My "Journey" with Jürgen Moltmann

Diving for stuff in a discard bin isn’t the classiest way to spend one’s time, but for the academic diving in the free book bin at the used book store can be a true adventure. (Diving in the dumpster may be a necessity for the adjunct academic, and the new overtime rules don’t help a bit.) As I have mentioned from time to time, I count seminary academics as friends, and they have introduced me to authors (especially Protestant ones, although Henri Nouwen keeps coming up) I hadn’t read before. So it was an opportunity when one of those authors—the German Jürgen Moltmann—turned up in the bin. I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking a look.

Moltmann is a Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen. But he has also spent time on this side of the pond: he was the Robert W. Woodruff Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He studied, however, at Göttingen University.

Göttingen! The name rings clear with people in mathematics and the sciences. It’s hard to conceive of a greater single explosion of scientific brilliance and advancement than that at Göttingen. The names of those who studied or taught there are legendary: Gauss, Riemann, Hilbert, Dirichlet, Born, Oppenheimer, Planck, von Neumann, Pauli, Dedekind, Courant, Dirac, Fermi, Heisenberg, Prantl, Runge, Teller, Weisbach, and so on. The Nazi purge of the place was the beginning of the suicide of the Third Reich. So how does their theology result compare with this one?

The book I found, Religion, Revolution, and the Future, came from another one of his forays onto this continent. Not a true, cover-to-cover monograph, it is a series of his lectures at various institutions in the late 1960’s. This is not meant to be a comprehensive book review or synopsis of the work, but some observations at his idea and how he shows (or more accurately doesn’t) its implementation.

He makes some pithy observations that bear repeating. His thought about revolutions (and by those we’re primarily looking at the Marxist ones) is that they are more about trying to recreate a past ideal and not to create a future reality. That’s not easy to see; it certainly wasn’t when Moltmann delivered these lectures, although those of us who have spent time in such societies got that feeling. He is also aware that these revolutions, far from bringing the freedom that they promised, often ended up with results no more satisfactory than those in capitalist countries. That’s a major concession that needs to be recalled, especially in these days of people “feeling the Bern.”

If there is one idea that he wants to get across, it’s his “theology of hope,” derived from Ernst Bloch. Now you’d think that eternal life in Jesus Christ would be hope enough. But Moltmann doesn’t find this satisfying; indeed, he finds it escapist and decidedly “retro.” What he wants to do is to focus this hope on the improvement of the world, and thus turn the attention of Christians toward the future and away from just the past. To be fair, he’s not the only Christian thinker or theologian to deflect the centre of attention from the eternal goal; N.T. Wright does much the same thing, albeit in a different (and, IMHO, a better but not ideal) context. Although it’s self-focused for its adherents, you could say that prosperity teaching is another way of channeling Christian emphasis on this world. Moltmann isn’t unique in positing that modern (for him, the book comes before the advent of post-modernity) man cannot be swayed solely by eternal reward, it has been the pre-occupation of Christian leaders for a long time now.

The problem comes with Moltmann’s assumption that the Christian focus on hope and improvement for this world would come with Christians cooperating with other, more secular people to achieve the goal. This is one of the key weaknesses of liberal theology, that Christianity is a universal philosophy only to the extent that it meshes with those systems of thought and being around it. What happens is that, the process of this coöperation, Christianity loses its distinctive advantages and purpose. This has resulted in Main Line churches bleeding membership on both sides of the Atlantic; they become waystations for those headed for some form of secularism. In that respect Roman Catholicism, with its own self-contained universality, is in better position to endure this kind of then than Main Line Protestantism, although it’s perfectly capable of throwing away the advantages it has.

He also, to use the Liberation Theology phrase, wants the church to take the “preferential option for the poor” in its life and work. As I’ve discussed before, the “preferential option for the poor” and “preferential option of the poor” aren’t the same, and Moltmann (along with many in his day and even now) is blindly unaware of that fact. In conjunction with that, his world is totally Main Line; he totally ignores the rise of Modern Pentecost, which specialises in the latter. He wasn’t alone; Harvey Cox had to backtrack and write Fire From Heaven: The Rise Of Pentecostal Spirituality And The Reshaping Of Religion In The 21st Century after The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. Here is a place where Christian social action can be both distinctive and more effective than its secular counterpart.

