Anatheism: What Is It, and Do I Have It?

I probably spend more time than I should online following seminary academics.  That’s not just considering their impact on me: sometimes they bite back, especially if they’re of a Reformed background.  In any case a series of events has led me to discover something called anatheism, which is the discovery (for want of a better term) of one Richard Kearney of Boston College.

So how did I get interested in this?  Well, I was asked to find the latest publication of one Austin Williams, a PhD student at Boston College (and probably a protégé of Kearney.) Austin is the son of my church’s pastor, Mark Williams. (I get a whiff from his Twitter feed that Austin is bailing on Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology, of which his father is an adherent.  If that happens, it would be a major triumph for me.)

So I discovered this book review of Richard Kearney’s Anatheistic Wager: Philosophy, Theology, Poetics in Pneuma.  It piqued my interest.  So what, you ask, is anatheism?  The best way to answer that question is to go to the man himself, and he explains it (in a pithier way than many seminary academics manage) in this video.

Rather than get into a full-blown critique of the concept, I’d like to make some observations that perhaps will shed light on the subject and/or engender some conversation.  (The last is a dangerous objective online.)

Most people obtain their faith beliefs while being raised (or discipled for adult converts) in “the system.”  Generally the objective of “the system” is to bring people into some understanding of the faith without going over their head intellectually while at the same time minimizing the possibility that they would challenge what they’re being taught along the way.  (I have this illustration of that process in the Roman Catholic RCIA.)  The problem with this is that eventually, especially when people get to university, they’re confronted with hostile belief systems they aren’t prepared to deal with, which in many cases leads to them bailing on the faith for atheism or even this.

What Kearny is talking about is a moment when we are confronted with a choice (he characterises our response as either hostility or hospitality) between God and atheism, and then those of us who choose God have to make a wager to follow God. (That’s a nice touch for someone who teaches Pascal’s Law to his Fluid Mechanics Laboratory students, but don’t tell the Pope or James Martin.)  Those who get through that, in Kearny’s view, return to “God after God,” thus anatheism.

His first illustration of that is Abraham, who actually has two anatheistic moments: the first when the three visitors come to announce the coming birth of Isaac, and the second when he takes same Isaac to sacrifice.  In both cases he wagers for God, and as Paul reminds us “What then, it may be asked, are we to say about Abraham, the ancestor of our nation? If he was pronounced righteous as the result of obedience, then he has something to boast of. Yes, but not before God. For what are the words of Scripture? ‘Abraham had faith in God, and his faith was regarded by God as righteousness.'” (Romans 4:1-3 TCNT)  That kind of encounter, although seminal in our salvation history, is one that is lacking in the experience of many Christians.

And that leads to the personal part: have I ever experienced this?  In thinking back, yes, at least three times.  The first was at the start, as I mentioned in my dialogue with Ron Krumpos.  The second was my year in prep school which led me to “swim the Tiber.”  (In fairness, I must say that my hapless school chaplain wasn’t alone in forcing this moment; he had a lot of help.)  The third was the experience I had in the Texas A&M Newman Association.  So I guess I have it.  In all of these I should make a qualification: atheism wasn’t really the alternative.  That’s in part because I came from a long line of secular people/Lodge dwellers who didn’t need outright atheism to marginalise religious belief and practice.  To have that kind of experience is good, and does give you a different perspective on your walk with God, but it makes you an outlier in normal local church/parish life.

There are two other observations I’d like to make.

First, I get the impression that Kearney’s idea is that, if more people had this kind of anatheistic experience, they would be less dogmatic in their faith.  I don’t agree with this.  One good example of this is Mohammad, one which Kearney himself brings up.  Another is Pascal, the person who advanced the whole concept of wager in both mathematics and religion.  After his experience he became the most vociferous defender of the Jansenists, much to the regret of the Jesuits.  It helps to have that experience but it doesn’t necessarily dampen the enthusiasm.

Second, I’m not sure how well any theistic concept works in Buddhism which, in the form the Buddha set is down, really has no need for a god.

I’m sure that there are philosophical and theological objections to the way I have presented my observations.  But I don’t believe that it is good that the musings of academics be divorced from the reality of those in the pews that have to endure the sermons of those who emerge from seminary academic.  Kearney has made in interesting contribution to Christian thought, one that deserves further discussion in an age when people are transitioning away from their faith at a significant rate.

We Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment — Ad Orientem

Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal. […]

via We Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment — Ad Orientem

The Polyepiscopacy of the Early Church

An intriguing (and sensible) suggestion from Trevor Gervase Jalland’s The Church and the Papacy:

Though there are, as we believe, adequate grounds for rejecting the view that Clement formally identifies episcopi with presbyters, yet in the face of this evidence it appears equally impossible to deny that he refers to the episcopate in a way that suggests that it was held by more than one person in a single community. It may be pointed out further that we are bound to infer from Clement’s description that the function of the episcopate at this time was purely and solely liturgical. Thus it may well be that his frequent use of liturgical language, to which commentators on this document repeatedly call attention, is due to his deep sense of the outrage which has been committed by unjustly depriving ministers of the liturgy of their peculiar office.

If it be asked how this plurality of the episcopate arose, it is impossible to offer more than conjecture in reply. It is probable from the evidence in Acts, I Corinthians and Romans that the primitive basis of Christian liturgical organization was the ‘house church’, such as that of Prisca at Rome. It is equally probable on the same evidence that in large centres of population such as Rome and Corinth, more than one such ‘house church’ would be acquired at an early date by rapidly expanding community. Now when an Apostle was present, to him would properly belong the privilege of ‘Breaking Bread’, as in Acts XIX. But to whom would it be assigned in the Apostle’s absence? The natural inference from Clement, who evidently refers to established and recognized custom, is that it would be given to an episcopus, and thus a plurality of house churches would at first naturally lead to a plurality of episcopi. (p. 80)

Jalland goes on to describe how this polyepiscopate morphed into the “monoepiscopate” normative in Anglicanism (well, sort of,) Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  But his concept solves many of the problems in sorting out the leadership offices described in the New Testament and shortly afterwards.

What Jalland is describing is what has come back as a kind of cell group system.  And, when I read this, I said to myself, “Score one for those in the Church of God who wanted to call the highest ministerial rank ‘bishop’ and not just those who supervise a region.”

Jalland also assumes that these bishops had liturgical duties from the beginning, and the whole idea of liturgical worship in the New Testament church is a complete freak-out for much of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.

‘They Were Never of Us’: Considering An Alternative Reading of I John 2.19a For the Broken, Defeated, and Confused Among Us — The Evangelical Calvinist

What about ‘defeated’ or ‘broken’ Christians; is there even such a category? I want to briefly touch upon this, because I see it as a real and present question that continues to confront us in the broader evangelical church. With the departure of Josh Harris, and now one of the lead writers for Hillsong music, […]

via ‘They Were Never of Us’: Considering An Alternative Reading of I John 2.19a For the Broken, Defeated, and Confused Among Us — The Evangelical Calvinist

The whole business of “were they really saved” is one of the most unedifying parlor games we have in Christianity.  And it’s not just the Calvinists either, although they got the ball rolling: the Southern Baptists, with their infelicitous combination of Arminian election and Calvinistic perseverance, do the same thing.  As Grow points out, “As with all exegesis, the Calvinist interpretation of I Jn 2.19 flows from their prior commitment to a particular doctrine of God,” but things break down in situations like we’re seeing with Harris and Sampson.

One other thing: Grow notes that “Within the Protestant tradition, there have been two major concepts of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation): the Reformed view and the Arminian view. ”  It has been suggested on this site that Calvinism and Arminianism are both forms of Reformed theology, but my experience is that Calvinists regard Arminians the same way Salafis regard Shi’a Muslims: outside of the faith.

For Anglicans, Article XVI allows for a falling away, which is a sensible solution to the problem at hand.  But it’s a major reason why I do not think that Anglicanism is strictly speaking “Reformed,” and that makes some people mad.

 

Kissing Josh Harris Goodbye

Another one bites the dust:

Joshua Harris has abandoned his Christian faith, news that marks another blow to American conservative evangelicalism.

Harris authored the best-selling I Kissed Dating Goodbye in his early twenties, unleashing unnecessary angst on a generation of evangelical teens. In his early thirties, he served as pastor of a Gaithersburg megachurch. He was also an influential figure in the Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement (YRR). Now, he has denounced his famous book, announced he and his wife are separating, and repudiated Christianity.

I’m not sure that this is the setback that some think it is.  It’s tempting to equate this with Bart Campolo’s abandonment of the faith, but the motivation is different.  In Campolo’s case, it was the theodicy issue, something with which American evangelicalism has set itself for trouble.  (That too entered into Rachel Held Evans’ falling down, although her break wasn’t as clean.)  In this case it’s another evangelical disaster.  As Trueman notes:

While Harris seems to be making a clean break with his past, the style of his apostasy announcement is oddly consistent with the evangelical Christianity he used to represent. He revealed he was leaving the faith with a social media post, which included a mood photograph of himself contemplating a beautiful lake. The earlier announcement of his divorce used the typical postmodern jargon of “journey” and “story.” And both posts were designed to play to the emotions rather than the mind. Life, it would seem, continues as performance art.

