Friday, November 28, 2008

On Christology

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, and Thanksgiving has passed, so I suppose we're just about at the beginning of the Christmas season - whether your definition is religious or commercial. In that spirit, I'll share some writing I've done on a subject relevant to the season: the historical understanding of Christ. The following is a mixture of excerpts from a focused, somewhat technical discussion of Christology, which I've abridged, edited, and mixed in with some clarifying passages for simplicity's (and readability's) sake. 

As Christmas approaches and Christians celebrate the historical event of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the concern is naturally with the historical aspects of Christ's life - and so perhaps history is worth considering in more detail. 

The events of Jesus’ life were not recorded in great detail by 1st-century historians; they were recorded in evangelical testaments by early believers. Some prominent Christian thinkers, observing this dearth of historical evidence, have concluded that history is unnecessary to understand Christ.  

One of the most prominent proponents of this approach was Martin Kähler, who developed a searing criticism of the historical approach to Christology in The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ. Kähler’s attack on the historical approach is both academic and theological. First, he argues that the existing historical record of Christ’s actions is scant, and its validity falls well below the standards of any professional historian. More important, though, is his theological assertion about the validity of history as such in understanding Christ. The Bible, Kähler says, eludes normal historical understanding, and any attempt to read it as history will be futile: 

The Life-of-Jesus movement is completely in the right insofar as it sets the Bible against an abstract dogmatism. It becomes illegitimate as soon as it begins to rend and dissect the Bible without having acquired a clear understanding of the special nature of the problem and the peculiar significance of Scripture for such understanding.[1]

The problem, Kähler says, lies primarily within the interpretation of historical facts by believers who want to verify the events of the Bible through history. By following Jesus’ every step and action, the believer “is most certainly heading up a blind alley” in which the only possible outcome is a portrait based on conjecture and personal bias.[2] What was meant as an empirical, objective approach becomes pseudohistorical and highly subjective. The "secondary effects" approach advocated by Kähler claims that the Jesus of personal faith experience is the historical Jesus. 

The real Christ, that is, the Christ who has exercised an influence in history, with whom millions have communed in childlike faith, and with whom the great witnesses of faith have been in communion – while striving, apprehending, triumphing, and proclaiming – this real Christ is the Christ who is preached. The Christ who is preached, however, is precisely the Christ of faith. He is the Jesus whom the eyes of faith behold at every step he takes and through every syllable he utters – the Jesus whose image we impress upon our minds because we both would and do commune with him, our risen, living Lord.[3] 

This is not a criticism to be dismissed lightly - it undermines the very basis of the historical approach as both academically illegitimate and spiritually suspect. It says that anyone who tries to construct an "objective" Jesus will end up constructing a subjective Jesus. This casts doubt on our ability to use history at all.  

But it has not escaped criticism, and rightly so: Kähler’s error, at its most basic level, was his confusion over the role of the historical approach. It cannot replace faith, but it must groundfaith. The Christian encounter with God through prayer, religious joy, love, or any other medium is not self-proving; it reveals nothing about its foundations and whether those foundations were at one point historical realities. Because Christianity is fundamentally concerned with the actual incarnation of God in human form at a particular time and place in the world, it cannot dismiss the real dilemma presented by the notion that such an event never took place. Wolfhart Pannenberg recognized the approach's limitations and concluded: 

“Christology is concerned, therefore, not only with unfolding the Christian community’s confession of Christ, but above all with grounding it in the activity and fate of Jesus in the past. The confession of Christ cannot be pre-supposed already and simply interpreted.”[4]

Christ's call is a life-changing and radical call to total spiritual and existential renewal. It is only natural that humanity, when encountered with such a call, should be interested in knowing whether the quest is based on anything more than suspect historical claims and possibly delusional experiences. A perfect portrait of Jesus, his life, his deeds, and his meaning will probably never be constructed from historical study, but Christians would abandon a significant path to knowledge of Christ by rejecting entirely the study of his history. 

Though there are risks involved in any historical study of Christ, there are greater risks involved in removing Christ from history altogether. The disassociation of Christ from objective historical context has been proven effective for some very ugly historical movements.  

