image is fundamentally flawed, and it is the dominating anthropological concept in our time: the assumption that there is one part of our personality that is natural (often: biological) and one that is caused by society, influence. See any debate on homosexuality, for example.

No, our genuine self is not defined by our genes, and it is not (the religious equivalent) given by God as a specific calling. If we believe that humans are created free, this is the essence of that freedom: we are free to define who we are ourselves. “True” when we speak of the self, is not to be translated as “original” or “what once was”. True is that which we have defined ourselves, which of all the influences that come to us we in our freedom accept to incorporate in our personality. False is that which we accept, not by freedom, but by lack of responsibility over our own life, and because of the circumstance under which we live. These are all the parts of our personality that we just let happen, since we do not take our life seriously.

It is from those elements of our personality we will ultimately be saved. This is to become “whole”. Now, how this will feel, look, take place – these are questions we do not have the answer to.



Saturday, May 20, 2006

Radiohead bootlegs

My, isn't this internet thing nifty? Since I've noticed a high correlation between theoblogging and Radiohead appreciation, here is a site that post bootlegs from the current Radiohead tour as they become available. Including all the new songs and everything.

Videotape has direct relevance for the ongoing eschatology debate too... ;)

when i'm at the pearly gates
this'll be on my videotape
when Mephistopholis is just beneath
and he's reaching up to grab me
this is one for the good days
and i have it all here in red blue green
you are my centre when i spin away
out of control on videotape

God! What is it* good for?

To address what salvation means is to say what the point of being a Christian is. Surprisingly enough, it seems many a theologian go through life without ever asking this question. Or at least addressing it directly. Other base their entire thinking on it.

The question can be broken down into several questions. For whom is there a benefit in my being a Christian? For God? I guess one could argue for this, probably by saying that I should believe in Christ because it is God’s will. That kind of God, however, inspires nothing by revolt in me. It would mean that the whole “God is love” bit is merely a charade.

For humanity? I guess this could be valid point, but only in a secondary manner. The only person who’s faith was beneficial for humanity as a whole was Jesus’. But I think it is valid to believe that faith in Jesus should be a positive force in society as a whole. Sadly, it is as often destructive, particularly when believers start to focus on other peoples sexual behaviour and the like.

For me? Even if Christianity has – as Tillich writes somewhere – developed a tendency to get moral panic at the mention of “I” and “me”, this seems to be the only way to go. I believe in Christ because this in someway benefits me. Now how this benefit is to be understood is something that will have to considered carefully.

First, when will I receive this benefit? There are two answers to this question. In this life and in the coming. Christianity maintains that both are true. The real question is where one lays the emphasis. This is a relevant question to the development of a theology of decline, because it is clear that in certain situations the hope in a better life is the only thing a person has left. In a world with increasing insecurity, poverty and chaos, this is not something that should be taken lightly.

The problem with a faith that is focused solely on the coming world is that it disregards this life. It becomes nothing but a preparation for what comes after death. Sadly, I think it is a valid criticism of religion, that because of this attitude, Christianity is co-responsible for the state of the environment today. A Christianity that is focused on bringing people from this world to the next will not care about the right relationship to nature and the environment. This means it will even tolerate behaviour that increases the pointless suffering of other human beings. Surely this is a Christianity that has gone very wrong.

A theology of decline must then formulate how the hope in a better life after this one is to be applied to this life, so as to avoid such errors. For this one has to look also at what the Christian hope actually is.

But while I think it is true as several modern theologians have pointed out, that Christian doctrine only makes sense from the eschatological point of view, I think we should also expect that faith in Christ in somehow makes life in this world better. Again, how this “better” is to be understood is something that will have to be discussed. Here especially questions such as how the sacraments and the Church should function in a world in decline becomes relevant.

* or he/she. It’s only rock’n’roll.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Nothing New Under the Sun

I am planning a post on eschatology soon, but then I found Byron's blog, which seems to be devoted mostly to the end times. I might have to reconsider somewhat. Good stuff though, one always has some use for more Moltmann.


There may be a particular focus on certain figures: Jesus, the four evangelists, Paul, Peter, & the usual canonical crowd, but also the catholic crew from Irenaeus through to Moltmann, Augustine to Barth, Luther to Rahner. Nietzsche & Wittgenstein, Heraclitus & Levinas, et al. are also welcome, as is anyone with a mind awake & an eye to where we might be going.
Nothing New Under the Sun

Jesus in the Desert

Chris has a cool bit from a Howard Therman sermon on one of my favourite pericopes.