American evangelicalism is a running popularity contest, and Harris hasn’t stopped that part of it, just changed the product he’s selling.  And he’s also stuck his finger in the wind to see which way it’s blowing, which is probably behind his apology to the LGBT community.  Before that, however, his promotion of the “purity movement” reflected evangelical myopia on how to implement the demands of the Gospel.  My biggest problem with the purity movement wasn’t with the principle but with the implementation.  For someone who grew up in a part of the country where the Christian sexual ethic was unpopular to say the least, to make such a public show of it struck me as dangerous.  It’s hard enough to be a Christian without adding to the social pressure, especially in a society where the opinion leaders and elites live primarily to get laid, high or drunk.  Evangelicals think that they have to work at confronting the culture with the Gospel; these days, and earlier for some of us, live it and don’t worry, you’ll have confrontation.

It also doesn’t surprise me that he was Reformed.  Reformed theology is, IMHO, a highway to universalism, but some will blow their stack if they hear that.

The Problem of God, Evil, Cancer and My Nurse — The Evangelical Calvinist

It is just over nine years ago now that I was laid up in my hospital bed at OHSU in Portland, OR; I was being treated for an incurable, rare, and highly aggressive cancer known as Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor sarcoma (DSRCT). The prognosis of this particular cancer is almost always imminent death (within […]

I’ve discussed the theodicy issue–which I think may be the most urgent issue American Christianity faces–in pieces such as If I Started the way @BartCampolo Did, I Wouldn’t Believe in God Either and Painting Ourselves into a Corner at “The Shack”.  But to use his own dire adversity as an opportunity to share his faith is very moving.

via The Problem of God, Evil, Cancer and My Nurse — The Evangelical Calvinist

Otto Klink: From Atheism and Socialism to Assemblies of God Evangelist — Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center

This Week in AG History — July 18, 1931 By Ruthie Edgerly Oberg Originally published on AG News, 18 July 2019 Otto J. Klink (1888-1955) was a German-born American Pentecostal evangelist who traveled the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, preaching salvation through Jesus Christ and warning his listeners about the dangers of socialism, […]

via Otto Klink: From Atheism and Socialism to Assemblies of God Evangelist — Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center

Revivalistic Christianity Requires a Christian Society? Not Quite.

Albert Mohler makes an interesting point:

Third, looking specifically at the baptism numbers, the decline is both remarkable and lamentable. The most obvious insight is that we do not care as much about reaching lost people as we once did. That would be the observation that should cause Southern Baptists greatest concern. We will consider that question below. The second observation that would quickly come is that our methods of evangelism are not as effective as they once were. Honestly, that argument is beyond refute. Southern Baptist growth was largely driven by revivalism and its programs. We should not be surprised that revivalism is most effective in a context of Christian cultural dominance.

I think he’s half right.

Finally admitting that the future of the Southern Baptists–to say nothing of American Christianity in general–won’t be forwarded by a revivalistic model is something that’s gone down hard for many, and not just Baptists either.  Pentecostals and Charismatics keep looking for that great revival to “win American back for God,” but it’s a Pickett’s Charge approach that will get Pickett’s Charge results.

But to say that revivalistic Christianity is facilitated by “Christian cultural dominance” leads to a chicken and egg problem.  Which comes first: the revival or Christian cultural dominance?  I think that American history, from the days of Finney (who brought eighteenth century religious torpor to a grinding halt) to the SBC’s own efforts to convert the Booze Belt to the Bible Belt, would put the revival first.

What revivalistic Christianity does require is an open society where the Gospel can be set forth in an open forum to “poker playing dog” kinds of people, and get an open response.  The openness is fast fading, driven by such things as restrictions by social media, the “shaming and doxxing” culture of Christianity’s enemies, and the heavy hand of the state.  Coming up with a “Plan B” to something that’s worked for two centuries is what’s flummoxed Evangelical leaders, Baptists and otherwise.

Fortunately we have the examples of places like Iran and China to show us that you don’t need an open society to have the growth of the church.  Getting that message through to our leadership is another story altogether.

