Günther Bornkamm's treasures

Can I just say that Günther Bornkamm's books on Jesus of Nazareth and Paul are brilliant. I am no theologian and thereby not someone properly able to contextualise them in terms of their theological scholarship. Having said that I can not but appreciate them as excellent all-around expositions of the central politico-theological commitments of both Jesus and Paul. I found Bornkamm via an almost flattering citation by Alan Badiou in his Saint Paul.

While one of the purposes of the book on Jesus is to make his message as powerful and relevant today as it was two thousand years ago, Bornkamm acknowledges that messianism often gets hijacked in our secular age. He points his finger at

the front of fanatics who wish to claim Jesus for their own as the great revolutionary, as the prophet of a new world order, as the bringer of a new era, to which must be sacrificed all that is gone before, the word of God in the law and prophets. [...] This movement rushes towards a dreamed-of future, right past the law of God and heedless of it. We have met this tendency in many different forms in the course of a long and changing history. More than that! Its threat is still with us. (JON, 101.)

Writing in the late 1950s he is talking about revolutionary marxism, of course. Fifty years have passed and the threat of secular messianism is still with us, would you not agree?

The book on Paul is the best one I have read thus far on the man. It is a book of two halves: one on the historical Paul, his background, dramatic conversion, and apostolic credentials. I can tell most of the arguments made here are far from conventional. I can also tell where Bornkamm's reading inspired Badiou. Saint Paul reads almost like an unbeliever's ending to Paul: one that writes him off as a politician rather than an apostle.

The second half is on the theology of Paul's letters. One of the things I found interesting here was how Bornkamm distances pietism from pauline theology. Paul's view of the human condition does not make the presumption that man experiences his lost state, from which the Law is powerless to deliver him:

Paul's thought and preaching do not therefore follow the logic of the preaching and practice of repentance as seen especially in pietism. There, in disregard of the gospel, men are shown the depth of their sin, and every effort is made to bring them to despair of themselves [...] When Paul expounds the saving good news, it is generally in statements summarily characterizing man's state as lost; and this is not an evolutionary stage now left behind, on which he can look back with a sigh of relief. (P, 121, emphasis in original.)

It will be interesting to learn how laestadian theologians read Paul in this context.


Wordclouds of the Bible

Gene Veith posts an excellent link:

You must see Sixty-Six Clouds, which gives wordclouds (computerized breakdowns of word frequency with the most used words given in proportionally larger fonts) for each book of the Bible.

Here is the Psalms:

Psalms wordcloud

Here is Luke:

Luke wordcloud

Here is Romans:

Romans wordcloud

What I am wondering is how can one use wordclouds as a research tool? Not only scripture, I mean, but any text really. This is a form of discourse analysis, I suppose, and seems more useful than a good number of discourse analyses I have read up to this date.

(Via Cranach: The Blog of Veith.)


Luthers Christmas Sermons

Excuse me for posting another on Christmas eve, but this is a good one. Season's sermons from our reformer:

Luther's Christmas Sermons Epistles by J.N Lenker

Martin Luther's Christmas Book By Roland H. Bainton

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, Matthew 21:1-9 -- Christ's Advent into Jerusalem

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent, Luke 21:25-36 -- The Signs of Christ's Second Coming

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, Matthew 11:2-10 -- a marvelous sermon with a great section on the distinction between Law and Gospel.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, John 1:19-28 -- John the Baptist's confession and the true preacher.

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, Romans 13:11-14 -- An Exhortation to Good Works

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent, Romans 15:4-13 -- An Exhortation to Bear with the Weak

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 - A sermon on the Office of the Ministry

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Philippians 4:4-7 - A sermon on Christian living; 'on how to let God be everything to us'; with sections on true Christian freedom, rejoicing, and prayer.

Sermon for the Principal Christmas Service, John 1:1-14 -- Christ's Titles of Honor and His Attributes

Sermon for the Early Christmas Day Service, Luke 2:15-20 -- A sermon on the power and fruit of the Word of God

Sermon for Christmas Day, Luke 2:1-14 -- One of Luther's most famous sermons.