What kind of advantage is of such significance to you or to me that in order to get it we will give up the moral initiative over our own lives?
Check it out as "Even the Devild Believe".

Tillich on Method

No method can claim to be adequate for every subject. Methodological imperialism is a dangerous as political imperialism; like the latter, it breaks down when the independent elements of reality revolt against it. A method is not an "indifferent net" in which the reality is caught, but the method is an element of reality itself.
Systematic Theology I, p 60.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


"the lost message" (aka Simon?) has been pondering the possibility of salvation for all in a number of interesting posts. I'd like to offer my perspective.

First of all, Universalism, or apokatastasis panton as us patristics snobs like to refer to it, was fairly widely accepted in the early Church. Origen usually gets the blame/credit, but his teacher Clemens of Alexandria is the first father we know thought that all would finally be saved. Several other fathers subscribed to this opinion, including heavyweights Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzes. Basil, their friend and brother was of a different opinion though, but he writes at one point that most ordinary Christians believed in this. Finally I'd like to mention Isaac of Nineveh. If it were not for the fact that it will be at least two years until it comes out I would plug my book as a decent study on this and other fascinating aspects of Isaac's thought.

I find the apokatastasis doctrine appealing, not only for the obvious reasons, that it enables us to make sense of God's love. Even if we believe that we can not really understand what God's love means, a love that will lead to the eternal punishments of a substantial part of humanity just does not seem to have any analogous connection with human love to me.

Of course what happens beyond death is something we can merely hope for, and I guess any rightminded Christian hopes that God would find a way to save everyone. But I like the fact that if we adopt a universalist standpoint it gets rid of the awful idea that one is Christian, goes to church and prays, primarily to avoid hell in the next life. If we trust that God's love is strong enough to overcome not only sin, but egoism and selfhate as well, it makes possible an understanding of Christianity that focuses on how we can make this life easier, given whatever circumstances we have to live under.

Now, for arguments in favor of the apokatastasis, I'll gladly point you towards "the lost message".

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Summing up the Situation

In a number of posts now I have tried to establish some sense of the situation our culture is in now and how the traditional Christian doctrines of creation, the Image of God, Sin, Original sin and demons can be help in interpreting this situation. I admit that my analysis is very superficial, of course, but this is not a summa, it’s a blog, and these are more notes of a thinking in progress than a finished study.

What has emerged is an image where we have developed a culture that has become demonic and that we no longer have control over. As the image of God it is in the deepest identity of humans to be creative. This is who we are. When we instead take part in the destruction of the world, be it by emitting green-house gasses with our cars or by buying products produced in sweatshops, we let our identities be distorted and we end up being something we are not. This is sin.

Our civilisation contain structures and institutions that de-humanizes us and turns us into something else than we really are, both as individuals and as a culture. These structures make it possible for people to make choices that are completely at odds with our deepest identity as images of God: Instead of being creative we have become destructive. In this culture it is not possible to live without sinning, we are not free enough to make choices that are not, in one way or another, destructive. This means that we are all taking part in the destruction of our culture and the world, and that we are all guilty.

This means that our culture, as it is today is standing sharply against God the Creator. And there is no escape from this, we cannot believe that God is siding with us in our quest to destroy the creation: God stands with the creation against our culture.

As I said, this blog, and more importantly, the theology that I present in it is a work in progress. While many of the ideas so far have been things I’ve been thinking about for years, I myself was surprised to reach the conclusion that God is against our culture. This “no” from God is so radical that one should almost write it in German. ;) But unless we want to close our eyes to the fact that humanity really have grown strong enough to destroy creation (by use of nuclear weapons if nothing else) this is the only way I can understand the situation.

Of course this is not where I will end. What I have been trying to do so far is to describe the situation in which it makes sense to talk of salvation. God’s “no” to our culture does not imply that his love for his creation does not encompass us too. I will now, in my upcoming posts try to form an understanding of how a true freedom would look like in this situation. In other words, I will try to formulate what it would mean to be “saved”. Only after that I will try to address exactly where Jesus Christ comes into all this.

