Archive for March, 2011

Tillich – Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Part I)


My task is to offer some reflections on the introduction and Part I of Tillich’s ST Vol 1.

A. Methodology – Tillich’s theology is apologetic, an answering theology that responds to the situation of the day with the “power of the eternal message” (6). In this sense, his theology stands firmly in the liberal tradition started by Schleiermacher which tried to make Christianity relevant to modern society.) Tillich opposes Schleiermacher for relegating religion to the merely emotional realm. He views this retreat as essentially a refusal to engage modern thought. Here Tillich is perhaps at his best theologically in the way he easily engages modern psychology, philosophy, and religious studies. He also rejects the Barthian approach to make the Bible the sole source for theology. Instead, Tillich wants to have many sources of theology including: “Bible, church history, history of religion and culture” (40).

B. Christian triumphalism – “Apologetic theology must show that trends which are immanent in all religions and cultures move toward the Christian message” (15). This is perhaps my biggest fear about his theology. Why this method of correlation? I understand the relevance, but there’s an assumption Tillich makes that Christian revelation possesses the truth to the question modern man poses. He’s ruled out, a priori, that modern questions might actually challenge the truth of Christian revelation. Moreover, as much as I find his interdisciplinary approach admirable, I feel as if theology is restored to its place as the “queen of the sciences”. Not in the sense that theology is somehow true and all other disciplines that disagree must be critiqued (Tillich explicitly says it’s not the business of theology to accept or reject, e.g. Freud’s theory of libido (131)), but in the sense that theology is assumed to possess all of the answers. Pannenberg is much better here when he allows other disciplines to actually challenge theological ideas. The boundaries are much more porous. If anything, Pannenberg’s methodology restores hope in the idea that theology could once again exist in the academy as a respectable discipline. Barth’s theology is weakest here with his severe allergy to be in conversation with other disciplines. Instead he returns to the Bible for the timeless truths and completely bypasses the historical criticism of liberal theology, a major mistake in my opinion.

C. Return to ontology – Philosophy must “address the question of reality as a whole” (20). Tillich is critical of current (1950’s) trends in philosophy that refuse the ontological task of philosophy. Neo-Kantians have attempted to reduce philosophy to epistemology and ethics while logical positivists have attempted to reduce philosophy to logical calculus (19). Similarly, Tillich criticizes Biblicists (evangelicals and liberals like Ritschl) for trying to construct a non-ontological biblical theology. I think Tillich is entirely correct here that the theologian must address ontological issues. Trying to avoid the ontological task by hiding in the Bible is ultimately untenable as it weakens the relevance and importance of theological reflection.

Rahner – Hearer of the Word


I can only speak for myself (and Jeremy, because he told me) but we both found Karl Rahner’s Hearer of the Word to be somewhat tedious and even a little boring, and this in spite of its relative brevity (only about 157 pages). Some complaints: my version of the book (Continuum, 1994) had neither an index nor a bibliography, which I found unusual for an academic work. It also had numbers that, so far as I can tell, referred to nothing. For example, a sentence might read, “we must necessarily [107] be present to ourselves, affirm ourselves, and posit ourselves absolutely.” The inclusion of a number (in this case 107) in the sentence did not refer to anything and its inclusion is totally nonsensical to me. Perhaps I’m just not smart enough to understand.

In Hearer of the Word (1941), the philosophical companion to his similarly titled Spirit in the World, Karl Rahner seeks to establish or justify theology on firm philosophical ground. For Rahner, basically, there are two kinds of theology: one consists in listening to God’s Word, the kerygma, and the other consists in elaboration and thinking on this word, i.e. scholastic theology. In Hearer of the Word, Rahner sets up a kind of Roman Catholic neo-orthodox theology which assumes the givenness of God in Jesus Christ, and then ratiocinates how we can know God through what he has revealed. (As an aside, I generally loathe narrow theological definitions like “neo-orthodox” or “liberal,” but they will have to do here.) As mentioned, theology is for Rahner primarily what God has revealed; as such, theology can have legitimacy only insofar as it can show that it is possible for humans to receive revelation from God. Hearer of the Word is Rahner’s attempt to show how man is open to revelation from God. To perhaps oversimplify, Rahner claims that man’s self-transcendence or vorgriff – its inability to cease asking the question of reality qua being, or as Rahner puts the “being of beings” (25) – humans are open to revelation from God. “Only that makes us human: that we are always on the way to God, whether or not we know it expressly, whether or not we will it. We are forever the infinite openness of the finite for God” (53).

