Archive for July, 2009

Predicaments in Modern Theology

07/29/2009

Theologically, there have been multiple ways to understand Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity. I’ve already noted that the death-of-God theologians thought they were remaining faithful to his message, although their radicalism would likely upset the far more orthodox Bonhoeffer. While Gutierrez, the famous liberation theologian, argues that the church’s complete service to the world is a realization of Bonhoeffer’s call. In our more current theological debates between Hauerwasianism and Radical Orthodoxy vs. Secular/Radical theology (Taylor and Caputo) a disagreement over the understanding of ecclesiology and secularism remains. I also want to focus on the historical credibility of these different theological approaches.

Milbank’s brilliant but controversial genealogy of the secular in his Theology and Social Theory attempted to show how the notion of secular reason was a historical development, which ultimately stemmed back to the ‘heretical’ theology of Duns Scotus and his understanding of the univocity of being. From what I understand, Scotus dissolved the difference between existence and essence ultimately assigning the being of man and God to be of the same kind, although God’s being is greater in intensity. Being precedes God, and hence both men and God share being, which ultimately lead to the shattering of God’s transcendence. This facilitated the bifurcation of faith and reason and of the supernatural and natural that has led to the increasing privatization of religion perfectly epitomized in liberal theology. Milbank wants to bring together reason and faith. For instance, Tillich’s famous method of correlation, which allows the world to pose questions from philosophy and existentialism and theology endeavors to respond through the use of divine revelation, goes wrong because theology should set its own agenda and not have to answer to philosophy. Also, leveling the critique that postmodernism has offered against metanarratives, Milbank tries to out narrate other metanarratives claiming Christianity ultimately prevails against nihilism and humanism. It does so because Milbank believes that Christianity offers and ontology of peace/nonviolence that rivals the ontology of violence that is posited by the likes of Girard, Foucault, and Derrida. Here is where I get pissed. For one, as Clayton Crockett argues in his Theology of the Sublime, this ontology of peace that Christianity supposedly represents has to suppress hundreds of years of Christian violence, so it’s ultimately a non-historical account. Secondly, claiming that past expressions of Christianity were not truly Christian because of their connection with Constantianism or something of that matter, strikes me as odd considering how much emphasis they place on tradition. Third, as Crockett also points out even if the cross is a symbol that resists violence, it still suggests that violence and the sacred are at the heart of Christianity. Need I even mention the ridiculously violent interpretations that have perverted atonement theories?

Likewise, Hauerwas’ prophetic call for the church to be the church offers a helpful critique of liberalism in his postliberal theology. Postliberal theology emphasizes the narrative aspects of Christianity stemming from tradition and the Bible and endeavors to transcend the polarities between Conservatism (propositional and cognitive) and Liberalism (experiential and expressive). While I think reclaiming the emphasis on narrative is a helpful corrective, this position completely neglects the importance historical criticism has on Christianity. For instance, by focusing on tradition narrative the discoveries of the historical Jesus research or a historical critique of the Bible may be dismissed.

From the radical theological perspectives new works stress the parallels between Christianity and secularism. A helpful understanding of secularism arises in Mark C Taylor’s magnificent book After God. Here he argues that secularism is inherently linked to the Reformation. This is because with the Reformation, the tradition of the Catholic church is compromised and refocused on the individual’s justification through faith. Also, the increasing availability of the Bible led to the proliferation of interpretations, and hence authority now rests in the individual (not the holy and apostolic Church) . Hence, the death of God is contingent on the Reformation and the decentering of authority away from God and redirected towards the individual. Thus, he believes we should trace Modernism not back to Descartes but rather to Luther.

While the radical theologians take historical critique seriously, they tend to discuss only portions of the tradition. For instance, it’s no surprise that Caputo’s Jesus is derived from Crossan’s research that results from the Jesus Seminar. I’ve already discussed how those scholars de-emphasize Jesus’ eschatological orientation. Although he claims that this Jesus confounds all of our neat, hermetic systems, I find his presentation of the tolerant, liberal Jesus to have already removed one of the most profound offenses Jesus offers: the focus on the end of the world and the coming reign of God. Also, given Caputo’s hesitance to fully engage the tradition because of the fear of relapsing into onto-theology, suggests that his weak theology does not offer a very promising future.

In Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus, he offers the helpful terms of pre-critical naïveté and post-critical naïveté. The former refers to the conservative position that assumes the Bible is historically accurate and ignores historical criticism. The latter term is represented by the liberal tradition which embraces historical criticism, and thus events such as the virgin birth are not historical but express the deeper symbolic truths of humanity. I used to have sympathy for the liberal position, but now I find it more and more to be simplistic. Why not embrace both history and science to allow us to remain critical and  faithful to our tradition? I’m no apologist, and I don’t pretend that all of the truths of Christianity can be historically validated, but we cannot shy away from historical research. As NT Wright says, “True Christianity has nothing to fear from history”. I also believe that even if it’s untrue historically that it doesn’t loses all of its importance, but history should inform our faith. Or else we fall into the temptation of worshiping the Cosmic Christ as opposed to Jesus of Nazareth.

