Archive for August, 2009

Bonhoeffer Quotes

08/29/2009

From Christ the Center:

“If Jesus Christ is to be described as God, then we may not speak of this divine essence, of his omnipotence and his omniscience, but we must speak of this weak man among sinners, of his cradle and cross. When we consider the Godhead of Jesus, then above all we must speak of his weakness. In christology one looks at the whole historical man Jesus and says of him, ‘He is God.’ One does not look at a human nature, and then beyond it to a divine nature; one meets the one man Jesus Christ, who is fully god.” (108)

“We say of the Humiliated One, “This is God.’ He makes none of his divine properties manifest in his death. On the contrary, all we see is a man doubting in God as he dies. But of this man we say, ‘This is God.’ Anyone who cannot do this does not know the meaning of ‘God became man.’ (110)

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Update/Reading List

08/24/2009

So I’m on the road to DC to start graduate school at George Washington this fall where I’ll be studying psychodynamic psychology (i.e. contemporary psychoanalytic psychotherapy) over the next three years followed by a year internship to secure the beloved doctorate. When I settle in I intend to work through some reflections on the Trinity through the lens of Moltmann, Pannenberg, Altizer/Zizek, and other theologians. Right now check out the conversation at AUFS on Schneider’s Beyond Monotheism. Besides working on learning the ins and outs of clinical psychology, the plan is to continue to study continental philosophy/theology on the side. I’ll be posting my reading list for the upcoming year. The topics include: radical theology, political theology, feminist theology, liberation theology, modern (neo)orthodox theology, postliberal theology, radical orthodoxy, biblical studies/historical Jesus, continental philosophy, modern philosophy of religion, and psychoanalysis & religion.

Here’s the reading list: To Read. Any suggestions would be much appreciated

Liberation Theology Part III

08/18/2009

Why God became Man?

Anselm answered this question in his provocative book that outlined an alternative understanding of the atonement. Ruether addressed a similar question in her masterpiece Sexism and God-talk that focused on whether or not a male savior could save woman. I’ve never heard too many discussions on why the Word became male as opposed to female. Considering God isn’t male there’s no ontological reason for the necessity of Jesus’ maleness. I’ve heard a slightly more sophisticated answer that the most effective way to spread the message of the gospel was through a male, because of the patriarchy of Jewish culture at that time. Again, while it is obviously true that being male would facilitate the spread of the message, if concerns of dissemination or broadcasting were the reason then why was Jesus often hesitant to preach the coming Kingdom outside the Israel? Also, why didn’t God wait 2000 more years so we could just twitter everyone the news? This frame of question also runs into difficulty considering all of Jesus’ proclamations about letting only those with ears hear. Or after the resurrection why didn’t Jesus present himself to Herod or Pilate to prove his Lordship over death?

I really haven’t an answer, but I would like to challenge some theologians’ response to the issues of the maleness of the incarnation. Hartshorne, the famous process theologian, argued in Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes that he refused to believe that God would have come down as a male because it perpetuated chauvinism. In a similar fashion other feminist theologians have denied Jesus’ divinity because it encourages patriarchy and hence must be denied. This line or argument bothers me because of its rather simplistic logic. For one, if God really entered history as a human, wouldn’t it be important to at least consider the possibility that he might have taken on the flesh of a male? Secondly, how many other ideas that encourage male privilege would we have to discard without proper consideration? I would be more concerned with the sex of Jesus if I found him to be a blatant misogynist. However, Ruether and other feminist theologians have argued that Jesus exemplified many proto-feminist qualities in his ministry.

That argument aside, I don’t mean to lapse into any sort of male privilege in theology. I don’t want to advocate Barth’s ridiculous view that man was made in God’s image, but woman was made as man’s companion (i.e. not in God’s image). I don’t believe it’s important these days to rehash the misogynistic aspects of the second creation story in Genesis 2 & 3. Not only is woman made from man (weird idea, huh?), but also God only creates her after he discovers that the animals aren’t sufficient partners for Adam (is that a compliment or an insult to Eve?).

