Archives For Hans Frei

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the day when Christians defy every lie sold to us by Madison Avenue, the American healthcare system, and our President’s eerily orange visage. (Not to mention, Warren Beatty is still alive? WTF?)

Here’s the lie:

We’re not getting out of this life alive.

Not a one.

Heaven may be but Death definitely is for real.

With dismal colored ashes, tomorrow Christians confront the stark, counter-cultural truth: from אֲדָמָהadamah (‘earth’) we were made and to the adamah we shall with 100% certainty return.

Ash Wednesday is about our sin, which is but a way of saying it’s about our mortality, which means it’s about all our finitude, shortcomings and contingencies wrapped up in that time-bound word. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the Latin word for 40th, recalling Jesus’ 40 days of testing in the wilderness before his ministry led him inexorably to the cross.

Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness echo the 40 years Israel was tested in the wilderness after their Exodus from slavery into Egypt. Whereas Jesus squares off against the devil without a hitch (‘man does not live by bread alone’ says the starving Jesus), Israel fared a bit worse (see: calf, golden).

Jesus does what Israel could not do for itself.

Jesus, it seems quite obvious to the Gospel writers and those who coordinated our lectionary, represents all the people of Israel in his own person.

And that’s no small point to note as we begin a season in which many Christians will begin their own ‘testing’ by forsaking chocolate, booze or social media. There’s nothing wrong with fasting and discipline to anticipate the Easter feast. The Church has been doing so for centuries, and, as for myself, I will be giving up both beverages of the fermented variety and furry animals on my dinner plate. And if previous Lenten fasts are any indication, I will probably be successful at this modest undertaking.

But, however good they be, modest Lenten goals that, truthfully, only intrude upon my daily life as ‘annoyances’ miss the larger point of the season:

Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.

Jesus represents all of us in his flesh.

It’s true that in Jesus, God became one of us, was every bit as human as each one of us, experienced everything entailed by our humanity.

But it’s also true that while being 100% Human, Jesus remains, simultaneously, 100% God.

Though one of us, Jesus is not just one of us at all.

Quick history lesson:

Beginning in the 18th century, Christians began to take their cues from the Enlightenment. Now, only that which was rationally demonstrable and confirmed by our own private experience was considered ‘true.’ Rather than conforming their definitions of truth to scripture, Christians looked to scripture to confirm their a priori presumptions about what was ‘true.’ Where it did not, scripture was now considered ‘myth.’ 

So, for example, the story of Jesus’ 40 Day testing by Satan in the wilderness is no longer a ‘true’ or realistic story about what Jesus has done. Instead Christians turned to the story of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness and saw in it a parable for their own times of trial and temptation.

Rather than being a unique story about Jesus’ absolutely singular vocation, it became a generalized story about our common human experience. 

If you’re in a church that follows the lectionary, just listen to the sermon tackle Jesus’ wilderness testing. Is the sermon about how Jesus’ trials are examples of trials that come to all of us in life (cue personal- probably sports- illustration from the pastor). Or is the sermon about how in the wilderness Jesus begins his work of doing what neither Israel nor we can do for ourselves?

The Gospels tell not the story of generalized human experience found in the person of Jesus; the Gospels tell how God in Christ frees human experience from what binds it.

And because Christians ever since the Enlightenment have been so bad at remembering that perhaps this Lenten season we should forget our modest, achievable fasts and spiritual disciplines.

Instead this Lent maybe we should go balls to the wall and take on a test we know we have no hope of ever keeping.

Maybe by choosing a fast we know will end in certain failure we’ll remember the hard but good news with which this season ends:

Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.

For us.

Portrait Karl BarthI’m not a liberal, I said in a post last week, in which I attempted to distinguish between theological liberalism and political liberalism. People tend to see the earring, tattoo, and beard and make assumptions about me.

But I’m a post-liberal.

I don’t believe anyone can simply be a Christian nor do I think anyone can cleanly subscribe to any of the theologies of the ancient Church Fathers or even to more contemporary founders of Protestant strains like Martin Luther or John Wesley. Everything that comes to us does so by being filtered through particular lens and schools of thought, to say nothing of cultural prejudice. So, I happily acknowledge my Christianity is filtered through the lens of postliberalism.

Postliberalism was first articulated by Hans Frei, who was inspired by the work of the theologian Karl Barth (above), in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.

