Caesar or Christ: Worship as Resistance and Rejection of the Empire.

In May of this year I had attended a lecture given by R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, in which he discussed how we are now living in a “dissolving age”. He first began attempting to diagnose the problems he sees that are affecting our current political cycle, mostly the issue of Donal Trump and his popularity. Reno sees a fundamental problem of “homelessness” as a pervasive, deeply rooted issue in our current context. Personhood and nation state historically have been linked together, and he senses that the dissolution of the nation state has created this feeling of homelessness amongst a wide group of people. He attempts to argue for the return to a stronger nation state to curb a lot of the problems brought on by the liberalization of the 19th and 20th centuries. He also spoke to the tension found in Christianity in the push for human unity on the one hand, and the respect for grounding of humans in a diversity of cultures. This was the most interesting point brought up in the whole discussion, but alas the talk was extremely disjointed, and his frustrations with the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) leads him to think a strengthening of a nation state can bring a sense of belonging to a culture void of a home, and that the Church is not up for that task.

From the outset I think his solution is profoundly problematic with respect to going back to a strong nation state as the answer to the problems we see in our culture. The reaction against strong nation states is a justified one, given the blood bath of the 20th century by supremely strong nation states. These governments can be diagnosed with being driven by a dogmatic materialist metaphysics in which the human person is just a by product of accidental material processes and nothing more, and in that they can be shaped a molded into something better and this is the job of the State to control and influence the future for the better. I think this very same materialist metaphysics is still in the drivers seat in respect to the culture. Even within our current modern American Christian community we find not so much an actual classical trinitarian Christian faith, but one of the worship of a  desitic-demigod, along with sacrifices at the altar of consumerism and moralism. In this I think Reno statements about the Church are partially correct, it is not currently up to the task. What strikes me as  odd was his persistence on the importance of a strong nation state, and somewhat abandoning (though not entirely he claims) the place of the Church in giving a home for the homeless.

My concern, and critique of his project, is that we are still culturally driven by a materialist/naturalist metaphysics. For as much as we want to argue that we live in a post-modern context, I would argue we are still very much steeped in modernity.

“The state does not take a merely temporal regulatory role and leave salvation in the hands of the church; rather, the modern state seeks to replace the church by itself becoming a soteriological institution. It is in this sense, then, that the modern state is a parody of the church: “The body of the state is a simulacrum, a false copy, of the Body of Christ” (RONT, 182). As a result, while political rhetoric may suggest that the state is confined to a “public” sphere or that the reign of the secular is circumscribed, in fact the modern state demands complete allegiance, and the reign of the secular does not tolerate territories of resistance. The state is happy to absorb all kinds of private pursuits under the umbrella of civil society, but it cannot tolerate a religious community that claims to be the only authentic polis and proclaims a king who is a rival to both Caesar and Leviathan. In such a case, this community’s allegiance to its king ultimately trumps its allegiance to the state or empire, and its understanding of the nature of human persons does not fit the normative picture of liberalism. This the state cannot tolerate. It is in this sense that “every worship service is a challenge to Caesar.”

-James K.A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy

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Redemption & Freedom in “Stranger Things” (SPOILERS)

“Thus into our house of bondage, Jesus brought the freedom of God’s sons and daughters through living a life that broke through the bondage and slavery of our sin into the liberty of a sinless humanity rejoicing in the love and faithfulness of God the Father” 

-T.F. Torrance, Incarnation, p. 121,122

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”

-1 John 4:18,19 ESV

If you have not watched the Netflix Original ‘Stranger Things’, I highly recommend doing so. It is a wonderful story about a small town in Indiana in 1983 that is plunged into mystery surrounding a young boy named Will Byers who vanishes and is no where to be found. This event brings people together in a way that they never could have anticipated. Spoilers from here on out!