Can a male savior redeem women? I’d like to think Jesus’ kingdom ushers in a new era where our identity in him renders our old identities secondary. So, I’d agree with Paul that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). However, this should not allow us to neglect the importance of class, gender, race, and sexuality. But rather, we should recognize the egalitarian nature of the coming Kingdom and work to make that equality and freedom more of a reality on earth because of our union in Jesus.

Anti-Anti-Liberalism

08/16/2009

“All that said, I’ve come to dissent somewhat from William Cavanaugh and Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank and others who see almost nothing but perniciousness in the liberal tradition. Look, let’s be honest: the heroes of the antislavery movement, of the movements for women’s rights and for civil rights for nonwhites, all employed the language of liberalism in addition to the language of Christianity. Why? In large measure, because Christian tradition had legitimated a language of hierarchy and duty and subordination that even Cavanaugh and Hauerwas and Milbank can’t stomach anymore. Perhaps because I’m a mere historian, I have to respect the indisputable evidence that Christians certainly weren’t citing the church fathers when they demanded that the slaves’ shackles be loosened or that women get the right to vote and be educated. For all that it’s perverted the Christian account of personhood, the liberal account of freedom and rights has preserved and, yes, even enhanced vestiges of the Christian tradition. So enough liberal-bashing; it has gotten boring, and it’s not entirely accurate historically, anyway.”

From: http://www.theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=287

Liberation Theology Part II

08/13/2009

Feminist Theology has offered some of the most devastating critiques of the patriarchal legacy of theology from Augustine to Barth. Before I explore some questions about God and gendered language, I’d like to address two possible responses more progressive Christians often have when their religion is accused of misogyny. The scholarly Christian might say, “Oh well, yes there are certain verses in the Greek Bible that paint women in a negative light, but those weren’t actually written by Paul.” Mary Daly’s response was that even If it was not written by Paul, that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s been appropriated for years by men in the church to subjugate and oppress women. Another typical response is, “Yes, yes good point feminists” we’ll start using the words “her” and “she” more often for God. In fact, we might even consider praying, “Out Mother who art in Heaven if we’re really feeling dangerous”. What bothers me is that while we change the immediate content, the existing structure does not change. That is to say, although we might recognize the church’s mistreatment of women, we’ll still maintain a structure and church where the vast majority of leaders and pastors are males. It’s akin to where Zizek argues that every sensitive liberal male prof at your local university will always make the concession at the beginning of his course, “this semester we’ll be studying the history of western philosophy, which unfortunately has been written by white males because of sexism”. Of course his acknowledgment fails to change the fact that the legacy is being continued. So yes even though male theologians recognize the sexism of the church, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually have to forfeit their jobs to aid in the struggle.

My question is this: to what extent does changing our language about God serve to maintain the status quo when it comes to the interface of theology and gender? God doesn’t have a penis even as much as Mark Driscoll would like him to (probably a large one at that), but nor does he possess a vagina.  My friend at Duke seminary told me that they had to use the s/he fifty-fifty for God so as to keep the peace. Again this does not change a damn thing in my opinion. The main issue I have with God being colored in masculine light is that it often associates characteristics with God that I find to be unsupported by the  God’s self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. The male god might be vengeful, violent, sovereign, and omnipotent. The female god might be nurturing, creative, loving, and intimate. How about as opposed to merely changing pronouns we actually rediscover feminine imagery and descriptions of God and challenge violent masculine imagery?

Another issue (especially with Protestantism) is its lack of feminine role models. Considering Mary’s diminished status in Protestantism and Eve’s colossal fuckup, it’s clear younger girls often have difficult identifying with any of the religious figures. Now, if we could re-articulate the intimate interactions of a relational Trinity, and a Christian doctrine of creation that was true to the Genesis story and not the fabricated creation ex nihilo, then maybe we could begin to rediscover important and often repressed aspects of God. This of course returns to my discussions on atonement, and why I believe an updated Christus Victor theory is the most promising alternative, not the ‘divine child-abuse’ theory.