I have no idea at the moment where this will all land. We will just have to see what comes out of it!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Fitter, Happier and More Productive

Those of you that have been checking in now and then here may have noticed that I am building something here, that there is some kind of logic to the order in which I post my thoughts. To help new readers get that background to what I am trying to do I have made a list of the key posts in the side panel, in a logical order. I hope this helps.

Fighting Demons

Having addressed sin and original sin, I now move on to much less solid ground. While sin in its different forms is something most theologians have some thoughts about, the demons is much more elusive. It seems that there have always been people who believe that demons are some evil monsters that have a personal will and intelligence. It is not difficult to find such people today. Interestingly enough these are not the ones that really use this symbol in their understanding of the world. This is most obvious when studying the ascetic movement within Christianity during the fourth to sixth centuries.

The most well-known text from this period is probably the esteemed bishop Athanasios biography of Antony the Great. In this we see Antony do battle with myriads of demons. They have bodies (although different from ours) and they talk, fly and attack. Antony fights them by beating them at games of logic and with great courage.

However, when we turn to the letters of Antony, where we (probably) hear Antony himself (see Rubenson’s great study on these letters), a very different picture emerges. There is still a lot of talk about demons, but the demons that Antony teaches about are not flying monsters. Instead he uses the word demon almost interchangeably with the word passion. There is a demon/passion of pride, fornication, slander and so on. In other words, for Antony demons represent forces that tempt the individual to give up his quest for communion with God. Another genius ascetic, Evagrios of Pontos, talks of demons in much the same way.

Demons, then, have a similar role in Christian theology as original sin: both describe the forces outside the individual that have an impact on the individuals freedom and identity. The difference is in the way one uses these symbols. While original sin is a description of a situation one cannot do much about, demons are there to be fought!

When reading the ascetics discussions on the war against the demons a pattern emerges. The various demons usually have a common goal. Not, as one could suspect, to drive the ascetic to sin, but what they are attacking is the ascetics faith in the self-understanding as an ascetic. The demons all try to make the ascetic give up an return to society.

While I am slightly optimistic about the possibility to use the symbol original sin in a constructive way today, it is probably impossible to use the symbol demons with a wider audience. It is just to difficult to get images from The Exorcist and similar popular notions out of people’s heads! It is a real pity, because I think this kind of language is really useful.

Who haven’t felt that we are up against some inhuman forces when we try to address how the media works, how large corporations function, how university administration… You know what I mean. There is also the notion that demons possess people and make them do things they would not do otherwise. This is exactly what happens when normal human beings make choices to run down profit-making factories and move the production to third world sweat shops, because “the market demands it”. There are dark forces at work.

So, how do you fight demons? Well, the key is truth. It will, as you know, set us free. The thing demons do is they interfere with our senses (this is why the ancients always pointed out the danger of believing the senses). They make us believe that, for example, the global system called “the market” is something that exists by itself and that its rules are somehow “natural” and not made up by people. To fight such demons we must look deeper into the structures of reality. Only this way can we expose them for the liars they are.

The ascetic fathers also recommended asceticism as preparation for the battle. Now, asceticism is about putting distance between oneself and the things that affect us, to help us see clearer. It is about stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

But in order to fight the demons of our time, we need ascetic practices suitable for our time.

Am I a Heretic

Just in case anyone of you was wondering if my thougth's here really are
acceptable, here's the proof. You might want to be careful with my
thoughts on sin and human nature though, seeing I scored 67% pelagian.
I wonder how that happened. Maybe I've secretly admired Julian of
Eclanums reasoning on sexuality.

Here's the results:

You scored as Chalcedon compliant. You are Chalcedon compliant.
Congratulations, you're not a heretic. You believe that Jesus is truly God
and truly man and like us in every respect, apart from sin. Officially
approved in 451.

Chalcedon compliant




























Are you a heretic?
created with

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Culture of Idolatry

Travis Ables has a great post on the current US political climate and it's theological implications. Check it out at Gaunilo's Island.

The Eraser - New Album from Thom Yorke

A blog is supposed to have news and links to cool stuff on it right?

Well there is finally something not completely incomprehendable at
Visit for more of that cool apocalyptic stuff I talked about in my review of their gig in Copenhagen.

The Eraser is the name of the album by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. It will be released july 10th/11th on XL records.

Original Sin

All of the 20th century theologians that I have read seem sceptical about the possibility of a meaningful use of the symbol “Original Sin”. There is just to much baggage attached to it. Especially in German and other languages that has a term that signifies “inherited sin” it is very problematical. Of course it is not about inheriting anything, not even Augustine believed that. And, no: it’s not about sex either.

