Category Archives: Presentations

A Christian Spirituality of Public Life

I gave this lecture at the Ridley Institute, Saint Andrew’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC on March 15.

This subject, if I understand it correctly, is one of special significance to me. For whatever reason, God seems to have given me a particular burden for asking questions about how we as Christians and as the church are to be related to the rest of society, and these questions are rarely simple, and, not only are the questions not simple, but then actually the work that is entailed in doing that relating is also quite challenge. So I think it’s a tall order, and I’m hardly the expert or the authority on the matter, but I do hope that some of my reflection on this that I share with you will prove useful, and if nothing else, at least interesting.

And maybe it would be best to begin by simply clarifying what this topic of spirituality in public life is really about. Because at first it might seem like, when we say, “public life,” that what we’re talking about is, one the one hand, just what Rob presented on last week with regard to vocation — in the work place, in the home, as individuals — which is an important aspect of Christian spirituality, but still not quite what we’re talking about tonight.

Or, on the other hand, you could think that the spirituality of public life is about ethics, or more specifically social ethics. But that is its own distinct subject — Christian social ethics. And I suspect there might even be a time in the future when that is own whole separate class at the Ridley Institute — Christian social justice or social ethics. Because ethics is about the actions we take, and why, and spirituality, by comparison has more to do with the posture we assume. What is the our relationship with God as human beings such that it informs our public life?

And that’s what I want to focus on — what is the posture, the attitude, the nature, of our engagement with society, and in the public domain, as Christians, Because we have an identity as a community of faith, and our witness must shows itself as a group and not just individually. Our individual witness probably pertains somewhat more so to the topic last week, which asked about spirituality with respect our particular vocations, occupations, professions, etc. So what form must our public witness take as the people of God, as followers of Jesus? What kind of spiritual posture does it require? Ok, that’s where I’m headed.

And to try to answer that question, I want to discuss three things:

  1. First, revisiting the subject of sanctification a little bit, which I know was brought up last time — what does it do and how does it help us relate to the public in the way that God intends for us to. So sanctification.
  2. Secondly, what are the most dominant cultural forces today in our society that stand in the way of this sanctification
  3. And third, what spiritual dispositions should we take to respond to those dominant liturgies, scripts, stories, narratives?
  4. Alright — sanctification. I do think it is correct that our posture begins with the journey of sanctification. Ok, and so we are sanctified, made holy, set apart by our spiritual practices and the disciplines that are part of this great tradition we have inherited as Christians — a tradition that includes our commitment to Scripture, prayer, observing the sacraments, and so on.

I was recently at a clergy retreat for my Diocese, which is called Churches for the Sake of Others, part of the Anglican Church of North America, and our bishop is Todd Hunter, who spoke here last year, and a Christian philosopher named James K. A. Smith was there at the retreat as our keynote speaker. Some of you may be familar with his work. I think Rob took a class with him. Smith shared some of his insights from his forthcoming book called “You Are What you Love.” And it was good enough to justify my borrowing a good deal from it, so that’s what I’m going do for a moment as it relates to our thinking about sanctification — and sanctification as the mediating factor between us and our public life together.

With this title, “You Are What you Love,” Smith is drawing on Saint Augustine maybe more than anyone else, and he’s saying that, as human beings, made in the image of God, we are not first and foremost thinkers or even doers. Though of course our lives consist of much thinking and doing. We are above all, lovers.

Augustine famously asked, “What do I love when I love my God?” Which is similar to asking, “What do I worship when I worship my God?” What is ultimate for me, in other words? What do I seek above everything else? What is that thing that I believe will make me happy if I could just have it, achieve it, find it? The thing that could give me my heaven and help me escape this or that hell.

That was what Rob talked about with idolatry last week and he gave several examples of this — the thing that we seek might be the approval of a parent. It could be many other created or finite things: a romantic relationship, the accomplishments of one’s children. Wealth, power, status and so on.

So the question is not whether we love, but what do we love. Because we are lovers. St. Thomas Aquinas said that love is the virtue that order all other virtues.

So if our love is not directed Godward — true north — then the trajectory of our life is going to be off-course.

We are lovers and we are worshipers more so than what we knowers, thinkers, or believers. This means we are always desiring something and moving toward something. The question is where?

So much of what determines where we’re headed is not something we’re conscious of. The large majority of our life’s trajectory is determined by habit more so than choice. Only a very small percentage is affected at the level of decision. The example that Smith gives is learning how to drive. For us as adults, we can get in the car (explain).

 In the same way, and I’ll talk this a little bit more in a moment, take the problem in our society of consumerism — we do not decide to be consumers, necessarily. We don’t reason it out. We behave our way there. It’s the power of habit and we’re lead by our desires, our bodies, and our physical propensities, and so forth.

So the essential thing for Christian spirituality is that we must attend to our loves, look at what we’re worshiping — because we’re all worshiping something — and begin to develop, both corporately and individually, a re-appreciation for the power of habit and how those habits are either producing virtues or vices. Ok, this is why the practices and the disciplines that we follow in church in our daily devotional lives in the home, at work and at play, are so important. We’re all loving and worshipping something, and so as Christians we submit ourselves to a process by which God and the Spirit can re-calibrate and re-habilitate, rehabituate, our hearts and our bodies — not just our minds.

From there though, we must also recognize, however, that not only are we lovers, formed by our habits and by what we seek, but we’re also all being spiritually formed by the cultural liturgies that are all around us and that we’re immersed in.

So the journey of sanctification and spiritual formation is also a journey of unlearning what we’ve already absorbed from our cultural surroundings. Just as all of us are lovers and worshipers going somewhere, so too we should say that every group, every culture, even every subgroup and subculture, every society and every nation, has its own liturgy. And unless we recognize and identify what these liturgies are, they’re likely to have more power over us than we’d like.

And just to clarify, when I say liturgy, I know some of you know what that means, but sometimes it’s a new idea even for folks who have grown up in church that isn’t as traditional or sacramental. What I mean by liturgy is broader than the prayer we pray, and lyrics — though it is that — like a prayer of confession, the Lord’s prayer, the Nicene Creed, hymns and so on — but I’m talking about any set of stories, images, symbols and songs that serve to give meaning and purpose to life for people. We all carry some governing story that guides us, even if again, it’s not conscious to us.

Families have liturgies, corporations, universities have liturgies, nations, even a city like Charleston South Carolina probably. And of course in this crazy season of electoral politics, everybody’s fighting about who’s gonna get to say what the true liturgy really is for this nation. Smith gives examples of other liturgies that are more spatial, physical, architectural. Churches certainly have a liturgy based on how they’re designed, but so do football stadiums, and malls — government — there’s a liturgy to the use of our smart phones. Swiping, swiping, clicking, enlarging, watching — this is at least a ritual of the larger liturgy of consumerism.

Acknowledging of course that not everything you do with your phone is consumeristic — you know what I mean.

The point is, there are these competing and rival liturgies, and there are competing and rival exemplars — Jesus vs. Taylor Swift, I don’t know — but there are rival exemplars for how we as human beings and citizens should live our lives.

  1. Now though I think we have to ask more specifically about what some of these dominant cultural liturgies actually are — what are their hidden values and messages that are shaping us our desires and disciplining our habits?

We could also call these dominant liturgies, scripts, because they tell a story! What are the dominant scripts that inform behavior in our society today?

I’ll just name three: the first one I’ve already mentioned: Consumerism. Secondly, Individualism, and, third, Militarism. I’ll very briefly say something about each one, but really only insofar as they relate to each other. These are huge topics, and I’m barely going to scratch the surface, but the main point is that I hope we see their interconnectedness and the way they reinforce each other.

