Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Sunday morning hymn and scripture: John 21.15-18, More Love to Thee

In this passage Jesus calls Peter to return to him, Peter having denied Jesus three times when Jesus had been delivered up to be crucified. Thus, the "love" is in question, it's at the center of the narratival tension. It is not settled. This story paints not a serene picture but a tumultuous one. Similarly, in the hymn below - More Love to Thee, O Christ - note that the phrase "More love to Thee" is not a declaration of great love, but a plea for that love. Very often I do not feel like I love Christ very much but am rather in need of that love. And I'm heading off to worship this morning in such a spirit, to lead worship moreover! "Here now my earnest plea, more love, O Christ, to Thee!" - Blessings, Matthew

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."

16Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."

17 The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.

More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest;
Now Thee alone I seek, give what is best.
This all my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

Let sorrow do its work, come grief or pain;
Sweet are Thy messengers, sweet their refrain,
When they can sing with me: More love, O Christ, to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

Then shall my latest breath whisper Thy praise;
This be the parting cry my heart shall raise;
This still its prayer shall be: More love, O Christ to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Hebrews 7 - Jesus and Melchizedek

The following sermon, from March 2010, offers a reading of Hebrews 7. I first describe a kind of interpretation strategy from the Rabbis' teaching about how to read the Torah, and then I use that as a possible explanation of what the author of Hebrews might have been doing. My motivation was to try to appreciate the style of argument of Hebrews. Some ancient styles of argument seem not to make "logical" sense to modern ears, but the reason is not that the ancients weren't as smart or logical as we are. I hope this sermon helps readers to appreciate a sophisticated style of ancient argument. Blessings, Matthew


"God bless you brothers and sisters."

In this morning's sermon we will be studying Hebrews 6.19-7.19 and hopefully seeing why we can have confidence that the priesthood of Jesus is superior to the priesthood of the law, as the writer claims in the end of chapter 4 and in chapter 5.

Hebrews, we remember, is a sermon to Jewish Christians spread throughout the Roman Empire at the first dawn of Christianity, when Jews and Gentiles were still figuring out what it meant to follow Christ faithfully and whether the requirements of following Christ were really worth it. And because of the ambiguities and trials involved in learning to follow Christ and the recent memory of their old ways of life, many Christians in this early period were led astray by false teaching or tempted to return to the security of their Jewish ways. This is the situation for the audience of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a sermon to Jewish Christians who were facing pressure and maybe even entertaining the idea of abandoning faith in Christ. The preacher is encouraging them that faith in Christ is far superior to the law.

Let's begin by reading the passage for today.

I. Comments on rhetoric and argument

Before we get into analysis of the passage today, do you mind if we take a brief detour to talk about rhetoric and style of argument? It's important throughout the book because the shape of the form really affects the content of the content. But I think it's especially important in chapter 7, and I think it would be worth starting with a few notes on the argument style.

I.1 The Jewishness of this book

As you read Hebrews, if you know anything about the Old Testament at all, you probably recognize that, hey, this has got to be a writer who is very familiar with Jewish backgrounds and theology and he must be writing to folks who are also familiar with these things. First of all, he's quoting the Old Testament all over the place - which to him, remember, was the whole Bible since there was no New Testament at that point. Second, the whole issue here in Hebrews is comparing traditional forms of Mosaic worship - the law, the priesthood, sacrifices - to worshiping Jesus as the Christ.

I.2 History of Talmudic Rules

As I was studying for the exhortation this morning I learned a bit about Jewish, and specifically "talmudic," hermeneutics. The Talmud is a record of what the Jewish Rabbis said about Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. In the Talmud, as part of the Rabbis' teaching, there are rules for how one was supposed to interpret the Bible, and specifically the Torah. Very specific rules to help sort out what are valid and what are invalid interpretations. Now the Talmud wasn't fully collected and put together in writing until sometime 6th century-ish AD, but the content is much older, existing in the form of oral teaching. These rules for interpreting the Bible can be traced to at least the 3rd century, and Hebrews was probably, well we don't really know, late first, early second century? So it's not unreasonable to think that the writer and audiences of the letter Hebrews would have been familiar with what would eventually become Talmudic teaching about how to interpret the Bible.