One place where Moltmann should read his own stuff is the issue of theodicy. On the one hand, he sighs that the terrible wars of the last century have put the issue of theodicy out of reach. That’s been a common sentiment of Europeans who went through these wars; it has been a big push in the decline of Christianity in Europe. In the 1980’s my mother had an English S.O. who became an atheist because of his experience in World War II; the effect was different over here. On the other hand, Moltmann points out that modern man is now the master of his own destiny. Then why did he allow these wars to happen? Why were humans out to lunch on this? This may not answer the theodicy issue to Moltmann’s satisfaction, but it should (usually doesn’t) give humanists pause as to the superiority of their idea.

I think it best to skip a detailed analysis of his theology, which is wanting at many points. Seminary academics are notorious for dense prose of very limited meaning, and Moltmann is certainly up to that task. To be fair, some of his talks are easier to follow than others. One is never sure with such people whether they think they are dealing with objective reality or not, or even whether they fully grasp the difference.

One place where Moltmann’s theology could use some help from the mathematicians is the issue of imminence vs. transcendence, which is a favourite occupation of theologians. Since the days of Dedekind and Cantor (who was inspired by mediaeval theologians) we’ve had reasonable ways of describing the infinite which could be very helpful in this matter. Moltmann is aware of this but is either unable or unwilling to avail himself of this kind of thinking.

Overall, I found going through his talks an education. It made me look at liberal theology in a different way, if not in a more favourable one. As far as Göttingen people are concerned, I’ll stick with the list I gave at the start and leave Moltmann to the liberal seminary academics.

Advice to Graduates: You May End Up Building Their Coffin

It’s that time of year again, when most people who graduate from anything in the U.S. get their diplomas in large, pompous ceremonies.  Since it is as doubtful that I will ever experience another graduation ceremony of my own let alone speak at one, this is a poor substitute.  Hopefully it will enlighten you about what you should be doing after the sheepskin.

My experience in academia, as student and teacher, has been an interesting one, from seeing one program’s fading glory, playing the cards I’m dealt to meeting couples where one did all the talking and the other the thinking.  For the illustration I want to use now, I’m turning to the Middle East, and specifically a story one of my Iranian friends told me.  Middle Eastern storytellers are the best, and the Iranians are the best among them.  The “Arabian Nights” are in reality Persian in origin.

The story comes from the old Persian Empire, when one of the kings under the “king of kings” came to visit a town.  He saw a very beautiful woman; he wanted her for himself.  (Even a Roman like Ammianus Marcellinus noted the beauty of Persian women.)  Problem was, she was married to a carpenter.  He could have killed him and taken her, but he would look like a heel, and even in an autocracy there are limits.  So he devised a plan.

He called the carpenter in an ordered him to build an exquisite dining room set (or “suit” as we say here in TN) complete with tables, chairs and the cabinetry to go with it.  But he stipulated that it had to be done in thirty days.  In those days there were no power tools or easy places to get lumber; the king knew that the carpenter could not complete the task in the appointed time.  The penalty for missing the deadline was death for the carpenter.

So the carpenter, without choice, went to work.  He worked day and night on the project; he about killed himself just trying to finish the job and save his life.  But, as the king anticipated, the job was too big for thirty days.  As the deadline approached he knew he was finished.

On the thirtieth day he looked around his shop, his uncompleted task before him.  He heard a knock on the door; it was the king’s vizier. He answered the door, figuring he was about to be arrested and executed.  The king’s vizier, however, had another order.  The king had died, the vizier said, and he had come to direct the carpenter to build his coffin.

Many of you are going out to do tasks that are, in reality, humanly impossible.  You have been told from your youngest that you can do anything you want and be successful at it, if you believe in yourself (which you have been told to do over and over.)  Unlike the carpenter, you do not know that you are under compulsion, and unlike the carpenter you do not know that the constraints you have been put under–obvious and not so obvious–will make real success impossible.  You do not understand that, except for a few of you, those at the top will drain so much out of society that the rest of you, like Sisyphus, will watch the stone life roll downhill as soon as you push it up.

Worst of all, most of you are unprepared to benefit from the death of the king.  Your skills, by and large, are only good for the bubble you’ve been raised in.  When that bubble bursts, you will be unable to even build its coffin, let alone come out ahead.  A lot of the unrest going on these days is due to people trying to keep the bubble inflated, but that is not possible indefinitely.