No approach, of course, is perfect. And the essence of Kähler's point is correct: even if one could prove, beyond any doubt, the historical facts of Christ's life, what would it mean? How could it bring anyone to faith? The one thing we know about faith is that it is a deeply personal, almost ineffable inner transformation. It simply does not speak the language of rationality or simple causality - and it could never be inspired by the knowledge of historical facts. That is simply not how the process works. Bob Dylan was pretty bizarre during his Christian period, but he did capture at least one essential truth: "ye shall be changed." And it's not going to happen because of history. 

And yet we must continue to pursue history. History is not a way of proving faith, but it can help Christians ground their faith in legitimate questions about who their Savior was, what he did, and how he reacted to the world in which he lived. The historical approach, despite its uncertainty, difficulty, and risk, is absolutely necessary. The risks of complacency, subjectivity, and an artificial gulf between theology and history are far greater. 


[1] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, trans. Carl E. Bratten, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 46. 

[2] Ibid., 47-48. 

[3] Ibid., 66. Emphasis in original. 

[4] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man, trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe, (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1968), 28. 

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Why the Snub?

Jon Swift, with his usual brilliance, wonders why Obama didn't take any questions from FOX News during his first press conference:
Apparently, Obama still holds a grudge against the network, and its president Roger Ailes, for reporting that he went to a madrassa as a child, joking about assassinating him, referring to him as a socialist, attacking him for calling his grandmother a “typical white person,” calling his cigarette smoking "a dirty little secret" and asking its viewers “Would you vote for a smoker?,” mixing him up with black former congressman Harold Ford Jr., making a joke that his name was similar to Osama Bin Laden’s and who knows what other perceived slights. Unfortunately, the Fox reporter was prevented from asking such very important questions as which cabinet post William Ayers will be appointed to and which policies from the Communist Manifesto Obama was planning to implement first.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Selling Out the Base

Ken Layne wonders why Obama is ignoring his terrorist/communist base now that he's been elected:
Then we heard rumblings about Obama's choices to run the economy, all tragically confirmed today. I was hoping for Louis Farrakhan, obviously, but the names being put out there were just the names of various old white guys and economics experts, from America. Exactly how is that supposed to "change" America to African-Islamic Communism-Fascism?
About three weeks before the election, I was actually approached at a party by someone screaming about Bill Ayers, Marxism, and blowing up the Pentagon. Apparently the person (who I had met maybe 10 minutes earlier) heard through the grapevine that I was supporting Obama, and she came over (or rather, marched over while shrieking semi-coherently) to ask me (although I'm not sure responding would have done much good) if I was planning on joining in on the Marxist revolution, and whether or not I wanted to help Barack Obama blow up the Pentagon. No, really, that actually happened.

So naturally, I'm disappointed. I really thought I was voting for a Marxist, since one time he used the phrase "spread the wealth around." (And people are actually wondering why the Republicans keep losing.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Trying Out One's New Sword

Nicholas Kristof says Pakistan will probably be President-elect Obama's most pressing and difficult foreign policy problem. If a country with about 60 nuclear weapons teetering on the brink of "collapse" isn't unsettling enough, here's his report on one man serving in President Zardari's government:
One new cabinet member, Israr Ullah Zehri, defended the torture-murder of five women and girls who were buried alive (three girls wanted to choose their own husbands, and two women tried to protect them). "These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them," Mr. Zehri said of the practice of burying independent-minded girls alive.

Moral relativism is a bourgeois fantasy. 

Friday, November 21, 2008

Midwestern Chic

Garrison Keillor identifies the real change that took place when Obama was elected:
And Chicago becomes the First City. Step aside, San Francisco. Shut up, New York. The Midwest is cool now. The mind reels. Have a good day.
It only confirms what I've been saying for years. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

We Can Only Afford the Best

As President-elect Obama starts to assemble his team, one of the most interesting dynamics at work is the conflict between qualifications/talent and past associations/controversies. It's happened with most of the major positions in discussion so far - White House CoS, Treasury Secretary, and now AG. This is the dilemma of being in power: all of a sudden the Democrats are responsible for making the decisions, not just for criticizing them. (Don't read this as an exoneration of the Bush Administration; forceful criticism was needed over the last eight years - but governing is a different thing indeed, and its challenges are not always well-suited to people who may have been very effective when in the minority. Just ask Newt Gingrich.) 