Chief Hopper (Redemption)

We meet the Chief (played by David Harbour) waking in the morning. He had been passed out on his couch with the television on, disheveled and his house is a mess. From the moment you fall upon the scene, there is immediately a sense of brokenness within Hopper. As the story moves forward, we discover that he has suffered a devastating loss in his life, and has haunted him ever since. Throughout the episodes we discover a little more of what happened to him, and towards the end of the season we discover he had a daughter who fell ill with cancer. In the finale, as Hopper and Joyce Beyers discover Will in the upside down, and a gripping moment ensues. We witness the death of Hoppers daughter as he stands by unable to do anything for her. Will has been held captive by the Demogorgon, and as they free him they discover Will is not breathing. Chief tells Joyce to breathe in Will’s mouth for three seconds in between Chief pumping into Will’s chest. This scene is playing out as the death of Hoppers daughter is coming in and out, and you hear the sound of the beeping as Will begins to breathe again.

Truly a gripping and emotional scene, we discover that Hopper is so invested in finding Will that he is willing to give his life to save him. He is unwilling to allow Joyce Beyers to go through the pain and suffering of losing a child as he did. In the end we discover that Hopper offers himself as a deal in some way with the company that essentially released the Demogorgon, which we will learn more in the second season of the show.

The story for Hopper is one of redemption. He is stuck in his own despair, and the case of Will Beyers brings him into a greater narrative that shows him a way out of his own suffering in the means of giving himself for someone else. Giving up his own life for the life of another. He participates in a greater event than what he is fully aware of. In the gospel of John, the Lord Jesus speaks to his disciples on the greatest love of all; “…that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) In the narrative Chief finds himself called into a greater story than his own, and in this he finds the freedom and power to move forward in action. Karl Barth reflects in CD VI.1 on what it means when we say “God with Us”, and he talks about what ‘God with Us’ describes;

“It means Jesus Christ again when it describes the event of ‘God with Us’ as a redemptive event; as the fulfillment of man’s being by participation of the divine being which comes to him by the grace of God”. (CD VI.1, p. 18)

It is in the person of Christ that we find ourselves reconciled to God, and thus thrusted into a greater narrative of God’ action in the world as one of reconciliation. Our neighbor, as John Webster puts it;

“…my neighbor is no longer a threat or an obstacle, nor a function of my self-interest. My neighbor is the presence to me of a truth which obliges me to act in his or her regard… Love is a counter-movement to our runious pride.” (Holiness, p. 96)

Eleven “El” (Freedom)

The story of Eleven is a heart breaking one. We discover that her mother had been tested on for months, and was told that she had miscarried the baby. Eleven is then held captive by Dr. Martin Brenner because of her abilities. She only knows existence as a prisoner with a number. Dr. Brenner puts on the act of caring for her, but as we come to discover he only cares about her powers for his own gain and prestige. Eleven  is the one who opens up the gate to the upside down and releases the Demogorgon that captures Will. We see various testing that is done on her, and she refuses to comply at certain times, and is thrown into a dark and confined room for punishment for not listening.

Eleven escapes from her prison, and is on the run as she runs into our main heroes of the story (Mike, Lucas and Dustin). Mike takes her into his home, and hides her from the rest of his family. Their relationship begins to grow, and she slowly starts to learn what it means to be in a mutual loving relationship with another human being for the first time. Mike earns her trust by showing her unconditional love and gentleness. He even lovingly gives her the nick name “El”, by that giving her a name that is in effect far more humanizing than just a number.

As the season continues, we begin to see El begin to trust Mike and in the series finale use her powers out of love for her friends rather than fear of punishment. In here lies a wonderful and beautiful truth that echoes the apostle John; “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) In loving El with gentleness and trust, El learns how to love them in return, and out of that love moves in action to rescue them from the Demogorgon who she had such an overwhelming and paralyzing fear. Even more we can hear the apostle John; “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) El had her fears cast out by the love of Mike, and in this we see her set free from the slavery which had gripped her the whole story up until that point.

Stranger Things is a story of redemption. It is a story of being set free from fear through the love of others. It is a story we all know far to well, it is our story.