Here, I find Pannenberg to be the most helpful theologian. In his book, Anthropology in Theological Perspective he dialogues with the human sciences and allows the findings to offer a critique of modern orthodoxy. He argues against the position that Milbank adopts: that even if the Fall is not historical, it is necessary to assume ontologically. So, in Pannenberg’s opinion, we must remove the Fall from orthodoxy. At least, this is intellectually honest. Moreover, in Jesus: God and Man, he dismisses the virgin birth as myth because he feels as if this story in Luke and Matthew endeavored to situate a time at which Jesus’ divinity was secured. Whereas John adopted a pre-historical stance on the incarnation, Mark placed Jesus’ divinity as being instituted during his baptism when the Spirit descended on him and the Father blessed his ministry. I’m just glad he’s honest with history, and that he takes seriously research on the historical Jesus (especially his apocalypticism). Some argue against this dismissal of the virgin birth because Pannenberg assumes that because Mark, John, and Paul don’t mention the miracle they must have been ignorant of it. Even though, he incorrectly includes Paul in this list, and with John we really have no idea what he thought was historical given his mythological and theological perspective, it’s naïve to assume that Mark somehow forgot to include this miracle. If the virgin birth was historical, just what exactly would be Mark’s reason for excluding that narrative? Also, given the wildly different virgin birth stories that emerge in Matthew and Luke, it’s hard to imagine that these stories were not ideologically driven. Unfortunately, Pannenberg infamously refuses to take seriously post-structuralism and dismisses Derridean deconstruction as a mere fad.

Here’s my issue with modern theology. I respect Altizer’s death-of-God theology (especially its apocalyptic focus), but I’m not entirely convinced by his Hegelian interpretation of the cross. Likewise, Mark Taylor’s more or less complete abandonment of theology since the early 90’s suggests that his a/theology will not offer fruitful engagement in the future. I find Caputo’s emphasis on weak theology interesting, especially the weakness of God. But, I tend to find his stringent commitments to all things liberal and his complete dismissal of psychoanalysis to be discouraging. Also, even though his recasting of deconstruction in a religious light was useful (especially as a critique of Taylor’s overly atheistic theology), it’s obvious that he will never actually take the risk of being a robust theologian (as Zizek righly notes). Most of the deconstructive theologians restrict themselves to philosophy but never take up political theology. Their politics rarely vary much from modern liberalism. Milbank’s radical orthodoxy is clearly the most developed of all of these modern theologies, but his polemical nature and his utter dismissal of all things non-Christian as pagan or nihilistic strikes me as juvenile. I’d like to see him consider taking a more historical approach to Christianity, but as I’ve already noted he’d rathe preserve a pristine version of Christianity than seriously engage history. Hauerwas and gang mostly annoy with their fixation on the church, perhaps I’m still stuck romanticizing on the possibility of a ‘religionless Christianity’. I love Pannenberg’s (and to a lesser extent Moltmann’s) historical, eschatological theologies, but Pannenberg’s refusal to converse with modern continental philosophy doesn’t suit my appetite. Liberation theology certainly fascinates me with their radical politics, but their orthodox commitment to Christianity does not yield very interesting theological results (here I’m thinking mostly of Latin American theology, not feminist). Lastly, one of the most fascinating theological discussions I find occurring comes from Clayton Crockett and Zizek. Crockett’s engagement with psychoanalysis in his latest book Interstices of the Sublime was wonderful. His faithfulness to his mentor Charles Winquist will likely open up exciting theological horizons for the future. For Zizek, his Hegelian and Lacanian death-of-God theology while fascinating, tends to repeat the death-of-God theologians. I would’ve mentioned more on Marion’s post-metaphysical theology or process theology, but I remain mostly ignorant of these different strands.

In summary, I would like theology that is historical, engaged with the human sciences (like psychoanalysis), confronts actual doctrines and reformulates them, sensitive to continental philosophy, concerned with liberation struggles, apocalyptic, kingdom-of-God focused, and political.

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Death of God Part IV

07/29/2009

God is not dead for Bonhoeffer. So why include him in this series? I believe that although God the Father is not dead, a certain God is dead for Bonhoeffer. The God that he dubs deus ex machina is dead. The God of the Gaps is dead for Bonhoeffer. He believes the God of the Gaps is the God that serves to plug in the holes of our theories about the world. For instance, many Christians today endorse evolution, but ultimately reserve God’s place at the beginning of time, essentially to begin the fireworks for the Big Bang. As science develops more and more God becomes an unnecessary hypothesis for explaining the unknown. Even if you stick with God to explain things, science has pushed him further and further out of the world, so that his power dwindles considerably. I sometimes wonder how people can still be Deists. Hasn’t science made that position untenable? Even if you want to restrict God’s role to beginning the Big Bang, why is this God? Could it not be named chance or randomness? If God is merely functional, than why bother believing?

The God of power is also dead for Bonhoeffer. Man looks to God for power, but God responds in weakness:

Here are some quotes, “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering”.

“Man’s religiosity makes him look in distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering: only the suffering God can help”

Before Bonhoeffer, Chesterton said this in Orthodoxy, “Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence has made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king”.

Zizek argues that this understanding of the suffering God is the only way for theology to explain the problem of suffering. We cannot maintain the idea of a beneficent/powerful God given the horrible tragedies of the world. We must either forfeit the powerful God or the beneficent God. Deism or some sort of process theology. Bonhoeffer says no. God’s power is not man’s power. God’s power is the cross, a confrontation with all power/violence. While this argument tends to remain fixated on the cross, it is a helpful perspective. Later, I’ll turn to Moltmann’s theology of the cross to flesh this out. So, in conclusion, the God that is dead is the God that man appropriates for power, but the weak God of suffering is the God who refuses to be co-opted for personal gains. Rather, it stands as an affront to anyone’s conception of God that is sovereign over humanity.