I tend to come down on the side of the "all hands on deck" people: our problems are simply too grave to worry about whether (insert prominent Democrat here) will be sufficiently deferential to (insert prominent liberal interest group here). Richard Cohen made the point succinctly, if somewhat caustically, in last week's Post:
Moving on in the Cabinet, my next choice is Lawrence Summers for Treasury secretary. He once held the post and has since been the president of Harvard, where, after an academic lynching, he was forced to leave. Summers has the intellect and gravitas for the job. He's a liberal, but not one who would alarm the markets. His appointment would show that Obama has the grit to stand up to some fierce Democratic Party interest groups, in this case feminists who will not forgive Summers for being intellectually curious about why women do not do as well as men at the highest levels of math. Summers can be an outstanding social klutz, but a deep recession is not a tea party. He has the tools. (italics mine)
It should be noted that Summers was the target of some pretty vile comments by Kim Gandy, the president of NOW, earlier this month. Referring to the controversy over math and science aptitude, she said: "Part of me thinks his opinions on women's capacities for math and science don't have relevancy to financial markets. On the other hand, economics is a very math-heavy field. Does that mean he'd be less likely to include women in his own circle of advisers? I don't know the answer to that question; I don't know him."

Is anyone else reminded of the right's smears against Obama? "Well, gosh, I'm just saying, he's got a Muslim name. Does that make him a terrorist? I don't know the answer to that question; I don't know him." The suggestion that Summers is a sexist, or that his comments make him less likely to include qualified women in his inner circle at Treasury, is absurd at best. Of course, women who do know Summers came to his defense and highlighted his impressive record on women's issues. But hey - let's deny ourselves a brilliant economist who could very well lead us out of a grave problem (one which borders on outright catastrophe) because he said some impolitic things once. 

There have been some similar arguments made for giving Eliot Spitzer a post in the new administration. In the Washington Monthly, Steve Benet wonders if we should deny ourselves a talented public servant because of his serious personal failings:
Yes, he hired a call girl, but so did Sen. David Vitter (La.), and he's still a sitting Republican senator in good standing, who apparently plans to seek re-election. Yes, he committed adultery, but so did Newt Gingrich (thinking about running for president), Rudy Giuliani (thinking about running for governor), and John McCain (the most recent Republican presidential nominee).

Do we have to exclude Spitzer from addressing the issues on which he has considerable expertise? Issues that have nothing to do with an unrelated sex scandal? 

The Anonymous Liberal agrees:

When you're really sick, you hire the best doctor you can. You don't care about his/her personal life. Our economy is really sick right now. We need the best people we can find to help resuscitate it and get it back on track. Or to mix metaphors a bit, this is an all hands on deck moment for the country. We need to put trivial issues aside and put the most capable people we have at the helm. [...] And in a strange way, such an appointment might actually buttress Obama's claim that he's bringing a new kind of politics to Washington. It would be seen as him putting competence ahead of political considerations, of putting the country's interests ahead of his own short-term political interests. I say give Spitzer a second chance.

The same sort of hand-wringing is going on about Eric Holder, Obama's apparent choice for AG. Holder's background is considerably less controversial, but his role in the Marc Rich pardon is definitely going to feature in a nomination hearing. I was surprised (and pleased) to see Steven Calabresi, the Northwestern Law Professor and Federalist Society member, take Holder's side in Politico. This is a great example of intellectual honesty from a conservative who shares very little common political ground with Holder:

The only argument against Eric Holder is that like many other talented and honorable people he is tainted by his work for Bill Clinton because he failed to deter Clinton from pardoning Marc Rich. I think it would be a serious mistake to disqualify from high office all of the many talented and otherwise honorable individuals who had the misfortune to work for Bill Clinton. The questionable ethics of Bill and Hillary Clinton are clearly their problem and should not be held against someone like Holder who has otherwise behaved honorably. I am sure I would disagree vehemently with a Holder-led Department of Justice on many issues, but Republicans lost the election and this is the price of defeat. Objecting to bright and talented Democrats we disagree with because of their guilt by association with Bill Clinton is both unfair and is a mistake.