Safe Bet


I think it’s a safe bet to assume that the outrage over Rob Bell’s newest book (that tends towards universalism) confirms my suspicions that the majority of Christians are against universalism because they hate the idea that non-Christians might not go to Hell. I’d write more extensively about this, but I couldn’t care less about Heaven or Hell.  All these debates remind me just how correct liberation theologians are in their insistence on the importance of emancipation and reconciliation in this world.

Rahner – The Trinity


The English title  of Rahner’s famous monograph on the Trinity (its intended title was Mysterium Salutis) may perhaps lead one, erroneously, to believe that it is an exhaustive expostulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, replete with all the subtle philosophical flourishes that have sustained the formulation of the doctrine throughout its rich conceptual history. Such an understanding of Rahner’s task in his monograph The Trinity would unfortunately be mistaken. Rahner’s The Trinity is not so much a complete account of the Trinity as it is an overview of two important issues of Trinitarian theology:  the relation of the economic to immanent trinity (what has been called Rahner’s rule) and the usage of the term “person” in Trinitarian theology. Because Rahner’s rule is the subject of innumerable theological debates and can be found expressed much better elsewhere, I will instead focus on Rahner’s idea of the term person, as well as with his interaction with Barth’s reformulation of person in the context of his proposal for the usage of “mode of being” in lieu of “person” in CD I/1, §9.

The term “person,” associated with the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity in Western theology, of course has certain conceptual difficulties because it has been the subject of rather wide-ranging anthropological developments since its codification in Trinitarian orthodoxy. Specifically, when we speak of three “persons” it appears as if we are speaking of three centres of self-consciousness or three individuated subjectivities. This connotate tritheism of various sorts and is certainly not what is meant by the term “person” when employed in its Trinitarian context (106). Instead of abandoning the concept, Rahner, in a rather Roman Catholic theological move, explains that it is not up to the individual theologian to decide changes in doctrinal language, which should be left up to the magisterium (108).

All the same, however,  Rahner decided to set aside “person” and offer some definitional context. My edition of The Trinity helpfully begins with a glossary of terms, defining among others, what the term person means in the context of Rahnerian theology as a “distinct manner of subsisting” (109). Rahner considers this to be superior  to Barth’s usage pf “manner of being” that he outlines in CD I/1 because it is more in harmony with the definition as traditionally employed by the church (110).

While I appreciated much of Raher’s nuanced discussion of Trinitarian theology, I don’t quite agree with his usage of “person.” In its stead, I offer my own provisional proposal. Regardless of the term “persons” theological venerability it no longer means what it once did. When it is used in Trinitarian doctrine, it has to be qualified rather dramatically, so that the term no longer means what it does in its contemporary usage. I propose that we therefore abandon it for a more technical and precicse (and ancient) term like hypostasis, which does not carry with any definitional baggage (itself being a term not used outside of theology) and proceed to define it as we would, instead of trying to salvage “person,” which truly dies the death of a thousand qualifications.

My Inagural Post up at AUFS


Check it out.

Important Update


I wanted to keep my readers aware of some changes going on at this blog. I’ve been graciously invited by the guys at AUFS to become a regular blogger over there. We’ve decided that I will make posts over at AUFS on a regular basis, but I will continue posting about the reading projects including book reviews at my blog. Along with these project related posts, I’ll also use this blog for personal updates.

Harnack – What is Christianity? (Part 2)


My task is to cover the second part of Harnack’s What is Christianity? I really appreciated Part I and found his interpretation of scriptures to be interesting. I also enjoyed his discussion about the social nature of the gospel. His position is that Christians must be in solidarity with the poor to be true followers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, despite his individualistic emphasis on the gospel being about what happens between God and the soul.