Still I cannot see how we could possibly do without it. While sin in the sense I talked about yesterday has the individual as subject, for original sin the subject is humanity as a whole. Rahner has a very good point when he says that original sin is not really sin in the proper sense of the word, but only in an analogous sense. Exactly as sin is about the individual not being what he or she essentially is – free – Original sin is about humanity not realizing its freedom.

From the point of view of humanity, original sin is a tragedy. I will not enter into the discussion on the causes of original sin, I will just refer to Tillich, because his reading of genesis three is pure poetry. But from the point of view of the individual, original sin is a source of comfort. What original sin says is that it is not always within the power of the individual to do what is right. When we fail the guilt is not 100% ours to carry. Original sin is about adding the context to the formula. When an individual is making a choice, it is not only the free will of the person making the choice. This choice is affected by millions of previous choices, made by other people. When a person makes a choice, that person is affected by the social context, by upbringing and education, by values in the society and so on. The sum of all these things outside of the person that affects a moral act makes up original sin.

This is why original sin is a key concept when we want to understand the current cultural situation. There are structures in our culture that make it impossible to live a life that is not destructive. We all participate in those forces that are bringing the world to ruin, and more often than not because of lack of alternatives. The international trade laws and the way we produce food are good examples. It is near on impossible to go buy groceries without inflicting suffering and increasing the injustice in the world. Still we need groceries.

The thing with original sin is that its cause is not known. Even the myth in genesis three leaves the final cause open, it only shows the structure of sin. We cannot point our fingers and say: he did it. It is just there, and we have to live with it. But it still diffuses a bit of the guilt of the evil we cause. Even though we are the acting subjects, we are not totally free in the act.

It is, however, not a reason to resign. By trying to understand the history we can try to separate ourselves from the system that affects us, and by being aware we can limit the impact original sin has on our daily life.

Is there salvation from sin? This is what Christianity claims. In what way is the Christ-event related to this situation? This well have to be addressed in another post.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sin, Identity and Destructive Culture

To write a book on sin is definitely on my list of things to do in life. This is not the appropriate moment for that, so here I will only share some ideas that I find important and relevant. I’m borrowing loads from Augustine and other fathers, as well as Tillich and Rahner here.

The doctrine of sin is one that is a bit different in the various Christian traditions. As with doctrinal differences in general this is a difference in language, (there, I said it!) and one can use whichever one want to, as long as one is aware of the differences. Protestants – if they know what they are talking about – tend to talk about sin as something in the human person, while Catholics and Orthodox tend to use the word for the an act or choice. They do not, however, teach that a sin is to brake moral code. This is not a Christian idea.

A proper doctrine of sin is a matter of balance. What one is trying to balance is the individuals freedom: On the one hand we are responsible for ourselves, on the other hand we are limited by our nature and history. Christian theology has gone to far in either direction many times. To over-emphasize responsibility is called Pelaginaism, and to over-emphasize dependence is somewhat misleadingly called Manichaeism.

In its essence sin is about turning away from God. But to understand sin one have to realize that to turn away from God is at the same time to turn away from oneself. This is, to me, the key to understanding sin – and at the same time, redemption. Sin causes us to be something else than we really are. And here we have another key point: sin is not our true nature: deepest down in our selves we are not sinners, but the Image of God. Sin is a layer above this image that distorts it, but does not destroy it. This means there can never be a conflict between what God wants me to be and what I want to be myself. Sin is what hinders me from being who I in “my heart of hearts” want to be.

So sin is about identity. But this could easily make us think that sin so defined has little to do with our day-to-day life. This is not the case. Sin in its essence is about who I am, but I am who I am only in my day-to-day life. Thus we are talking about choices and acts that are very ordinary, very practical. It can be anything, and everything. When we start to define certain acts as sins we are always missing the point, because there are no acts that are sins in themselves. They are only sins if they are betrayals of our true identities.

In an earlier post I said that God is against us as a culture that is on the way towards ruining the culture. If we understand ourselves as individuals as the Image of God in our innermost, than it should be clear that to take part in such a destructive culture is not to be in accordance with our true identities. When we, as we do, take part in a culture that lives on destroying the environment and creates human suffering in poorer countries, we are betraying ourselves and God in us.