Death of God Part III

07/27/2009

The 1960’s were an odd decade, to say the least. Theology faced the formidable challenge of trying to continue to speak about God after Auschwitz. Although many theologians now dismiss the death-of-God theology as a mere fad instigated by faux-radicals abusing the term ‘God is dead’ for mere shock value, I wonder if Christianity’s refusal to engage them stems more from fear than the supposed superficiality of their ideas. I want to primarily focus on Thomas Altizer, but I will briefly mention the other main exponent of the death-of-God theology, Williams Hamilton. Hamilton’s book the New Essence of Christianity tried to rethink a God stripped of his transcendence, sovereignty, and providence. Using the insights of Camus, Nietzsche, and Bonhoeffer (especially his call for a religionless Christianity) he advocated a radical social engagement alongside one’s neighbor all the while following the Word. I believe he’s right insofar as I do not understand how given the world’s current fix we could possibly hold onto a belief in a providential or sovereign God. It’s also worth noting that Hamilton and Altizer dedicated their book Radical Theology and the Death of God (which is free online at religion-online.org) to Tillich and believed that they were living out the call, albeit in a more radical way of Bonhoeffer’s secular Christianity (note also Gutierrez in his famous Theology of Liberation also thought that his theology was a realization of Bonhoeffer’s prophetic plea).

To understand Altizer’s unique theology one has to have some understanding of the radical thinker from whom he draws his major inspiration: Hegel. Hegel was the first thinker who truly worked out the death of God in his philosophy, not Nietzsche. His dialectic works as a process that begins with 1) thesis followed by 2) antithesis, where both are absorbed and preserved in a 3) synthesis. Or, we have identity, difference, and then the identity of identity and difference. (While many a postmodern has been suspicious of this process given its reluctance to embrace difference, current scholarship has been trying to read against this totalizing view of Hegel). Hegel’s dialectic can be illustrated by a dialectical understanding of the Trinity. For Hegel, first we have God (thesis) who’s negated in the incarnation of the Son (antithesis), which is likewise negated on the cross and fully preserved in the Holy Spirit or the community of believers (synthesis). Altizer develops this more fully.

Quick side note, for Altizer the discovery of Jesus’ apocalyptic belief in the end of the world was a vital discovery for contemporary theology, so it’s no surprise that he disparages the scholars of the Jesus Seminar given that they contest the central importance Jesus’ apocalyptic roots. He believes that his theology is fully apocalyptic embracing Jesus’ message as opposed to re-interpreting it like Bultmann or Barth did. Likewise, Altizer’s theology is a journey from transcendence to immanence, which he believes is a repetition of Jesus’ announcement of the coming reign of God. In which, the alien other will restores justice and assume his Lordship on the earth. This discovery helps us negate any lie of an eternal life elsewhere outside the earth.

First, we have God the Father whose transcendence is negated as a result of the incarnation (Paul talks about kenosis). However, not until the cross can we fully understand the uniqueness of Altizer. For him, the cross represents the absolute negation of all transcendence, which ultimately results in the complete self-annihilation of God. Precisely, what dies in Jesus is God the Father, which is the Father’s ultimate act of grace. This rids us of any alien Other (big Other) who oppresses our existence. He also argues that this can help us for the first time truly grasp what Jesus’ cry of dereliction means in Mark. What abandons Jesus is actually the God the Father, who has fully negated himself of all transcendence. Hence, Jesus really was God-forsaken, but just what would atonement look like in this apocalyptic theology?

Altizer says, “When the Incarnation and the Crucifixion are understood as dual expressions of a common process, a kenotic or negative process whereby God negates his primordial and transcendent epiphany thereby undergoing a metamorphosis into a new and immanent form, then the incarnate manifestation of Word or Spirit can also be understood as an eschatological consummation of the self-negation of God, an extension of the atoning process of the self-annihilation of God throughout the totality of experience. Such an apocalyptic and dialectical understanding of the atonement, however, demands a new conception of atonement or reconciliation: a conception revealing not simply that God is the author and the agent of atonement but is himself the subject of reconciliation as well.”

Not surprisingly Altizer views the ascension of Jesus to be a negation of the historical movement of transcendence to immanence, so instead he believes the true realization of the death of all transcendence is accomplished in Jesus’ descent into Hell.

Finally, I want to add some comments. Altizer’s ethics is vastly similar to Bonhoeffer who I will cover in the next post followed then by Moltmann. One thing I find is interesting is Altizer’s fidelity and betrayal of Barth. Given Barth’s obsession with the ‘wholly Other God’ it’s obvious that Altizer emphasis on immanence is far from Barthian. However, the death-of-God theologians fixation on Jesus conforms to Barth’s Christocentrism. Mary Daly, the provacative feminist theologian, in her book Beyond God the Father condemns theologians from Augustine to Barth for their misogyny, and then addresses Altizer. Although, she lauds him for negating the patriachal God the Father, she remains puzzled as to why he doesn’t deny Jesus’ divinity as well. Her critique was likely spawned by Altizer’s statmement that for Christians it’s not that “Jesus is God but rather that God is Jesus’.