The Endurance of the Electing God

“A man who is asleep…hears the voice of someone who loves him trying to rouse him gently from his sleep, because it is time for him to awake…”

-David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (pp. 11-12)

“The smile of the cherishing mother that evokes the smile of the infant is a microcosm of a cosmic truth: that God’s gracious initiative in the incarnation—“ he first loved us”— is the provoking smile of a Creator who meets us in the flesh, granting even the grace that allows us to love him in return.”

-James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love

worldengine

In the movie ‘Man of Steel’, General Zod and his crew have found their way to earth because of a signal Kal-El (Superman) had sent out while turning on an ancient Kryptonian ship that had crashed on earth some thousands of years ago. They begin to “terraform” the earth, which means they are modifying the earth’s atmosphere to resemble Krypton’s atmosphere. They use what is called a “world engine” that works in tandem with Zod’s ship bouncing gravitational waves through the earth back and forth. Superman has to go to the Indian ocean to destroy the machine or the human race will cease to exist. Since this machine is turning the earth into Krypton, Superman will be seriously weakened, and could possibly be killed by it.

In what I would argue is the most beautiful and emotional sequence in any comic book movie, we find some members of the Daily Planet in the city as it is continuing to be destroyed by the terraforming of the ship. Jenny, a reporter for the Daily Planet, fleeing the destruction becomes trapped in a prison of cement. She realizes her predicament and becomes terrified of the circumstances. The crushing weight of the gravity machine is going to bring her and the two others to their end, and there is nothing that they can do about it. We cut to the indian ocean, where Superman has been thrown by the defense mechanism on the machine underneath the crushing gravity pulsating into the earth. As the music begins to swell upward, we see his hand come into frame in a fist, he begins to press back against the pulse. Back to the city, the men are trying their hardest to get Jenny out of her cement prison, the crushing weight of death approaches them without any hesitancy. The music continues to permeate the scene with hope, as Superman with all his determination presses upward into the ray and destroys the machine. You can watch the final two minutes of that sequence here.

The Beauty of the Incarnation

This scene strikes me in various ways. When we see Jenny trapped, I cannot think of anything other than our natural condition as human beings. We are trapped in our sinfulness, we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves. Even when we are aware of our sin and our despair, it does nothing to free us from our condition. It is solely rooted in the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit are we freed from this state of being. It is the unconditional love of the triune God which comes to set us free. It is not anything we have done or ever could do to earn or deserve it. He endures the violence of the cross to free us from our bondage. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)

The aesthetic beauty of this scene is unrivaled for me. The lights of the pulse that washes over Superman, his hand clenching into a fist in his will to fight back, and Hans Zimmer’s score which penetrates the most hardened of hearts. What is more beautiful is how God actually became man. Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man, the hypostatic union. This mystery is of the most terrifying and wonderful depth. Athanasius speaks of the Word and the filling of all dimensions;

“The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension – above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.” (On the Incarnation)

T.F. Torrance speaks of the incarnation in this way;

“…the incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator…what God has not taken up in Christ is not saved.” (The Mediation of Christ, p. 48-49)

The Electing God Who Endures

In this action towards us God reveals His love for us in no uncertain terms. The story witnessed in the Scriptures is one of humanity abandoning God and God coming down into the wilderness seeking and saving us. First Israel then the world. God is the electing God. Karl Barth speaks of election as the “sum of the Gospel”. (CD II.2.1) To quote Barth at some length;

“In the midst of time it happened that God became man for our good. While underlining the uniqueness of this event, we have to reflect that this was not an accident, not one historical event among others. But it is the event which God willed from eternity.” (Dogmatics in Outline)

John Webster makes this point clear;

“God elects to be this God, God in this man, God known in and as Jesus Christ.” (Webster, p. 91)

Jesus Christ is both the electing God and the elected man. Election ‘is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and elected man in One.’ (CD II.2.3) He fleshes this out even further in talking about the person of Christ:

“Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus He comes forward to MAN on behalf of GOD calling for and awakening faith, love and hope, and to GOD on behalf of MAN, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus He attests and guarantees to God’s free GRACE and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free GRATITUDE.” (The Humanity of God)

In Jesus Christ God has said Yes to all of His promises, no matter how many. (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