According to Christian doctrine it is beyond the power of the individual to overcome sin. Only God can overcome sin and help us become ourselves.

As I said, I’m basing this to a degree on Tillich and Rahner. I would be intrigued to know what your favourite theologian has to say on the subject, as well as your own thoughts, of course!

Friday, May 12, 2006

See, I told you the world is ending...


Let's not make things worse than they are...

This, at the moment, is something only those of you in the US can act upon, but it is something that potentially can affect us all.

Save the Net Now

Evil, sin, the demons and the devil

If there are any readers left after the very bleak coda of my last post, I’d like to proceed with trying to explore how the traditional Christian symbols of evil in its different forms can give us some kind of access to these difficult questions regarding the decline of our culture and the environment.

I have to admit that I think this is one of the most exciting areas of the Christian tradition. Although I think I can understand the reasons why, I still find it strange that sin has become almost an obsolete concept in the not-so-fundamentalist churches. This is despite the fact that at least some modern theologians have done some very valuable work on the area. At some point I will give you a short review of at least Tillich’s and Rahner’s concepts of sin, because these I have studied a bit.

There are in the Christian tradition a range of symbols that describe different aspects of evil. These are: Original sin, sin (depending on which tradition you follow these two are either separate from each other or not), concupiscence, demons, the devil and death. There are others as well, as the Greek concept of passions, that have entered Christian theology by way of the ascetic theologians such as Evagrios of Pontos. Seldom all of these symbols are used together but if one tries to get by on only on of them, or try to translate them all with one term, you end up with a rather anaemic teaching.

As I said these form a range that do blur into each other but still cover different aspects of the problem. The devil is more or less outside the person, and symbolize evil that is not at all controlled by the person, evil that is “superhuman”. Demons are somewhat closer to the person, they are “tempting” the person, in the sense that they connect an outside event to some aspect of the personality of the individual. Concupiscence is the evil inclination of the person, it is a part of the personality of the individual. However, it is central to remember that this is not the “innermost” part of a person. Concupiscence is caused by original sin, that is, again an external factor, but it is not, like a demon, a specific event or thing, but it is the sum of the cultural and historical factors that affect the individual.

I will have to address all of these symbols somewhat at length. I think by doing that I will be able to gain a greater understanding of how we as individuals can relate to situation we are in as a culture and as humanity. I will do this in my upcoming posts. I would also very much like to hear what other people think about these symbols, and maybe hear some thoughts on why it is so difficult to use them today.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Creation Continued

In my first post on creation and the Creator God, I said in passing that I prefer to think God’s creative and upholding work together. Pannenberg distinguishes between them because he likes to emphasize that creation took place outside of time and the upholding of creation is taking place within time.

I prefer to think of time as an ongoing process of creation. Panneberg needs to think of time as something that sort of exists because of his idea of Spirit as field, which I do not know what to make of. Anyway, I like the thought of creation as something that is ongoing. This raises the question: is creation then also something that has a goal and a purpose? Is it going anywhere?

Certainly, if we are to remain within the Christian tradition we must believe that this is the case in one way or another. For the early church at any rate, time in this world was a way of getting from point A, creation, to point B, the eschaton, the next world that would be complete and perfect. To be a Christian is to live some aspects of life in the next world already in this one.

But does this mean that there is a progression from A to B? Well, if we ask a church father like Irenaeus he would probably answer: Yes and No. In Irenaeus vision there was certainly ment to be a progression, but this progression was haltered because of sin. The coming of Christ as the second Adam starts this progression again, but only for the believer. The same is true for many other fathers: they seemed to think that because of sin the natural progression of the world was stopped, but because of Christ human beings can instead start progressing. The goal would still be in the coming world, but the process of getting there would begin here.

Now, while the early church could envision the decline of elements of the culture they lived in, they probably could not imagine a culture that can bring the very creation itself with it in its downfall. In other words, for the fathers, the world wasn’t really in need of saving. That this is now the case brings very different perspectives to Christian theology.

The progression that the church fathers wanted to see among Christians was mainly or a moral kind. This would be a moral improvement in the individual, that would lead to an over all improvement of the entire church, and then the world.

Today we have a completely different sense of what progress is. We have the concept of biological evolution, we have the ever increasing complexity of science and technology and we have the economical idea of growth. None of these were known before the last few centuries. With them has come the idea of a progress of history towards a higher state of civilisation (Hegel). Somewhere along the way the idea of the Christian sense of progress, the moral growth of the individual, was connected with the overall “myth of progress” of our culture.