Death of God Part II

07/25/2009

Nietzsche’s eerie section in the Gay Science of the madman who announces the murder of God to the townspeople has provoked a variety thoughts and interpretations. I’d like to clear up what I perceive to be some misconceptions. First, the profundity that Nietzsche attaches to the event suggests that he does not take the murder of God lightly. This is not just a mere Enlightenment critique of religion. Nietzsche’s feelings as evidenced by the madman’s fervor are a testimony to the ambivalence he has towards the event. Atheists like Dawkins tend to treat religion as pre-scientific belief that no longer offers an appropriate explanation of the world in which we live. They do not understand that the death of God does not merely require an updated cosmology, but rather a rethinking of all values. I believe the reason Nietzsche portrays the madman as recognizing he has come to soon is because of the childishness with which the atheistic villagers respond to his proclamation. Their immature response implies that the townspeople have yet to understand the terrible significance. Many atheists today want to discard the metaphysics of Christianity but hold on to the positive virtues that it encourages, like Don Cupitt. Yet, I believe that this is the exact position that Nietzsche would despise the most. However, Nietzsche realizes what really needs to be rethought is morality itself. He views Christian morality as an eternal ‘no’ to the pleasures of this life because of the promise of eternal life. Also, he believes that the ethics Christianity promotes are actually expressions of weakness and cowardice. That is to say virtues such as charity, forgiveness, and peace are moralities advocated by those who lack power. Thus, they become extolled by the weak who are dominated by the strong. Nietzsche envisions on the horizon a new type of man who will fully invest in this life, live out his desires, and say yes to his power and no to piety. This becomes especially evident in his critique of Paul in the Anti-Christ(ian). Although, I believe his reading of Paul is a bit one-sided, some of his points do bear repeating. For Nietzsche, Paul has betrayed the only true Christian, Jesus of Nazareth, by re-inscribing Jesus’ message of liberation and freedom back into a priestly religion focused on the Law, sin, guilt, and eternal life. Paul also remains blind to understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death by turning it into some metaphysical exchange between the crucified and God. Instead, Nietzsche believes the cross to be Jesus’ fidelity to his ministry and ethics (I’m tempted to say a rejection of the substitutionary view).

So, returning to the murder of God, what exactly does Nietzsche mean when he declares that ‘God is dead’? First, off it would be naïve to think Nietzsche once believed in a God who now no longer exists (I’ll return to this perspective with Altizer in my next post). Instead, he believes that moral/metaphysical God, what Lacan terms the Big Other, no longer is believable to modern man because of the process of secularization. A useful interpretation revolves around the loss of meaning that occurs with God’s death. Because God is the ground of order, meaning, and truth with his death we must cope with the chaos that it has left behind. However, Nietzsche views this opportunity to be one of great promise, even if the task is burdensome. This is summed up by Vattimo’s quote, “There are no facts only interpretations, and this too is an interpretation”. Not only do we lose ground for all objectivity, it also results in the dissolution of a universal moral law. Hence, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche maps out a new system of values in which the Overman says ‘yes’ to this life with courage and responsibility for his own existence.

While I agree with Nietzsche in much of his critique of religion especially the death of the moral/metaphysical God, I question whether this is the God of Christianity. I understand it is certainly represented in parts of Scriptures. For one, many of the virtues he affirms I find to be a repetition of Jesus’ message. My friend Jack believes that the statements that Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount, “You’ve heard it say, but I tell you…” are Jesus’ attempts to alert us to the futility of following the law. Ultimately, we must become like the lilies of the field and quit worrying about everything. Liberation in Christianity also means liberation from Kant. I’m not sure I wholly embrace this perspective, but perhaps that is because it reminds me too much of Luther’s identification of law and sin. Also, I believe that it’s likely the historical Jesus was not interested in completely overturning the law, but I’ll save that for another day.

While I certainly think that Christians ought not to fully endorse the ‘will-to-power’, because this supports a wholesale abandonment of the weak, the first to enter the Kingdom. His eternal ‘Yes-saying’ to life, his affirmation of the importance of this world, his embrace of freedom and responsibility and rejection of guilt are already advocated by Jesus. I also believe that the Christian God is not the God who looks over your back and keeps score of the amount of bad things you’re doing. This moral God is disgusting, oppressive, and more or less the cruel superego. I believe wholeheartedly with Simone Weil in Waiting for God where she argues that when you see your neighbor suffering, it is a sin at that moment to turn your thoughts to God. Not only is this committing violence to the absolute singularity of your neighbor’s pain, you also transform your neighbor into some test of faith. The God of the Puritans must die!

I’ll let Bonhoeffer finish this post, “Before God and with God we live without God”.

Death of God Part I

07/23/2009

Faust once said, “In the beginning was the deed”