His criticisms of Clinton aside, I think Calabresi is basically right. Of course, it's easier to overlook flaws and controversies when your side is in charge and you want to appoint your own people. But the huge problems we're facing demand the most capable and intelligent public servants. Everyone who has been in public life has a few controversies to their name - it's unavoidable. Show me a public servant who has no enemies and I'll show you a public servant who's never done anything (one astute reader notes that if you do nothing, someone will hate you for that, too). Let's get the best people we can into the room and work on fixing these problems. Anything less would be a massive - and possibly tragic - failure of leadership.

Monday, November 17, 2008

More on that topic...

Cardinal James Stafford, speaking at Catholic University, says President-elect Obama is "apocalyptic." You might be asking yourself, "who in the world is listening to this kind of lunacy?" 

If that's the case, you haven't read the comments. I'll skip over the obviously crazy people ranting about "Obama the Uncle Tom" and "black genocide" (which is an incredibly stupid, ignorant, and offensive thing to say, but that's a topic for another time) and focus on one of the saner readers, who nonetheless observes: "It was stunning how little attention was given to this issue (abortion) during the 2008 election."

Really? A systemic economic collapse, two major wars, crises of healthcare, education, and global warming, and it's surprising that abortion didn't get more attention? 

None of this is to say that it's not an important issue, but come on

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How to Lose Friends and Influence No One

Demand everything, accept no compromises, and give up everything else if you can't get one thing you want
"This is not a matter of political compromise or a matter of finding some way of common ground," said Bishop Daniel Conlon of Steubenville, Ohio. "It's a matter of absolutes."
Over at Slate, Doug Kmiec takes a different view
Meanwhile, 54 percent of the Catholics in America saw exactly what I see in Barack Obama: a gifted man asking only to be a support for other men. He is an imperfect man, as we all are. His party commitments have not let his mind free of ill-considered measures like FOCA, but those who came to his side because the Republicans had defaulted on the issue of life hope the Congress enacts a law that will promote life and not invite its destruction. It is better to be part of that honest effort than the passive, smug Republican partisan complacency that thinks of the defense of human life as just another issue to be ranked and, worse, ranked lowly.
While I don't identify with the pro-life movement, I do find it sad to see how they've been taken for a ride by the Republican party. 35 years since Roe v. Wade and almost nothing to show for it except plenty of money raised for "pro-life" candidates and a nation embittered by three and a half decades of culture wars.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Here's a Suggestion

How about this: before January, every member of the 111th Congress should have to fill out a short form requiring them to simply define and differentiate among the following four terms:

1.) Capitalism
2.) Socialism
3.) Mixed economy
4.) Marxism

I'm just curious to see how many would pass. (I wouldn't put my money on this guy, though.) 

Monday, November 10, 2008

One for the Monk

I visited the National Portrait Gallery yesterday in London and happened upon this painting. Immediately recognizable:

Sir Salman, of course - he of the so-called hysterical (but I say alive! and perhaps even more realistic) realism so controversial among the Americans here at Oxford. (Then again, I loved War and Peace, which is nothing if not big and ambitious and given to long digressions about the way the world works - but which is also fundamentally concerned with individual people in the most vital and arresting sense. There are few sentences in literature that have shaken me as profoundly and immediately as Tolstoy's "Love emerged, and life emerged.")

I mention this because I am currently working my way through Midnight's Children per the recommendation of one Lonely Monk, and it is certainly massive (as big as India, you might say) but it takes place through the experience and inside the head of one person (and in the heads of many others - but still filtered through the narrator). Everything that is grand and sweeping about the narrative is also intensely personal; it is huge, but it all unfolds before two eyes. 