What we see is that two of these modern myths of progress are failing: technology has in a sense turned against us, by creating environmental problems and mass lay-offs, and economy is increasingly showing that its concept of growth is often anti-human, favouring solutions that create a deeply inhumane societies (and individuals).

If it were not for the fact that the world and humanity is facing a crisis that may mean the end of both, theology could with ease revert back to the old view of progress, seeing that the modern sense of progress is an illusion. Only humans can grow, by the grace of God. But since God is the creator not only of humans but also of animals and trees and lakes and atmosphere, this is not good enough. What we see is increasingly a culture against God: a destructive culture facing a creative God. God is not with us, he is against us.

This is the situation in which we must speak in a sensible way of salvation.

Keepin the Sabbath against the Capitalist way of life.

Chris over at "Even the Devils Believe" have some interesting thoughts on our life based on productivity and work. Quoting the pope, too. Our Heavenly Landlord.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

God the Father and a Creation in Crisis

After warming up now in a few posts I think it is time to tackle what I consider a serious problem for Christian theology in a time of decline like ours. The most fundamental aspect of the Christian faith is the belief in God as creator of all there is. Some theologians like to separate between Gods creating work and his upholding work (i.e. Pannenberg) but I prefer to see the latter as a continuation of the first, and thus essentially two aspects of the same thing.

This doctrine is all the more important because it is a part of Christian doctrine that I think is quite accessible even to secularized humans, provided that you acknowledge the myth-status of the creation narratives in Genesis. Most human beings experience reverence faced with the grandness of nature, the miracle of new life and the joy of beauty, and many find it plausible to connect this reverence with something we can call God. Thus the doctrine of God as originator has long been considered a solid part of the Christian dogma on which one can build new interpretations of more tricky aspects of Christianity, such as the doctrine of sin and of salvation.

Because of this it can be considered deeply unsettling that this doctrine seems to prerequisite a belief that creation is stable, something that can be ended only by its Creator. Can we really believe that the world as something that flows out of Gods ongoing creation, if we recognize that there are considerable threats to the continuation of life in this creation, threats that originate within this creation itself? This would indicate that there is a power within creation – humanity – that has in fact become powerful enough to counter the will and power of God. If the destructive power of man outweighs the creative power of God, what kinds of consequences does this have for our concept of God? Is such a God really pantokrator?

We can easily see that this situation is caused by the sin of humanity. The question is: is this the ultimate form of hubris, of believing to be god, something that God ultimately will not tolerate? Or is this too something that must be accepted as a consequence of man’s freedom of will?

And if God will not tolerate the destruction of creation, will this result in a nemesis that is the destruction of humanity? This is not difficult to envision, but theologically impossible. It goes against all we believe about God as loving and graceful. But one still has to ask: even if there is grace for every possible transgression a person can do, is there a limit to God’s grace that consists of the destruction of the World?

There is of course hope for the world. It consists of the possibility that our civilization collapses before the environment does. I doubt there is a solution based of the good will of man. But I think a slow decline is more likely, and if it is not fast enough, it will not cause the changes in lifestyle that are necessary.

How do we believe in God in a scenario like this? I think we must start by recognizing that our way of life is not acceptable in the eyes of God. To be able to uphold a belief in a God who is Love, who is Creator and who wants to save the kosmos, there needs to be a repentance, a recognition that as long as we live the way we live now we stand against God who stands on the side of creation. There needs to be a full metanoia: a turning away from life based on consuming to a life based on other values.

Of course God’s almightiness is not to be understood as an ability to do anything. Rather I think Tillich’s interpretation is useful: That God is the one who is able to stand against the non-being. Faith in a world on the edge of destruction must be to trust that God can stand against the non-being we are letting loose, and to enter into a community with God that consists of joining God in the creating work to keep upholding the creation.

Faith and Theology: Blogging: a theological history

I found this old post from june 2005 by Ben Myers. If there is someone out there that haven't seen it, you need to!
Faith and Theology: Blogging: a theological history

Monday, May 08, 2006

St. Augustine and the Sack of Rome

I said in an earlier post that there have been quite a few examples of theologically creative periods during times of decline, and I mentioned St. Augustine as an example. Of course I could also have mentioned the Old and the New testament. But I’m doing a little reading on St. Augustine at the moment, for a forthcoming Swedish translation of some of his letters I’m working on. I found an interesting chapter in Peter Browns excellent biography on how Augustine reacted to the news of the Sack of Rome in 410 (a typos of September 11th, maybe?).