Freud’s Totem and Taboo is a fascinating synthesis of religion, anthropology, and psychoanalysis. Although, many now discredit the work historically and anthropologically the myth offers us a helpful understanding of Christianity. One of his basic insights is that taboos only arise to restrict desires. For instance, our society need not have a prohibition against punching one’s self in the face. Generally, this isn’t a desire many people possess. However, Freud theorizes that the universality of the prohibition of incest must suggest a fundamental desire to violate the law. Let’s turn to his last essay in Totem and Taboo where he discusses the relationship between the Oedipal complex, the origin of totemism, and the primal horde. Darwin thought of the primal horde as a group of primitive humans who were organized in a hierarchically structured society where the authoritarian Father kept all of the women exclusively to himself. Freud speculated that the sons were banished from the clan and went off to plan their revenge. As they conspired outside of the tribe they decided to return and seek vengeance upon their greedy father. Upon their arrival, they murdered their father and enjoyed a cannibalistic feast. However, this action (somewhat akin to Girard’s discussion of the ambivalence that arises in murderers of the scapegoat) led the sons to experience a profound amount of ambivalence towards their father. On the one hand, they resented him for depriving them of access to women. On the other hand, given his strength and power they revered him. This confusion led to their enacting of a law that prohibited incest within the clan. This would serve to prevent the deed from ever being repeated. Freud believed this explains the origin of totemism. The totem animal occupies a similar place to the primal Father within the clan. This animal possesses a quasi-mystical effect upon the tribe and it is superstitiously feared for its power over things like war, natural disasters, and climate. Also, there is strict protection of totem animal so as to prevent any harm. In cases where it was necessary to kill the totem animal, mourning was observed over its death. This explains why the holiday over the totem animal’s death was marked by ambivalence. It murder was both committed by the tribe and mourned by the tribe. Freud recognized the obvious parallel between the totem animal and the primal Father. He believed the totem animal was symbolic for the displaced Father that had previously terrorized the clan. This helps explain the Oedipal complex with regard to the totem animal (i.e. the symbolic Father). Because of the prohibition against incest, now everyone is forced to marry outside the totem. So, the dead Father functions to prevent the son from sexual relations with their mother. Also, after the Father is dead he gains even more power by being internalized by the sons as the name-of-the-Father in Lacan’s terms, or the superego.

What does this outlandish myth have to do with religion, much less with atonement and Christianity? In Freud’s own words, “In the Christian myth man’s original sin is undoubtedly an offense against God the Father, and if Christ redeems mankind from the weight of original sin by sacrificing his own life, he forces us to conclude that the original sin was murder…In the same deed which offers the greatest expiation to the father, the son also attains the goal of his wishes against the father. He becomes a god himself beside or rather in place of his father. The religion of the son succeeds the religion of the father” (Totem and Taboo, p 132). The Eucharist is then a repetition of the death of the son whereby the believers partake in communion to achieve equal standing with the son and share in succeeding the father.

So, in Freud’s opinion, the substitutionary interpretation of Jesus’ death is tied to the myth of the primal horde, which is replicated in the Eucharistic feast. What I find especially interesting is the proximity Freud’s myth shares with Nietzsche’s murder of God in the Gay Science. Although, many discuss the passage of the madman as being focused on the death of God, it is better expressed by the townspeople’s responsibility and guilt they must bear for the slaying of God. Another consequence is Freud’s recognition that Christianity (perhaps unconsciously) embraces of the death of God. The religion of the Son has succeeded the religion of the Father. Here, I must return to Jesus’ cry of dereliction in Mark, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Is this not the epitome of Christianity’s eclipse of God the Father? The Eucharist allows us to share in fellowship the flesh of the Son while totally negating the presence of the Father. God was dead at the cross insofar as his presence was only experienced as absence by Jesus. The Eucharistic feast invites us to take part in the new covenant where the dead Father no longer exists. In Zizek’s words atheism is truly defined by, “There is no big Other” (Monstrosity of Christ, p 297). Here we can see where Christianity and atheism appear almost indistinguishable.

I’ll leave you with Chesterton’s prophetic words:

“When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist” (Orthodoxy, p 257)

Next post: Nietzsche and the murder of God

Atonement Part IV

07/22/2009

Before I introduce Rene Girard’s view of violence and the atonement, let me express some grievances about the emerging church and the atonement. If you read Scot McKnight’s book A Community Called Atonement he advocates that we (and this is the typical emerging church gesture) marshal all the metaphors in the Bible for explaining Jesus’ death. Although he ends up advocating a substitutionary view, I find this to be a tiresome approach. Also here’s Tony Jones’ post about penal substitution (http://tinyurl.com/l9zjxm) where he writes that we cannot dismiss this atonement view because ultimately no theory can fully explicate the meaning of Jesus’ death, although he concedes that specific theory is not the best. The emerging church needs some robust theology! Part of this requires taking a stance. Some of the understandings of atonement are just egregious, and as I pointed out potentially ethical destructive (like encouraging women to stay in abusive situation because Jesus suffered at the hands of the father in our place). I just want everyone to read Moltmann’s the Crucified God to actually understand how indispensable and beneficial a Trinitarian understanding of the cross can be. Wesley, this is one of my complaints. There is so much emphasis on contextualization, relationships, and community that people seem more intent on staying friends then actually advocating a theology that is both biblical and helpful for the Kingdom.

Anyway, Girard is a French anthropologist who studies the relationships between violence and the sacred. Girard conceives of human relationships to be built upon reciprocal desires, which he names mimesis (read imitation). Mimesis is defined to be a desire that is based on the desire of the other. The other’s desire arouses my own desire and our desires end up feeding each other until competition escalating until one of us claims the object of desire. For example, consider the strange fact that after you break up with an ex that you no longer have feelings for, suddenly enters a new relationship; your desire for your ex is magnified. This phenomenon can be explained by mimesis because the desire of the other has awakened your desire in your ex-partner.