Secondly, I’d also encourage anyone who cares for women’s rights to rebel against any institutional church that fails to recognize the equal status of men and women. Unless Paul was lying when he said, “In Christ there is no longer male nor female” it seems obvious to me that the Spirit of God doesn’t discriminate based on genitalia, so neither should we. The critique Jesus offers strongly against the family should lead us to the conclusion that gender roles likewise will dissolve in the Kingdom. Ultimately, talking about God won’t change the systemic injustice in the church. We will not realize the evils of gender discrimination until we begin to recognize the destabilizing effects of the in-breaking Kingdom. While becoming increasingly conscious of the issue of gendered theological language is a step in the right direction, it’s likely worthless and perhaps detrimental if we think that merely reforming our pronouns for the divine will effect change. We need to protest strongly and loudly unless we are going to allow this violence against women in the church and homes continue. Of course the God of oppressed is on our side, as Jesus said to the women oppressed and immobilized in the sins of her patriarchal society, “Go and sin no more”. That is be free of the shackles of misogyny and live your life abundantly!

[Aside, read Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk]

Polemic and Question

08/10/2009

Polemic:

I’m really tired of people acting as if religion developed for the sole purpose of satisfying humanity’s inherent spiritual needs. As if being spiritual but not religious is a return to our true roots before the oppressive theological dogmatics quashed our openness to transcendence. That position reminds me of Zizek’s favorite description of our postmodern culture’s desire for the good aspects of things minus the dangerous supplement (e.g. coke minus sugar, coffee minus caffeine, beer minus alcohol, and I’d argue spirituality minus religion). This idea that religion’s primary function is to satiate that spiritual desire fails to consider that this sort of transcendentalist stance on spirituality is something that has only been around for the last 200 years. To pretend as if Jesus of Nazareth or Muhammad preached a message that was a-political but focused merely on one’s inner journey with/towards the divine is ridiculous. Recall the Last Temptation of Christ where Judas wants a political revolution, but Jesus desires a revolution of love as a perfect example of the over-spiritualizing (or Gnosticizing) of Christianity. Religion needs more than just spiritual exercises, it also requires community, rituals, narratives, and theology. I would argue that the mystic sects of different religions tends to develop after community and narrative have been established.

Question:

In Freud’s The Future of an Illusion he explains religion away as wish-fulfillement. More or less, God is the projected father that never was, and he possesses all of the characteristics we desired him to have. Clayton Crockett said, “As someone who has studied theology and psychoanalytic theory, I struggle with the conflation of theology with idealistic wish-fulfillment…Yes, it is good, yes, mommy and daddy love me and God loves me. Yes, the USA and democracy are good and yes, love and hope and faith are sustained and rewarded now and forever, amen. I want to affirm that too, but I also know better, which means that I know differently, and it seems faithless to disavow that knowledge, which is also an ethical form of knowledge”. This is something that I struggle with as well. My question is to what extent does Christianity not offer you the religion you would ideally wish for? What aspects of Christianity do you wish didn’t exist? Are there any theological doctrines that seems especially suspect once we take Freud’s critique seriously?

Liberation Theology Part I

08/07/2009

I’m switching directions to move onto a short series on liberation theology.

In my opinion, liberation theology offers the most exciting and opportunity for the future of theology. Whether it be feminist, Latin American, Asian, black, womanist, or queer theology they all argue for the centrality of justice and God’s concern for the marginalized in the Biblical narrative. I want to visit in this short piece black theology and womanist theology. James Cone’s black liberation theology was probably best explicated in his brilliant work God of the Oppressed. This work is foundational for liberation theology and remains my favorite book in this genre. He rescues resources from the African American experience such as the blues and old folklore to discuss how liberation from oppression was at the heart of black spirituality. Here, the exodus narrative carries much weight because of God’s vindication of the enslaved offering hope to slaves struggling against the white slavocracy. Likewise he discusses the importance of justice that was emphasized by Jesus in his proclamation of the coming Kingdom. Cone believed through the revelation of Jesus, God had disclosed Godself as being one who cared passionately for the freedom of the downtrodden. (Side note: In an interview he gave, Cone said that the cross often translates poorly to American Christians because we have no parallel in our culture. He argued that that to redeem the meaning of the cross our best analogy in American history would be the lynching tree. I thought that was fascinating, and I hope he publishes a work on this).

