Tag Archives: faith

Political Theology Reconfigured

Vincent Loyd’s work, The Problem With Grace discerns some of the complex interplay between African American theological perspectives and modern political estates. His first aim is to dispel the methodology that relies upon supersessionist foundations to oppose law and grace. He accomplishes this by analyzing specific religious concepts within both the Jewish and Christian faith. He also relies upon heavily sources outside of traditional conception of theology using both theoretical and literary texts. Lloyd questions the notion that the world is composed of some fallen world in need of redemption. This grace and law narrative is allegorized for the African American context through the story of Grace Mulligan on the Manderlay plantation. The story begins in 1933 when Mulligan stumbled upon a plantation in which the African American living there did not know that slavery was abolished. Grace abolished the plantation law that had governed the slave’s lives and instituted a democracy. While initially successful, the community after a period of time delved into a system predicated on rivalry, suspicion and bloodshed. Grace, who had come to replace the law, eventually flees the plantation because of the unintended consequences that she created. According to Lloyd it is supersessionist logic that led to the demise of the community which was most evident when grace replaced the law. Thus he finds it more relevant to examine society relative to social norms as opposed to a society in need of grace to fulfill the law. This examination occurs through a robust description of various religious concepts and theological virtues relevant to the Christianity such as: faith, hope, love, liturgy, prophesy, and tradition. One concept that I found his analysis particularly relevant to was the virtue of faith.

Lloyd states that love is an exercise for navigating the social world. The challenges and frustrations of social and political life are condensed into how we view the love relationship. Simply stated to truly love is difficult and full of uncertainties. For him what forms the basis for love however is faith. Faith gives us the ability not to walk away from loves despite all of the trial and tribulations that accommodate it. Faith entails a commitment to love even when there are good reasons not to. He strays away from the notion of faith that is commonly associated with a belief in something or someone. In his words “faith is about improper beliefs, beliefs that go beyond what ought to be believe.” Most importantly faith runs counter to social norms. This faith accordingly is able to trump all authority that is generated from societal norms. It even calls for reprimand of those societal structures and norms. I find this view of faith helpful especially when addressing the myriad of issues that we face in our contemporary society. It is possible using this view that we can challenge social and systemic structures that oppress a variety of issues.

Faith as a virtue goes beyond a mere belief in a deity or a higher power. True faith is critical of socio-political structures. This virtue has particularly been important for African Americans in the United States. Whether it was Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights struggle or modern Civil Rights leaders who struggle against the militarization of police states, policies that perpetuate racism, classism, sexism, and heteronormativity; faith has played an important role in countering these structures. Faith can promote social action and change. It is the backbone behind the love ethic that is necessary to fight for these changes. Martin Luther King fought for equality and gave his life for the freedom of all people out of love. However, deeply rooted in his love ethic was his faith that love creates the changes necessary to transform society.

Faith, Doubt, Scholarship: Why Evangelicals Should Love Paul Tillich

Having Doubt About Doubt With a Healthy Does of Self-Criticism

Maybe it was no coincidence that Michael Patton posted on Roman Catholic scholars being incapable of critical scholarship the same weekend I completed a critical reading of neo-liberal Neo-Orthodox theologian Paul Tillich. Michael did admit that his post was going to be polemical, nor does he consider himself a scholars, and we should keep these in mind as I begin this conversation with a story.

Two years ago, as a Masters of Theology student at a progressive mainline seminary, I struck up a conversation with one of the school’s New Testament students, who, like me is Baptist, but he was admittedly theologically conservative. As someone who enjoys post-colonial and liberationist theologies, I, for one, am not opposed to self-criticism. In fact, on this blog, Chad and I last year had a series where we critiqued ourselves. It was a challenging task to public confess our blindspots. The one thing that I and the conservative student aforementioned could not agree on in our dialogue was the nature of religion. For that student, he believed that theology and biblical studies were driven by human subjectivity; it was experience that remained essential, and dare I say, the conversion experience. I know I am going to get in trouble here, but my reaction was to immediately draw attention to the similarities between my friend’s evangelical approach and the liberal approach, and he confessed that in terms of method, liberals and evangelicals shared common footings.

Today, I submit that Patton’s post does confirm the correctness of my argument. That what we have here is a form of dialectical thought, that faith is when a human being overcomes doubt. Patton indeed contends, “Without doubt, our faith can never really be tested. For to even take a test there must be some suspension of our presumption of perfection.” He continues, “I don’t think Christians should have any fear in testing their faith. We should not fear the doubt that leads to assurance of truth. Not only does God not mind our aspirations to such scholarship, he beckons us to such.” This comment seems fine, on the surface, of course it affirms the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints– who God has chosen to be saved will remain saved, and faithful, yes?

So, if faith is seen as primarily an free and subjective act on the part of the Christian individual, doubt is the opposite use of that freedom. Freedom, in this dialectic (oppositional form of thinking) is freedom FROM something, whether it be freedom from tradition, freedom from the community or freedom from the authorities. In this sense, Patton argues, Roman Catholic scholars ARE NOT free.