Through Girard’s genealogy of myths he discovers that many ancient myths are driven by violence often in the form of scapegoating. How does he explain this? To return to this situation, person A & B begin to reciprocate each other’s desire until the object of the desire becomes unimportant. The now enhanced frustration and antagonism leads to an increasing societal unrest at which point something needs to occur to minimize the enhanced tension. Girard believes that all societies have victimized scapegoats as a way to quell the mimetic desires. Some sort of weakness or deformity generally singled this person out, which made them a prime candidate for a release of violence. However, what happens after this person is killed? Ambivalence. Initially, the collective considered this person to be responsible for their problems, but now they have experienced that cathartic peace that resulted form the scapegoat’s death. This leads the dead victim to be transformed into a sacred object. Girard thinks that this explains this founding murder marks the genesis of civilization (Cain/Abel).

So, what does this have to do with Jesus? One thing Girard finds exceptional about the gospel narrative is that Jesus’ innocence is upheld. He discovers in all of his anthropological research that the scapegoat is always held to be responsible for the conflict. For a gospel parallel let’s considered the apocryphal story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. In summary, this woman’s been found in adultery and the people demand her stoning. However, Jesus asks that, “He who is without sin cast the first stone”. Girard believes that Jesus’ brilliance comes in his recognition that the person who throws the first stone will have the most difficult stone to throw because that person has no model on which to imitate his desire. Jesus realizes that if one stone is thrown the rest will have a massive snowball effect because as the desires have more and more models to imitate it will increase the violence.

Girard views the atonement in a similar way that Weaver does. He believes that a substitution view is actually a regression into paganism. The Old Testament continues a tradition that maintains the innocence of the victims like Abel, Joseph, and the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt. Likewise, the writers of the gospels defend Jesus’ innocence. This narrative is unique because it refuses to justify the violence that was unleashed on the scapegoat. In his ministry, Jesus adopts a nonviolent approach. His confrontations with the powers and principalities expose the violence that is built in to every society to preserve order. Girard suggests that the only way to resist the temptation of violence inherent in desire is to imitate Jesus as the perfect model. What does Jesus desire, the will of the Father. This liberates us from the chains of violence that affect our relationships, economics, and discriminatory practices such as misogyny and racism.

My next post will take more of a psychoanalytic view by taking a look at the death of God the Father as outlined in Freud’s Totem and Taboo. That will lead to a series of discussion on the death of God. From there I hope to use that as a springboard for my explicit reflections on the cross as outlined by the likes of Nietzsche, Bonhoeffer, Altizer, Moltmann, and Zizek.

Atonement Part III

07/21/2009

I want to outline Weaver’s proposal for a narrative Christus Victor atonement theory along with some commentary. First off, one thing I find difficult when discussing the atonement is how intimately entwined it is to salvation. Salvation, as it was presented to me, mostly called for a cognitive recognition of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and how this enabled God to forgive me of my sins. Now granted that this acknowledgment on my part ought to include some sort of emotional response (guilt/joy/gratitude), but it seemed that the affective aspect was second. While some would argue that you need to have faith in the Christ-event, others would use the word belief. I don’t know if I could make a firm distinction, but I usually conceive of belief as being more cerebral than faith. Here I should briefly point out the passage in Matthew 25 that discusses the goats and the sheep, where Jesus emphasizes how one’s actions towards the oppressed in the society will ultimately decide one’s fate. So, certainly we’re out of line by solely emphasizing the cognitive/existential realm when Jesus stresses a relational/ethical realm as well. Another thing that is strange about this approach to salvation is it presupposes an atonement theory that prioritizes Jesus’ death and resurrection. This approach is clearly driven by and for the individual. It does not stress collective evil, merely one’s own faults. This emphasis often leads to Christian’s de-emphasis of more systemic evils (economic or political). I think a more Biblical approach (from the synoptics not John/Paul) would focus on the Kingdom. For instance, Jesus statements in the opening chapter in Mark, “The time is at fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Good news”. Repentance here does not merely require recognition of personal iniquities but a switching of allegiances that calls one to join forces with the Kingdom against the powers and principalities.

Weaver’s view of atonement corrects for some of these mistakes. For one, its  is more holistic. Hence, he resists the temptation to fetishize Jesus’ suffering on the cross (like Abelard). Second he rightly stresses Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God, which includes a nonviolent approach to conflict. Thus, when Weaver discusses the one-sided dialogue that occurs in the Garden and the cry of dereliction from the cross, there’s no question of what God’s agency is in Jesus’ death. Jesus has confronted the evils of Rome nonviolently in accordance with God’ will. I would argue that this understanding better explains the prayer in the Garden. Given, Jesus’ demands that the disciples bring swords in Luke 22:35, I believe Jesus’ submission to God’s will was not to die on the cross, but rather to not exercise violent means to resist his arrest (read Yoder’s Politics of Jesus). While Jesus probably anticipated his fate because of the growing unrest  that was brought about by the temple clearings, this understanding does not lead to the perverse notion that God requiring Jesus to die because it’s part of the plan. From the beginning of his ministry to his death, Jesus consistently refuses political power and violence, instead he advocates a nonviolent Kingdom where the oppressed and downtrodden are the first to enter. Weaver also demythologizes the Satanic and demonic elements of the ransom theory into the evil of the powers and principalities that violently disrupt human relationships and society. He understands Jesus’ resurrection as being God’s vindication of Jesus’ righteousness as well as the vanquishing of evil through weakness, suffering, and love.

Next time I’ll discuss Rene Girard’s unique anthropological view of atonement.