Delores Williams’ provocative book Sisters in the Wilderness continues along similar lines of black liberation theology but differs at crucial aspects. She first notes that black women have either been silenced by the patriarchy of black liberation theology (not even King was immune from this) or their struggles has been universalized by white feminists. Jacqueline Grant said this about feminist theology, “Which women’s experience is the source of theology? Further, one could ask, how do these experiences impact the direction taken in one’s theological perspective? Is it the experience of the daughters of slaveholders or the experience of the daughters of slaves?” Womanist theology thus stands in an awkward position with regards to both liberation movements. Williams believes the best paradigm for the black woman’s experience is Hagar. Hagar likewise occupied a difficulty position in the Bible. She was Sarai’s slave and bore Abraham’s first child, Ishmael much to the disdain of her mistress. Because of her mistreatment at Sarai’s hand, she flees to the desert for freedom while pregnant. However, she quickly finds herself in great peril. Yahweh comes by her side and demands that she returns to her slave quarters and obey her mistress. This is a God of liberation? The odd thing about Hagar and God’s conversation is that she refers to God as El (akin to Allah for Islam). Notice, she refuses to address God as Yahweh, the God of her oppressors.

Williams recognizes the obvious themes of liberation in the Bible. However, she suggests that if we read the Bible from a different perspective than from God’s elect people, tyranny not liberation would be a central theme. Thus by reading the Bible from the vantage point of Hagar or the Canaanites we have to ask how fair of a reading is it to say liberation is the consistent motif. This is the question I want to ask. How do we balance the particular and the universal in Christianity? It’s obvious that the God of universal love is not always manifested in the Bible, but rather the God of a specific people who yearns for their freedom from injustice and sin. Likewise, we must too recall that Jesus did not go on a world tour to proclaim the coming Kingdom. He interacted almost exclusively with Jews in Palestine, with some obvious memorable exceptions.

Recall this story in Matthew 15:23-28:

“But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.”
But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Now, of course this is another example of Matthew attempting to paint Jesus as the Christ who is fulfilling the Scriptures, barring that we must ask about the partiality of God. Liberation theology has a controversial position that advocates God’s preferential option for the poor, which I believe is completely scripturally accurate especially if one reads the prophets. We could easily add God’s partiality in general, especially for his elect people.

My question is this: how does one reconcile God’s supposed universal love of man with his blatant partiality? Perhaps our understanding of love is too close to tolerance and should be focused more on the singular as opposed to the universal (a la Kierkegaard). Again, this perhaps the meaning of my favorite expression of Jesus where he says he has come to bring the sword not peace, and he demands that we hate our family to be worthy of the Kingdom. Perhaps we must hate or exclude our general commitments for the singularity of our neighbor akin to how God prioritizes the needs of the Hebrews over the Egyptians or the oppressed over the oppressors. One more question. I believe that the love of one’s neighbor is a love akin to what Levinas suggested that the face of the other calls us to infinite responsibility. So if Christian love is an imbalanced love that is wholly committed to the neighbor (and hence not a flighty universal love), how can we balance that with a love that motivates us to fight for the liberation and salvation of the oppressed (especially if one lives in America where one’s neighbor is usually free)?

Death of God Part VI

08/06/2009

Altizer’s Genesis of God is a wonderful exploration of the relationship between genesis, apocalypse, and the Godhead. He invites his beloved authors into dialogue like Hegel, Nietzsche, Spinoza, and Blake. His writing is somewhat maddening because of its melodic repetition and its complete lack of notes suggesting its theological originality. I wanted to pursue some of his thoughts concerning history, apocalypse, and the Kingdom of God.