So I’m going to try to describe the core impulse or assumption behind each one, and I think that will still be worthwhile:

2. Consumerism – We live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us. It assumes, of course, that more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.”

Two descriptive words that go with the value of consumerism, and I’m getting some of this from the work of the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann — our consumerism is technological and it’s therapeutic. I’ll explain those as well.

The technological side is that the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved. The enemy of technological consumerism is inconvenience.

On the therapeutic side, if you have a desire or a discomfort that needs alleviation, there’s something to alleviate, and it’s only a credit card purchase away. Whether it’s medicine, media, a shiny new object, clothing, gadgets, whatever. Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.” For therapeutic consumerism, the cardinal sin that must be resisted at all costs is discomfort.

You know, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe abortions” is one of the most damaging consequences of this. Of course, on the flip side of that, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe sex” is also morally devastating.

2. Individualism – Individualism is a very complex and sophisticated phenomenon, and there’s been great work done on interpreting what it really means in our society in the West. One scholar who comes to mind for this is Charles Taylor in his book, “The Secular Age.”

This is because the reference point for concern about one’s interest in an individualistic society is no longer one’s tribe, group, religion, or nation, but simply one’s self. And there are many facets of individualism, but for the sake of simplicity I just want to name one — and that is its relationship to consumerism.

Ok, if consumerism says the whole earth and all its resources are available to us, then individualism says yes, these are available to us and they’re available to us without regard for what effect that availability has on our neighbors. So implicit in individualism is disconnection from and disregard for the consequences of consumerism for our neighbors — locally and globally. It isn’t malicious though — this is the trick. It really doesn’t know any better, because the habit of individualism has been disciplined to not have to worry about my neighbor!

3. Militarism – Thirdly and finally, with militarism, once more I’ll just say one way it’s connected to consumerism and individualism as well.

And when I say militarism, I should clarify, I’m not saying that as Christians I believe we should necessarily be anti-military. We should love the people who have served and are serving in the armed forces, certainly respect them, just like we love and respect everybody else. And I suspect we have veterans and men and women in uniform even in this room. But that doesn’t mean we get to uncritically support what the military is commanded to do.

The word militar-ism, means is the worship or love of what the military does or can offer us. It’s the absolutization or idolization of the military — making it a kind of ultimate. And the same should be said about consumerism and indivdidualism — there’s nothing wrong with consumption, as such, or individuality. In fact, with a political ideology like communism, one of its greatest shortcomings is its failure to celebrate and protect individuality, as a form of social organization and government.

Ok, so with that disclaimer in mind, though, again, if consumerism says, the earth’s resources and the products we can make are available to me, and individualism ignores the impact on my neighbors.

And militarism, finally, as it relates consumerism and individualism, just says, those resources, that are available without regard for my global or local neighbor, must be guaranteed. My way of life. It must be secured by force, if necessary, and by violent force, if necessary. Militarism is not defense, it’s offensive.

So militarism is intimately connected to the desires for security and safety,  meaning, to have my life protected from harm, disruption and so on, which is of course a desirable thing, but at what cost to others?

In sum, concerning all three of these forces and values, or liturgies, stories: to quote Brueggemann, “It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of these script; they are everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”

III. Now turning finally to the question of how sanctification and how our spiritual life aids us on toward resisting these dominant scripts and liturgies:

One of the things at the heart of all three of these dominant cultural values is clearly a kind of collective self-interest and fear-based outlook on life that just wants to preserve itself, self-medicate and keep things away that are threatening, right? something like that.

And, sanctification, publically speaking, is about getting free from this self-interest — this dominant script and these cultural liturgies. It’s how we discipline ourselves into reliance on mercy beyond judgment. And get freed instead to live in the Kingdom of God. By turning to the liturgies of the Kingdom of God.

So how does this work? What is our alternative story in many ways? This is the most constructive question I’m asking, I hope, as the third and final part of the talk. To answer it, I want to look at just some high points in the biblical narrative.

In the reformed tradition, especially, a common answer of “why sanctification,” might be that we do it for God’s glory, and that’s true, or maybe we would say, it because it’s what God has commanded and we are to be obedient, which is true as well. But there’s another reason.

And we find it first in the Hebrew Scriptures. Starting with the Creation story in Genesis was a counter-cultural claim in many respects. The Babylonian creation story, by contrast, has the earth arises as a result of the god Marduk conquering and killing another god, Tiamet, and then the earth arose from Tiamet’s remains. The Genesis account of creation has no such violent content in order for God to create. In fact, violence is introduced by human beings, not God, when Cain kills Abel.

In addition to that, in Genesis, God says that creation is fundamentally good! The material and physical world is sacred, and so is our work in it. God dwells in creation, especially in the Garden of Eden, where God is imagined as walking and talking with Adam and Eve.

In Augustine great work, The City of God, he recognizes that the movement throughout the Scriptures, the dramatic direction that the whole Bible is taking, is towards, as the title suggests, “The City of God.” Unlike most earthly cities, nations and empires, God’s calling of Israel is for the expressed purpose of building a “city,” “nation,” or “house,” where God dwells with people and people with God.

We see this in an important juxtaposition of Genesis 11 and 12. In Genesis 11, which is the tower of Babel story, it represents humanity’s effort to use their common language and agenda to build a city that reaches to the heavens — in other words, to build a city that rivals God rather than honors and worships God. And as a result, God’s judgment comes on them in the story by dispersing them and giving them different languages and nationalities.

So Genesis 12 serves as the correction and alternative to Babel, when God calls Abraham and makes the following promise:

1 “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

We learn that Israel’s call is essentially this:

They are to be different from other nations for the sake of other nations. They’re blessed to be a blessing! This is what sanctification is all about.

Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God in this way in several of his parables.

Matthew 13

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

The great 20th Century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s explains this parable of the unleavened bread in this way:

“The dough to be made into bread is a lifeless lump of dull, inedible matter; but the yeast, too, it by itself completely inedible [as well], despite the fact that it is the [means by which] the lump is to be turned into bread . . . The yeast must be plunged into the dough; it must sink into it and disappear, in order that its energy may be released and the dough transformed into bread. Alone, it is nothing; buried in the dough it is quite the opposite. But, note, separateness, and indeed a strict separateness, is . . . preliminary to the unity that is being attempted and that alone will result in something palatable . . .”

And so for us as Christians, our sanctification, is what gives us the power to be like leaven in the world.

And this forces us to remember something crucial. We don’t have anything to give to the world on our own. What makes us Christian is something that is first utterly gifted to us — it’s something we possess. The gift of Jesus’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection. And this gift of course is grace.

Christ is the yeast, in our dough, and we are the yeast, as Christians and as the church, we are extending his incarnation into the dough of the world.

So must be very careful not to run ourselves ragged just trying to do good in the world all the time. We will fail miserably and just end up hurting ourselves and others.

Rather, there is rhythm outline for us for public life, and Jesus is the exemplar of this rhythm. In his public ministry, Jesus exhibits models the ebb and flow of contemplation and action! Into the city, back to the mountain or the garden to pray. Into the city with the people, away with his disciples for a little while. Early in the morning while it was still dark, he goes to pray. From Solitude and stillness. To action and engagement. Solitude, retreat and stillness, and then, go do something.

So as a closing line of thought — practically, our spirituality needs countermeasures along these lines that resist and outlast — subvert — the dominant liturgies and scripts of consumerism, individualism and militarism, which I want to suggest can show themselves in three different postures, each of which is a response to those three dominant values.

