‘What can I say?’: Reflections on (Un)Permitted Speech and Justice

When is speech justified? This question is admittedly vague. To be more precise, as of late I feel as though I have had to ask myself many times, “Is the particular desire I have to speak in this instance and in this particular way justified’? Perhaps this is a question that we face every day in our innumerable interactions with family, friends, lovers, strangers, acquaintances, and the list goes on. How will my speech be received? How will my speech shape, not only the future of discourse, but the many inter-relations that constitute my own and others’ existence? Will my speech take on a form that will lead to just relations or will it create or further entrench relations of violence. If the latter be the case, I may be surprised to discover to what extent my speech has never really been ‘my’ speech at all, but speech already defined and delimited by a demonic “technological methodism” (Stringfellow) of a cultural-linguistic variety.

In ecclesial settings, I have found this conundrum to be particularly powerful. There have been many instances in which, in ecclesial settings, it is so obvious to me that the form that speech is ‘allowed’ to take is demonic in what it excludes a priori. Voices that would contribute real discourse towards recognition of minorities in ecclesial settings, outsiders that have been held at bay by “Orthodoxy” and “Ecclesial Unity,” are all prevented from speech that can realistically be received or recognized. I speak as one who is not an outsider, one who is privileged, one who has consistently struggled to create holes in the boundaries of the speech-form of ecclesial contexts so as to allow those boundaries to be more porous. At times I wonder if poking holes is enough. Poking holes seems to some already to be evidence of ‘wild speech,’ untamed by discipline. I propose, however, that ‘boundaried’ speech is more illustrative of an untamed tongue than speech that transgresses the demonic boundaries set by human will and desire. I believe this to be because ‘boundaried’ speech is precisely untamed in its hypocrisy — praising boundaries while transgressing the just relations that are given in the transgressing of demonic boundaries.

James 3:8-9 – No one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God’s likeness.

I still do not know ‘what I can say’ in the many settings I am in. I can only try to poke more holes to allow un-permitted speech to become permitted so as to make partners in discourse aware of the “question mark” (Barth) that stands against all our speech. Perhaps ‘just speech’ in this world is only recognizable under the sign of this question mark.

 

 

 

Evangelical Theology according to Karl Barth

How have I not found this video until now! So good. To actually hear his voice is also enjoyable. Now I will likely read the dogmatics hearing this voice in my head. 🙂

I especially like this sentence (@ 5:38): “…Evangelical theology is an immanently critical science, since it is continually exposed to judgment and never dispensed from the crisis in which it is placed by its object, that is to say, by its living subject.”

Getting Pregnant: A Reflection on the Barrenness of “Mother’s Day” and the Labour Pains of Discipleship

Mother’s Day. A day where many church communities, reflect, celebrate and honor those we are indebted to for our very biological existence. Yet the day we have come to name “mother’s day” is often celebrated in a fashion that, in the light of the Gospel, is rather barren. Mother’s day ends up creating yet more walls of division in the human community, celebrating and honoring only those mothers who fall into certain biological and cultural categories we define as “fertile” and appropriate for “the task of motherhood”. The barrenness of “Mother’s Day” should not come as a surprise to the Christian community. After all, Mother’s Day is nowhere on the church calendar and neither does the day hold any theological significance on its own. Indeed, if Mother’s day is to produce any form of Gospel proclamation, if it is to be theologically fertile, it must at the outset find its justification in this one fact: “All followers of the risen Christ are all called to be mothers.”

In Matthew 12:46-50 we are told that  “While [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him.  Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Clearly Jesus is not debating a biological fact. When Jesus says, “for whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother,” he is quite obviously not denying that Mary was the woman to give him birth and that his brothers were also biologically related to him. And neither was he claiming that one of his twelve male disciples had literally birthed him. That was obvious enough to everyone who would have heard Jesus say this. What he was denying is that within the Kingdom of God a “mother” or a “brother” or a “sister” is a relationship defined by biology. What Jesus was teaching was that we become so intimately linked to each other when we become part of God’s family that these terms no longer apply solely to any biological reality. By living the life that God has intended us to live we actually become a part of a community where we act in the nurturing role of mother (and brother, and sister) to each other. This is especially the case when for one reason or other regular biological relationships have become barriers to our flourishing. Effectively, Jesus is saying, our ability to play these uniquely productive and nurturing roles is simply not limited by biology. But if this really is the case, that is, if we all must be open to the possibility of being mothers to each other, an even more profound implication is the fact that discipleship can be, in a very real sense, about getting pregnant.

