Archives For Willimon

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My wife complains that I have too many mistresses.

At the beginning of Holy Week this year, Ali and I snuck away to Quebec City for a romantic getaway at the Frontenac, overlooking the icy St. Lawrence river. Just the two of us…and Karl Barth.

…and Brian Zahnd’s new theological memoir, Water to Wine: Some of My Story

Ali says she’s tired of sharing our bed with Barth.

I could be watching Tiny House Hunters instead, I tell her. She was watching Jessica Jones.

In Water to Wine, full-time pastor, sometime author, and frequent voice in my earbuds, Brian Zahnd, describes three dreams God gave him during his mid-life theological crisis. Each dream, Zahnd believes, revealed a further step along his theological journey out of the shallow, ‘cotton-candy’ Christianity of his upbringing and success and into the rich, robust vintage of the ancient Church fathers and mothers.

Like the patriarchs of scripture, Zahnd received a dream communique from the Almighty, not of ladders traveled angels but of shoe shopping- yes- in Zurich with the late Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Zahnd takes the dream to mean that God encourages him to try on the different shoes available to him in the Zurich marketplace; that is, God blesses his quest to move beyond the thin choices of his American pop-evangelical tradition to taste and see (and try-on) the living tradition of the global faith.

This dream of shoe-shopping with Karl Barth piqued my interest, for, as it happened, during our romantic getaway, I had returned to Karl Barth’s Dogmatics even while reading Water to Wine.

Hearing of Zahnd’s dream I wondered, for the first time, how Barth, on whom I cut my theological teeth, might respond to Zahnd, the preacher most often in my head while I exercise.

No doubt Barth would approve heartily of Zahnd’s emphatic insistence that ours is a God who speaks. In the present. For Barth and Zahnd, the God of Israel is not the moribund god of modernity but a Living God who reveals himself.  On the loquaciousness of this God, I expect Barth would fist bump Zahnd against the settled nature of so much Christianity in the West. Indeed I suspect both share more in common than either do with my own Methodist, mainline tribe where God is most often either a character in an ancient text, from whom we can by our own light and volition derive practicable principles for daily living or is the object of our own subjective, emotional feelings. In neither case is God a living, active subject of verbs that work on, move on, and sometimes include you and me.

On the talkativeness of God, I think Karl Barth would commend Brian Zahnd for retrieving wine where so many Christians are sated by the water of mission trip ‘cry nights’ and 3-point sermonic slides.

Still, reading some of Zahnd’s story I couldn’t help wonder how Karl Barth would respond to the quote most often attributed to Brian Zahnd, and truly it’s a frame of reference, a precis, for all of Zahnd’s theology. I’m not judging. I’ve cribbed from it myself in plenty of posts and preachments:

“God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.”

On the one hand, I’d wager that Karl Barth would find much to affirm in this slight but bold assertion. Barth, I’m sure, would raise his pipe or brandy in approval at the conviction that God is revealed most decisively in Jesus Christ, that in Jesus we discover all of God there is find. Jesus Christ, as Barth says, is the one Word God speaks. Even on Zahnd’s suggestion that ‘God has always been like Jesus’ Barth would concur, for Barth went further than Zahnd, positing that the very ontological nature of God was/is determined by the incarnation such that Barth could speak of the ‘humanity of God’ and argue, accordingly, that Jesus Christ is the only sacrament of God, the absolutely singular visible, material sign of God.

On the other hand, I suspect Barth would pushback that Zahnd’s thesis statement is not sufficiently dialectical. Barth would caution Zahnd against any easy or obvious correspondence between God the Father and Jesus, God made flesh. Perhaps, the word ‘obvious’ is most important in reflecting upon the correlation between the Father and the Son.

For Karl Barth, our ability as (sinful) creatures to apprehend or know God is not available by any innate aptitude in human nature nor is derived from anything in the created world. Quite the opposite, our ability to know God is always- always and everywhere, as we say at the Table- a gift of God. This isn’t only a past gift given, as in the incarnation happened 2,000 years ago, but it’s always a present and future gift. We literally cannot know God apart from God revealing himself. Any God discovered apart from present revelation is a god not God and belongs to what Barth derides with a prophet’s anger as ‘religion.’

Because knowledge of God depends upon present, ongoing revelation by God, belief in the incarnation for Barth is not as simple as supposing that “God is like Jesus.”

For Barth, incarnation names not the obvious 1-1 correspondence between the Father and the Son but the mystery that God is both unveiled and veiled in Jesus Christ.

Even in the act of revealing himself most decisively in Jesus Christ, Barth says, God simultaneously conceals himself.