But there’s one problem Mohler neglected altogether: the ethnic makeup of the SBC.  Being as white as it is, it’s just in the crosshairs for the assault we’re seeing on the church, demographic and otherwise.  (The Episcopal Church, for those of you tempted to crow, is even whiter.)  What we need to do more than anything else is get out of the way and let those whose numbers swell our ranks to take the lead.

Ah, but that’s the really tricky part…

Renunciation is Central to Christianity, But You’d Never Know It

I recently had an interesting back and forth with a guy I went to prep school with on “Renouncing Privilege.”  Evidently he and I have a different take on what that means, as evidenced by his comment:

Many of the students were, and probably still are wealthy, still privileged. I would not try to make the point that the young men became followers of Gandhi, just that they recognized an abusive power that they had the means to abolish and voted accordingly.

Some of my idea comes from the current assault on “white privilege,” the only logical solution being that white people just step aside and let everyone else run things.  (I document here how some well-heeled and bi-coastal white people have tried to get around that obvious conclusion for their children’s’ benefit.)  But much of my view on the subject is conditioned by the New Testament itself:

“I tell you,” answered Jesus, “that at the New Creation, ‘when the Son of Man takes his seat on his throne of glory,’ you who followed me shall be seated upon twelve thrones, as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. Every one who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or land, on account of my Name, will receive many times as much, and will ‘gain Immortal Life.’ But many who are first now will then be last, and those who are last will be first.  (Matthew 19:28-30 TCNT)

Calling the people and his disciples to him, Jesus said: “If any man wishes to walk in my steps, let him renounce self, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever, for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, will lose his life shall save it. (Mark 8:34-35 TCNT)

I’ve spent time on the rich young ruler elsewhere.

In the past Christians have understood what this meant.  Consider this from J.N.D. Kelly’s Jerome:

In the fourth century it was common for really serious Christians, at their baptism or when they experienced a deeper conversion, to break with the world, abandoning career, marriage and material possessions in order (in the expressive phrase of Cyprian of Carthage) ‘to hold themselves free for God and for Christ.’  The ascetic strain which had been present in Christianity from the start, and which in the west tended to set a premium on virginity, inevitably received a powerful practical impulse with the disappearance of persecution and the emergence of a predominantly Christian society where much of the Christian colouring was skin-deep.

That’s something that advocates of the “Benedict Option” should keep in mind.

In any case such is virtually unknown in American Christianity, which is too hog-tied to upward mobility (and that link is a big reason why American Christians do what they do politically, on both sides of the spectrum.)

Since straight-up renunciation doesn’t go down well, is there another way to meet the challenge of the Gospel?  One comes from the Anglican/Episcopal George Conger, who has tried to deal with this by putting this verse into practice:

The servant who knows his master’s wishes and yet does not prepare and act accordingly will receive many lashes; while one who does not know his master’s wishes, but acts so as to deserve a flogging, will receive but few. From every one to whom much has been given much will be expected, and from the man to whom much has been entrusted the more will be demanded.  (Luke 12:47-48 TCNT)

He explains the “critical moment” for his commitment to “givebacks” here, in an encounter with then candidate George H.W. Bush:

I commented on that idea years ago:

If one were to name the Episcopal Church’s strongest point from a practical standpoint, it was this: the emphasis on the importance of “give back”. It’s something I miss in a Pentecostal church. This isn’t to say that Pentecostals are not willing to help others–they certainly are, and are for many reasons better positioned to do so than Episcopalians–but the context is entirely different, and it doesn’t percolate to the upper reaches of the organisation the way one would like it to. But that’s also generational: baby boomers, for all the talk and their self-righteous insistence of making the next generation volunteer, are mostly too self-centred to know what true give-back is.

That said, I think that the road to that needs to run through some kind of renunciation.

Although there are many people who don’t have a lot to renounce (that’s another lesson that comes from many years in a Pentecostal church) American Christianity would do well to learn from Our Lord on renunciation, if for no other reason than that, if things go south, renunciation will be a lot easier than having it taken away from you.

Remembering “Les Reflets”–French Christian Folk at its Best

Back in February I moved this album to YouTube:

I have always been entranced by this work, as you can tell here.  But tbh I never thought this would be one of the more popular albums I posted there.  I was wrong, but not for the best reason: Daniel Fernandez, who was one of the writers and performers for the group, passed away recently, which sparked the interest.

I’m glad I made it readily available for all those who appreciate (and even those who were part of) the group.  It’s a fabulous example of Continental folk music, Christian or secular, and shows that Christians can certainly do “artsy” type of music when they really want to do so.

There are actually two of their productions featured here: the other (sort of a composite) can be found here.