Four observations:

1) Pauline ambivalence and Christological anxiety – I expected Harnack to deride Paul as someone who had perverted the gospel and transformed a living, praxis-based faith into a doctrinal faith, but his stance is more nuanced. On the one hand he praises Paul because he ultimately liberated Christianity from the shackles of legalistic Judaism. On the other hand, according to Harnack “it is a perverse proceeding to make Christology the fundamental substance of the Gospel is shown by Christ’s teaching, which is everywhere directed to the all-important point, and summarily confronts every man with his God” (198). As Harnack had said earlier, the Gospel is about the Father not the Son (154). This is a fairly standard liberal trope that pits the historical Jesus vs. the Christ of faith. I don’t know how Harnack can maintain this position, since Christianity has always been eminently concerned about the Son. In fact the very identity of the Son (Christology) is what gives rise to the consideration about the nature of the Godhead (Trinity). Although Harnack would consider this doctrinal emphasis an aberrant development in the history of Christianity, he has to avoid so much of history to argue for his sublime, simplistic individual religion that takes place between the soul and God. In fact, as much as Harnack wants to argue for some time in the past when Christianity was not ‘perverted’ with a focus on Christ, there never was a time when Christianity was not absolutely centered on the Son. I’m not simply attacking Harnack’s denial of Son’s unique identity with the Father, but the fact that he seems to think Christianity is about the Father (although to be fair many traditions implicitly act as if only the Father is really God). One could potentially deny Jesus’ divinity and still recognize that Christianity is primarily about the person and work of Christ. Instead, Harnack (much like Schleiermacher) seems intent on defending a strong monotheistic reading of the tradition. However, Harnack, unlike Schleiermacher who recognizes that the redemption won by Christ is central, ends up elevating a simple relationship with the Father to be THE essence of Christianity. I have sympathy with Barth’s rejection to Harnack by rightly shifting dogmatics back to the Trinity, which is ultimately grounded in a Christological re-reading of doctrine.

2) Mistrust of dogma – Harnack scapegoats Greek philosophy for being responsible for the corruption of the simple gospel Jesus preached into a complex doctrinal system. Primarily, Harnack takes aim at what he dubs the “intellectualism” of Greek philosophy that threatens to diminish, if not completely annihilate, the zealousness of primitive Christianity.

3) Prejudice against the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church – Harnack is especially critical of “Greek Catholicism”. He goes so far to claim that for over 99% of these believers the Christians religion means nothing more than adherence to “ceremonious ritual”. Harnack goes so far to claim that these Greek Catholics are like the Jews and that “[i]t was to destroy this sort of religion that Jesus Christ suffered himself to be nailed to the cross, and now we find it re-established under his name authority!” (255). He also suggests that the Greek Catholicism is, in actuality, simply Greek religion dressed up in Christian drag. His next victim in this declension narrative is Roman Catholicism. Similar to the way he sees Orthodoxy as being a continuation of Greek religion, Harnack believes Roman Catholicism is nothing more than a continuation of the old Roman Empire, except the Pope has replaced Caesar. He is especially distrustful of Roman Catholicism because it emphasizes the importance of liturgy and sacrament as opposed to the soul’s personal (unmediated) relationship with God.

4) Lutheran leanings – Unsurprisingly, Harnack is a big fan of Lutheranism (I’m sure Luther’s German heritage has nothing to do with this). Harnack believes Luther was both a reformer and revolutionary. He is especially in favor of Luther’s reduction of sacraments down to two (Eucharist, baptism) and his emphasis on the importance on the individual’s faith in God. However Harnack believes Luther was not revolutionary enough because he still was dogmatic in believing the creeds and thinking that “[w]e are the true Church because we have the right ‘doctrine’” (314). One also gets the sense that Harnack’s obsession with his Greco-Roman-Germanic narrative can simply not allow for expressions of Christianity outside of these three national identities. Perhaps this explains why he has no use for Calvin in his chapter on Protestantism and diminishes the significance Reformed thought has had on Protestant religion.

Closing thought: After reading Part 2, I was not at all surprised that he had signed the Manifesto in 1914 since he seemed excessively fixated on the relationship between religion and nationalism.

Theology Class


I wanted to make one last pitch for a theology class I’m teaching at First Pres in Arlington, VA. The class will begin meeting on March 20th from 9:45-10:45. Eventually we’ll move to Sunday evenings after we gather a steady base. This will be my second time teaching through this text. I’ll obviously be drawing on more current theological movements as well. Here’s the blurb I’ve written up:

The 20th century has to be one of the most exciting centuries in the history of Christian theology. This theology small group will cover major theological topics including: revelation, Christology, atonement, theodicy, political theology, eschatology, feminism, secularism, and postmodernism. The group will be reading through 20th Century Theology by Grenz and Olson. Some reading will be required to help stimulate discussion. Those without a formal theological background are encouraged to come and learn the important doctrines and theologians of Christian history. The goal is to foster conversation about important theological topics and to learn how theology can inform the way we view our world.