While affirming the identification of Jesus with God all the way down- the humanity of God, as Barth puts it, we cannot say that there is no God to be known behind the Jesus of the Gospels because, as Christ, God was never self-evidently God.

As Jesus, God was never in any obvious way, to any one anticipating his advent, the Messiah. And God still is today this God-for-us; therefore, God comes to us yet in the selfsame counterintuitive, revealed-but-concealed ways. God was always veiled in Jesus and, as Will Willimon admonishes, we ought not tear away this veil in our preaching or theologizing lest we imply there’s any way to approach this God other than by God’s gracious gesture towards us. Even in the Gospel scripture itself, says Barth, we can only know this God who comes to us as Jesus not by the text itself by the present day proclamation of it, and then only if such preaching is ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit.’

I suspect Barth would rebut Zahnd’s summary statement that “God is like Jesus.” Such a clear equation obscures how, for Barth, the unveiling but veiling of God in Christ is the revelation we call incarnation. God is absolutely vulnerable before us in the incarnation; God’s absolute otherness, as in the burning bush, remains. For Barth, the pattern of revelation revealed in the passion abides today. God’s unveiled yes to us in the incarnation is at the same time God’s no. As Barth says: ‘The Yes itself means a No, that in the very closeness to God our distance from him is disclosed.’

Barth’s dialectic of veiled/unveiled secures a continuity to the Old Testament’s depiction of God that I think Zahnd’s thesis statement at best elides and at worst supersedes but also I believe it allows a place, where Zahnd doesn’t, for those moments in the Gospels when Jesus comes across more like the angry God of Hosea than we like to countenance.

The very point at which I think Barth and Zahnd would agree provides their point of departure: God speaks still. For Barth, this means that revelation is always a gift. It’s always God’s act. As in the incarnation, God’s revelation remains opaque to us, unveiled but veiled still, far off from our expectations. Only by grace do we apprehend.

What held true at Calvary holds true today, even in revelation:

God comes to us but, as the spiritual sings, ‘we didn’t- we don’t- know who you was.’

Knowing God is like Jesus, we still don’t know who God is.

It has to be that way, Barth might say to Brian.

Otherwise, we no longer require God to know God.

The most recent NY Times Magazine features a story about Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal Holiness preacher-pastor, who is now one of the few ‘outed’ members of the Clergy Project, an organization for former and current clerics who no longer believe in God. The Clergy Project functions as a support group for such clergy as they undertake the often difficult task of extricating religion from the many parts of their lives. The group has several hundred members and is now branching out beyond their original support role. DeWitt, for example, has taken to ‘evangelizing’ his new found ‘faith’ in atheism.

What’s interesting to me about the article isn’t what the article’s author intended as the hook. I don’t think DeWitt, for example, is an example of a wave of clergy who no longer believe what they preach. The Clergy Project has only a couple hundred members; there are over a thousand Methodist clergy in Virginia alone. And, as Bishop Will Willimon, likes to point out most clergy don’t burnt out on Jesus. Most clergy burn out on Jesus’ friends, ie, church people.

Despite the illusion of novelty the article projects, most of the ‘problems with God’ that contemporary critics can lob at the faith are barbs the ancient Church has already suffered and reconciled. There’s nothing in DeWitt’s testimony, for instance, that even approaches the tortured faith or dark night of the soul of a Church Father like St. John of the Cross.

That’s not to say clergy don’t have dry patches of faith, periods of silence from God and self-doubt, but I’d argue that the deficiency groups like the Clergy Project really point out is the inadequacy of much evangelical Christianity, particularly it’s tendency to define Christianity purely in terms of the felt, emotional experience of the individual and to articulate the faith by means of universal reason.

Experience will always come and go for individuals and there are limits to how far reason can explain a God who is, at root, paradoxical. I wonder, in other words, if DeWitt would still be in the fold if he’d been raised in Mainline Protestantism or Catholicism where he would have learned that Christianity is as much about embodying the life of Christ with others in community, that it’s about cultivating habits and practices and relying on the faith of others when your own wanes.

But what interests me about DeWitt’s experience isn’t what it says about evangelical Christianity but what it says about Christianity in America, in the empire. After DeWitt ‘came out’ as an unbeliever in his little bible belt town, he immediately became an object of scorn and derision. DeWitt’s new ‘faith’ cost him relationships with friends and neighbors, strained his relationships within his family. He was now seen as odd, peculiar, dangerous. The town that used to adore him now hated him for his ‘faith.’

What’s interesting to me then is how it took leaving the faith of Jesus for DeWitt to experience what Jesus himself said it would be like for those who chose to follow him. That DeWitt had to give up God to get a taste of how Jesus described the cost of discipleship is but one indication, I think, of how much we’ve accommodated Jesus to our culture.