Sermon for Christmas Eve, Titus 2:11-14 -- Luther at his best

Second Sermon for Christmas Day, Titus 3:4-8 -- Statements on grace, faith, good works, and Baptism

Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas, Luke 2:33-40 -- On Simeon and Anna

Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas, Galatians 4:1-7 -- The People of Law and Grace; a great sermon that presents the true understanding of justification by faith and the function of the Law; Of interest to the JDDJ debate is this quote: 'Note, Paul everywhere teaches justification, not by works, but solely by faith; and not as a process, but instantaneous. The testament includes in itself everything--justification, salvation, the inheritance and great blessing. Through faith it is instantaneously enjoyed, not in part, but all' (par. 37).

Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day Luke 2:1-14, December 25, 1530

The Story of Jesus' Birth: A Sermon by Martin Luther- The great theologian's powerful reimagining of the Christmas story.

‘To Us a Child Is Born’: Sermon on Isaiah 9:6 (PDF)

(Via Beggars All: Reformation And Apologetics.)


Christmas in the Trenches

Peace from your editor and a classic piece, Christmas in the Trenches, by Jim Wallis:

We first published this reflection by Jim Wallis in 2002. It has since become our Christmas tradition, kind of our own
Charlie Brown Christmas special, if you will. With the ongoing conflicts raging during each passing year, it remains tragically relevant,…

(Via God's Politics Blog.)


People: good or evil?

Dennis Praeger cuts into the heart of the matter of political theory by asking the perennial question: If You Believe People Are Basically Good or Evil?


According to Praeger no issue has a greater influence on determining your social and political views than whether you view human nature as basically good or not:

I believe that we are born with tendencies toward both good and evil. Yes, babies are born innocent, but not good. Why is this issue so important? First, if you believe people are born good, you will attribute evil to forces outside the individual.

One of these forces is poverty, which explains evil by social deprivation. The fallacy of this explanation is, Praeger points out, that there are people who choose evil for reasons having nothing to do with their economic situation.

He goes on:

Second, if you believe people are born good, you will not stress character development when you raise children. [...] You will teach them how to struggle against the evils of society -- its sexism, its racism, its classism and its homophobia. But you will not teach them that the primary struggle they have to wage to make a better world is against their own nature.

This is what religion teaches, at least the Christian religion does. Mankind is with Adam: we are, like St. Paul, "of the flesh, sold under sin" (Rom 7:14, ESV). If there is something wrong with the society, it is not the society: it is us. It is not the structure we must blame, but the agent.

Praeger continues with two more important points, but we already know where he is coming from. I have always admired the eloquence of the conservative genre: conservatives do not need to quote research or theories to make a point. An argument composed in layman's black/white, either/or, friend/enemy terms communicates more than social science ever could.

Where have I read Praeger's question before? In Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political, of course:

One could test all theories of state and political ideas according to their anthropology and thereby classify these as to whether they consciously or unconsciously presuppose man to be by nature evil or by nature good. [...] The problematic or unproblematic conception of man is decisive for the presupposition of every further political consideration, the answer to the question whether man is a dangerous being or not, a risky or harmless creature. (58.)

A theologian ceases to be a theologian, Schmitt argues, when he no longer considers man to be a sinner in need of redemption, no longer distinguishes between the chosen and unchosen. When you first entertain the thought that people can be good, you will soon believe that you yourself are good. Those who disagree with your assessment -- and there will always be someone -- are not merely wrong, but likely to be on the evil's side. Theology works as a bulwark against moral relativism: a stand on God's good against the ideas and ideologies of men.