Augustine is the one of his contemporaries that really reacts to this event in a series of sermons and letters and of course the City of God. It seems Augustine’s general advice was to turn one’s gaze inwards, not in attempt to ignore the political turmoil around him, but to be able to handle it. He likened the pressure of the events to the pressure in a olive press that served to produce a pure oil. He did not se it as a punishment for any particular sin, but he did connect it to general guilt of humanity.

For Augustine this meant that Christians should not try to avoid the suffering by trying to escape it. Instead he promoted activity in face of decline. He looked towards the future, rather than the past, and painted vivid pictures of the heavenly Jerusalem in the minds of his listeners. By living under the intense pressure of this world, the Christians were preparing for the coming world.

Augustine felt he lived in an old world, a world that was no longer at the height of its strengths. This was not something one should be surprised at: the world followed the same pattern as everything living. Instead one should look to Christ: “Do not hold on to the old man, the world; do not refuse to regain your youth in Christ, who says to you: “The world is passing away, the world is losing its grip, the world is short of breath. Do not fear, Thy youth shall be renewed as an eagle” (Sermon 81, 8.)

As I said in an earlier post, eschatological speculation is something that tends to arise in times of crisis. This can be destructive if it serves to build up the esteem of a closed community by distancing oneself from the rest of society. But eschatology can be a lot more than this. It is one of the most effective forms of social critique for theologians. By saying something about the coming world one is implicitly saying something about what is wrong in this one. And by establishing a sense of belonging to the coming world one enables a life in this world that is not stuck in the “system” of this world.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Radiohead in Copenhagen 5.5.2006

Yeah, I know, I am venturing a bit outside my chosen subject, but not as much as it may seem. I just have to write a bit about this amazing gig I went to yesterday. It was my first Radiohead show, even though I've been a huge fan for years.

In a way what I am trying to do in this blog is related to what Radiohead are trying to do, as I interpret them. A lot of people call Radiohead depressing, and if one reads the lyrics only one can understand such a perception. However, live something wonderful takes place. Suddenly phrases like "We are accidents waiting to happen", "Infrastructure will collapse" (from my new favourite House of Cards) and "Ice-age coming" take on a completely different sense. This is exactly what I would like theology to do: to turn the fact that the world, or at least western culture is in decline and turn it into something powerful. I believe it is possible. I observed the mechanism at work yesterday, now I have to figure out how to apply it on theology.

I'm not sure about this, but it seems Radiohead is going more and more in this kind of apocalyptic direction. Most of the new songs seemed to be about the problems we are facing, and the same is true about many of the old songs that were played yesterday. Maybe what Thom and the others are trying to do is what Alistair McIntosh writes about in his Soil and Soul to change the way we perceive the world by using art. McIntosh shows how this has always been one role of artists. I think maybe this is one of the things that struck Thom when he read the book he considered to be "truly mental".

The joy that is present at a gig like the one yesterday may be nothing more than joy. But I do find it hard to believe that the substance in the music that produces this joy would not do something important in the minds of those participating. I different awareness, a sense of empowerment. There is hope within us, even though what is outside is bleak. Isn't this very close to what religion is about?

I will return to the theology tomorrow. Now I got to go hunt the internet for more bootlegs!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Crisis Theology and Theology of Decline

I still have some time before my flight so I thought I might produce yet one post.

The great risk with pessimism is obviously despair and resignation in face of the inevitable. This is the problem one has to try to solve. This is an area where I believe a religious faith can be immensely helpful.

One can gather this from the fact that throughout the history of the Church periods of decline and crisis have often coincided with very creative periods in the development of theology. For example, Augustine wrote The City of God in response to the decline of the Roman empire. A century earlier the decline of the roman administration in Egypt sparked the massive ascetic movement that I consider to be one of the most vibrant periods in the history of the church.

A more recent example is the blow to our own culture that was the First World War. The period after the war, that effectively broke off the optimism of the 19th century, produced the best theology of the 20th century: Tillich, Bultmann, Brunner, and this other guy, yeah, Barth. ;) All this so called “crisis theology” was a reaction to the feeling that the Church could not go on as it had before.