Back to work for now, though. Joseph de Maistre calls - and are my peers at beloved Georgetown answering? I happened across a piece in the Georgetown Voice yesterday about the re-appearance of the Georgetown Academy on campus. Word is that the new incarnation will be quite different from the Academy of old - one can only hope! - but since their website isn't up yet, I'll just have to wait and see.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What this means

It's only now beginning to sink in, and the reality of it is such that I couldn't have expressed yesterday what this means - I really had to experience it.

In retrospect, it almost seems like this had to happen. It couldn't have been any other way. At this perilous moment, when so much is at stake, America simply could not reward the politics of fear, division, and ignorance with a victory. That's what this election means - to me. I won't presume to speak of what it means for race in America, although I can feel the profound shock that our nation has just absorbed - it is a healthy shock, a welcome one. The profundity of it, I think, is best expressed in the faces soaked by tears of joy; the huge crowd of blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos in Chicago cheering and hugging and screaming, looking as unified and as diverse as the America we all dream of, work for, and believe in; the sputtering ineloquence of TV pundits who usually have a sound-byte ready for the cameras, their faces blank as they stared at an event so beautiful, so unprecedented, so amazing that the only honest response is a huge grin and an attempt - however difficult - to convey the emotion that is welling up inside. I can't imagine how many people are looking at their children and grandchildren today, truly convinced for the first time that they too can be America. 

This was my first presidential election. I am simply too young to get my head around the enormity of what I saw - and what I was a part of - last night. Maybe there is no one who can really understand what has happened in all of its dimensions - for our global standing, for our moral integrity, for our social fabric, for the new generation of American leaders, for every other element of what this means.

For myself, having followed this race for nearly two years, I can only grasp at what this means for our politics. Here is what I can say about this event: it is not just a political victory. It is a victory for our politics.

In choosing Barack Obama to be our President, we reached out for what was different and difficult - but we did it because we saw potential and brilliance, and we did it out of hope - not fear.

We were told that we should be scared. That we should go with the familiar, even if we know deep down that it is not enough for the challenges we face - because it's safe, because it's predictable, because it's like us. But we chose the unfamiliar, because the risk of not stepping up to this moment was so much greater. 

We were told that Barack Obama is not like you and I. We were told that he is different. That he is an elitist. We were told that he is exotic and a celebrity and that he doesn't understand us. We were told that his supporters didn't understand "real America," that we weren't part of the "pro-America" parts of the country. We were told that Obama was a Harvard snob, a pointy-headed professor, a big-city intellectual. 

We rejected that. We rejected those politics of fear and division. How would it have been if we had chosen McCain-Palin, if we had endorsed that style of politics, if we had said with our votes, "Yes! I agree that there is a real America and a fake America. I agree that there are pro-America regions and anti-America regions." And, I might add, what's wrong with being a professor? What's wrong with being an intellectual? What's wrong with a man who worked his way up in the world, who was raised by a single mother and his grandparents, who tried hard and made mistakes but who came back from it all -- and made it all the way to Harvard Law? We should
celebrate that - and we did.

This election was an incredible moment for America. It was an opportunity to make a statement about our country - to make a statement to our world - about who we are, what we believe in, where we want to go, and who we want to lead us there. It was huge and overwhelming and I still don't think we can even fully understand it. I'm just happy I was here to see it. 

A New Day

It's 5:51 A.M. here, and I watched non-stop election coverage on the BBC for over 6 hours tonight.

My thoughts are far too scattered - and frankly, I'm too tired - to say anything thoughtful right now. But the Americans and British watching tonight were ecstatic to see this outcome - British people were telling us "Congratulations!" and were genuinely happy. 

I have to get a few hours of sleep now - but first, a few words to get used to in the next few days:

President. Elect. Obama.