The Christians among you who still know the Scriptures will see the similarities between this story and that of David and Bathsheba.  David, wanting Bathsheba for himself, put her husband Uriah in the front line, where he was certain to be killed.  When that came to pass, David thought it was over.  It wasn’t; the prophet Nathan called him out on it, and David’s response was as follows:

Wash me thoroughly from my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin. I admit that I am rebellious. My sin is always in front of me. I have sinned against you, especially you. I have done what you consider evil. So you hand down justice when you speak, and you are blameless when you judge.  (Psalms 51:2-4 GW)

David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14.)  Was it because he was morally perfect?  Hardly.  The secret was that, when faced with his own sin, he was sorry and repented.  Our leaders today are just too full of themselves to do such a thing.  You will meet such people all through life; just don’t be one of them.

This isn’t a very cheery message, but these aren’t very cheery times either.  When I started back on my academic adventure, the following verse guided my actions:

Then he told them, “Go, eat rich foods, drink sweet drinks, and send portions to those who cannot provide for themselves. Today is a holy day for the Lord. Don’t be sad because the joy you have in the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 GW)

May your joy be in his strength also; real joy can be found in no other place.

Pope Francis and Two-Way Ignorance

Pope Francis isn’t much of a fan of things American these days, but his visit to this country was a revelation:

Prior to his election Francis had never set foot in the United States, making him the only pope in the last eighty years other than St. John XXIII who had never been to America before taking office…People close to Francis also say his U.S. trip last year helped him to better distinguish between ordinary Americans and “the system.”

But when another world leader discovered something, the evaluation was different:

Latin Americans also tend to have long memories, and many still recall moments such as Ronald Reagan’s famous reaction upon returning from a 1982 trip to the region: “You’d be surprised … they’re all individual countries.” The fact that national differences could strike a U.S. president as a revelation still rings in Latin American ears as proof of our capacity for condescension.

What I think we’re looking at is two-way ignorance.  There’s a lot that people in the U.S. need to learn about Latin America, but the converse is also true, as we see with His Holiness.

The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. has always been a complicated one, from stuff like this to this.   And the rise of obsessively sex-driven liberalism will only make it worse.

What a Difference a Century Makes

While going through some things, ran across this:

973-Old-StyleThe drawing is interesting to technology history buffs, but look at the note in the upper right hand corner:

Superseded by new tracing 8/18/15

Just last year?  No, just last century…

Note: referring to drawings as “tracings” is very old school, but I can remember that terminology being used in the 1970’s.  Drawings like this were usually done on linen with India ink; some of them are real works of art.

Hard Currency, Soft Currency and Venezuela

@jeffspross at @theweek thinks he’s figured out Venezuela’s problem:

But as Mark Weisbrot — the co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, who has written extensively on Venezuela and Latin America — explained to The Week, the main reason for Venezuela’s troubles is likely a lot more technocratic, and a lot more banal: Namely, their currency exchange system is a mess.

He’s on to something, but it isn’t a clean “either-or” situation.

Venezuela has a currency with an official rate and a black market rate, and the two are in serious divergence.  It’s little wonder it cannot import much of anything under these conditions.

Old Soviet hands will recognise this as a “soft currency” situation.  Because of the government’s policies regarding the bolívar, it has become a “soft currency” as opposed to a “hard currency” (the dollar or even the euro with its present woes.)  Venezuelans can “stockpile” (to use Spross’ delightful term) dollars and buy things, but the system in general doesn’t work.  (Having hard currency in hand was a big deal for foreigners in the last days of the Soviet Union; the need for hard currency was the genesis of the Soviet/Russian sale of nuclear technology to Iran.)

Spross tells us that one of the faulty theories behind Venezuela’s problems is that it’s run by socialists.  But soft currencies are hallmarks of socialist regimes.  One of the goals of Marxism was to make money simply a medium of exchange based on the value of what was being bought and not the currency itself being a commodity.  But that didn’t work out in the Soviet Union (the Chinese have progressively hardened the renminbi) and it’s not working out for Venezuela.

Floating the bolívar is not popular because, as Spross points out, “moving to a unified floating exchange system is unpopular with the Venezuelan public, precisely because it would involve a one-time but very big drop in the official value of the bolívar against the dollar.”  When the USSR broke up, the Russians ended up doing just that, with results that were often painful and sometimes hilarious.  But there aren’t many other ways out for Venezuela, especially when the alternative to expensive stuff is none at all.

It’s interesting that the Venezuelans push back against a massive currency devaluation to set things straight when the Greeks pine for it while the Germans block the way.

The Aggie Who Knew How to Get Ahead With a Professor

First: congratulations are in order to my Texas A&M classmate Ray Rothrock, who won this year a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Association of Former Students.  He majored in a good but highly unpopular subject–nuclear engineering–and then turned around and did very well.