I.3 Syncretic argument and a fortiori

Throughout the letter the preacher has often used a "syncretic" kind of argument. The Greek word (kritikos) for "judgement" and the preposition "with". With syncresis-style rhetoric you take two things and compare them to one another to show how they are similar and then, based on similarities, you can show how one is better than another. So we saw in 1.1-2 and 2.2-3, 3.2-6. More broadly, the writer compares the Israelite's rest to the church's, the levitical high priest to Christ's priesthood and so on. This comparative arguing, specifically, is arguing a fortiori or "from the stronger". For example, if I come home and find that all the chocolates are gone and I know that my wife was the only one home, I'm going to think she ate the chocolates. But how much more if I see chocolate all over her face! (That's never happened by the way.) Similarly, servant - Son; Moses - Jesus in chapter 3.

I.4 Talmudic rule of qal wa chomer

Given the author's background, his audience and the subject matter (Jewish worship), it makes sense that Hebrews should use a correspondingly Jewish style of argument. In addition to this generic rhetorical syncresis-strategy, here in chapter 7 the writer uses a specific kind of a fortiori argument, one of the Talmudic rules for interpreting the Bible, called in Hebrew "qal wa chomer", or in English "simple to complex." The rule for a qal wa chomer argument is that the conclusion must be contained in the premise. For example, if someone who is 6ft tall can walk beneath a certain doorway, then how much more can someone who is 5ft tall walk beneath the same doorway. This is very important for the passage.

II. Finally, we are ready to dig into chapter 7.

II.1. Chapter 7.1ff: The story of Genesis 14

Lot, kings, gathering army, brings back spoils, tithe to Melchizedek, priest of God most high. Who is this guy Melchizedek? Everybody has a genealogy, but not Melchizedek. And so, as far as we know him, he is without birth and death. Comes out of nowhere and disappears into the same. And yet Abraham - the receiver of the oath! - is blessed by this person, and Abraham gives him a tithe.

II.2. Superiority of Melchizedekian priesthood.

II.2.a. Something greater than Aaron

Abraham recognizes Melchizedek's greatness over him. Vv 4, 6. Now, a fortiori, Melchizedek has to be greater than Abraham because of the direction of blessing. And, more specifically, qal wa chomer, the entire Levitical priesthood submits to the superiority of the Melchizedekian priesthood because of vv 9-10! So the argument then, so far, is that there is something greater than the Levitical priesthood.

II.2.b. Superiority of Melchizedek

What makes it specifically Melchizedek that is greater? The obvious answer is that it was Melchizedek who blessed Abraham. But, look at what the preacher points out that makes Melchizedek so special: vs 8, 3. He lives, and as living he is a priest forever! So, (1) there is something greater than the Levitical priesthood, and (2) what is greater is an eternal priest, one who exceeds our limited capabilities and the hopes and dreams we could ever have for our own abilities to be priests for ourselves and atone for our own sins and the sins of our people. He who does this eternally certainly must be greater than we who do this only a little bit and never sufficiently! It is this one who, after the order of Melchizedek, is "King of righteousness and of peace."

II.3. Jesus as conclusion of a "qal wa chomer"

II.3.a. The coming of a second Melchizedek

What reason is there to think that a second Melchizedek would come? Vs 11. The conclusion is contained in the premise, remember. The preacher wants us to see, he's arguing, that Melchizedek actually foreshadows the Messiah. If Abraham, and by extension Levi, submitted to the priesthood of Melchizedek, then this means Levi's priesthood was inferior to Melchizedek's. Moreover, as I just explained, Melchizedek's priesthood is the best possible because it is eternal. But, Levi's priesthood is put into place after Melchizedek's, which must mean that another, greater priesthood will supercede and fulfill our weak one - a priesthood like Melchizedek. The preacher argues to his Jewish audience: "Hey, our worship, our priesthood, our sacrifice are weak and imperfect; they are not eternal. But we know that there is a better priesthood." Of course Melch himself was not a redeemer-Messiah, but he was the contrast which shows us who think we are so powerful and self-sufficient - WE'RE NOT! Melchizedek's superiority over Levi and Levi's coming after Melchizedek implies the coming of a second Melchizedek, qal wa chomer.