Praeger finishes off by demolishing the ideological foundations of "secular humanistic culture":

No great body of wisdom, East or West, ever posited that people were basically good. This naive and dangerous notion originated in modern secular Western thought, probably with Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Frenchman who gave us the notion of pre-modern man as a noble savage. He was half right. Savage, yes, noble, no. If the West does not soon reject Rousseau and humanism and begin to recognize evil, judge it and confront it, it will find itself incapable of fighting savages who are not noble.

In other words: political society needs God on its side. Where have I read this before? Joseph de Maistre is about as pessimistic when it comes to the faculties of man in taking care of its political institutions. Considerations on France is an attack on Rousseau -- "perhaps the most self-deceived man who ever lived" -- and the revolution he helped inspire. De Maistre abhorred the idea of state apart from the divine:

It would be curious to examine our European institutions one by one and to show how they are all Christianized, how religion mingles in everything, animates and sustains everything. Human passions may pollute and even pervert primitive creations, but if the principle is divine, this is enough to give them a prodigious permanence. (42.)

Though I agree with Praeger when it comes to his (and Schmitt's) anthropological assessment, I find it difficult to bring it into our political context. Both de Maistre and Praeger write in their own political contexts -- Joseph against revolutionary humanism and Dennis against American liberalism -- and their conclusions have little to contribute to, say, Finland in the current political moment. What (or who) is evil in Finnish society? Is God on Finland's side, and if indeed he is, who are the Finns exactly? If not on "our" side, whose side is God on?

(Via Apologetic Junkie.)


Eating, drinking and sleeping political theology

The International Research Network on Religion and Democarcy (IRNRD) held its annual conference on 14.-15.12.2009 at the Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary. The theme of the conference was Political Theology for the 21st Century: Trends and Tasks. Among speakers invited were Lieven Boeve (Catholic University Leuven), Michael Hoelzl (University of Manchester), Peter Jonkers (Tilburg University), András Lánczi (Corvinus University) and Theo de Wit (Tilburg University). I gave a talk on the laestadian movement in Finland and presented an outline of our research project.

14122009106.jpgFrom the left: Tom Bailey (John Cabot University), Peter Losonczi (University of West Hungary), Aakash Singh (LUISS University Rome), David Tombs (Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin), Lieven Boeve, Peter Jonkers and the hand of Domenico Melidoro (LUISS University, Rome).

The venue of the conference was faithful to its theme. The participants stayed at Kálvin Ház -- A hotel in downtown Budapest I can warmly recommend -- and the conference dinner was served in Spinoza Restaurant:


Well done by the organizers! Corvinus University itself was originally established to honour Karl Marx, whose politico-theological relevance may appear less obvious.

My first meeting with the network can only be described as a massive succé! It was indeed a privilege to work with such an esteemed line-up of colleagues. My notes are rich with interesting excursions into new political theologies and intriguing ideas to work with over the next couple of years. Thanks again for Peter Losonczi and Akaash Singh for their effort and for inviting me along. Next year’s meeting will be held in Rome and we are planning to bring the network to Rovaniemi in 2011 or 2012. Excellent stuff!


Political dimensions of the Laestadianism in the research focus funded by Academy of Finland

Thanks freepathways for the heads-up:

Political dimensions of the Laestadianism in the research focus funded by Academy of Finland: "

The Academy of Finland’s Research Council for Culture and Society has recently decided to fund a new research project on Laestadianism from the political point of view:  Laestadian-ism: Political Theology and Civil Religion in Secularizing Finland. The project  will be managed  by Dr. Mika Luoma-aho (Assistant Professor of International Relations, University of Lapland), to the tune of 375,000 Euro over the period 1 January 2010 through 31 December 2012.
The research project is welcome and important  in this global situation. We need more understanding about both national and international religional movements, especially about their societal and political roles and impacts.  It is expectable that the results of the project will be appreciated by the researcers and the field of the practice in the society, especially in Finland where the Laestadian movement is a largest, powerful separatistic movement in the The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.

(Via Omat polut - etnisten vanhoillislestadiolaisten kertomuksia ja kokemuksia.)


