Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dogmatic Problematics

Today, I sat down and started to read Dogmatics: Volume I - Christian Doctrine of God (Library of Theological Translations) (v. 1) by Emil Brunner to officially start my season of Lent. Now, the mere fact that I am reading such a work for Lent presents a problem. For most Western Christians, Lent is a time of spiritual renewal and they spend their time reading books Show Me the Way: Daily Lenten Readings by Henri Nouwen or Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster. Now, I have no problem with devotional works, and find them helpful on my journey. However, as an academic, I have a hard time feeling connected to the spiritual world that these authors find themselves in. I am, though, comfortable in the realm of academic theology, so I choose to stay there this year. (Maybe next year I will engage in an academic Lent.)

     Now, I find myself with a dilemma, and that is how to avoid merely intellectualizing the faith as it is presented by Dr. Brunner. A friend asked me how I would be avoiding this problem, as in the West, you do not read with your heart, but with your mind. I replied curtly that I reject the division of heart and mind, but honestly, I do not. It is easy when learning an idea to only learn it for the sake of learning of it, and not for the sake of it having an impact on you. This is a relatively new idea, as pre-Enlightenment thinkers would not understand the point of knowledge qua knowledge. In fact, the Greeks (excluding the Sophists) prided themselves as being students and lovers of wisdom and not of knowledge. This seeking after wisdom changed when Descartes uttered his famous cogito. In it, he states, "Ego sum res cogitans, id est dubitans, affirmans, negans, pauca intelligens, multa ignorans, volens, nolens, imaginans quoque sentiens." (Quoted in Jean-Luc Marion's The Erotic Phenomenon, pg. 6) All the activities he lists (thinking, doubting, willing, non-willing, imagining, feeling) is done by the mind. Post-Cartesian Enlightenment, there is no longer a reason to apply thought, the purpose of thought is found in and of itself.

    Regrettably , I am stuck in the Cartesian tradition, even though I am trying leave. Even sadder, a clean break is not possible, so I need to face this problematic head on. Thankfully, Dr. Brunner is on my side, writing that "this kind of academic or intellectual knowledge or research (is) only possible within the community of believers."(Brunner,pg. 5) Thus, I am not located as an isolated mind like Descartes presupposes, but I start out in a place, an unique place, and that place is the Church, both local and universal. I am not alone in this project: I have the church surrounding me and informing me, asking and answering questions while I read. Due to this, I have an obligation not only to myself but to the church to not keep this knowledge for myself. Actually, I do not have an obligation. I have something stronger than that, and that is a covenant relationship with the church.

    Brunner starts his dogmatics out with an outline of his project, and how he is not trying to reduce the doctrine of the church down to a dead letter. He is trying to keep it as a living word, as a testimony to The Living Word. For, "The Christian message is, first of all, narrative, not doctrine." (pg. 35) Thus, to start with doctrine is to the lose the story and tradition that courses through it. It is then my hope to never let this out of my sight, that I am not studying a logical syllogism that floats abstractly in the realm of pure idea, but I am meditating on a narrative that I am a part of. On top of this, I have to read the text as not only an invitation to the world of Reformed theology (at least Brunner's understanding of Reformed Theology). I have to read the text as an invitation to participate in the life of Christ and his church. Brunner states that "no longer are we content to 'believe it', but our one concern is to come to Him, to trust Him, to be united to Him, to surrender to Him. Revelation and faith now mean a personal encounter, personal communion." (pg. 26) The Triune God revealed in Holy Scripture does not allow us to only think about and affirm Himself. When we are doing this, we are participating in idolatry instead of worshiping.

This is how I am trying to solve the problem of reading a dogmatic text for Lent. For "Doctrine and teaching (The German word Lehre means both teaching and doctrine) continually passes into worship, thanksgiving and praise." (pg. 39) For in the end, if I read Brunner's dogmatics correctly, I cannot make it a mere intellectual exercise. Not only would I be doing violence against the text by reading it as such, I would be doing violence against myself, and worst of all, violence against the church.

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