“In His free grace, God is for man in every respect; He surrounds man from all sides. He is man’s Lord who is before him, above him, after him, and thence also with him in history, the locus of man’s existence. Despite man’s insignificance, God is with him as his Creator who intended and made mankind to be very good. Despite man’s sin, God is with him, the One who was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world, drawing man unto Himself in merciful judgment. Man’s evil past is not merely crossed out because of its irrelevancy. Rather, it is in the good care of God. Despite man’s life in the flesh, corrupt and ephemeral, God is with him. The victor in Christ is here and now present through His Spirit, man’s strength, companion, and comfort. Despite man’s death God is with him, meeting him as redeemer and perfecter at the threshold of the future to show him the totality of existence in the true light in which the eyes of God beheld it from the beginning and will behold it evermore. In what He is for man and does for man, God ushers in the history leading to the ultimate salvation of man.” (Barth, The Humanity of God)

All of this we see God’s endurance for us. The history of salvation bears this out.

Conclusion

When we go back to view that scene in which Superman endures and overcomes the horrific weight of the world engine, let us view it as a pointer. Superman is not God, nor does he actually represent Christ no matter how much the movie attempted to portray him as such. But what we can look to is how much this reflects and points us towards God’s endurance for us. He took on our sin and our flesh to heal it. He unconditionally binds Himself to us at the incarnation, suffers on the cross and puts an end to death in His resurrection. He is with us in our most difficult times, and is healing and transforming the world that was headed for certain eternal death. He speaks ‘Yes’ to His creation through the Word, who is Jesus Christ. From eternity God has elected us in Christ to share and participate in His triune being and work. When we encounter such beauty as the incarnation, or even a scene in a comic book movie, God is gently waking us from our despairing slumber. He has been gracious towards us from eternity. It is in Jesus Christ we have assurance of His promises towards us.

“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:19-22, ESV)

References:

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2 & Dogmatics in Outline

T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ

John Webster, Karl Barth, Outstanding Christian Thinkers

Man of Steel

‘Theological Theology’: Reflections on the work of John Webster

News has been circling around social media that my favorite living theologian, John Webster, has passed away (1955-2016). I was deeply saddened by this news, and thought to reflect on his work that has meant so much in my life as a Christian and training to be a theologian. It will probably end up being mostly quotes from Webster.

“…dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ.” -John Webster, Holiness

Revelation and Scripture

One of the most influential books for me in my time doing theology is Webster’s ‘Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch‘. This book alone has shaped a major part of my views on the way Scripture functions in God’s economy of salvation. The first chapter and the third are by far my favorites in the book, in them you find a deeply rich Trinitarian exposition of revelation and Scripture’s place in the economy of salvation.

The problem for the Christian doctrine of revelation for Webster is that it “suffers from the distortions of its shape introduced by attempts to formulate and expound it in relation to and, in some measure, in dependence upon, dominant modern intellectual and spiritual conventions”. (p. 11) Even more troubling, the language of revelation became “a way of talking, not about the life giving presence of God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power among the worshipping and witnessing assembly, but instead of an arcane process of causality whereby persons acquire knowledge through opaque, non-natural operations.” (p. 12) This is an important point, theology (doctrine especially) abstracted from the context of worship and participation within the Church, it becomes something else entirely.

Revelation is an act of sovereign mercy:

“Revelation is the self-presentation of the triune God, the free work of sovereign mercy in which God wills, establishes and perfects saving fellowship with himself in which humankind comes to know, love and fear him above all things.” (p. 13)

Revelation must be seen in this light, not mere propositions, but the life giving presence of the Lord. Here Webster gives a trinitarian account:

“Revelation, therefore is identical with God’s triune being in it’s active self-presence. As Father, God is the personal will or origin of this self presence; as Son, God actualizes his self-presence, upholding it and establishing it against all opposition; as Holy Spirit, God perfects that self-presence by making it real and effective to and in the history of humankind. To speak of ‘revelation’ is to say that God is one whose being is directed towards his creatures, and the goal of whose free self-movement presence with us.” (pg. 14)

Holiness and Theology

In the first chapter of his book ‘Holiness‘, Webster offers a proposition to shape the thinking of his account of the holiness of theology:

“A Christian theology of holiness is an exercise of holy reason; it has its context and its content in the revelatory presence of the Holy Trinity which is set forth in Holy Scripture; it is a venture undertaken in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit; it is an exercise in the fellowship of the saints; serving the confession of the holy people of God; it is a work in which holiness is perfected in the fear of God; and its end is the sanctifying of God’s holy name.” (p. 10)

From there he works out through the various points made, and shows how the gospel may (and should) order our thinking.

