Author Archives: llwilmoth

David Brooks on politics as a limited good

To fix politics, care more about other things. […]

It should be said that people on the left and on the right who try to use politics to find their moral meaning are turning politics into an idol. Idolatry is what happens when people give ultimate allegiance to something that should be serving only an intermediate purpose, whether it is money, technology, alcohol, success or politics.

[…] we…need to put politics in its place. The excessive dependence on politics has to be displaced by the expulsive power of more important dependencies, whether family, friendship, neighborhood, community, faith or basic life creed.

[…] our politics probably can’t be fixed by political means. It needs repair of the deeper communal bonds that politics rest on, and which political conflict cannot heal.

from “When Politics Becomes Your Idol,” New York Times, (Oct 30, 2017)

I’d add, don’t care more about other things only for the sake of fixing politics, but also to fix yourself.

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Peter Speckhard on the confession of actual sins

A confession of sins that only focuses on original sin to the practical exclusion of actual, concrete sins changes the whole nature of being sorry and repenting. … If you find out a friend has insulted you and lied about you behind your back, and he … apologizes to you by saying, ‘Everything I’ve ever said or done has been vile and inexcusable,’ he’s neatly avoided the only hard and only spiritually salutary part of confession. In theory he has apologized even more than necessary. He has utterly abased himself before you. But in fact he has not apologized at all. … [for] it is the pit-in-the-stomach, fear-and-trembling[ly] difficult to enumerate, even to oneself, any actual sins as though they are spiritually, eternally significant [sic]. But it is also the only thing the Gospel speaks to, the only thing that brings peace. It is way easier to say, “I am the worst, most horrible person who has ever lived,” than to say, “I stole ten dollars from the cash register at work.” The Old Adam is only really afraid of saying the latter. … In our day, it might be a lost cause to make individual, private confession and absolution a regular, normal part of the typical Lutheran person’s piety. But if we’re going to rely on a rite of corporate confession to take its place, we need to make sure we’re retaining the essential character of confessing one’s sins, not reciting a creed.

from “In bondage to sin — not exactly!” Forum Lettter 46.10 (Oct, 2017): 3-4.

Three Readings of Matthew 16:18’s “πυλαι αδου”

“on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of [hades / hell / sheol] will not [prevail against / overpower, overcome, overrun / dominate] it [the church].”

  1. The Defensive Church

As the phrase “gates of Hades” is used in Matt 16:18, it seems to include not just the city of the dead itself but also its inhabitants, especially its demonic rulers. […]The image in Matthew is of the rulers of the underworld bursting forward from the gates of their heavily guarded, walled city to attack God’s people on earth.

When we speak of demonic powers flooding the earth, we are speaking the language of Jewish apocalyptic. Jewish apocalyptists believed that, in the end-time, the powers of cosmic chaos, restrained since creation, would break forth from their restraint and bring unparalleled tribulation upon the world. [445]

[…] In the age inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection, the gates of the underworld will swing open and the horrors of the pit will erupt onto the earth with a roar, attacking everything on it—including the church—with unbridled fury. In the midst of this peril, however, Peter will be given the keys that unlock the gates of heaven. Those gates, too, will swing open, and the kingly power of God will break forth from heaven to enter the arena against the demons. Hades will not prevail against the church because God will be powerfully at work in it, revealing his purposes for it and imparting the heavenly power to fulfill those purposes, so that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. [455]

from Joel Marcus, “The Gates of Hades and the Keys of the Kingdom,” CBQ (1988).

2. The Offensive Church

For most people, I suspect, the church is pictured in their minds as a strong enclosure, a mighty fortress, that devotes most of its time and energy to defending itself against the assaults of wickedness and evil. The church, surrounded by thick walls, just sits there on a high mountain, while the powers of hell creep up form the murky valleys around it, trying to invade and destroy it. Most people imagine the church as the defender and evil as the aggressor. Evil is loose in the world and the church is scared to death.

That is backwards, according to this text. “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it,” Jesus says. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church. Think what that means. The church is the aggressor, according to Jesus, and hell is scared to death. Hell throws up enormous walls with strong gates to protect itself against the grace of God, but no walls or gates that hell can erect will ever keep the church out. The church’s assignment is to go to hell and attack it, and Jesus’ promise is that hell will eventually be defeated by the church and its Gospel.

from Ed Peterman, Practically Preaching: When Did We See You? Sermons for Year A Matthew, (2004), 210.

3. The Immortal Church

“The gates of Hades” is a metaphor for death. …The “gates” thus represent the imprisoning power of death: death will not be able to imprison and hold the church of the living God. …The imagery is rather of death being unable to swallow up the new community which Jesus is building. It will never be destroyed.”

from R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 2007), 624-5.

Coordinating Language and Experience

How should we understand the relationship between the contents of human experience and their articulation in language? Must mastery of a language be taken for granted before any particular experience is even available as a possible object of consciousness? Or is it the case that the notion of a pre-linguistic experience is perfectly intelligible?