Why blog and why blogs fail

Here is an interesting piece by Paul McCain: Seven Reasons Why Blogs Fail (via James Swan). Need to keep an eye on these I suppose. The rationale behind our blogging is that it provides very affordable PR outlet for our research. We can keep up to date with our collaborators on topics of mutual interest, take part in discussions that might otherwise pass us by.

I am also looking at ways to blog about my reading. This I do not to amuse our readers in the first instance, but rather think of as an experiment in public note-taking.

See how it goes.


Reading Horton on pietism and the Eucharist

I am learning more and more about pietism. The subject came up while I was introducing myself to covenant theology by reading, well, Michael Horton's Introducing Covenant Theology.

Horton touches upon the issue of pietism while discussing sacraments as forms of "ratification" of the New Covenant. Horton reviews the Old Testament habit of ratifying treaties by having a meal -- a tradition replicated in Passover and later reworked into the Lord's Supper. He argues that the Lord's Supper is a covenant meal: "while it is first of all a ratification of God's pledge to us, it also ratifies our pledge to God and to each other" (159).

The problem with the pietistic version of the Lord's Supper, Horton argues, is that

in its obsession with the individual's inner piety, it loses much of the import of the feast as a sacred meal that actually binds us to Christ and to each other. Instead of viewing it first as God's saving action towards us and then as our fellowship with each other in Christ, we come to see it as just another opportunity to be threatened with the law. (160.)

This echoes the criticism of pietism touched on by the more political theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (see e.g. the afterword to Life Together, 139-40).

The parallel here is of course that laestadianism is a form of Christian pietism, or at least heavily influenced by it. Sacraments can be used politically -- as instruments or events of both inclusion and exclusion -- and now I am interested in how this plays out in churches within the movement? Is the Eucharist an act of reaching out and becoming one with the neighbour? Or is it that of reading them the law?


Congrats Sanna!

One of the post-docs of the Laestadian-ism team, MSocSc Sanna Valkonen, successfully defended her doctoral thesis at the University of Lapland on Friday, 4th of December. Her examiners Veli-Pekka Lehtola (University of Oulu) and Elina Penttinen (University of Tampere) also performed their duties exceedingly well. Sanna's dissertation titled Poliittinen saamelaisuus was published by Vastapaino. Go get it now!

The karonkka was an absolute blast! Sanna (far left) and the Girls performed a number of Finnish evergreens for the enjoyment of all.


Religious views in the secular sphere

There is an interesting article and an entertaining discussion ongoing at Cif belief, The Guardian's opinion site on religious issues. The piece is an article by Jonathan Chaplin that criticises the view held by some secular humanists according to which religion should play no role whatsoever in democratic discourse. Chaplin's point is that the democratic debate should take in as many faith-based and moral views as possible.

Chaplin makes his case against secular humanism by debunking the three main points made against religion in the public square:

  1. Faith-based discourse will cause religious views to be legally imposed on secular citizens.
  2. Faith-based arguments are unintelligible or inaccessible to most citizens, whereas secularist moral arguments can be embraced by everyone.
  3. Religious faith is just irrational and so can never be the basis of democratic reasoning.

According to Chaplin none of the three stand up. He concludes:

If we want a truly pluralistic democracy which builds consensus by honouring difference rather than suppressing it, we should ensure that democratic debate remains open to as many moral and faith-based standpoints as possible. In a pluralist democracy pretty much everyone at some point is going to feel imposed on by some legislated moral standpoint they deeply repudiate. So for exclusivists to single out just one class of moral standpoints – religious ones – as unacceptable cannot be justified.

I find Chaplin's argument very compelling and agreeable. What I find baffling is the hard time he gets from the commenters. Atheists can be a vicious lot sometimes. Only a handful of commenters who attack Chaplin seem to have read what he is actually saying. He is not saying that faith should be given more influence in public life than any other standpoint, but that it should not be denied influence merely on the grounds that it is faith-based, i.e. "non-rational" knowledge.