On page 37 he writes, “Yet the most powerful Christian theologians of the twentieth century, Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, and Rahner, are all profoundly ahistorical theologians”. He goes on to say on page 171, “Even as ancient Christianity progressively came to know an absolute transcendence of God that was realized in the wake of the disappearance of an apocalyptic Kingdom of God, our history has ever more progressively come to know an absolute immanence of God. Each of these primal movements of our history is fully parallel to the other, and just as the apocalyptic ground of Christianity was only ‘discovered’ in the wake of the uniquely modern realization of the death of God, the absolutely transcendent God of Christianity was only discovered in the wake of ancient Christian dissolution and reversal of the Kingdom of God.”

This provocative statement got me thinking. First off, he’s completely correct to note just what little respect for history Barth and company have, especially Tillich’s ahistorical Christology of the ‘New Being’. Likewise, Barth pretended to have emphasized the apocalyptic heart of Christianity, but it ultimately was relegated to the eternality and transcendence of God. How do we stay faithful to Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God? I mean we all know that Jesus and Paul were wrong in their expectations (see Mark 13) and predictions of the end of the world. But the early church knew the resurrection as being the advent of the coming Kingdom. God was dead for the early church insofar as the distant, wholly other God was no longer in Heaven. He was making his way down to earth to judge and restore justice and righteousness to his people. Of course, after the unfulfilled prophecies the expectation disappeared , so God remained in Heaven and now Jesus sits at his right hand. The Kingdom of God was transformed into an otherworldly heaven or some sort of pragmatic political project. Christianity betrayed itself with this move. The loss of eschatological hope and anticipation became changed into a priestly religion where the afterlife became increasingly the focus.

My question is: after the death of God is there anyway to still live in apocalyptic time? A time of urgency where we realize the hope for the dawning Kingdom, repent and believe the good news. This apocalyptic perspective was absolutely indispensable to Jesus’ message as well as John the Baptist’s. How do we reclaim the early roots of Christianity? I believe recognizing the apocalyptic undertones of Jesus’ ministry, as Schweitzer rightly did, illumine our understanding of the gospel. Although Schweitzer believed the ethics Jesus preached ought to be abandoned because they were only supported by his belief in the end of the world, I think that we must hold on to the teachings. Jesus’ rejection of the family, welcoming of the alien, breaking of the Sabbath laws were all likely motivated by his belief in the coming reign of God. How can we maintain that perspective so as to not betray the apocalyptic Christ?

Also, why is that only after God has died are we now aware of the apocalyptic nature of the early church? What could be the connection between the death of God and the immanent Kingdom of God? If the death of God is the end of all transcendence, would we be correct in saying that the death of God is a repetition of the Kingdom of God insofar as transcendence is shattered in both events?

Apocalyptic Creed

08/06/2009

“I believe in the triumph of the Kingdom of God, in that Kingdom which is the final life of the spirit, a life incarnate in Jesus, and consummated in his death. That death is the self-embodiment of the Kingdom of God, and a death which is the resurrection of incarnate body, a body which is a glorified body, but glorified only in the crucifixion, which is the death of all heavenly spirit, and the life of joy which is grace incarnate. That joy and grace are all in all, offered everywhere and to everyone, and invisible and unreal only to those who refuse them, a refusal which is everyone’s but a refusal which is annulled in the death of the incarnate and crucified God, and transfigured in that resurrection, a resurrection which is the actual present glory of the Kingdom of God. Amen.”

Thomas J. J. Altizer, Genesis of God (185)

I wish people would read Altizer’s later theology. It is so much more complex, nuanced, and developed than the radical death-of-God theology he wrote in the 1960’s. Check it out also read Genesis and Apocalypse.

Death of God Part V

08/04/2009

So, I decided to save reflections on Moltmann for a later time. Today, I want to consider Mark C Taylor’s books Erring. This book, although not the first, has been definitive for radical theology. Raschke, who first introduced deconstruction to theology, once quipped that, ‘Deconstruction is the death of God put in to writing’. In Erring, Taylor synthesized his work on Kierkegaard and Hegel with Derrida. I respect Taylor’s work because he’s a virtual renaissance man. He’s published books on theology, philosophy, art, architecture, complexity theory, and economics. His most recent book After God is somewhat of an summary of his entire work. Taylor’s theological contributions stems from his relationship with Altizer. He has remained faithful while simultaneously betraying aspects of the death of God theology.