This first pass, from Joseph Sittler, draws a soft/moderate line. Sittler claims that language serves only as a sufficient condition for some experiences. Language can broaden our field of experience, but he remains silent as to whether some experiences might still remain available to us prior to our induction into language.

We sometimes suppose that people look upon the world and find it beautiful and then look for a language with which to adorn what they behold. I think that is true, but it also works the other way. Sometimes we are partly blinded toward this world, and then someone puts the beauty of which we had not been aware into a gorgeous line. Thereafter we behold it in a new way. We go not only from beholding to language, but we may go from the beauty of language to the enhancement of beholding.

from Gravity & Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Augsburg, 1986), 84.

In contrast, this second remark, from George Lindbeck, takes a harder line. Here language is a necessary condition for any experience.

There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems. …In short, it is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience.

from The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster Press, 1984), 34, 37.

It’s the categorical character of Lindbeck’s claim that makes it such a provocative one. But even if we don’t follow him all the way down that road, and leave open the door to the possibility of there being some pre-conceptual thoughts/pre-linguistic experiences, it’s still the case that a greater linguistic repertoire does expand one’s intellectual, emotional, and volitional capacities. That much should be uncontroversial. Either way, as Lindbeck has labored to demonstrate, this is a question of considerable theological consequence.

All that to say, the following clip offers a serviceable introduction to a version of this same question, though without an eye to its theological horizons. I wanted to share it here anyway because it’s still taking a crack at a question of interest across the humanities and beyond. It comes from the School of Life youtube channel. I won’t endorse all their productions, but I watched this one all the way through.

 

To take us back to theology. If this thesis has any traction, it should give us reason to reevaluate the (in)dispensability of our inherited theological lexicon whenever we come to asking whether any given term has lost all cultural currency, and therefore should be dropped from our active vocabulary, or whether it remains the best tool at our disposal for bringing to experience its intended referent. Can we really do without talk of, say, confession and absolution, or would our world be made hellishly smaller without them?

If this seems like a topic of interest to you, you can dive deeper into this line of inquiry with the help of Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, (Belknap, 2016).

Joseph Sittler on Community as a Problem

It is simply not true, as is widely affirmed these days, that the matrix of close human relationships is a theater within which fulfillment is guaranteed. Close relationships do provide an important resource—one of which we could probably use more. But there is a time when it simply will not do to declare such human bonds as the absolute, ultimate resource of the Christian gospel. There is, finally, a loneliness in every human life; I am simply not impressed with the promise that happiness in human existence will devolve from the mutuality of personal relationships. Such connections are not fulfilling; in fact, if I could push my thesis further, I would say that the community can actually get in the way by promising fulfillment. Fulfillment is finally not possible in human existence. That is why we have a gospel of divine redemption.

Because human relationships have a limit, and because even the most powerful of them leaves individual solitude uninvaded, the gospel of the divine redemption carries so astounding a promise. Is it not possible that this promise constitutes the allure of the phrase from the confessional prayer “…and from whom no secrets are hid”?

from Grace Notes and Other Fragments (Fortress, 1981), 100.

See also Rowan Williams on Solitude

Reinhold Niebuhr on moral motivation 

Preachers who are in danger of degenerating into common scolds might learn a great deal from H’s preaching style. I am not thinking now of the wealth of scholarship which enriches his utterances but of his technique in uniting religious emotion with aspiration rather than with duty. If he wants to convict Detroit of her sins he preaches a sermon on “the City of God,” and lets all the limitations of this get-rich-quick metropolis emerge by implication. If he wants to flay the denominationalism of the churches he speaks on some topic which gives him the chance to delineate the ideal and inclusive church.

On the whole, people do not achieve great moral heights out of a sense of duty. You may be able to compel them to maintain certain minimum standards by stressing duty, but the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language.

from Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929), 92.

Joseph Sittler on preaching beyond personal experience

It is only honest to say that I have never known fully that kind of life within the full, warm power of that faith for whose declaration I am an ordained minister. The very term “Christian experience” as generally understood, has small meaning for me. I have not seen any burning bushes. I have not pounded at the door of God’s grace with the passion of a Martin Luther. John Wesley’s “strangely warmed” heart at Aldersgate Street—this is not my street. I have not the possibility to say of the Christian faith what many honest persons have said about it. But I have come to see that to declare as a gift of God that which I do not fully possess is, nevertheless, a duty of obedience. Is the opulence of the grace of God to be measured by my inventory? Is the great catholic faith of nineteen centuries to be reduced to my interior dimensions? Are the arching lines of the gracious “possible” to be pulled down to the little spurts of my personal compass? Is the great heart of the reality of God to speak in only the broken accent that I can follow after? No. That ought not to be. Therefore, one is proper and right to sometimes talk of things one doesn’t know all about. In obedience to the bigness of the story which transcends personal apprehension, one may do this.

from Grace Notes and Other Fragments (Fortress, 1981), 50-51.