II.3.b. This second Melchizedek as Jesus

Yes, there's a priest coming one like Melch, but what reason do we have for believing it was Jesus? We have the same two reasons that made Melchizedek so great to begin with. (1) Jesus does not come from the Levitical line. He is of the tribe of Judah, the kingly tribe of Israel, noting the connecting to Melchizedek being a king-priest. (2) But if that weren't enough, a fortiori "it is even more obvious" (vs 15) that Jesus must be a Melchizedek-ian priest because of the evidence of his indestructible life! He is a priest forever!

II.4. Summary

So, (vs 18) by ancestry, Melchizedek and Jesus show the weakness of the Levitical priesthood, and, by his eternal life, Jesus gives us an incomparably better hope. By comparing the system of the law to Jesus' own priesthood, we have found that the hope offered through Jesus is incomparably greater. This is the argument of Hebrews 7 to vs 19.

III. Superiority of obedience to Christ

Remember that the issue in Hebrews is worship as obedience. What kind of worship is necessary for salvation? The law requires sacrifice and perpetual priestly intercession. But Jesus is our eternal priest; therefore our sacrifices are not necessary. What, then, is necessary? Well, what can we learn from Christ's own example? 5.7-10 and 10.5ff. The preacher is encouraging his readers, you don't need to go back to what is familiar to you and to trusting your acts of sacrifice. Obedience is greater than sacrifice. Have faith, be faithful.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Schleiermacher on Feeling - Speech 2

A few days ago I mentioned how Schleiermacher has received a lot of criticism over basing religion not in metaphysics (philosophy/speculation/system) or in morality (codes/duties) but in intuition and feeling. A friend commented that his primary problem with Schleiermacher is that this move toward feeling cuts Schleiermacher's religion off from love because love is more than a feeling and must be connected with morality (i.e. with duty maybe?) In my post I raised the suggestion that a problem with feeling is that it may be too subjective or individualistic. If, however, Schleiermacher is not as individualistic as he has been made out to be by his accusers and if, instead, religion requires relationship then he may be able to respond to the subjectivism objection. Moreover, if religion requires inter-subjectivity (i.e. mutually dependent relationships with others) he might also be able to respond to my friend's concerns that Schleiermacher's religion is without a love that acts.

I re-read Speech 2 again yesterday. On pages 119-120 of Richard Crouter's (Cambridge) translation of On Religion we read the following:
As long as the first man was alone with homself and nature, the deity did indeed rule over him; it addressed the man in various ways, but h did not understand it, for he did not answer it; his paradise was beautiful and the stars shone down on him from a beautiful heaven, but the sens for the world did not open up within him; he did not even develop within his soul; but his heart was moved by a longing for a world, and so he gathered before him the animal creation to see if one might perhaps be formed from it. Since the deity recognized that his world would be nothing so long as man was alone, it created for him a partner, and now, for the first time, the world rose before his eyes. In the flesh and bone of his bone he discovered humanity, and in humanity the world. (My emphasis)

And then on the next page he writes:
All our history is contained in this saga ... In order to intuit the world and to have religion, man must first have found humanity, and he finds it only in love and through love.