And to get back to the dominant liturgies and narratives, the dominant scripts of our time that I mentioned for a moment — consumerism, individualism/tribalism, militarism — I believe that an effective Christian countermeasure to these cultural forces, will show itself through three spiritual postures, all of which are understood to be produced by a church that both recognizes itself as having been blessed to be a blessing — ok — called to be different from the world for the sake of the world, and to extend the incarnation of Christ, the yeast of Christ that’s in us, into the dough of the world, the essence of which is grace. These three spiritual postures are:

  1. The first one is just to repeat what Rob said last time: a commitment to be inconvenienced by our neighbors. And I mean, in order to do this well, we of course have to exhibit all of the fruits of the spirit: peace, patience, kindness and so on. It also requires hospitality and generosity. It means a willingness to suffer and to sacrifice.
  1. Secondly, combating individualism, is the formation of community and genuine shared life in which we make the problems of our neighbors, our own problems. Of course this entails actually getting to know our neighbors as well — locally, and globally — especially our most vulnerable and victimized neighbors.
  1. And I’ll just go ahead and say the third is also like the other two: The courage to take risks. To risk ourselves for something good! Something that looks like the Kingdom of God advancing in, breaking into our midst. And this isn’t always some big grandiose vision. It’s oftentimes more like sowing mustard seeds, you know, little community gardens that call attention to our interdependence, our simple, local life and need for companionship and caring relationship. But there is risk involved, and sometimes that risk is big. It could mean living in a neighborhood that isn’t quite as safe, if God calls you to it — putting our kids in a school system isn’t necessary the best in town. It’s going to cost us something.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote about how without risk, there is no faith. Faith is a leap, it is a risk taken, in response to a subjective, inward assurance and passion — one that ultimately demands love. And as such, it is then willing and able to face any uncertainty that life throws at us. All of the external and material unknowns.

I’ve thought for a while now that one of the things that makes Christians different, and makes us like yeast, is if we truly live into this hope and this confidence that even that even if things don’t turn out ok, that’s still ok! It’s a gospel assurance, that moves us to try anything. Because we’re coming from a place of total trust.

And again, because we’re not worried about the outcome, necessarily. Not ultimately. So our politics, for example, will be much less anxious. We’ll have hopes and goals, and we’ll even strive for them with deep resolution, but without fear and with a peace that frees us from having our hope tied to the temporal results. Because we know the “already and not yet” nature of the manifestation of the kingdom of God in history.

Dorothee said that a Christian is one who noticeably lives in such a way that would only make sense if the gospel and the resurrection were true. It goes back to the “different from the world” part of Israel’s calling. And then it might become appealing. But it will be appealing because people will see a beauty to it. Because of the positive difference, not the negative difference, primarily, the Christians make. In other word, because we’re known for what we’re for and what we do, more so than what we’re against. There’s a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that I want to read as a kind of closing theological statement:

 “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures of history as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involve himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings], saving them from having, in their freedom, come in conflict with what God intends.

So this is our assurance, for spirituality in public life. That God’s own self-investment in Christ and through the Spirit never leaves or forsakes us, but rescue us, set us apart — make us different from the world for the sake of the world.

Imagining the Beauty and Drama of Christ from History’s Underside: Toward an Ecclesial Postmodern Political Theology

If postmodern theology is to awaken the political imagination of Christian churches and energize them in a subversive and liberating way, then I submit that it must do at least two things: First, it must speak with a depth of theological conviction and fidelity to the Christian tradition in a way that at the same time transcends both modern and pre-modern epistemological strongholds.

And secondly, postmodern theology must recast the church’s mission in a manner that is, while not defined by this, still significantly informed by of a political-economic ethic from the standpoint of the experience of those on the underside of history — which is to say, those who do not benefit from the dominant center of society but rather find themselves on the periphery, in many respects. In particular, when I say underside, I mean those victimized to some degree by euro-american, “colonial-capitalist” history (whether it be on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or what have you).

So, there two challenges for the church — one postmodern/epistemological, the other postcolonial/political-material. And my way of thinking about these two fronts of that the church is facing, is helped by drawing on the work of two major figures: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Enrique Dussel.

Balthasar’s theology, for those who may not know, begins with a theology of beauty — and really it’s an epistemology – an approach to truth and faith from an aesthetic starting point, rather than a propositional or moral one. And then, only after having started with beauty, does he move into what he calls theo-dramatics. Because he’s saying that what is truly beautiful is the key for knowing, inspiring and approximating God’s goodness in the world, shaped by the Christian story: “God’s drama” of salvation history. This also has implications for ecclesiology, which I will touch on briefly below.

The second thinker I’m relying on is Enrique Dussel. Dussel is a contemporary of Latin American liberation theologians (LTs) like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino, but he has really distinguished himself as a philosopher more so than a theologian by seriously and critically engaging modern European and American philosophers of the 20th Century. Specifically he appropriates Emmanuel Levinas but in a more socio-political rather than phenomenological vein, using some of Levinas’s same categories, like exteriority and alterity, to talk about how the most privileged political and ethical perspective is always that of the victim and outsider — the excluded one.

But even more than that, Dussel retells the history of modernity itself, which for him is essentially coterminous with colonialism, in terms of having its origin and defining material moment in the Spanish conquest and invasion of the Americas – in the events of the subjugation, brutality and exploitation of the indigenous people there and what that has continued to mean for Latin American history ever since even well into the 20th and 21st Century. This is how he conceives of history itself from the experience of its “underside,” what he also terms the “subaltern.” Modern Western civilization was built on this imperial “discovery” and the slave-based economy that ensued. The consequences are still being experienced, especially by the governments of Central America in the past 50 years.

But Balthasar is the figure who I believe can guide us — not all the way, but for a while — beyond the modern/post-modern impasse, while also being faithful to the Christian tradition (even though he of course has his blind-spots too). Here’s what I mean: if modernity was guilty of logocentrism, condescension, normalization and universalization by way of trying to smooth out differences, then postmodernity has been prone to paralyze constructive politics in the name of heterogeneity and multiculturalism/pluralism (Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda). Alan Badiou has voiced a comparable critique of postmodernity by describing it as “communitarian particularism” that “reduces the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . [that] ends up in a cultural and historical relativism” (Badiou, 2003). And I think von Bathasar’s theology, again, because of both his aesthetic epistemology, on the one hand, and his christocentrism, on the other, avoids the cliff on either side.

In addition, I’m trying to map an ecclesial political theology, which means it will take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship. For the latter is yet another way that political theology has too often been captured by modernity.

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated. I’m not calling for a neo-anabaptist politic. But Balthasar argues that, in his public ministry, Jesus illustrates how there can be an opening up a horizon beyond the immediacy of the state, indirectly limiting the state by subjecting it to an eschatological critique. Which is by no means an abandonment of the material, but it does signal toward something beyond the material that is always manifesting and incarnating itself in the material. So there remains the indication of a liberation the originates in God, not humanity.

Here’s what this politics boils down to though for Balthasar. In Theodrama vol. 2 he states that:

“Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” of the body of Christ in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize the inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live…”

So political power comes in the weakness of that solidarity that the church has with the most vulnerable.

Like Jesus, though, there is a refusal to concede to the “rivalries of history,” for Balthasar. The church cannot grab power or seek to influence it from the top down. And there’s a lot about this that I think we should hold on to. So Balthasar gives us parameters for a Christian ecclesiology, but there is much wanting here in terms of the promise of and cry for liberation from oppression! There’s not enough urgency in Balthasar. So for a political and economic ethic, I turn to Dussel.

It’s worth noting that while he’s not a pacifist, Dussel considers any power taken by the state, rather than power given by the people in their consent, to be illegitimate. Because this would be self-referential power and therefore fetishism.