Can you believe it? 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Once More

This merits another mention:

"As a proud resident of Oakton, Virginia, I can tell you that the Democrats have just come in from the District of Columbia and moved into northern Virginia [...] But the rest of the state, 'real Virginia,' if you will, I think will be very responsive to Senator McCain’s message [...]  I mean real Virginia, because northern Virginia is where I’ve always been, but real Virginia I take to be the – this part of the state that is more southern in nature, if you will." - Nancy Pfotenhauer, McCain campaign adviser

From the Washington Post, the words of Sarah Palin:

"We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe" -- here the audience interrupted Palin with applause and cheers -- "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation."

And lastly, from the mouth of the candidate:

"MCCAIN: I-- I know where a lot of 'em live. (LAUGH)

WILLIAMS: Where's that?

MCCAIN: Well, in our nation's capital and New York City. I've seen it. I've lived there. I know the town. I know-- I know what a lot of these elitists are. The ones that she never went to a cocktail party with in Georgetown. I'll be very frank with you. Who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves." - John McCain, explaining to Brian Williams where the "elitists" who, in Palin's words, "think that they're better than anyone else," live.

A dissenting view:

"The third essential condition of stability in political society, is a strong and active principle of cohesion among the members of the same community or state [...] We mean a principle of sympathy, not of hostility; of union, not of separation. We mean a feeling of common interest among those who live under the same government, and are contained within the same natural or historical boundaries. We mean that one part of the community do not consider themselves as foreigners with regard to another part; that they set a value on their connexion; feel that they are one people, that their lot is cast together, that evil to any of their fellow-countrymen is evil to themselves; and do not desire selfishly to free themselves from their share of any common inconvenience by severing the connexion." - John Stuart Mill, from the essay on Coleridge, 1840.

This is one of those moments.

On a lighter note...I considered titling this post:













It is truly sad that we no longer title anything like that.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Really, though...

Can I just say this right now: I love Bill Kristol. He's such a wealth of comedy. Some wonderful thoughts from his column today:

- McCain, the guy who came into the race with the best brand in national politics, is the "underdog." I guess that makes Barack Obama - who is young, black, named "Barack Obama," and was unknown just a few years ago - the favorite. It makes perfect sense

- A McCain victory would be - I kid you not! - "a defeat for the establishment." Really. An unprecedented outpouring of support from young and first-time voters, the highest number of small donors in the history of presidential politics, a ground game powered by regular people acting as dedicated volunteers - all on behalf of Obama - and a McCain victory is a defeat for the establishment! 

But wait, there's more!

- "It would be a victory for the future...Liberals should therefore welcome a McCain win as a triumph of hope over fear, of the future over the past." 

Hope over fear? Really? In Bill Kristol's universe, I guess 19 months of campaigning on hope and unity makes you the candidate of fear, and saying the other guy is an unknown-untested-scary-naïve-socialist-puts-politics-before-country-tax-and-spend-elitist-unpatriotic liberal makes, not the candidate of fear! 

- "It would be a victory for freedom [...]  Liberals should be opposed to tyranny and genocide. [...] Liberals should be votaries of freedom." 

No comment necessary, except this: he actually wrote that, and the New York Times actually published it

- "A McCain victory would be good for liberalism. Look at recent history. Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress begat Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton and a Democratic Congress produced Newt Gingrich. Who knows what would follow a President Obama and a Democratic Congress? Here’s one possibility: President Sarah Palin." Yeah! Hell, let's make it great for liberalism: Democrats should lose every election ever!

There are two possibilities here: either Bill Kristol just wrote a satirical piece for the ages, know, he's really one of the main intellectual forces behind a strand of Republican politics whose judgment day is tomorrow - and it's not looking good. 

What's at Stake Tomorrow

Barack Obama yesterday:

Sarah Palin, October 16: "We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe -- we believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation."

We are either one nation or we aren't. 

We are either in this together or we are hopelessly divided. 

One campaign believes that we are one nation, united under the same dreams and ideals - and one campaign believes that we are nothing more than a self-obsessed, gullible electorate, waiting to be carved up into little demographic groups that can be motivated by fear and greed. The contrast is clear - and it will define the next administration. That is the choice our country makes tomorrow.