Paul teaches as much in his letter to the Church of Galatia when he said to them: “I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Galatians 4:19).” Being a mother, for Paul, is not defined by the biological events named conception, development, and birth. Rather, it is defined by the spiritual event of apocalypse, the conception, development, and birth experienced through an encounter with the risen Christ. One might say Paul was conceived on the road to Damascus when, as Saul, he encountered the risen Christ. While in Damascus for three days (or, to carry the analogy to its torturous limits, trimesters) Saul developed further until he was finally birthed in the waters of Baptism after a visit from the midwife Ananias (Acts 9:18). His further missionary life would itself be a life of holy promiscuity, patiently enduring many different Christ-births. Paul sought to place himself at the service of the Christ who had overcome the world in order that the world might be populated with the fruitfulness of the Gospel. The original Genesis mandate to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) takes on a whole new significance following Christ’s resurrection as, not only the disciples of Jesus, but the creation itself begins to show the signs of pregnancy.

As Paul states in Romans 8:19-23:

“the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

While the barren creation longs for the birth of the children of God, we too long, waiting and groaning inwardly for the redemption of our bodies. If Mother’s Day is to be theologically fertile, it must find its justification in the hope of “the revealing [apokalupsis] of the children of God”. On this Mother’s Day may we all open ourselves to the labour pains of discipleship that precede this apocalypse.

Karl Barth on the groundless nature of theology

Perhaps this has something to add to the discussion about the ‘diasporic’ nature of theology?

“Theology cannot lift itself, as it were, by its own boot straps, to the level of God; it cannot presuppose anything at all concerning the foundation, authorization, and destination of its statements. It can presuppose no help or buttress from the outside and just as little from within. If theology wished to provide a presupposition for its statements, it would mean that it sought to make them, itself, and its work safe from any attack, risk, or jeopardy. It would presume that it could and must secure them…Precisely in this way theology could sell its birthright for a mess of pottage. Theology can only do its work. It cannot, however, seek to secure its operation. Its work can be well done only when all presuppositions are renounced which would secure it from without or within.”[1]


[1] Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, p. 50

Understanding the Person/Work of the Holy Spirit

The following is a sermon that is still a work in progress. Lately, our congregation has been seeking direction on how to talk about and understand the person/work of the Holy Spirit. Below is my attempt at starting the conversation and, while admittedly dense for a sermon at times, I feel it necessary to “put it out there”. Let me know your thoughts.

Understanding the Person/Work of the Holy Spirit: Trinity, Revelation, and Christian Speech about God

 1

One of the most challenging dimensions of being Christian has always been learning how to speak rightly about God. This may seem an odd statement, seeing as how many might think that the bigger challenge facing the faithful today isn’t so much how Christians talk about God but rather whether we are willing to join in the work of God in the world. And indeed, when speech and action are framed in opposition to each other in this way, then there is a grain of truth to this. For if speech and action are framed in opposition to each other then speech about God, or Theology, would only ever be a talking about God. And when this is the case, it is indeed inimical to the required embodiment of the Gospel. However, speech and action must not be in opposition to one another in the good work of theology and indeed, inasmuch as it is assumed they can be, one might just the same argue that what is being done then is precisely not theology, but useless chatter about an idol or idols. Theology is at its best when it is a functioning member of the Church and indeed, this is what our initial statement was trying to get at: that the challenge of the church has always been to learn how to speak rightly about God so that she might faithfully embody the true Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One area within Christian speech that is in need of attention for our particular local congregation is talk of the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, we live in a time where talk of the Holy Spirit is significantly lacking in some Christian circles and perhaps even in our own. Perhaps in some churches this is due to a worry of falling into certain non-biblical doctrines of the Spirit’s anointing on individuals,[1] whereby the church is called to adopt formulaic approaches to harnessing the Spirit’s power for the purposes of producing signs and wonders. And indeed, there is much to worry about in this trend. However, Scripture and the Christian tradition are clear when they name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And so, speaking responsibly about God must include speech about the Holy Spirit. But how do we begin such a process? Do we start with a general idea about a Spirit? Do we start with received wisdom about how such a spirit might operate? No, clearly as Christians we look to Holy Scripture to dictate for us what it means to talk about the Holy Spirit.