Dussel accuses both the neoliberal US and the Latin American Left of historically presupposing the necessity of violence against their political opponent – and instead contends that politics is about the continuation of life whose aim is the very preservation of the opponent — through the means of deliberation and delegation, and so on. So Dussel’s is a biopolitics – of the preservation, enhancement and continuation of the life of the political community but also of its very condition for material reproduction: the planet, culture and indigenous traditions!

  1. So the first of three ethical principles that Dussel follows is a material one, expressed as the obligation to produce life. Its concern is with human bodies and their well-being. This is the source of value for the political community, not production or consumption.
  2. The second principle, then, is more formal and procedural, as that of discourse ethics (it’s the goal of consensus around moral validity). Bearing in mind the first principle then, discourse here is always carried out with the voice of the underside, and of victims setting the terms of dialogue.
  3. Third, there is the criterion of feasibility (feasibility of mediations), the question of what can actually and practically be achieved in any given political situation.

These three criteria – material, dialogical and feasible – are co-constitutive of what Dussel judges can finally be called “good.”

Finally, though, I turn back to Balthasar. In his mind, Beauty (aesthetics) is the starting point, and may in fact have the most potent recourse to inciting the Good.

And obviously, for Balthasar, the archetype of beauty is the life-form, and the whole drama of Jesus, the Christ figure, whose beauty is most fully revealed in relief from the ugliness of humanity’s violence that puts people on crosses. So beauty is made known above all in God’s willingness to go to that human, bodily and historical-material, political place of suffering and rejection.

So to summarize all of this: because of the kind of beauty that is revealed for Christians in Jesus (this is Balthasar), there is an ecclesiological call to solidarity, with those who Jesus has solidarity with in his suffering. What Dussel then demonstrates, moreover, is that this solidarity must start with those on the margins.  And Dussel’s three principles for political-economic ethics stress that this solidarity is not just a willingness to suffer with, but to suffer for. It is a willingness to resist with and to protest with – not just with but for people, to achieve better conditions for the flourishing of their lives.

As I consider what this theology amounts to if practiced, I imagine that it might reflect several aspects of what political theologian Mark Lewis Taylor calls critical movements of resistance.

Taylor discusses critical movements of resistance as responses to various sufferings and injustices that are being experienced by those on history’s underside as a result of the colonial-capitalist state, in theo-poetic fashion, which is not reducible to the level of political economy (so aesthetics!), but is just as much interested in affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to catalyze a social movement.

So an appropriate Critical Movement of Resistance (CMR) will take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in public policy, though it certainly includes this. And it will be constituted by at least three visible markings, Taylor says: an 1) owning of agonistic being — solidarity in suffering, sharing in the weight of the world. Second, 2) cultivating of artful reflex, a kind of mirroring or mimicking of the state. Perhaps most powerfully illustrated just biblically in Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey, genuine street theater! and thirdly, the 3) fomenting of adversarial political and counter-colonial/decolonial practices, which would need to actually name opponents, call them out, expose them, make evil show itself! Not destroying the opponent, but calling them to repentance! And then attempt to take higher moral ground in an unpredictable and offsetting stealing of the show, beating stakeholders to the stage. It is disruptive and demonstrative, in other words.

This obviously takes strategic planning, vulnerable networking, risk-taking, and in a way that has to be careful not to devolve into sheer aestheticism, and that at least aiming to bring about sustainable, and life-renewing communal activities.

Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?

(Below is the transcript for a lecture I gave on Oct. 20th at the Ridley Institute of St. Andrew’s Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC. They are an extension campus of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.)

Your reading this week was entitled, “What is the Bible and What is it good for?” but even this question has another one behind it, an even broader subject which is the subject of tonight’s lecture: “Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?” The doctrine of Christian revelation — the question of how we get the content of our faith, and what is the authority for our faith, what is the medium by which God has spoken to us and continues to do so.

But I also think it’s fitting we should come to the topic of the Bible after having already been introduced to the doctrine of the Trinity and each person of the Trinity, because that’s really how it happened for many of the first Christians. In the earliest churches, there was an understanding of the doctrine of Christ and the good news of the gospel that comes from that, that Jesus preached, and even a growing understanding and experience of the Holy Spirit long before anyone had a Bible. The authority of the Christian faith was established in communities and through the apostles who got their authority from Christ and then from the Spirit several centuries before the Bible was formally canonized. But for us, some 2000 years later, we’re in a different situation. We weren’t there, so we depend more on the written record of that authority and of God’s revelation to the first Christians.

It is with the broader topic, though, of the doctrine of revelation, that I want to begin, and then we’ll move into talking more about the Bible itself, the Bible in the tradition of Reformation Anglicanism in particular, and to conclude, thirdly, we’ll look at the role of the Bible and how we can understand it today. How does its authority function in our communities of faith, in our churches, in this particular context of 21st Century North America?

1. GENERAL AND SPECIAL REVELATION

So first, we’re asking, what is the difference between Christian knowledge and other kinds of knowledge? This is largely the question of distinguishing between what the tradition has sometimes called special revelation and general revelation, or analogously, natural revelation and supernatural revelation.

We’ve all at one time or another had that experience enjoying creation and the beauty of nature, staring up at the stars or marveling at the sunset or a breathtaking view of the mountains and just been wowed by what we see. It’s one of God’s languages, it’s one of the ways that God communicates something to us very generally, that is available to everyone. This is what is meant by this notion of general or natural revelation.

The great medieval scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that truth becomes known through both natural revelation (certain truths are available to all people through their human nature and through correct human reasoning) and supernatural revelation (faith-based knowledge revealed through Scripture).

So there’s a distinction between these two ways of knowing, one Christian, one not necessarily, but Thomas also maintained that the relationship between general revelation and special revelation was complimentary rather than contradictory. Thus, although one may deduce the existence of God and God’s attributes through philosophical reason, certain specifics (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation) may be known only through special revelation and may not otherwise be deduced.

And the Bible, Aquinas says, contains revelation that may be general as well as special. So there are things that Scripture tells that we also know apart from Scripture, but there is also properly Christians truths that we couldn’t know apart from Scripture.

The Bible itself actually tells us about general revelation:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. — Psalm 19

This is Scripture, talking about revelation outside of Scripture!

In the New Testament, in Romans 1, Paul says

20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

In other words, in addition to the book of Scripture, we also have the book of nature. There’s Revelation big R, and revelation little r.

In Acts 17, moreover, there is the account of Paul’s reference to the altar to an unknown God (v. 23) that even the pagans recognized. Paul saw that the Greek philosophers believed God was the one in whom we live and move and have our being… they believed that “we are his offspring” (v. 28).

The main point being made that we can indeed know some things about God apart from any specific or explicit communication from God. And we know this, in large part, by the authority of our capacity for reasoning.

The English Reformer Richard Hooker would agree! And he helps clarify the relationship between general and special revelation:

“what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth that which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2)

So first Scripture, then reason, and then, the Tradition of the Church — and in that order, for Hooker. And this is the orthodox way of understanding the order of authority in the Christian faith: Fides quaerens intellectum. Faith seeking Understanding (Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas).

But just as the Roman Catholic Church put the authority of the Church before Scripture, much of the modern church has put the authority of reason before Scripture. The church has never said that reason and Scripture might contradict each other, but the modern church has indeed thought this at times, and it has created a false dichotomy between the two — between Scripture and reason.

