Westar Spring Meeting,
Flamingo Resort, Santa Rosa, California, March 2015.
There were about 166 attendees at the Westar Spring Meeting, mainly from the US, 4 Canadians, 1 from the UK, 1 from Japan and 3 Australians! The age group looked mainly like the average church congregation, except for a great group of 6 youngish clergy, gathered together by David Galston.
The meeting kicked off with a public lecture from Bernard Brandon Scott on his new book ‘The Real Paul’. To start, we were given ‘5 quick and dirty rules for understanding Paul’! Most memorable for me was BBS’s regular instruction to ‘forget Acts!’ as repository of historical information about Paul. He also argued that we set aside ideas that Paul was converted to anything. Instead, that Paul saw himself as called to be an envoy of God’s news about Jesus the Anointed. He is to take this news to ‘the nations’, not to the whole world, but to the nations that make up the Roman Empire.
In a panel discussion on ‘The Search for the Real Paul’, Lane C. McGaughy’s translation work on the letters of Paul was discussed, where LMcG argues against Luther’s translation of Romans 3:22. Instead of the subjective genitive, (Jesus the Anointed’s own faithfulness), Luther translated 3:22 with the objective genitive (faith in Jesus the Anointed). The question was, does Lane McGaughy’s work undermine the Protestant Reformation?
The Christianity Seminar (that began in 2013) was engaged in considering the stories of Christian martyrdom that appeared from the second century CE. Various scholars, including Jennifer Wright Knust, argued that many of the martyr stories were written later than that, and were used alongside scripture as affirmations of loyalty to Jesus Christ, instead of to Caesar.
Hal Taussig made the important point that before the Emperor Decius’ edict (249 CE) there was no systematic persecution of Christians. It only happened during the period 303 – 311 (the Diocletian persecutions). Most martyr stories were written after the legalization of Christianity. Why was that so? This was part of an imperial mentality developing among Christians. The stories were to be read to celebrate the dead leader (as happened re the emperors). Monasteries had full sets of martyr story texts long before full sets of canonical material.
Westar continues to expand its repertoire into new areas of scholarly conversation. This spring it introduced a new seminar on ‘God and the Human Future’. The lectures and conversations began with Peter Steinberger’s ‘Thinking about thinking about God’. Steinberger is a professor of humanities and political science who argues that we are all aproleptics, aprolepticism being what he calls ‘the idea of not having an idea’ – about God – because we are not talking about something real, that conforms to ‘cause and effect’. But cause and effect does not explain the existence of the universe, either.
John Caputo (theological philosopher) took us into two ways of thinking about God – the ‘Weakness of God’ and the ‘Insistence of God’. Regarding the first, he quoted Derrida’s illustration of the ‘weak’ force of justice. The law has force. If we can’t make justice strong, we must make the law just. Justice itself is a ‘weak force’. Justice is force associated with God. Therefore God is a ‘weak force’.
Caputo’s lecture confirmed for me the non-existence of God the being. I found his concluding observation compelling: “The audacity of weak theology is the audacity of hope and the audacity of hope is the audacity of God.”
The ‘insistence of God’ represents for Caputo the insistence of the ‘call’. This can be disturbing whispers in the ears of theologians – who then (he says) get fired! God ‘calls’, but bringing about God’s existence is our responsibility.
Jeffrey Robbins (Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy) affirmed the opportunity Westar gave for collaboration of scholars across disciplines. He made the point that there is a re-thinking of philosophical theology going on. “But when philosophers think themselves to the limits of their thought, they ‘stumble upon religion’. Philosophy and religion are now ‘bleeding into each other’. Robbins declared that Westar can build conversations between historians and philosophers. “Radical theology dissolves the distinction between theism and atheism. The better response is ‘non-theism’.
Joe Bessler (Professor of Theology) wondered what theology is like after the Death of God. There must be something there to talk about, a basic something, like pure water, to add flavour to. If there is a foundational essence, what is it? Or is there nothing?
The Meeting included plenty of time for talking with other attendees, including receptions and the final banquet, where a moving memorial to Marcus Borg was led by Art Dewey and Robin Meyers.
The meeting was indeed a feast of intellectual and conversational stimulation. I hope this short summary conveys something of what was offered.
Rev Dr Lorraine Parkinson, Melbourne