Psychotherapy, Medication, and Severe Mental Illness


I wanted to respond to Simon’s comment:

{Psychoanalysis is one of the only places in society that is OK with allowing people to not be happy”

I can’t agree with you more. Therapy has become secondary to ‘life’ where therapists are seen as people who’ll ‘fix’ your problems so that you can go on with your business. No need for a relationship, they’re just there as a means to getting you back on the road, maybe to do just the very things which may have caused the symptom in the first place! Therapy’s become commodified. You’re sick? Go to therapist, get ‘cured’ and outcha come. Just like a drive-thru. The logic is “You have X? Take a pill”—it’s all about getting things done, overcoming these obstacles so that you can ‘maximise and realise your true potentials’ and all that nonsense. Now everything’s considered a mental disease—every little abnormality’s a disease and people WANT to make their ‘faults’ into diseases because diseases are considered to have explanations, to be beyond your control and ‘curable’. We need answers; we need something to blame so we don’t have to properly deal with it (just postpone it, repress it); we need to get rid of this problem (that’s what I’ve paid you for, therapist!). No wonder CBT’s endorsed by so many companies—it assumes that everyone’s normal; that you can go back to that normality. But that comes at the cost of ignoring the symptom. Like people who misread Interpretation of Dreams, they search for the meaning of their symptoms so that they can make sense of them then ignore them; they don’t try to engage with the question of WHY the symptoms took the FORM they did. People are too caught up with content and explanations and not with the process of ‘symptomisation’…

Sorry for my little rant}

I understand the spirit of your comment and share similar concerns, but I think it needs more nuance. A couple of thoughts:

1) As a practicing (training) psychoanalytic psychotherapist, I do share some of your reservations about CBT. However, we should be careful here. When CBT is considered to be the only empirically-supported treatment (EST) out there, then we are being fed lies mostly because of the narrowly defined criteria that qualifies a treatment to be considered EST (e.g. required manualized treatment). Yet if CBT is considered to be an intervention or tool in the psychotherapist’s toolkit, then I have no problem with using it for some types of disorders (e.g. OCD, panic attacks, PTSD) where it has proven to especially effective.

2) Psychiatrists prescribe meds not psychologists and most psychiatrists no longer offer psychotherapy as a service.

3) Regarding medicine, some people DO have neuorchemical imbalances. This should be acknowledged as a real problem. Sure there is some problem with over-medication, the question is this: whom do you think is being over-medicated? I’m all for doing talk-therapy because it certainly has its benefits. The research demonstrates that meds + talk therapy are usually most successful when used in tandem. Also, I don’t doubt that some people suffering from depression and anxiety disorders are over-medicated. However, there are many people out there who are under-medicated, especially those suffering from more severe mental illness (e.g. schizophrenia, schizoaffective, bipolar I disorder). These individuals are suffering greatly and need medication. They also need some psychotherapeutic support.

4) Also, some people are suffering from an illusion that everything can be explained. They think there’s some red thread that if unraveled by a talented psychotherapist will alleviate the individual’s symptomatology. However, people suffering from delusions all share remarkably similar delusions. Why is that? I don’t think there’s always a reason why symptoms take the FORM they do, or perhaps, the idiosyncratic reason will not magically cure someone. Schizophrenia impacts the brain, drastically. This is a fact. Read more about this here

5) You’re oversimplifying this idea of responsibility and labeling. You’re right that some people use their ‘mental illness’ label as an excuse to evade responsibility, although I believe these people are in the minority. The majority of people are actually ostracized by ignorant individuals and blamed for having some moral weakness. Diagnosing these individuals can bring great relief and comfort since they no longer feel completely alone and crazy.

6) I suppose your comments are more accurate when applied to those suffering from less debilitating forms of mental illness. My professional interests include the treatment of individuals suffering from severe illness (e.g. psychosis). I just don’t think your rant really does justice to their suffering as it tends towards making unilateral assumptions about persons suffering from mental illness. Unfortunately, effective treatment is still being developed for these types of disorders, and no treatment has yet proven to be consistently effective.