In the historical period that we’ve come out of, usually just very broadly referred to as “modernity,” there’s tended to a privileging of a certain kind of knowing: scientific and rational knowing. That has this air of objectivity to it, assuming that its vantage point on matters of science, politics, economics, religion — whatever — is inherently the right and best one. It has been characterized by the preoccupation with and quest for certitude, in a kind of detached and false, God’s eye view of truth that was thought to be truly objective and foundationally indubitable!

But of course, there’s no such thing as a perfectly objective, unadulterated view of reality. We always have a particular perspective on things that is influenced by many variable beyond our control. This doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything. It just means that we always know by faith seeking understanding. And actually this quest for certitude in modernity ultimately fails and begins to produce what we now could call the postmodern period.

As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12,

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

2. THE WORD OF GOD ITSELF AND IN REFORMATION ANGLICANISM

But to say that we have faith in the Word of God does not mean that we simply have blind faith, nor that we have faith only because it has been written and passed down to us through a reliable historical record. Of course, we do believe that it has, and we have good reasons for believing that, but our faith does not stands on empirical evidence or philosophical reasoning. It doesn’t contradict these things, but neither does it depend entirely on them. The reason we believe in the authority of Scripture is because it first came to us not as a special, sacred document, but as a living and spoken Word confirmed by the great cloud of witnesses before us.

As it was talked about two weeks ago when discussing who Jesus is – fully human and fully divine —  what’s called the Prologue of John, we read that:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

Skipping down to v. 14:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Furthermore, in Hebrews 1:1-3 it says that

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

And so, initially, and primordially, the way that Christians receive special revelation about God is through Jesus Christ. Scripture is Scripture because it bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

Perhaps now finally we could define Christian special or supernatural revelation this way:

God’s self-disclosure narrated through the history of a particular people, through personal action, culminating in Gods utter self-investment in creation through the incarnation, life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Daniel McGloire, Faith Seeking Understanding)

As this definition suggests, special Revelation in this way is not simply the transmission of data or propositional truth claims to which we merely ascend, cognitively. Rather, in Scripture God’s revealed identity is rendered primarily by narrative, but this grand Story in the whole sweep of Scripture.

The 20th Century Swiss Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, give us something to think about when he says that

Only Scripture itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself.

Balthasar goes on to say that

Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God.The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics I, 31-32

It is a narrative, a drama, even, because there is this whole history in our Old Testament that sets the stage without which we could not understand and receive the revelation that is in Christ, and that story is told and lived in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is comprised of the Torah, the first five books of the Law, which chronicles the Patriarchal lineage of our faith — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and on to the Exodus, with the giving of the Law itself, which then leads the Narrative History of Israel, the Wisdom Literature, and the Major and Minor Prophets.

And in addition to narrative, Scripture contains prophetic oracles, proverbs, commands, cries, lamentations, and apocalyptic visions. So the forms of biblical witness to revelation are diverse and none should be neglected — each is an important way of witnessing to the self-revelation of God who remains ever free and beyond our control. (Neither God nor the Bible is ever our possession.)

When we get to the New Testament, this is what it says regarding the authority of the Old Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

“The Holy Scriptures are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ!”

In Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion, it says:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

This way of describing the authority of Scripture is uniquely Anglican, and it’s very important. It’s a bit different from some of the other modern definitions of the authority of Scripture that we find in other Christian churches.

There’s a saying in the tradition translated roughly as follows: In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity. I think this particular Article, which is basically the same statement that we affirm as clergy for our ordination covenant, is particularly suited for upholding this traditional axiom: in essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.

That way that Jesus himself claimed the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s Word seemed to fall in line with this. He knew the essentials, he upheld the essentials. He also knew how the religious leaders were prone to overlook the essentials by clinging to the external security of the non-essentials, missing the very heart of God’s law.

But then we also see as early as 2 Peter 3:15-16 that the early church was regarding Paul’s letter’s as part of Holy Scripture, as the Word of God and as the New Testament. So the authority of both testaments is confirmed in Scripture itself.

Nonetheless, we believe in what Scripture says not just because it is Scripture that says it, but because what Scripture says can be seen as both good and beautiful in the life of Christ, and has been confirmed in our lives by the witness of the Holy Spirit. Because what Scripture gives witness to is not just a fixed, historical, past tense fact, but a real, living and active faith that can be seen and experienced as redemptive.

To further illustrate this point, if we consider Islam, for example, and compare its view of the Quran to our view of the Bible, the Koran is understood, so far as I know, to be the actual verbatum dictation by God in the Arabic language that has to be accepted, whether you understand it or not, simply as God’s revelation of the truth.

And since all translation means some degree of interpretation, and since human understanding is always fallible, it is therefore an article of faith for Muslims that the Quran cannot be translated. In order to hear God’s Word, therefore, you must learn Arabic. It is a purely external authority.

By contrast, when we look at Christian faith: the parallel to the Quran, based on how Muslims understand it — is not the Bible but if anything, it’s Jesus — (because it is Jesus who is the Word of God, in the primary and fundamental sense, but this is not a perfect parallel.) But Jesus did not write a book He gathered a company of disciples, making the things of God known to them. And that in turn is how the church grew. So Jesus really is beyond comparison to anything in Islam.

Because Discipleship means much more than reading a book. This is why we have different accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds in the four Gospels. And from the modern and Muslim point of view, we therefore have no reliable certainty. And actually That we have four gospels is used by Muslims to argue that we have lost the original Gospel.

But of course, that would be to miss the point, which is that true Revelation (capital R) is always an event in the present, that comes to life again and again. As the letter to the Hebrews declares:

…the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. — Hebrews 4:12

The Psalms declare that God’s Word is a “lamp unto our feet and a light for my path”! (Psalm 119:105)

What makes the Word of God alive and active? Is it the letters on the page? No, it’s the Holy Spirit in our hearts!

So while the Reformers were right to insist that the witness of Scripture is normative for the life and faith of the church, this witness does not exist in a vacuum. We can’t take Sola Scriptura out of its context of criticizing the 16th Century Roman Catholic Church. Nor, however, can we simply say “Scripture plus tradition” to fully and effectively communicate the gospel. Rather, it is the Spirit of God who freely uses the witness of Scripture in the context of the life of the church that is able to create and nurture faith in Christ and obedience to Christ as Savior and Lord.

Summarizing John Calvin’s understanding of our knowledge of God and the doctrine of Revelation, Benjamin Warfield says this, and I’m paraphrasing: We do in fact have as human beings an innate knowledge of God, quickened and developed by a very rich manifestation of God in nature and through God’s providence, but this knowledge fails in its proper effect because of our sinful nature; As a result, an objective revelation of God, embodied in the Scriptures, was rendered necessary, and as well [here the second part that we cannot miss!], a subjective operation of the Spirit of God on the heart enabling sinful human beings to receive this revelation. So it is, in sum, by the conjoint divine action, objective in the Word and subjective by the Spirit, that a true knowledge of God is communicated to us.

In many ways Calvin speaks for all of the Reformers when he says this. But it is not just the theology we must take care to consider. Just as important to the tradition are the historical events of this period themselves. We remember those who came before us in the English Reformation who gave their lives so that the people might know this Word of God, hear it and read it for themselves. Because hundreds upon hundreds of them were martyred in the process, for standing up for the authority of Scripture over and against the authority of human beings and the institutional Church’s corrupting the teachings and abusing of power and authority of Scripture. Nicholas Ridley himself chief among these martyrs.

Of course this legacy of sacrifice for the Word of God began long before the Reformation itself as those like Wycliffe, and later on John Hus and William Tyndale, and others were willing to risk their lives to translate the Bible from Latin into the common language of the people. As it says in Article 24 of the 39 Articles:

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Early Church to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a language not understood by the people.