Atonement Part II

07/20/2009

In response to Collin’s previous comment, I’m going to take a step back to give a short theological history lesson. I’m also intending to make this blog conversational, so any time I assume too much, let me know so I can retrace my steps. I want this to be interactive, I already know what I think, what I’m interested is hearing your opinion.

Two months ago or so my theology group at church read/discussed Weaver’s book Nonviolent Atonement. Weaver is a pacifist who attempts to rethink our understanding of the atonement in a nonviolent manner. He stresses the historical context that facilitated the different developments of the atonement theory. I’ll keep that in mind while I outline the three main views of atonement in the church.

The early Church Fathers developed their understanding of Jesus’ death in an environment when Christians were enemies of the state. Martyrdom and encounters with the evil inherent in the powers and principalities were common experiences for the early church. Their understanding of the atonement theory generally emphasized Jesus’ confrontations with the evil in society including Satan. One specific theory, the ransom theory, envisioned a mythic world where God and Satan dueled for lordship over mankind. After the Fall, Satan had gained the upper hand. However, God hid Jesus’ perfection from Satan, which led to Satan using Judas (look to the Luke/John narratives, I’ll return to this at a later post) and the powers of Rome to put Jesus to death. God offered Jesus as a ransom (Mark 10) to Satan, but Satan did not know that Jesus could defeat death and thus liberate humanity from the clutches of Satan. Think of the Chronicles of Narnia, except realize that the monotheistic world of Narnia doesn’t offer a perfect translation. Aslan/Jesus offers himself as a ransom to Witch/Satan for the rights of Edmund/humanity. The witch forgot the deeper magic (that Aslan would resurrect and thus break the spell of her death) and because of Aslan’s resurrection Edmund is freed and winter is forever gone from Narnia (i.e. the Witch no longer has power over Narnia as it has been restored to Aslan).

In the 11th century, St Anselm published Why God became Man. He viewed the world from the feudal system where the serfs owed their Lord respect and honor. Now, imagine that the serfs/humanity had offended the honor of the Lord/God because of sin. Because the serfs/humanity are so much lower in the world than Lord/God they cannot properly repay him. Only a Lord could pay him. However, the serfs are the ones that owe him an apology because of the sin that has offended the Lord’s honor. Therefore only someone who was both serf and Lord (man/God) could offer recompense to the Lord whose honor was offended. Thus Jesus’ death on the cross rids humanity of the debt they owed to God, so that they could now be worthy of his salvation. Notice, Satan’s gone. He is no longer the object of Jesus’ death, but now the debt is owed to God. One reason Weaver thinks Anselm subtracted Satan from the equation was because of Christianity’s sovereignty over Europe during the Middle Ages. When Christianity no longer combated the powers of the world but has now assumed that position, it didn’t make much sense to conceive of the world as a battle of the forces of good against evil. Penal substitution, as advocated by the reformers like Luther, was a variant of Anselm’s view that focused on Jesus willfully endured punishment and suffering in our place to satisfy the justice of God. Think of the court scene where Jesus stands in your place to receive the punishment that was rightfull yours…also God’s the judge…and he hates you. I don’t mean to offer a caricature, but this impassible, mechanistic God strikes me as unfaithful to the Biblical narrative.

In response to Anselm’s doctrine of atonement, Abelard responded with his own view: the moral influence theory. Abelard thought that the idea that God required/demanded Jesus’ death as a payment for the debt incurred by humanity violated the love of God. He thought that Jesus’ death/ministry alerted mankind of God’s love with the cross ultimately calling mankind back to God.

Now I’ll start bitching.

Problems w/ Abelard’s view
a) why is Jesus’ martyrdom any different from any other saint?
b) why would Jesus’ death call mankind to the love of God?
c) does the resurrection even matter?

Problems w/ Anselm’s view:
a) God looks more like a tyrant than Abba as Jesus called him
b) Somewhat illogical, humanity’s earned a debt, so only God can pay himself back, how satisfied can God really be?
c) Jesus’ role is functional, his actual ministry’s importance is reduced
d) Satan and evil are no longer important.
e) Why is violence the only appropriate way to repair God’s honor (this is aimed more at penal substitution).  Why would God have to repay violence with violence? But doesn’t Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek?
f) It’s rather un-Trinitarian to ascribe certain characteristics to one part of the Trinity (God the Father as violent/ungracious) while another part of the Trinity (Jesus as nonviolent and forgiving). Jesus ends up looking more like God than God looks like God

I’ll return to Weaver’s narrative Christus Victor in the my next post

Atonement Part I

07/19/2009

First off, I feel as if one of the major problems with the church’s current understanding of the atonement is that it remains fixated on Jesus’ death and blood. I remember last October I talked to one of those Christians that attempts to converts students at UT by making them aware of their eternal destination in Hell. Although I usually resisted the temptation of conversing with Christians, in this instance I caved in. As we started talking about the cross she continued to emphasize that God needed Jesus’ blood to blot out the sins of the world. Barring the fact that her view makes God looks like a vampire, I believe there are many other problems with this view, both theologically and ethically. While I won’t pretend that this this view is without any scriptural support, it is a cursory reading to pretend that Paul only understands Jesus’ death through the lens of substitution. Paul offers numerous metaphors to attempt to describe the event of Jesus’ death on the cross. Another odd thing about a substitutionary view (whether Anselm’s or Luther’s) is that’s it has only been around for the last thousand years of Christianity. Previously the patristic fathers mostly viewed Jesus’ death from what Gustaf Aulen termed the “Christus Victor” view. The predominant view by the patristic fathers was the ransom theory. From this perspective God and Satan were involved in a cosmic battle for dominion over humanity. Man had been under Satan’s control since the Fall. However, because of God’s masking of Jesus’ perfection from Satan, Satan was tricked by God into persecuting Jesus, which ultimately led to the crucifixion. Although the dualistic cosmology and the deception of God might strike us as primitive, I believe this view better encapsulates a holistic view of the Gospel narrative.