But even when we make scripture our standard, where do we begin? Can we simply choose any passage that mentions the Holy Spirit and faithfully get a picture of who and what this Spirit is and does? Or is there a particular dimension within scripture that we must look to first in order to understand the person and work of the Holy Spirit? I want to put forward the latter claim, which to repeat is that we must look to a particular dimension of scripture to understand the person and work of the Holy Spirit as He is mentioned throughout the whole of scripture. And I will do so by first asking a question related to a core doctrine of the Christian faith, namely, the doctrine of the Trinity.

Now, before anyone should become concerned that I am going to enter into all kinds of abstract talk about three persons in one substance and try to find every day realities to stand as symbols and analogies for the Trinity, I will tell you right now that I am not going that route.[2] What concerns us now, as we mentioned at the start, is how to responsibly talk about the person and work of the Holy Spirit as Christians who look to the Bible as our starting point. But, I want to claim that in order to talk about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we need first to understand the way in which the scriptures as a whole paint the picture of God as Trinity. And so, as promised, we begin with a question related to the Trinity:

“How do we know God as Trinity?”

I want to answer this question by making the claim that as Christians, we can only know God as Trinity, and so the Father and the Holy Spirit, by way of God’s perfect, complete, and true revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ. You see, as odd as this may sound to some, you can read the Bible in the wrong order as it pertains to the identity of God. Let me propose that the wrong order can actually look like this:

God –> Jesus –> Holy Spirit

“What is wrong with that?”, we might ask? Is not this exactly the “order” that we have in the scriptures? Is this not the order that the creed of the ancient church follows? Yes, of course. But, let us be careful here, for talk of the Trinity is not talk of THREE God’s that all just show up at different times in scripture. Neither is it one God changing from one mode to another over time, finally culminating in God’s final transformation into the Holy Spirit. Rather, talk of the Trinity, as hard as it is to understand (and indeed, there comes a point where one does have to point to mystery to talk about Trinity), is talk about ONE God, in three persons or three modes of being that exist at the same “time” or are in simultaneity from all eternity. So with that in mind, we need to be careful that we don’t separate the three into three God’s acting all on their own, or one God changing his shape over time, for then we do not worship the one God in three persons attested to in scripture.

So if the above order is wrong, what would be the right order? Well, what if we were to think about God in this order:

Jesus the Son –> God the Father –> The Holy Spirit

What’s the difference? Well, the difference is that, on this latter order, we read all of scripture through the lens of Jesus first when we are trying to think about who God is as Trinity, and that is because Jesus simply is God’s revelation of Himself to us. The New Testament writers are clear that in Jesus Christ, the truest revelation of God has been given. As Hebrews 1:1-3a says:

 “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

Before, God spoke to the ancestors of Israel and testified to them by prophets, but in these last days, God speaks of Himself by Himself in Jesus Christ. Now the question arises, does that mean that when God spoke before that He wasn’t speaking by Himself? No, of course God spoke by Himself, but the difference is that we did not previously see or have revealed to us his exact imprint among us.[3] The situation is different, in light of Jesus. As John 1:14 says of Jesus,

John 1:14  the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,full of grace and truth.

In Jesus comes the way to know the Father and, as will become clear, also the Holy Spirit. Before, there was talk of God displaying his glory, but notice that as Christians we can only ever look to those texts as pre-figuring the person of Jesus Christ. Our scriptures demand it. We can always say that God was Himself in the Old Testament, and indeed we need to say that in order to not fall into the errors of some who dismiss the Old Testament as lacking any revelation of God. But, there is no question that the New Testament demands that we read the Old with Christ-Centered eyes.