I'll leave the final word to the Gaping Void.


Political Theology in Budapest, December 2009

On 14--15 December your host will attend an international conference at the Corvinus University in lovely Budapest. Political Theology for the 21st Century is the title of the meeting and it is organized by the International Research Network on Religion and Democracy (IRNRD).

Looking at the program I will give a talk about our project on Laestadian-ism on Monday and chair a panel on Tuesday. Our partner Péter Losonczi, a college associate professor at the West Hungarian University (Szombathely), will present a paper on Johann Baptist Metz's categories for a politics of peace on Monday. Hopefully we will get a chance to talk about project collaboration and come up with a plan to bring Peter to Lapland!


Hypothesis 1: Finland's Christian Right

To get things up and running I am going to introduce some of the hypotheses -- i.e. preliminary suppositions or starting points for further research -- of our project on political laestadianism. These hypotheses are based on what we already know about the movement: existing literatures on the subject and what might be described as "common knowledge". We are well aware that both of these sources have their share of problems, but this is the reason we need further research!

Let me begin from the hypothesis that laestadianism is Finland's Christian Right: it embodies and represents much of what goes under Christian reaction in this country. Laestadianism is not a political movement in the conventional sense of the term: it does not have its own party or a political platform. Laestadianism is a form of “fundamentalism” that poses no challenge to other Christian denominations or religions, just as it does not in any way aim to subvert the establishment. Quite the contrary: Laestadians have long practiced their religion within the confines of the national Lutheran Church; they have traditionally taken an active role in civil society; and they continue to organize themselves politically through the Finnish parliamentary system.

One of the objectives of our project is to study laestadianism as a form of civil religion. This idea can be traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 The Social Contract. For Rousseau civil religion provided the moral and spiritual foundation essential for any modern society. Not unlike “social cement”, civil religion functioned to unify the state by sacralizing its authority. For the Laestadians, remaining faithful to Martin Luther’s doctrine of two kingdom's, the state has a very specific theological meaning: it is government established by God and in its proper functioning his rule and reign are in stake. Among the varieties and intensities of civil religion we may identify in Finnish politics today, laestadianism embodies its purest theological expression and most explicit political articulation. Luther identified the state as the sole source of authority in worldly affairs -- as God’s government -- and Finnish Laestadians are devoted to this calling. It is here, if indeed anywhere, that Finland is worshipped today.

There is a contrast between the world-view of laestadianism and that of the “rest-of-us”: the secular majority of Finns. It almost seems as if the Laestadian community belonged to another era. Indeed: we can read laestadianism as a case of pre-modern civil religion. In his 2007 A Secular Age the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes that pre-modern forms of society reflect an “embedded” understanding of human life, where the polity itself is seen as God’s creation. In these societies political authority is inconceivable without God: social and political arrangements cannot be understood separately from the sacred and the divine.

What makes laestadianism important is that it plays a not at all insignificant role in Finnish politics. There are regions in this country where this role can be leading. While the rest-of-us can easily find a place in our horizontally arranged modernity, where religion is a personal choice of passing political significance, there is a large island in this “age” that believes otherwise. “We” may think that religion is far behind secular reason in “our” politics today, but there is a politically active minority that operates on the absolute opposite of this assumption.


First things: who are we and why are we here?

This weblog is the home of a research project focusing on the political dimension of laestadianism, a lutheran revival movement based on the heritage of a Sami botanist and preacher Lars Levi Laestadius -- click the picture on top of the right column to learn more. The project is funded by the Academy of Finland's board of culture and society for 2010-2, with the University of Lapland's Faculty of Social Sciences as its home institution. In our research we combine current theoretical literatures on political theology and civil religion with an empirically oriented approach to the movement in Finnish society.

This weblog will be updated with current information on project events and public relations, commentary and analysis on issues touching the laestadian movement in Finland and elsewhere, as well as debates on political theology and civil religion in general. For more up-to-date updates do follow me on Twitter!