Frei argued that modern conservative and liberal approaches to the Bible undermine the authority of scripture by locating the meaning of biblical teaching in some doctrine or worldview that is more foundational than scripture itself.

Prior to the Enlightenment, Christians read the Bible primarily as a “realistic” narrative that told the story of the world. That is, the coherence of the scripture story made figural interpretation possible. Jews and Christians made sense of their lives by viewing themselves as participating within the story told in scripture.

Frei argued that during the Enlightenment this sense of scripture as realistic narrative was lost. People’s own rational experience increasingly defined for them what was “real.” As a result, theologians sought to understand scripture by relating it to their own supposedly universal “reality.” They sought to determine the truth within scripture by translating it into the truer language of their own world.

Frei argued that because of the Enlightenment, Christians overlooked the narrative character of scripture.

Liberals looked for the real meaning of the Bible in the eternal truths about God and humanity, while conservative evangelicals looked for the real meaning in the Bible’s factual references.

Both lost sight of the priority of scripture as narrative. Scripture was no longer a story by which Christians narrated their lives. The Bible was turned into a source of support for modern narratives of progress or for doctrinal propositions.

As Frei writes:

”Interpretation was a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story.”

Postliberalism seeks a third way, apart from Protestant liberalism and from conservative evangelicalism, which itself is also theologically liberal.

Postliberalism asserts the the primacy of scriptural narrative for theology. The word narrative is key.

Scripture, after all, is primarily told through story not propositions; therefore, the truth conveyed in scripture isn’t rational- or rather its non-rational.

We’re story-telling animals made in the image of a God who communicates narratively and ‘truth’ is best apprehended through story not ‘fundamentals’ (Evangelicals) or rational facts universally accessible to all (Mainline Liberals). The ‘universally accessible’ point is key too. Postliberalism denies that such a thing as universal reason exists.

Religion is like language not math.

Christians and Muslims speak two different languages in which the words we use signify different things not the same, universal reality. The word ‘God’ for example connotes something much different to a Hindu than it does to a Jew.

This stress on language comes from George Lindbeck, who argued for a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of religion as opposed to the “cognitive-propositional” (Evangelical) and “experiential-expressive” (Mainline Liberal) approaches that have, he said, dominated theology during the modern age.

Liberal theologies are experiential-expressive in that they seek to ground religious language upon universal claims of human experience.

Evangelical theologies are cognitive-propositional; they claim that doctrinal statements directly or “literally” refer to reality.

Lindbeck pointed out how no religion can actually be understood in those terms. Religious traditions are historically shaped and culturally conditioned. They function instead, he said, more like language. So, christian doctrines should not be understood as universalistic propositions or as interpretations of a universal religious experience.

Doctrines are more like the rules of grammar that govern the way we use language to describe the world. Christian doctrine identifies the rules by which Christians use faith language to define the world in which we live. Quite simply, a non-Christian has no idea what Christians mean by the word ‘grace’ until they’ve been taught to speak Christian.

Because of this, rational arguments for Christian truth claims aren’t possible until one has learned through spiritual training how to speak the language of Christianity.

Incidentally, this is why my children’s sermons are never ‘object lessons’ but always a retelling of the scripture text.

They’ve got to learn the language before they can extrapolate ‘lessons’ from it.

Rather ‘translating’ scripture into secular categories- as liberalism does- postliberalism seeks to redescribe reality “within the scriptural framework.” If Christians allowed the story of the Bible to become their own story, says postliberalism, they would be less preoccupied with making Christianity relevant to the non-Christian world on non-Christian terms.

Like liberal theology, postliberalism takes for granted that the Bible is not infallible and that historical criticism of the bible is legitimate. Like evangelical theology, postliberalism emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Because of its stress on the particularity of the scripture narrative, postliberalism emphasizes the role of the Church in forming people according to the story.

Because of its stress on the absolute saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ, postliberalism emphasizes the inherently peculiar, countercultural nature and mission of the church.

And this retrieval of the inherently counter-cultural nature of the church is how someone who is not a theological liberal may occasionally end up advancing what sounds like a politically liberal position. Put another way, it’s how someone who is not a theological liberal is not always reliably politically conservative.

To put it in post liberal terms:

Christians are people who speak a different language than the rest of the culture and country; therefore, it’s impossible for us to consistently fit into the categories culture and country give us.