So, in light of all of this, how do we begin speaking responsibly of the person and work Holy Spirit? In following with the approach outlined above, I want to propose that we do so out of the model that Jesus gives us through his words as recorded in scripture. Particularly, I want to look briefly at one verse today. It comes from John 15:26 and it says:

“when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me;”

I picked this passage because of how much it frames us into thinking about what we have just been exploring about the Trinity. Notice how completely this verse is a testament to God as Trinity? The Spirit is being sent to the disciples, by Jesus, from the Father. This Spirit proceeds from the Father, and (here is the most significant part) bears witness to Jesus. In other words, what we have here is God coming to us as The Holy Spirit to give us the power to know and follow after the exact imprint of God’s being, namely, Jesus. And indeed this is who the Spirit is: the Spirit is the power of Jesus Christ to communicate Himself to us and conform us to Himself even while He is no longer in the flesh. The Holy Spirit is not a third God that is different from Jesus who comes to do a work that is completely unrelated from that of Jesus’. Rather, the Spirit is the third person of God’s ONE being who empowers us to become His disciples according to the exact imprint of his being, namely Jesus. Indeed, one could say that it is almost[4] the same thing to say that Jesus empowers us as it is to say that the Spirit empowers us because (remember) it is in the name of Jesus that the Father sends the Spirit to empower and the Father, Son, and Spirit are all one and the same GOD. Said differently and perhaps in a way less subject to misinterpretation, you can never talk about the work of one of the persons of the Trinity without implicating one of the other two. Furthermore, you cannot know the work of the Father or the Spirit without first knowing the name through which the Father sends the Spirit. This interplay between persons John the Baptist attests to (knowingly or unknowingly) when he said to those coming to him to be baptized:

Luke 3:16  “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Can you begin to see the importance of the order in which we think about God? The New Testament reveals to us that God is known exactly as He IS, in Jesus, as Jesus reveals to us the Father (John 14:9) and as Jesus sends upon us or baptizes us with the Holy Spirit.

So where does this all lead us? Are we not still left wondering what the work of the Holy Spirit looks like in our day to day lives? Yes, we are, and I want us to continue to think about this and discuss it more in depth and with greater specificity at a later date. But for now, I want us to receive this warning and challenge: As Christians, who desire to speak faithfully about God, beware the temptation to speak by the spirit of the world rather than by the Spirit of God. Whenever you hear someone talk of the person and work of the Holy Spirit or of God the Father for that matter, or whenever you yourself speak of the Holy Spirit or the Father, ask whether what is being said testifies to Jesus, His life, and His commands for us as disciples. Then, and only then, will you have a chance of knowing if the Spirit being spoken of is the true spirit of God or if it is the spirit of the world.[5] In 1 Corinthians 2:12-16 Paul put what was just said above positively to the Church in Corinth when he encouraged them by saying:

“…We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”[6] But we have the mind of Christ.”

Praise God, for by the power of the Holy Spirit who is sent from the Father, we have been given the mind of Christ.

AMEN.


[1] I am NOT saying that the Spirit does not anoint individuals. Rather, I am saying that there are ways in which we are in danger of talking about that anointing non-biblically.

[2] This is not to say that there is never merit in such an approach. Rather, for the purposes of this conversation, I wish to focus in on the relationship within the Trinity on a more biblically basic level.

[3] Some may point to passages like Exodus 33:11 or Deuteronomy 34:10 to claim that in fact a man had seen God’s true imprint. The truth of the matter is that many commentators will agree that the phrase “face to face” does not denote a mutual visual perception between one another, but rather a more general intimacy. This is further supported when one reads a passage like Exodus 33:20-23 in conjunction with the previously mentioned ones: But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

[4] This “almost” is indeed very important here. I am not a Sabellian/Modalist. As I noted earlier, there are three persons in the one God in simultaneity and in eternity.

[5] Of course even this will not safeguard us from idolatry completely. We can still fall into the trap of bending the story of Jesus to fit our own desires and thereby make “the life of Jesus” a further justification of a false spirit. However, that is a matter to be discussed on another occasion.

[6] This quote comes from Isaiah 40:13 and Paul’s use of it is all the more evidence that it is in Jesus that we know the Father and the Spirit. For, to know the “mind” of the LORD is to know His Spirit and in this passage, it is by virtue of having the mind of Christ that we know both. Or, to answer our question posed earlier, “How do we know God as Trinity”? We do so by the mind of Christ.