So as Anglicans we stand on the shoulders of these giants, these courageous and faithful men and women who gave up everything so that those of us coming after them could be shaped and informed by God’s revelation to us.

3. SCRIPTURE TODAY

Now, just as you’ve heard each week so far in the course, when it comes to the Anglican doctrine of Scripture, like the other doctrines, it is not merely an abstract theory but has practical and pastoral application. So invite you to take time at some point to look once more at those two quotes from Thomas Cranmer that are in your reading for this week. There you will see his reflection on the great comfort and encouragement of Scripture, why it’s such a treasure, and how it edifies us, providing for us not just everything necessary for salvation, but also as it says in 2 Timothy, correction and training for righteousness:

Cranmer quote 1:

…the Scripture of God is the heavenly meat of our souls, the hearing and keeping of it making us blessed, sanctifying us and making us holy, turning our souls, it is a light lantern to our feet; it is sure, steadfast, and everlasting instrument of salvation, giving wisdom to the humble and lowly hearts, comforting, making glad, cheering and cherishing our conscience: it is a more excellent jewel or treasure, than any gold or precious stone, it is more sweet than honey or honey comb, it is called the best part, which Mary did choose, for it has in it everlasting comfort.

Cranmer quote 2:

And whosever giveth his mind to Holy Scriptures, with diligent study and burning desire, it cannot be said (St. Chrysostom) that he should be left without help. For either God almighty will send him some godly doctor, to teach him . . . or else, if we lack a learned man to instruct and teach us, still God himself from above will give light unto our minds, and teach us those things which are necessary for us and wherein we are ignorant.

So we’ve talked about general revelation (natural) and special revelation (supernatural), We’ve looked at what the Bible is and how it has functioned and been understood in the tradition of the Church, and now finally I want to make just a few comments about how we receive it in our contemporary church context.

Again, as Calvin said, the authority of revelation, of our knowledge of God is both subjective and objective, or another helpful way to put this would be to say, it’s both internal and external, and based on a rational way of knowing, and an aesthetic way of knowing!

As we already saw, the modern period has given tremendous priority to an objective understanding of authority and knowledge, while what is usually referred to as the postmodern period that we’re living in to some extent now has put far more emphasis on the subjective side of authority and knowledge.

So here’s how this has pretty much played out (Lesslie Newbigin):

In Modernity, with a concern for objective knowledge and authority, there were two general trends: The liberal, and what we’ll just call the fundamentalist.

  • Liberal: reduce objective knowledge to what is measurable by science and reason. And thus relegating what is religious to the subjective realm, what Schleiermacher called the pre-conscious feeling of absolute dependence.
  • Fundamentalist: reducing the Bible to the function of scientific and rational knowledge!

Or to put it another way:

The liberal response: The question was, “How do we get the modern world to listen to the Bible?” How can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?

The fundamentalist response: How do we get modern certainty — absolute, objective knowledge — from the Bible? Both questions were mistaken from the beginning.

Newbigin suggests a third and very different question altogether that I find to be profound: The question that we have to put to the world instead is, “how can the world make any sense at all without the gospel?” Again, as Article 6 declares, on the sufficiency of Scripture unto salvation. We look nowhere else but to the person and work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Gospel or Christ-centered view of Scripture, in other words, interpreting Scripture with Scripture, but also interpreting Scripture through the lens of the person and work of Christ.

Discrepancies in Scripture: Obviously, when we read the Bible, the are some great tensions. Put the book of Joshua, for example, alongside the sermon on the Mount, and you have a problem, potentially.

  1. First of all, the ultimate clue is in Jesus himself.
  2. Secondly, we recognize in the Bible we have the story of God leading a people to a deeper understanding of his nature, so we have to read the former(the people) in the light of the latter (God’s nature). When Jesus says, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you,” there is not an absolute discontinuity, but Jesus is bringing an old commandment to its full strength and deeper understanding in his own teaching.
  3. Thirdly, that means we have to read every text in the context of the Gospel itself! The Gospel is the clue for our understanding of Scripture. This also means that we read every text in its cultural context, as well as with sensitivity to our cultural context.

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainy: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

[My argument in this paper is that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr together, with their notions of faith and justice as paradoxical, provide a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in its vision for how to strive for the good. This is what I presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this past week. For that reason, it is written more for a talk and is not in final format, so some of the references are not properly cited yet.]

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of, “Which comes first, good people or good laws?”  In other words, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? There is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded. According to Bonnie Honig in her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, “…even established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names… the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time” (EP, 14).

Furthermore, democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, because of the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, there is the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. And this requires an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms – and of routine time – only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues in contrast to Carl Schmitt, but that of the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the good, as well as their openness toward the possibility of a revelation and a conversion, or what Honig drawing on Rosenzweig calls a “miracle” (more about this notion of a miracle in a moment). Honig further explains:

Belief in a linear time sequence is invariably attended by belief that sequence is either regressive or progressive. [both of which Kierkegaard and Niebuhr reject] Linear time, its normativity, causality — are thrown off balance by the paradox of politics in which what is presupposed as coming before (virtue, the people, the law) invariably comes after (if at all), and what comes after invariably replays the paradox of politics that time was supposed to surmount (15).

One thinks as well here of the both “already” and “not-yet” presence and availability of the Kingdom of God, in the way that Jesus talks about it. And it is precisely this notion of paradox that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr each in their own way employ in their understandings of faith and politics, respectively.

First, in Kierkegaard’s view, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change – for passing on the vocation of citizenship, for the formation of virtuous people, and for the inclusion of new, formerly excluded groups. An Individual, personal leap and risk must be taken with resoluteness. But this risk and leap is always only possible as a response, not as an initiative. It’s a response to what Simon Critchley, analyzing Paul through a Kierkegaardian lens, calls an “infinite demand.”

This demand remains incomprehensible, for Kierkegaard, for whom faith is always a passionate inwardness rather than external, or primarily doctrinal security, which he criticizes both in Hegel’s philosophy and the nominal Christianity of his culture. If we politicize this, Kierkegaard serves to guard against the polarization of the citizenry into either despair or presumption – resignation or ideological entrenchment. As Critchley remarks, a faith (or faithlessness for him) “with passionate inwardness best sustains the rigor of faith because it does not require security, guarantees or rewards” (Faith of the Faithless, 252). For Critchley, believers, as well as non-believers, are no longer allowed the naivety of a pre-Kierkegaardian faith. For Kierkegaard, faith starts neither with our political effectiveness, nor even our ideas. Faith is a leap, and a realized life in response by subjects to an infinite demand — one that ultimately is a demand of love, as will be seen below.

In Kierkegaard’s day, the Danes of Christendom would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth as a security, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. For Kierkegaard, Socrates in contrast actually does put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it — and Kierkegaard admired Socrates for this — but Climacus only saw this as what he called “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would later say, Socrates lacked a messianic consciousness. For him, a Christ was not expected (Nature and Destiny).

So, as Kierkegaard has it, it is not only the nature of faith that is paradoxical, but also its object, and what that object promises. Socrates’ ethic failed to preserve this tension, and he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin. For Socrates, ignorance is the source of conflict, harm, hate, and so on, rather than sin.

So what Socrates doesn’t appreciate is this: what stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the people, then, is the paradoxical combination of human finitude and human freedom. And here I’m focusing on Niebuhr’s understanding of sin, which builds on Kierkegaard’s in part. As both finite and free, Niebuhr would say, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, and to do so to the detriment of extending new rights to new constituents –even with democracy. So the big question becomes, what does it take for people to become prepared for and postured to affect change, in spite of this anxiety?