There is much more to be said on the work of John Webster, and those of us doing theology should take pause and reflect on not only his work but his character, and the way he pursued theological work. He really cared about doing a ‘theological’ theology; that is a theology that dares to say something about God. Let us dare to let God speak for Himself, and let us order our thinking around the Gospel.

Trinitarianism and Gospel Narrative

Today is Trinity Sunday and I decided to read some passages from David Bentley Hart’s massive ‘The Beauty of the Infinite‘ which has some wonderful reflections on the infinite beauty of God, who is in His Triune being infinitely peace and beauty. In part 2.1 of the book, Hart discusses Karl Rahner’s simple formula, which Hart claims should be regarded as “axiomatic for all meditation upon the Christian doctrine of God: The ‘economic’ trinity is the ‘immanent’ trinity and the ‘immanent’ trinity is the ‘economic’ trinity.” (p.155) He goes on to lament that liberal Protestant theology’s “dogmatic wasting disease” of abstraction, spiritualization and moralization of the doctrine of the Trinity and in turn made Christ the unique ‘bearer’ (as opposed to unique content) of the Christian kerygma (dogma). (p. 156)

I’ve began to notice this myself, especially in the more analytically driven parts of Protestant theology (even the most conservative). Doctrine has been abstracted from the historical narrative of the Gospel, and in turn becomes improperly understood. I thought some of what Hart has to say here is of extreme importance, and is fitting for the day:

“Trinitarian thought uninformed by the Gospel narratives results, inevitably, in an impoverishment of both that thought and that narrative; hence the importance of the affirmation is that the Trinity as economic or immanent is the one God as he truly is, whose every action is proper to and expressive of His divinity.” (p. 156)

“God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his ‘personality’ as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large, whose transcendental Ego were in need of delimitation in an empirical ego; God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because the Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely diverse, infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity, and freedom, which is to say that God is possessed by the loveliest “attribute”.” (p. 157)

“…as the infinitely perfect reflection of the divine essence that flows forth from the Father, fully enjoyed in the light of the Spirit.. Thus God indeed loved us when we were not, and that he then called us to be (Rom. 4:17) and to participate in the being he pours into us is an act of generosity wholly fitting to, but in no way determinative of, his goodness.” (p. 158)

Finally,

“The maxim stands then as a guard against any kind of nominalism on the one hand, and on the other, any tendency to forget that the dogma of the Trinity is required and defined-and permitted-by the narrative of Christ.” (p. 159)

On a previous post, I made the claim:

“Theology is done from the ground up, and is the language of the church. It is not merely some lofty, dry academic pursuit done in abstraction but is done within the context of participation in the community of believer’s where the Spirit of the Lord is.”

This goes right in line with what Hart is getting at. Theology cannot be done by abstracting and spiritualizing out of the context of Church worship and communal participation in God’s being.

Blessed Ascension Day! (A Meditation on the catholic Tradition)

“He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.”

-Ephesians 4:10, ESV

“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

-Hebrews 4:14-16, ESV

“He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”

-The Apostles Creed

Today the Collect in the morning prayers for the Church of England reads:

“Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens,
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen”

We raise our hearts and minds toward the ascended King, Christ our Lord. Our days our filled with an endless cycle of spectacles and liturgies that seek to capture and shape our imaginations and devotions towards endless other kingdoms. As we move through this day, let us think about the implications of the Ascension of our Lord, how this effects our not only our individual circumstances, but also the holy catholic Church.