However, after World War II, with the great increase in welfare and standard of living, this crisis awareness soon levelled and was replaced by increasing optimism. Brilliant theologians like Moltmann and the catholic liberation theology focused on theology as a way to improve people’s life in this world. The underlining thought was that the main problem is injustice, something that can (and will) be solved.

While the world still is very unjust, we now have to face the fact that a just world is probably not something that can be sustained, at least not in the sense that the whole world could be lifted more or less to standard of the western world.

The Church can not give up the demand for global justice, of course. This has to be a constant in any pessimistic theology. But there is a shift from sharing the goods in the world fairly towards solidarity in the suffering that saintly people have already pointed out. This has to become more than gestures.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that it seems that theology too has slipped into believing in what Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright called “the myth of progress”, the belief that economical and technical progress is something that can be sustained indefinitely, and that it mirrors a progress in humanity in general. The idea in theological terms is that humanity progresses during this era towards something that will only fully be realized in eschaton, but can be seen already here. Is this a scheme that can and should be questioned? Or modified in some way?

Next weak I will look at a few central Christian doctrines and discuss how a context of decline might cause us to reinterpret them.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Optimism is not Good Enough

OK, I admit, pessimistic theology is a funny term, I’m not sure it conveys the right message. But it is not a “the glass is half empty”-pessimism. It is not an attitude of resignation I want to reach, quite the opposite.

Pessimism in this case is about a pessimistic view of where our culture is heading, and possibly our world. It is about taking serious the fact that there are overpowering indications that our present way of life is not sustainable for long. It is the opposite of either an attitude of denial, indifference or of an optimism that renders passive.

One can deny that our culture is in decline, although that is really something I guess only politicians can do these days. Even if one chooses to believe that climate change is not something man has caused, there is no way denying that it is taking place. There is no way to deny that the earth's resources are limited and in some crucial cases (oil, then water) is fast running out. There is no way to deny that the ongoing process of automation in the industry reduces need for human labour to the point that sooner or later there will be very few people who can afford to buy what the industries are producing.

One can be indifferent in face of this decline, in several different ways. One can adapt an attitude of selfishness. This is, I guess, the attitude of the western world as a whole, and increasingly of individuals. It should be clear that such an attitude is completely impossible to reconcile with a religious way of life. I would like to call this an “inside the system” indifference, because it is about accepting the way the world works, and trying to use the system for one’s own good only. There is also a “outside the system” indifference, which is what the ancients called apatheia. But now I am getting ahead of myself.

Now, common knowledge is that optimism is preferable over pessimism. I would say that there is good optimism and bad optimism. Good optimism is one that activates. We have a good example today: Bono. (I’m not a huge fan, despite mentioning him in two posts now) I recently read Mischka Assayas interview book with Bono, and he really comes over as a extremely optimistic guy, but as we all know, his optimism has really enabled him to do some positive things. I think he reaches this optimism by disregarding some problems and focusing on problems that do have a solution (Third world debt, Aids), so in a way it can be said to be false. But it is functioning so I won’t complain.

Bad optimism is much more usual, though, and it is really something that may prove disastrous. This is the attitude that says that “oh, I am sure some one will invent something that makes the problem go away.” This kind of hope, besides being false, makes the optimistic person a passive member of society that is will not be a positive force in society.

There are different kinds of pessimism too, obviously. I will return to the subject.

Tomorrow I am going to Copenhagen to listen to Radiohead live on Saturday. I am a little bit excited… ;) I will not be able to post anything for a few days, so I leave you with the Radiohead song that best fits the theme (no, not Optimistic): 2 + 2 = 5

Are you such a dreamer
To put the world to rights?
I'll stay home forever
Where two and two always makes five

I'll lay down the tracks
Sandbag and hide
January has April's showers
And two and two always makes five

It's the devil's way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now

You have not been
Payin' attention

I try to sing along
But the music's all wrong
'Cause I’m not
'Cause I’m not
I swat 'em like flies but like flies the buggers keep coming back and NOT
But I’m not
All hail to the thief
All hail to the thief
But I'm not
But I'm not
But I'm not
But I'm not
Don't question my authority or put me in the dock
'Cause I'm not
'Cause I'm not
Oh go and tell the king that the sky is falling in
When it's not
But it's not
But it's not
Maybe not
Maybe not