Rosenzweig is instructive here. His view of a miracle, which I alluded to a moment ago, is not that it compels or commands attention, but that it is a subtle signal soliciting a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to be open to its possibility. This openness requires habituation to certain patterns of receptivity, and the cultivation of an orientedness to the good, to the divine (Honig, The Miracle of Metaphor).

Kierkegaard’s view is similar. Again, just as faith is paradoxical rather than reducible to the rational, so too is the remedy for sin paradoxical. It is unexpected and from outside or beyond, rather than a mere lesson to be learned. So, following Kierkegaard, for there to be any change, individuals must undergo conversions (that is, they must receive and respond to a transformative revelation — they must be open to the miraculous in Rosenzweig’s sense). But what is the nature of this conversion, for the people, at the social level? For this, one is better served by turning to Niebuhr.

Whereas for Kierkegaard the paradox of faith finds its object in the doctrine of the incarnation – that the infinite of the divine dwells in humanity – in Niebuhr’s work, while there is still a christological paradox, it is social and ethical as much as theological. Niebuhr argues in the third chapter of Nature and Destiny that:

“the significant contrast between the divine and the human in Christ is not, as Greek thought assumed, the contrast between the “impassible and the passible.” [Here we see Niebuhr’s ambivalence toward metaphysics.] It is [rather] a contrast between the perfect coincidence of power and of goodness in the divine.”

For Niebuhr, it is impossible to symbolize the divine goodness in history in any other way than by complete powerlessness or rather by a consistent refusal to use power in the rivalries of history. Niebuhr goes on:

“The final majesty, the ultimate freedom, the perfect disinterestedness of the divine love can have a counterpart in history only in a life which ends tragically, because it refuses to participate in the claims and counterclaims of historical existence. It portrays a love which seeketh not its own” (emphasis added).

What Niebuhr does through this christology is to situate finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love.

Niebuhr may have a less suspicious outlook on philosophical theology than Kierkegaard, but he is just as realistic or even as pessimistic as Kierkegaard is in his outlook on the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard in terms of human subjectivity, and Niebuhr in terms of politics, and what human beings are to strive for.

So the paradox, politically speaking, for Niebuhr, is that Christians must strive to realize proximate justice within history, even though we will still inevitably sin in the process — while at  the same time also resisting the temptation to push forward with the expectation of fully achieving a justly representative society. This is because Niebuhr understands that the meaning of life and history while revealed in history is not fully fulfilled through history. Like Kierkegaard, he sees the meaning of life and history as having a transcendent source. (This is also what I think most distinguishes Kierkegaard and Niebuhr from several important contemporary political philosophers today, such as Badiou or Agamben, for example.  While this is far too terse of a synopsis, I would venture to say that Niebuhr would consider Badiou’s “event” as dehistoricized, somewhat like Greek though, and Agamben’s “messianic time” as lacking the universal reach of the Christ event.)

So again, Niebuhr strikes a balance bound to neither an ideology of false utopias nor despair about change. (In Nature and Destiny, he characterizes these two ends with the paradigms of “Renaissance” and “Reformation,” respectively, both of which are reactionary and half-true in what they emphasize about human progress — i.e., Renaissance humanism, and Reformation depravity).

Now of course the criticisms of this position are familiar, because it can be seen as a kind of false third way between either choosing to actually struggle for real progress or just resorting to political quietism. But Niebuhr insists that Christianity has unique recourse to a penultimate social ethic because theologically it holds together the paradox and uncertainty of faith and politics, and therefore, Niebuhr might say, the possibility of faith and politics. Niebuhr states:

“The Christian belief that meaning of both life and history is disclosed and fulfilled in Christ and his Cross, is in a sense a combination of Greek and Hebrew interpretations of life. It conforms to the Greek interpretation of life because in it there is an understanding of the fact that the meaning of life transcends history; but in Greek thought history tends to be excluded from the realm of meaning, and life is fulfilled by escaping from the historical process. In Christianity the meaning of life and history is fulfilled, though not wholly, within the historical process. New Testament faith conforms to the Hebrew interpretation of life [then] because in this view life is fulfilled in history, though in Christianity the implicit difference between “life” and “history” is made explicit…” (Nature and Destiny, 1996 (36))

— namely, because, again, paradoxically, Christ fulfills history not by just living but in fact by dying, only this death is not final. After all, that is the hope that Christians have in the midst of the uncertainties of history.

Finally, Niebuhr states that:

“The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures [– this is the false certainty we crave –] as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves [God’s self] in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (71)

— because human beings doubt that the structural character of reality really is good!

So for Christians, the agape of God, which was paradoxical for Kierkegaard because it came in the form of the finite, and paradoxical for Niebuhr because it did not exploit, is the basis of God relationship with humanity and history. And therefore it is from faith in this both seemingly tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, that I understand Kierkegaard and Niebuhr to be illuminating the horizon upon which historical-political, subjects can strive for the good — because of the consequent freedom that comes from this agape, from the anxieties and rivalries of history, and the hope that that final meaning and fulfillment is not totally tied to historical outcome.

In sum, and by way of response to this very cursory look at two major figures, the political is inherently paradoxical, and so must be our engagement with it. But people ignore, suppress, or overtly deny the paradox, clinging instead to false certainties and neat political ideologies, contenting themselves instead with voicing opinions or voting. Those most adversely affected by this are not surprisingly the poor and the oppressed. Kierkegaard didn’t speak to this very much, which in part one can attribute to his context. Niebuhr, however, was sensitive to economic injustices, but he was still addressing these issues from a place of privilege and power. Because of this, I do not think he was truly sensitive to the weight of oppression that certain groups were experiencing. Moreover, there is a difference between intervention and solidarity.  Many times it seems that people have used Niebuhr’s thought to justify the former without doing the hard work of the latter. So, if we can evaluate Niebuhr’s thought with the interests of the powerless in mind, some of his blind spots may come into focus for us. No doubt two of the most glaring are the matters of race and gender. And Niebuhr’s complicity with U.S. nationalism at times may also become evident.

In this respect, Kierkegaard’s call to actually heed the infinite demand of love is a stronger injunction to imitate Christ.  Niebuhr by comparison is satisfied, it would seem, to merely use Christ as the benchmark.  My sense is that the more faithful appropriation here, even politically, is Kierkegaard’s, but the challenge becomes how to do that in light of Niebuhr’s apt prediction that such attempts to embody Christ’s ethic will eventually lead to martyrdom.

And finally, by way one more closing critical observation, it does not appear that Niebuhr really develops his political theology with a high view of the church’s role in society in mind – despite his pastoral experience in an urban and economically depressed congregation in Detroit early on in his life. And it seems to me that, especially as the United States continues to fragment – religiously, culturally, politically, etc. – a robust understanding of the role of the church in the public sphere with respect to this paradoxical politic is essential, and wanting in both Kierkegaard and Niebuhr. The question remains looming in my view, for example, as to how the organizing identity of local congregations will posture itself and its church members for political agency and activism, in comparison to the conventional ways this has been done in recent history in both conservative and liberal contexts.

Niebuhr says, for example, that heedless love has to replenish mutual love — otherwise it will degenerate into something less. In order for this to happen, however, it seems to me that Christians must primarily derive their identity from a community in which heedless love is the norm, or the at least the archetype. This cannot be the case if the primary identity of Christians comes from citizenship of the state. Without a well-developed ecclesial structure and identity that informs the Christian politic, any complicity with violence on the part of Christians for the purpose of approximating justice will risk being rationalized instead of sorely felt, mourned and repented of.