When we think of the work of Christ, we have the tendency to limit His work to the cross. He is but a moral example, and His death atones for our sins. There is a gap in our understanding of how His work actually matters for us here and now. We must not limit His work solely to the cross. The whole sum of His life (Incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension) are inextricably linked. Without the Incarnation, God cannot truly save us. To borrow the latin phrase “The Unassumed is the Unhealed”. Without living His perfect life as the Incarnate Word (both God and man), our humanity could not be healed and we could not be rescued and set free ‘from the tyranny of the devil’ (Heidelberg Catechism, 1:5). Without His death our sins would not be atoned for, and our chains would still be bound. Without His resurrection we are not assured of our resurrection. Without His ascension, He could not be head over the Church, we could not be assured of our redemption: past, present and future, we would not be given the Holy Spirit and Christ could not be our intercessor between us and God. When we recite the Apostles Creed, we are reminded of the importance of His entire life as the work of our redemption.

I have been going through the Belgic confession over the past few months, arguably my favorite confession, and it offers so many beautiful phrases that point to how wonderful the work of Christ is on our behalf:

“For since the soul had been lost as well as the body, Christ had to assume them both
to save them both together.” -Article 18 (Incarnation)

“These are the reasons why we confess him to be true God and truly human—true God in order to conquer death by his power, and truly human that he might die for us in the weakness of his flesh.” -Article 19 (Two Natures of Christ)

“We find all comforts in his wounds and have no need to seek or invent any other means
to reconcile ourselves with God than this one and only sacrifice, once made, which renders believers perfect forever.” -Article 21 (Atonement)

“However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us— for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness. But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits. When those benefits are made ours, they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.” -Article 22 (Faith)

“We believe that this true faith, produced in us by the hearing of God’s Word
and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates us and makes us new creatures, causing us to live a new life and freeing us from the slavery of sin.” -Article 24 (Sanctification)

“For Christ himself declares: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Why should we seek another intercessor? Since it has pleased God to give us the Son as our Intercessor. let us not leave him for another—or rather seek, without ever finding.” -Article 26 (Christ’s Intercession)

After the confession deals with the doctrine of Christ, or a basic overlay of Reformed Christology, it moves onto the doctrine of the Church. Here I find the most beautiful picture of how God is the One who determines, establishes and defends the Church:

“This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is eternal King who cannot be without subjects. And this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small to human eyes—as though it were snuffed out.” Article 27

Karl Barth gives us a wonderful picture of what the Christian believes in light of the Ascension:

“We believe that we are redeemed, set free, children of God, i.e., we accept as such the promise given us in the Word of God in Jesus Christ even as and although we do not understand it in the very least, or see it fulfilled and consummated in the very least, in relation to our present. We accept it because it speaks to us of an act of God on us even as and although we see only our own empty hands which we stretch out to God in the process. We believe our future being. We believe in an eternal life even in the midst of the valley of death. In this way, in this futurity, we have it. The assurance with which we know this having is the assurance of faith, and the assurance of faith means concretely the assurance of hope.” (CD 1.1 p. 463)

In His ascension we are assured of all the promises of God. This means for the Church our King is not one that reigns in this world. Our ultimate allegiance is to Christ. In His ascension our eyes and hearts are lifted to His heavenly throne from which He rules over all things. Christ Ganski (my pastor) offers what he believes the ascension means for the Church:

“Ascension means the church possesses an institutional otherworldliness that allows it to be a counter-cultural presence in the world. Its institutional centre is located in heaven. Christ the “head,” the founder and foundation of the church, does not occupy physical space on earth. As an institution, the church is ordered to an alternative economy. This economy, the kingdom of God, takes its direction from Jesus’s heavenly location where all things have been rearranged around him.” (The Church Upward and Outward)

Let us hold fast to our tradition, the Holy catholic Faith. Rest easy pray:

“so we in heart and mind may also ascend and with him continually dwell”

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28)

The Secular Age; A Philosophical, Theological look at Batman V Superman (Part 1)

“God is not an object of desire; he is the end that makes desire.” 

