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Sunday Syllabus – 11/12/2017

This week’s round-up of articles focuses on the long-term significance of religious movements or on significant long-term trends.

FEATURED ARTICLE: David Bentley Hart talks about the concept of human dignity as introduced in the New Testament. In short, human dignity is the attribution of value (in various ways) merely on the basis of humanity, without regard for social position or accomplishment. My reaction to this article falls along two lines, one dealing with comparative religion and one investigating the content of Hart’s assertion. Hart talks a good bit about Greco-Roman culture, but Judaism was curiously absent from his piece. Perhaps he didn’t intend to indict Judaism; saying human dignity was “a rarity” could very well allow for the inclusion of Jews, who were only a tiny rarity of the world’s population. I also wonder whether several other religions, chronologically later than Christianity but not genetically dependent on it, couldn’t also be credited with a similar achievement.

Back to the argument itself, I think I’m in general agreement that the New Testament’s approach to the individual has incredible potential for social revolution, a potential often heavily circumscribed in particular instantiations of Christianity. But it’s worth being a bit of a Devil’s advocate (pun intended). Does Jesus represent a real subversion of the order of power, or just a temporary deception? At least by the Gospel of John, it’s clear that Jesus is a being of incredible cosmic power (equal to God himself?) who willingly undertook his mission on earth. His humiliation, though deep and real (in contrast to Gnosticism), is temporary. Granting that a humble birth and crucifixion is an odd way to get there, the story is that Christ ends up ruler of all and that his friends share in his rule. The “Pantokrator” is one of the most beloved of Byzantine icons, and it underpinned the all too human Byzantine Empire. Would the subversion be more real if the mainstream church had never developed a doctrine of the deity of Christ or the future reign of Christ? Would not a religion built around the crucifixion of a merely human carpenter be more anarchic than orthodox Christianity?

Yes, the Reformation makes another appearance as Carl Trueman questions the connection between Luther and secularism. He reviews Brad Gregory’s new book, Rebel in the Ranks, which condenses the argument of Gregory’s earlier book The Unintended Reformation while wrapping it more tightly around a narrative of Luther’s life. I think Trueman is right to question the cogency of “unintended consequences” as a category for discussing events that unfolded over many generations. Also, I heartily applaud his presentation of Luther not as an innovator ex nihilo, but as an innovator in response to particular intellectual and societal challenges, which were by definition already in motion before him. Finally, I appreciate his attention to how equivocation over modernity and a romantic view of the Middle Ages often lead to unbalanced presentations.

A recent article by Emma Green on black Catholics in America provides a perfect example of and much insight into two important trends in global Christianity. First, Africa is becoming a major gravity center of world Christianity. Second, the emigration of African Christians to other parts of the world is challenging traditional understandings of Christian faith and practice, as well as complicating conversations about religion and race.




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