He famously coined that deconstruction is the ‘hermeneutics of the death of God’. Now, what does that mean? In Of Grammatology, Derrida works through how our perceptions of language would change if we started considering language as a form of writing as opposed to speech. Derrida notes that in the history of Western philosophy we have continually though that Logos (reason/thought) has a more intimate relationship with speech while writing is a derivative form. Because speech is so closely tied to presence of our conversation partner we fail to recognize the amount of interpretation that requires our comprehension of language. For instance, when we hold a conversation we rarely remember that the words we speak are not self-evident in and of themselves, basically when language is conceived from the perspective of speech language is effaced. What if we began understanding language from the perspective of writing? Would anything change? For one, the author is dead/absent. There is no possibility of asking for clarification from an author who’s absent. The words are on the page, and we are stuck with onerous task of interpretation. Derrida encourages us to think of language as writing because when we read we are struck with the fact that language is a collection of signifiers whose meaning is not given. These signifiers are wrapped in a complex web of other signifiers. His term differance helps us think through this relationship. Differance plays off the double meanings in French which means to both defer and differ. For structuralist linguistics, signifiers are only distinguished by how they differ from other words with similar sounds and meanings. Likewise, whenever we look up a word’s meaning in the dictionary we recognize that we never arrive at the actual meaning; rather we are sent on an infinite quest for a meaning that is always deferred. Now, when we reconsider language from the perspective of writing, we are struck with the fact that language always requires an act of interpretation. The illusion that meaning is ever secured is tied to a naïve perspective of language that results when we think of language as speech. Now, we must recognize that language itself is never secured but always open and foundationless.

So, for Taylor deconstruction is the hermeneutics of the death of God because deconstruction enables us to realize that all of our foundations are themselves insecure. Hence, God or Logos or Being or Meaning have all become destabilized. I also imagine that Taylor would view the death of God as being a historical event beginning from the Reformation through Kant and prophesied by Nietzsche. Here, people tend to confuse deconstruction as nihilism, but as Derrida’s later work indicates he had certain commitments that were ‘undeconstructible’. Now, if God is dead, what happens to man? We all know in Genesis 1 that man was made in the image of God. Taylor recognizes that the first Western autobiography was coined by St Augustine whose heart was ‘restless until we rest in you’. So if the man’s identity is in a reciprocal relationship with God, certainly the self also becomes de-centered because of its contingency on God. Here, I’m reminded of Foucault’s ruminations on the ‘death of man’ or the eclipse of humanism. Foucault states, ‘It [man] was the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge. As the archaeology of our thought easily show, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end’.

Lyotard’s famous definition that postmodernism is an ‘incredulity of metanarratives’ motivates Taylor’s next thesis. So, if history is the recording of the self and God’s interaction then we know that history has now come to an end. The end of history complements Lyotard’s understanding of postmodernism, which tends to be skeptical of any sort of narrative that can explain the totality of history. Whether that be Freud’s psychoanalysis, Marx’s dialectical materialism, or Hegel’s absolute spirit all of them lose their credibility to explain all facets of life. The atrocities of the 20th century have rendered any sort of teleological outlook of the world unthinkable. Finally, if the book documents history, we’re struck with the closure of the book as well. This is likewise mirrored in Barthes’ ‘death of the author’. There is no book that could properly document the progress of history; we’re always already in the flux. Nothing can elevate us out of particularity to have a ‘God’s eve view’ of the world.

This is Taylor’s a/theology. One trying to err along the way.

Note: I’d especially encourage everyone to read this who has only been introduced to Derrida via Caputo. Caputo’s defense of Derrida focuses more on his ethical/political work of the 80’s and 90’s and less on his more philosophical books of the 60’s and 70’s. Also, Caputo’s strident defense against nihlism sometimes diminishes the radicalism of Derrida’s work.