-David Bentley Hart

Batman V Superman is, by my estimation, one of the most divisive films I’ve ever seen. The critics overwhelmingly hate it, a good majority of the fans love it. I am one who really enjoyed the film, albeit not without some major critiques of narrative, structure and the over all plot trajectory. This movie had so much potential, but it at once had too much going on within it, and at the same time didn’t have enough to satisfy.

My goal in here is stated within the title of the post: a philosophical and theological look into Batman V Superman; Dawn of Justice.

I want to mainly explore the two main heroes in the film: Batman and Superman.

A Secular Superman

What I find so interesting about this film is how utterly modern it is, especially when it comes to the debate of what constitutes ‘the good’. Holly Hunter’s character Senator Finch has a line that sums up the message Snyder and company are seeking to convey when they speak of the ‘good’ in our modern context: “The good is not a unilateral decision…the good is a conversation.” She makes reference to what the good is in a democratic society, but I think this applies much more broadly to our current modern, ‘secular age’. (in a Charles Taylor fashion)

Taylor in his monumental work ‘A Secular Age‘ seeks to understand how within 500 years our society has gone from atheism being somewhat of an impossible position to take, to atheism being basically the default position. Jamie Smith sums up Taylor’s take on our secular age:

“Ours is a “secular” age, according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because of these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded.” (Smith, p.12)

Our age is “haunted”, and we cannot escape the call and knocking of the transcendent. This is evident in the way Snyder and company has approached the Superman character, they employ the comparison of Kal El and Jesus Christ. In Man of Steel it is beyond obvious this is the case.

man-of-steel-2

Snyder has spoken at length about Superman’s mythology being linked to Christ. This incarnation, so to speak, of Superman represents the very thing Taylor is showing about our current age. We are haunted by transcendence, even though we have attempted to throw off all things pre-modern. There are problems attempting to link “God” and Superman together, since theologically speaking:

“God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.” (Hart, p. 30)

Superman, on the other hand, is not anything like God. Maybe some demi-god fashioned in our own image, but surely not the God of the theistic traditions.This is the issue of Lex proclaiming “God vs. man”. It becomes all too illuminating. It speaks to the modernist tradition (enlightenment period) of our attempt to overthrow God and conquer the universe by objective rationality and show that we are autonomous and have no need for “fairy tales” and hokey religion (in the words of Han Solo) to fill in the gaps when we do not understand something in reality. Not to mention the remark of “If God is all loving, He cannot be all powerful, and if He is all powerful he cannot be all loving” speaks to the new atheist (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) monumental ignorance when it comes to understanding how the metaphysical categories of God are understood in the theistic tradition. We won’t delve into that now, but one thing to be said is that to put anthropomorphic categories onto God is a failure to grasp the fundamental nature of God. His distinctness from the created order. He is not constrained to our finite capabilities, and is not bound one way or another by finite human categories.

Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman speaks to our modern secular age being haunted by transcendence. Our secular age is one of the contestability of every belief, not by the amount of religious participation (or lack thereof). What is even more striking is the conflict Superman still feels now, even though he has been doing it for about 2 years. This conflict speaks to the heart of our modern age: an attempt to deposit meaning within the thing itself, rather than the object as a pointer towards the meaning outside of itself. We desire justice and truth, but we have abandon the very thing in which these things have their ground (God). Superman wants to do what is right and good, but what is right and good is not merely ontological truth’s to which we are aimed, but as the Senator would say they are a “conversation”. They are decided by the consent of the governed. Hence Superman has no real identity outside of what others say he is. This is conflicted as well, and this is where I think Snyder has really failed to give the character of Superman justice (no pun intended). Superman does what is good not because of what others decide is good, but because good is an end in itself.

What interests me about this movie, and others in this age of comic book movies, is how much our culture is represented by these characters. In the next post we will take a philosophical look into the other main character in Dawn of Justice: Batman.

 

References:

Hart, David Bentley (2013-09-24). The Experience of God. Yale University Press.

Smith, James K. A. (2014-05-01). How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.