For one, the substitutionary view of atonement tends to minimize the life and ethical teachings of Jesus and focuses exclusively on the cross/resurrection. Jesus’ role is reduced to merely functional so that he can take care of the sin problem that has plagued mankind. I believe Paul is partially responsible for the problem, given his almost complete neglect of Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God. Bultmann summarizes it well, “The proclaimer becomes the proclaimed”. Although some Christians might believe that Jesus went around preaching, “I am the Son of God and I have come to take away the sins of the world by my death”, this is not upheld by a faithful reading of the gospels. His message is better summarized in Mark 1 by, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”. I’ll have to return to the Gospel of John in a later post to address certain issues arising in the fourth gospel.

The substitutionary view results in some twisted beliefs and practices. For one, God looks like an ass. Because he cannot lower himself to forgive humanity until Jesus spills his blood, his grace seems very conditional. Caputo notes in What Would Jesus Deconstruct just how antithetical this atonement view is when compared to Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. In this narrative, the father requires nothing from the son (i.e. an apology) to offer his lavish forgiveness to his son that betrayed him. How do we go from the God of grace and forgiveness who asks that we extend forgiveness seven times seventy, to the God that demands Jesus’ blood to offer salvation to humanity?

On a more personal level, I work at a crises line for domestic violence. I cannot count how many times I have talked to women who have been lied to by the church to be submissive to their husbands and accept abuse just like Jesus accepted suffering on the road to Calvary in submission to the will of God the Father. For a unique perspective, check out Delores Williams’ book Sisters in the Wilderness to see just how damaging this atonement view has been in encouraging a surrogacy role that many black women fulfilled for white slave owners in the South. The God-Man who dies on the cross for our sins to appease his oppressive father does support such a view. However, the God-Man who confronts the powers and principalities with his weakness and love to bring about the Kingdom of God and rid the world of evil strongly challenges anyone trying to suffer to for the sake of being faithful to Jesus’. Read Kotsko’s post on An und fur sich: http://tinyurl.com/lehbce. Suffering isn’t redemptive in an of itself. Even if God works in mysterious ways it doesn’t diminish the severity and tragedy any catastrophe.

Charting a Course for Future Posts

07/18/2009

Sorry to disappoint, but this first post is just my attempt to lay out a sketch for future posts. I graduated from the University of Texas last December and have spent the last 7 months studying contintental philosophy, 20th century theology, and psychoanalysis.

I’ve become especially interested in the last 2 months in strengthening my background in the New Testament, especially studying the historical Jesus research. When I plan to discuss theology, I intend to map out theology that is firmly historical. I think much hope lies in reapplying Schweitzer’s insight of Jesus’ Jewish apocalyptic roots. I believe the Kingdom of God demands more of an explanation than merely being identified either with: a) Heaven (conservative), b) Egalitarian Utopia (liberal). Christianity must recognize its Jewish roots and embrace Jesus’ eschatological expectations or else we’ll fall prey to falling into the antisemitism that pervades the Gospel of John. Here is where I fully embrace much of Altizer’s apocalyptic death-of-God theology.

Also, I’ve found that although current continental theology has appropriated many insights from Derrida, but it lacks useful insights from the likes of Deleuze and Lacan. I don’t quite understand postmodern Christianity’s obession with Derrida, except that he wasn’t so dogmatic in his atheism as many of his fellow countrymen. I hope to be providing extended theological reflection over these 2 thinkers as well. Although, given Lacan’s penchant for being obtuse, it might take extra work to sort out his psychoanalytic insights.

With regards to postmodern theology I’ve become more and more discouraged recently that certain trends in the church (i.e. the emerging church), which has tended to (re)wrap Christianity with a silver bow without actually confronting the challenge deconstruction poses. Too many think all postmodern philosophy offers is a critique of certainty and an embrace of doubt.  Deconstruction is not negative theology! Much of this talk about finding a third way ends up looking like a (post)evangelical failed Hegelian synthesis where they are so fixated on the negation of conservatism that it cannot doubly negate the liberalism they so hope to transcend. Don’t mistake me, I don’t find the Hauerwas or Milbank’s radical orthodoxy attractive alternatives as the answer to the emerging church’s failure. I just fundamentally disagree with Tickle’s thesis in the Great Emergence (of what exactly?), but that’s for another day.

Other themes I hope to explore are Christology, atonement, eschatology, and hermeneutics. I want to bring back into conversation the likes of Pannenberg, Moltmann, Altizer, Mark C Taylor, and liberation theologians.

Finally, I’m tired of Christianity’s failure to embrace psychoanalysis as a helpful conversation partner along the way. I believe that it’s a hasty reading of Freud to assume he was a mere Enlightenment atheist with a critique of religion very much in line with Feuerbach’s (read the Other Freud by DiCenso). So, I plan to post my on reflections on the Death of God in relation to Freud’s myth in Totem and Taboo.
Look forward to this journey, hopefully it’ll be entertaining for some.