7) Finally you’ve touched upon CBT’s dominance in modern health care. Here’s the problem: CBT is very selective with the clientele it treats in empirical research studies. Many CBT studies enforce wide exclusion criteria which help make studies more precise and internally valid (and ultimately more effective). For example, imagine there’s a CBT treatment for OCD. To keep the study precise, individuals who also suffer from personality disorders, substance abuse problems, homelessness, and other co-occurring disorders (e.g. schizophrenia) will be excluded from the study. Although this allows the to make sure they are just treating OCD, it sacrifices the ecological validity, i.e. this severely diminishes the generalizability of such findings because people suffering from mental illness rarely have one condition. In the end, those individuals who struggle most mightily from severe mental illness along with poverty and substance abuse are never considered in these studies, suggesting CBT is often a treatment only effective for high-functioning and middle-upper class individuals. Unsurprisingly, it has been most successful for very isolated problems such as OCD, panic disorder, and specific phobias.

Lacan’s Marginalization in American Psychoanalysis


Currently I’m in a doctoral program for clinical psychology that has a strong psychoanalytic orientation. Many of my professors are psychoanalysts, and my classes on different subjects (e.g. psychotherapy, theories of mind, social/development) are psychoanalytic in nature. For example, in the second year of the program all students are required to take a two-semester course on psychoanalytic theory. In the first semester, we study Freud, ego psychology (Hartmann, A Freud) and self-psychology (Kohut, Wolf). We focus on Klein, object relations, and relational psychoanalysis in second semester. I asked my professor during the first semester whether we’d be covering Lacan, and he told me we did not have time. Apparently we have time to cover someone like Heinz Kohut, for two months, who essentially did nothing radical for the field other than to combine Rogerian therapy with ego psychology. All Kohut did was try and conceive of a new way to treat narcissistic clients, an important contribution, but nothing theoretically revolutionary. Another excuse one hears when one asks American psychoanalysts about Lacan is this: Lacan is interesting (although none of them have a clue what he actually said) but unreadable.

I have two questions:

1) Why is Lacan avoided in psychoanalytic circles?
2) What makes Lacan so impenetrable to modern American psychoanalysis?

First off, Lacan generates a severe amount of anxiety in modern psychoanalysts. He’s considered to be some threat to the system that would challenge many of the basic assumptions of modern psychoanalysis (e.g. the obsession American psychoanalysts have with the ‘ego’). Second, Lacan’s work cannot be reduced to pithy phrases and cute ideas. Reading Lacan requires patience. So much of modern psychoanalytic theory can become rigid and formulaic where certain ideas like (id-ego-superego) are treated like mechanistic ideas that can be schematized in simplistic ways. Three, to understand Lacan, one has to read Freud. It is simply perverse how many psychoanalysts treat Freud like a thinker of the past who has nothing of relevance to say to clinicians working in 2011. Not only do they reduce Freud to a caricature, they also completely bypass the tremendous amount of work that is required to understand him. Lacanian theory is a unique exegesis of Freud’s texts. One interesting feature of Lacan’s seminars is that he rarely discusses his own case material. He discusses Freud’s cases in depth, not in a blind dogmatic way (e.g. he is critical of Freud’s treatment of Dora), but in humble recognition that we must come to term with what Freud was doing clinically. Lacan was ultimately a clinician. He doesn’t talk about Antigone simply because he’s a bourgeois French intellectual (although he was that), but because understanding Antigone will help us come to better terms with how to conceptualize and treat clients. In my opinion the main reason Lacan is rejected by the American psychoanalytic establishment, is that the Lacanian system requires a return to Freud. It demands a re-reading of Freud that focuses on a theory of subjectivity that can be very foreign and challenging. Lacan’s extreme criticism of ego psychology was that it had completely abandoned the Freudian revolution of unconscious subjectivity and shifted the focus to address the ego. We cannot simply adjust parts of Freudian theory here and there (e.g. re-thinking Oedipus etc) but we must revisit the Freudian corpus, in its totality, to understand what Freud is trying to do and how his theory and practice evolved.

I want to make one more closing observation. I think this marginalization of Lacan (which is ultimately a refusal of Freud) is symptomatic of a larger problem, namely, the marginalization of psychoanalysis in the American academy. Psychoanalysts often find Lacan difficult because of the way he puts multiple disciplines in conversation with psychoanalysis (e.g. anthropology, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, religion). Of course, Freud did the same thing when he combined insights from anthropology, neurology, and religion to help inform and make sense of psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, psychoanalysts have refused to follow suit and have refused conversation with a variety of related fields like behaviorism, neuropsychology, philosophy, sociology, etc (not to mention Freud’s cultural texts are all but ignored as speculative musings). As long as psychoanalysis continues to refuse dialogue with these various disciplines, it runs a great risk of being completely removed from the academy (although it has already been largely banished from psychology departments and demoted to English departments).