These limitations notwithstanding, there remains tremendous promise from both of these thinkers with respect to not just Christian faith and practice, but sober hope for society, individual social responsibility and collective political engagement.

What is Communion?

“The Church does not perform the Eucharist. The Eucharist performs the Church.” – William Cavanaugh

What is the Purpose of the Lord’s Supper/Communion/The Eucharist?

That we might feed on Christ, be reconciled to God and to each other, and be strengthened for the living of the Christian life.

Some key Scripture: Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 10:14-17, Matt. 26:27

o In our worship service, while preaching and the pastor plays a key part, it is not at the center of what we do. Rather, communion is, and this is what the whole service is built around. The Bible has a very similar, progressive and narrative structure, building up to and culminating in the Gospels. The Eucharist represents this same center of the redemption history and story of the people of God.

o Secondly, through communion — literally, “common union” — we understand ourselves as a people who are called into a new society, a new brotherhood and sisterhood, which is called to have a starring role in the drama of God’s communication of God’s redeeming love to the world. Our society is a society in which there is a great loneliness and in which it is difficult for people to have experiences of community and solidarity. Communion subverts and offers an alternative to this.

The Roots of Communion

Passover: was called the “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Leaven or yeast was always a symbol of corruption to the Jews, and this very special Passover bread was to have no leaven in it. It symbolized the purity of Israel, redeemed by God’s grace. Then there was wine — a symbol of life and blessing.

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

That is why the “passing of the peace” was introduced just prior to receiving Communion!

What is a Sacrament?

  • “Visible sign of an invisible reality,” or “outward sign of inward grace” — a reality that doesn’t depend on us, but that includes us nevertheless! Ordinary things, everyday things, are being transformed by God into the means of God’s self-communication. Sacraments are about God being present in and among and through the ordinary, transforming and fulfilling, not destroying it.

Table or Altar? (Transubstantiation, real/spiritual presence, or Memorial?)

  • It is significant that the doctrine of transubstantiation did arise until 800 years after Christ!
  • This is not a transaction (transubstantiation), but nor is it merely a ritual (memorial).  Here we gather, acknowledge the real presence of Christ in a powerful metaphor (consubstantiation), receive what is always available in plenitude, and are sent out.

Five Big Communion Themes:

I. The Incarnation: why Communion is a celebration of our embodied-ness/physical life (all five senses)!

  • solidarity/relatedness, suffering, non-dualism, sacred and profane joined

II. Dependence on God: how Communion is a celebration of our life-source

  • God is our food! (John 6:48, 53, 54) to participate in abundant life, first here and now, but also hereafter

III. Christ’s self-emptying example: Communion expresses how we are to live in the world as servants

  • goes back to the incarnation, but this particularly stresses modeling the way Jesus lived

IV. Journey of Thanksgiving and Response

  • with humble, repentant and grateful hearts for what God has done and is invites us into

V. Shalom! Communion celebrates being restored to right relationship w/ God through Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

  • We know that our relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and the rest of God’s Creation, is not as it ought to be
  • Shalom means not only the absence of violence and oppression but also the satisfaction of every spiritual and physical need. The time of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God is one of healing, of sight to the blind, of the lame walking, of the poor being fed.

We are called (gathered) and empowered (sent) to witness to the Kingdom of God (God’s will done “on earth as it is in heaven”). The Eucharist is the hinge upon which this going and sending turns. So the life of the church, especially its worship and Eucharist, is a foretaste of the Kingdom that is to come.

Leander S. Harding, In the Breaking of the Bread:

“The existence of humanity in the Garden was a priestly existence, an existence of grateful offering to God. We fell from that vocation. We forgot who we were and what we were made for. We began to crave the world as a thing in itself. The Creation became an idol instead of a means of feasting on God’s love. Jesus has come to restore us to our original vocation. In and through him we now bring the world again to God, and the Creation, beginning with the bread and wine, again becomes the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. ” (p. 48).

“God wants all of life to be Eucharist for us. God wants all relationships, all human transactions, all our work, all our interaction with the rest of Creation to be Eucharist, a partaking of the life of God that causes thanksgiving to well up in us and draw our hearts to God and t a new unity with each other.” (p. 34)

“In this peace, the natural divisions of race, class, age, and social status that keep people apart are overcome. Even the categories of righteousness and unrighteousness, of decent and indecent people, are overcome.” (p. 43)

Conference at UNAM in Mexico City: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of NAFTA

Borrowing significantly from my dissertation and drawing on the work of Enrique Dussel and Mark Lewis Taylor, the title of my talk is “Globalization, NAFTA and the U.S.-Mexico Drug War: Twenty Years of Free Trade as Decolonial Struggle.”  I am especially looking forward to hearing from Dussel himself, as he will be giving the keynote address.  I will share details from my presentation afterwards.

NAFTA Colloquium Póster ColoquioTLCAN

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainty: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

Below is a description of the paper I will be presenting for the Kierkegaard and Niebuhr groups’ joint-session at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this November:

In her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, Bonnie Honig has contended contra Carl Schmitt, that both sovereignty and the state of exception need to be de-exceptionalized and dispersed back into the hands of “the demos.” For her, exception and emergency are part of even the most ordinary and everyday political processes, and human agency is always involved in interpreting, augmenting or even suspending the law in its administration. In this paper I propose to discuss and show how the thought of Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr can aid us along toward the aim of reconceiving the power of democracy and social progress in human history for a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in striving for the good.

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of which comes first, good people or good laws? That is to say, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? Moreover, there is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded.

But democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, by recognizing the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, we can celebrate the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. In order to do this, however, there must first be an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms, only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues, but in the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the possibility of a “miracle.”

For Kierkegaard, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change or progress. The Danes of Christendom much like citizens in our time would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. Socrates put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it, but Climacus only saw this as “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would say, for Socrates, a Christ was not expected. But as Kierkegaard has it, the place from which our faith comes is precisely infinite and paradoxical, both in its nature and in what it promises.

The point is that a miracle can only occur if the people are prepared for it.  In other words, it is not solely depend on the infinite but also on finite receptivity. Miracle here does not refer to the norm-exception binary that commands and compels attention, but instead is thought to be one that with subtlety solicits a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to first be open to its possibility. This openness requires preparedness and the cultivation of a certain orientation toward divinity, as well a periodic collective gathering. Democracy is much the same way. When democratic forms of life are interrupted by emergency, well prepared subjects may experience the chance to respond democratically, that is, in faith, to gather and to mobilize for the protection and expansion of the values of the collective.

Socrates’ ethic not only lacked room for a miracle (revelation), but he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin and guilt. What stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the demos is the paradoxical combination of human freedom and limitation, analyzed so well by Kierkegaard and later appropriated by Niebuhr into the realm of social ethics. As both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, to the detriment of assuming agency for extending new rights to new constituents.

What Niebuhr does is creatively reimagine the place of finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love. In this respect, he is thoroughly Kierkegaardian, but in a socio-historical fashion. Niebuhr has a more optimistic outlook on so-called natural theology than Kierkegaard, but is equally realistic about the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard individually, and Niebuhr politically. The paradox politically speaking for Niebuhr, however, is between striving to realize proximate justice within history on the one hand, by resisting the temptation to unreservedly push forward and expect human fulfillment of a justly representative society without remainder on the other hand.

Niebuhr says it like this in Nature and Destiny: “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (p. 71). The agape of God, which is the paradox of God and of politics, is thus at once the expression of both the final majesty of God, as Niebuhr calls it, and of God’s relationship to history. So it is from faith in the tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, I will argue, that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr illuminate the horizon upon which historical-political subjects can strive for the good.