Although I didn’t name him at the time, it’s now or never: he was the one who came up with the method to curry favour with my differential equations teacher, which I documented last year in my piece Sometimes it Pays to Give Your Professor a Little Attention.

Another one of those life skills…

Those Vanishing Episcopal Parishes

Every so often I begin a reading of the Bible through.  I try to vary the translation I use, so I’ve read translations such as the Vulgate, Louis Segond, Reina-Valera, New American Bible, Douay-Rheims, CCD and of course the Positive Infinity New Testament.  This time I had a copy of the original TEV New Testament from the American Bible Society, first published in 1966.  I liked it so well I went to the used book store to get the whole Bible, and for my Roman Catholic and Orthodox visitors, I mean the whole one: it includes the deuterocanonical and apocryphal books.  (It also has the Roman Catholic imprimatur; I’ll bet they’ll think twice before pulling that like they did on Christ Among Us.)

In any case, the previous owner of the book was a woman who lived in northern New Jersey.  In the Bible was a postcard with her parish’s Holy Week schedule, probably dating from the 1980’s.  A little research revealed that her Episcopal parish was no more; a pretty church, the congregation had folded earlier in this decade and the building was now being used by an independent black church.

Northern New Jersey was, of course, the stomping grounds of John Shelby Spong, its bishop for many years.  Spong inspired one of the earliest “posts” of this website, When Church Becomes Pointless, nearly twenty years ago.  The following from that piece bears repeating:

So let’s take this a step further; suppose you are sitting in an Episcopal pew listening to John Shelby Spong go on about why the basic truths of Christianity have no basis in reality and that those who teach them are a bunch of morons.  Suppose that you finally realize that you think that Spong is right; that all that you’ve said when you’re repeated the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed is false and that the life you have is all you’re expected to get.  What should you do?   You should first realize that life is short and that, if you’re going to live you’d better hurry.  So the sensible thing for you to do is to get up, gather your family, walk out of the church, get into your Lexus or Mercedes, and head to Atlantic City or Las Vegas or South Florida or wherever you need to go to live it up while you still can.

Evidently many in northern New Jersey took that to heart; the Episcopal Church there has bled parishes ever since.  Most of those remaining were those who ultimately left via the coffin.  TEC’s demographics are consistently elderly, largely made up of those who stick around because they’ve always done it that way.  The younger people who really thought he was wrong about Christianity either fled to Evangelical or Charismatic churches, swam the Tiber or the Bosporus, or were the impetus behind the ACNA.

Part of Spong’s problem was that he was a Southerner in a Northern place.  He thought that people would always go to church somewhere, no matter how stupid things got.  This is a common mistake among our ministers.  It simply doesn’t work that way in the Northeast.

Beyond that Spong was an old style radical; he thought that, if we completely changed what Christianity stood for, it would be more acceptable to the modern and post-modern world.  That hasn’t worked out either.  Today’s liberal, imbued with post-modernism, practices a form of deception (and self-deception) that rivals anything Islam can be accused of.  They use words that mean one thing to others but something entirely different to themselves.

An example of this is the controversy over the “bathroom bills” and the Federal government’s attempt to shove “transgender rights” down everyone’s throat in the matter.  Does anyone really believe that “rights” are what’s at stake here?  What they’re really trying to do is to break down people’s modesty; the whole idea of people not exposing themselves to each other–and refraining from sexual activity–is abhorrent to them.  The only solution that will make them happy is the complete integration of bathrooms and locker rooms.

The results of the likes of Spong in the TEC are a harbinger of what’s to come for the Global North, which is why it’s important to study these things.  I’ll close with a comment I made to another post about Spong in 2009:

And that leads to the second level. Spong, I think, has the idea that the liberal West will triumph over many of his “traditionalist” enemies, in and out of the church. But a civilisation (?) with the demographic and financial woes ours has is waiting for its own Valhalla to ignite. To take one issue: most of the world doesn’t have the affinity for the LGBT community that Spong exhibits (and did so at length for the Times piece) and his expectations that the rest of the world will follow his idea to victory are sorely misplaced.

When Spong squared off with the Africans at 1998 Lambeth, he was facing the future. But I think he instinctively discounted that future because it wasn’t white. But nonwhite is the future.

The survival of traditional or any other kind of authentic Christianity will be principally resident in non-Western people.

And that can be extended to humanity in general.

“What you think is the right road, may lead to death.” (Proverbs 14:12 TEV)

Jesus Christ, the Way Up

From The World of Mathematics, this quotation from the British mathematician Augustus de Morgan:

I commend my future with hope and confidence to Almighty God; to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom I believe in my heart to be the Son of God but whom I have not confessed with my lips, because in my time such confession has always been the way up in the world.