Is this notion of freedom correct, however? I would say that not only half of the story, Martin Luther, being the good Catholic that he was, would never affirm this definition of liberty. In fact, in his Freedom of a Christian (on of my favorite works of all time), all Christian freedoms are attached to servitude, to duty. Freedom is living away from sin and for others, as servants. Indeed, God came that He “that He might serve us, and that all the works He should do under that form of a servant, might become ours” On Christian Freedom. This is why in Luther’s 95 Theses, he proposes that the Christian should be taught to give to the poor rather than concern herself with indulgences (Theses 43).

By this understanding of freedom, could one not suggest that Catholic scholars are the freest of us all to be critical? What replaced Rome as the hermeneutical key for Protestants? I would say that here in the United States, it was America as Situation that replaced it, and thus, we have a ruggedly individualistic view of freedom, let alone academic freedom. My academic freedom to study the archaeology of the Red Sea means nothing if there are people in my neighborhood who are drowning in oppression. Scholarship, critical engagement, and doubt should not be centered around the self. This is the problem with conservative evangelical and mainline Protestant academia to begin with.

Faith, as I argued against Tillich, and I do here, against liberals and evangelicals who agree with Patton, is not something that starts with us Gentiles. In fact, in the story of Israel and Jesus, we Gentiles do not know what faith is outside of YHWH’s faithfulness Israel and Christ. Suggestions such as “Embrace your doubts. Doubt your doubts. Test all things. Follow the evidence, not your presuppositions.” sound okay, but is this the point of the writers’ of the Scripture’s own understanding of faith? I believe that the proper dialectic, if you will, is one of faithfulness overcoming faithlessness, and it is within that our Gentile story with our notions of doubt, faith, presuppositions, post-suppositions must submit itself.

As for critical Catholic scholars, I don’t think one has to look further than the emerging theologians from the Women In Theology blog. I have a difficult time taking Patton’s advocacy of doubt and critical scholarship seriously, especially since being aware that he comes from an institution in which students and faculty must not contradict the Statement of Faith. The very same statement in which one of my close friends was excommunicated from the DTS community and a letter mailed to his parents, informing them that their son was no longer saved. Brian LePort is completely right in comparing evangelical confessional scholarship and that of Catholics.

Jeremy (the Catholic, not Mormon–couldn’t resist) and Joel the Methodist has excellent responses as well.

“Now therefore revere [YHWH], and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve [YHWH]. Joshua 24:14, NRSV

Paul Tillich And Biblical Faith

What is faith? In contemporary Christian circles, evangelical and mainline alike, almost all Christians affirm the idea that doubting propositional truths is okay, since faith overcomes this doubt.  Is faith according to Scripture, a conquering of our uncertainties? Where does this idea come from?

In the mid-20th century, there were a group of theologians who referred to themselves as “Neo-Orthodox” or Neo-Protestant, with the ranks of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, and Rudolph BultmannPaul Tillich belongs to the left wing of this movement, more specifically, a neo-liberal wing. I use the word Neo-liberal because Tillich sought to overcome the traditional liberal Protestant approach to theology which focused on God’s immanence with a different understanding of God’s transcendence.  In my work on American Liberal Theology and Gary Dorrien‘s trilogy, The Making of American Liberal Theology, I mention in Volume Two, the privilege that Tillich and Barth enjoyed in their experience here in the U.S. goes unmentioned in Dorrien’s work.

It is crucial to talk about this because anxiety (as a universal concept) as a driving concern is a mainline, white upper-middle class concern when it comes to talking about religion.  In other words, place is a significant determinant of the religious experience. The displacement of the Jewish prophets in exile is something that does not concern Tillich, for all of his talk of love and justice.

Now, on the matter of faith, Tillich defines faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned” (page 4, Dynamics of Faith).  Faith is a “centered act of the human mind” that is identical with freedom, with an awareness of infinity (page 5,9).  Faith is a risk, in that it is an affirmation of the self against that which would not affirm the self (being over nothingness).  The Protestant principle is this: that the cross stands over judgment over all of the community of faith, that even Christianity there is the risk of being judged from within.  The Cross, therefore, for Tillich, is the source of self-criticism and the prophetic tradition.  Faith is not the “will to believe” (page 37) nor is it a subjective emotional attachment [Tillich’s interpretation of Schleirmacher] which confuses culture and faith (p 39).

While Tillich claims that there is no faith without participation (100), this notion of “participation” is purely symbolic since our ultimate concerns can only be communicated in symbols, and since “he who has faith is separated from the object of his faith” (100).  This is exactly why Tillich dismisses the mystical traditions.

I do not believe that faith is a “centered act of the human mind” nor is it an adherence to propositional truths nor is it an overwhelming dependence on how I feel at this moment. Too easily, in each of these definitions of faith, we lose site of where human beings are placed in the world.  Instead, let me suggest that faith is first and foremost a gift from the Triune God, a gift that comes attached to the promises of YHWH, like God’s promises to the nomad Abram.  Faith is the very real participation in the historical presence of God that consumes our entire being.  Human beings do not initiate this, not any more than we could have first loved God or any more than we can hope more in our Selves.  God created us, and as Creator, loved us first.  For Christians, God is the God of hope, so therefore when someone like Rick Perry or Mitt Romney claim that America is the last great hope for the Earth, they are showing faithlessness to God.

Likewise, we cannot know what faith is unless we know who God is, who shows Godself to be faithful.


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