The quotations are the bedrock for Schleiermacher for how human beings access and experience the Absolute.* His arguments go on for pages and pages, but it is fair to summarize with the above quotes: Feeling and Intuition ARE NOT subjective, individualistic matters. They are rooted in concrete histories, times and places. "The mind, if it is to produce and sustain religion, must be intuited in a world." So religion is foremost an inter-subjective experience. Moreover, this inter-subjectivity for Schleiermacher entails love. Inter-subjectivity for him, in order for religion to be possible, is by its nature a relationship of love. In other words, true religion depends on love.

Now, in order to address my friend's point we need to see that love for Schleiermacher entails some kind of action, morality or duty. It cannot be just a warm, happy feeling. But we're making progress, are we not? Hopefully, I'll be able to address this point soon.

*Writing in his Romantic context, Schleiermacher and friends used terms like the Infinite, the Absolute and so on in attempt to encompass everything that anyone might consider a first principle. So the Absolute and the Infinite for Schleiermacher would have been God, but it would not be fair to substitute them with God because he was not making that identification in the Speeches.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Relating Religious Studies and Theology

What is the place of Theology in a secular liberal arts university? And how can or how should Theology and Religious Studies (i.e. the academic study of religion) be related to one another? These have become important questions to me in the last year as I have moved into the Religious Studies department at Northwestern. I honestly have no good answers to the first question presently. And with regard to the second question, I can only speak from my own case for now.

I am excited to be doing Theology in a Religious Studies setting because Religious Studies allows me to fill my methodological toolkit with methods from across the disciplines: from Political Science to Sociology to History, Anthropology and Philosophy. I can use sociological research methods, for example, to analyze theological evolution of Christian thought around the world today as a form of properly theological systematization. In short, in the globalized Christian church of the 21st century it has seemed to me the Theology needs some of the analytic power of Religious Studies.

It only occurred to me just the other day to wonder about the opposite direction of exchange: Might Religious Studies be able to benefit from Theology's methodological stores? What would this look like?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Schleiermacher - Too much feeling?

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a German theologian and philosopher who associated with German Romantics (like Schlegel and Novalis) early in his career and who later in his career held a university chair in Theology at Berlin for many years. For his work in theology (most notably his Glaubenslehre or The Christian Faith) came to be known as the "Father of Modern Protestant Theology" (or of "Liberal Theology"). In my studies, I am very interested in the ways the Schleiermacher's theological methods (as in his Brief Outline) might be able to address pressing 21st century theological problems.

Schleiermacher got a bad reputation in the 20th century figures like Franz Rosenzweig, Karl Barth and, later on, H. G. Gadamer. They all accussed him of being too subjective, too psychologistic and placing too much trust in individuals' "feeling" of the universe and of the Absolute. However, these accusations are to explicitly tie Schleiermacher to his Romantic period. Interestingly, Schleiermacher studies had been revived around the turn of the 19-20th century by Wilhelm Dilthey who was also very engaged in reviving Romantic thought in general. Thus, it may be more than coincidental that Schleiermacher was primarily known and treated as a Romantic by Rosenzweig, Barth, etc.

To read Schleiermacher and to understand his ideas about feeling in a very individualistic manner may or may not be a fair treatment of his early work (around the years 1799-1803). I am looking into this more closely. But such a reading is definitely inconsistent with his later, theological work. Schleiermacher's hermeneutics (Hermeneutics and Criticism) and theology (The Christian Faith) depend heavily on inter-subjective processes of communal practice and recognition. At least in the later work, the one presupposes the many, individuality is a function of community.

I am becoming more and more persuaded by the analyses of contemporary practice theorists like Talal Asad and Pierre Bourdieu that living skillfully (as a citizen, as a religious person and as a Christian) require great discipline and practice, which themselves imply communal settings in which those disciplines/practices make sense. My work with Schleiermacher so far suggests to me that he was actually a pioneer for precisely the kind of practice- and community- based theories of knowledge and sociality currently prevalent in the humanities and social sciences.

A real question I am thinking about presently is whether his later work is a departure from youthful infatuations or a critical but careful development of his early positions. If the latter, might this lead us to second-guess how individualistic other Romantics figures were too? Maybe not, but we'll see.