Jesus Christ is still the “way up” in eternity.  But de Morgan’s problem of confessing Christianity as a way of worldly advancement has pretty much been solved both here and in the UK.  The sooner we come to grips with what that means, the better.

If You Can't Do the Math, You Can't Do the Science

And the math is problematic these days:

The average performance of the nation’s high school seniors dropped in math from 2013 to 2015, but held steady in reading, according to results of a biennial test released Wednesday…

“This trend of stagnating scores is worrisome,” said Terry Mazany, the chairman of the governing board for the test. Mr. Mazany is also a former public schools superintendent in California, Michigan and Illinois and is now the president of the Chicago Community Trust, a large foundation.

I always find it amazing how hard it is to convince some people that proficiency in math is a necessary prerequisite for success in science, engineering and technology.  But maybe I shouldn’t; the hippie dreamers who run the show these days first came up in an era when science and engineering were in the doghouse, a doghouse of their own making.  Personally I think the recent interest in STEM is a seriously delayed “waking up and smelling the coffee” moment; the computer and its variants have forced on them the reality that we live in a technological society.  They’re probably also thinking about the uphill battle they’ve had with evolution and global warming, but that connection is more complicated than they realise.

One of the really frustrating things about American primary and secondary education is not just that the results aren’t up to par; a system which spends as much per pupil on education should have more to show that it does.  But, when you pack your bureaucracy with administrators the way we do in this country, the money spent per pupil doesn’t really get to the pupils…

Donald Trump and the Entourage Problem

Now that we pretty much know who the Republican nominee will be (barring some last-minute machinations) it’s obvious that many “Regular Republicans” have gotten out the brown pants, as they have developed instant irregularity.  We have the “Never Trump” people saying they’ll stay home or even vote for That Woman From the North Side.

But why?  Some say that the Republic is in danger if we elect Donald Trump to the White House.  Others say that principled conservatism is out the window because we’re nominating him.  Personally, I think there’s a more prosaic–and opportunistic–explanation for the angst, but a little background is in order.

When we go to the polls in November, from a legal standpoint we will be choosing electors for the Electoral College to vote on two people: one for President and one for Vice-President.  People think that, at a national level, those are the only two positions open.

But that’s not really true.  The reality is that, when we choose a President, we also choose an entourage of people who will staff the various positions in the government. Both parties have built up such an entourage.  When one party’s nominee is elected, the entourage goes into place in the government.  When out of power, they move to lobbying law firms, consultants and think tanks, waiting to go back into place.  There’s usually some Members of Congress thrown in for comic relief.

This is why, for example, when Barack Obama went into office, so many Clintonistas (like Rahm Emanuel) reappeared after an eight year hiatus.  At the top of the entourage is the Vice President, who is generally selected from the “regulars.”  This is also why Joe Biden, who can be a real liability when he puts his mind to it, was the “transformative” Obama’s VP.  Before him was George W. Bush’s éminence grise, Dick Cheney.

The greatest fear that the Regular Republicans have is that, with a President Trump, the usual entourage will not get back into power, or at least not in the strength they think it should.  Thus many people who have waited for the Occupant to vacate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue so they could have their position back are afraid that they’ll be left out stay in “the wilderness.”  (The Democrats have the same fear about Bernie Sanders but, as I mentioned earlier, they took more effective steps to keep him from getting nominated.)

This is careerist angst, pure and simple.  It will drive people to do very extreme things.  Republicans will remember that President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881 by a frustrated office seeker; that deed led to the beginnings of civil service.  The fact remains that there are still many positions which are political in nature, and the expansion of government has only expanded these positions.

I strongly suspect that much of the blubbering coming from within the Republican Party about Donald Trump stems from fear, fear that he will bring in a new group of people and disempower the old.   But I don’t think that our Founding Fathers–whose idea conservatives claim to follow–saw government as a core career for most of those who lead it, but as a part of a greater cursus honorum which included success in the civic sector.  Unfortunately we are far from that ideal; the rank careerism that drives most of our people is the greatest enemy that “principled” conservatism has, and thus it died long before Trump came on the scene.

I do not believe that Donald Trump, for all of his faults (and they are many) is the end of the Republic, any more that he was the end of Palm Beach when he opened a club for Jew and Gentile together.  For those whose careers hang on the next appointment, he is an existential threat.  But they need to get over it.  Americans generally only succeed when the rules are written their way, but in this case a little adaptability will go a long way.