Thursday, February 11, 2016

What Am I Reading? Schel on Schleiermacher's Thought: The Supernatural-Become-Natural

I don't win many things. I'm not good at playing the lottery (especially since I never play it), and I've never won a round of Monopoly. But the Center for Barth Studies made me a winner, at least once: I entered the winning photo caption for a KBC contest on Facebook and, for this willingness to embarrass myself, was rewarded with this superb monograph by Kevin M. Vander Schel. (Neither the shout out nor the review were obligatory, but I always like to give a hat tip to anyone who sends me a free book.) I was rewarded even more when I finally made some time recently to read it.

Embedded Grace: Christ, History, and the Reign of God in Schleiermacher's Dogmatics by Kevin M. Vander Schel (Fortress, 2013).

It is an academic monograph, of course, based on Schel's doctoral dissertation at Boston College; nonetheless, this erudite -- yet not overly long -- study is eminently readable, even for the non-Schleiermacher expert (of course, some background in modern theology is helpful).Embedded Grace has numerous strengths.
It is, first of all, a first-rate piece of scholarship in historical theology that illuminates fascinating developments in post-Enlightenment German Protestant thought. In that vein, Schel gives a concise and lucid synopsis of a crucial debate in European Protestant theology of the early 19th century -- the debate between the enlightened rationalists who located religious experience in a universally accessible and utterly natural principle of reason, on the one hand, and the supernaturalists who reasserted a unique and unsurpassable revelation codified in the inspired biblical texts, on the other hand. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), profoundly shaped both by his Moravian pietist upbringing and his readings in critical modern research after Kant, emerges as a kind of mediating figure between these extreme positions -- or perhaps better, as an advocate for an innovative third way that honors the concerns of both rationalist and supernaturalist while seeking to transcend the limitations of each school.

Moreover, Schel focuses on the Berlin prodigy's mature work, which he takes to have an integrity in its own right, however it might reflect Schleiermacher's earlier work in the philosophy of religion and Platonic philosophy. He offers a close reading of the main argument of Schleiermacher's dogmatic magnum opus, The Christian Faith (1821), and he shows how these doctrinal concerns ramify in his largely neglected lectures on Christian ethics (which must be distinguished from earlier work in philosophical ethics). Schleiermacher's abiding concern in his later work, as Schel interprets it, was to restate the essence and uniqueness of Christianity in a way that did not contradict the burgeoning natural and human sciences. His solution was to change the terms of the debate, by seeking to recast the "supernatural" in terms of the advent of the unique Savior Jesus within the flux of sinful human history. The sinless piety of Jesus (interpreted as perfected God-consciousness, an utter openness to the divine Spirit sufusing all the activities and passivities of life), cannot be accounted for on strictly natural terms within the process of human development. Jesus' perfection is, thus, "relatively supernatural" -- the one miracle allowed in Schleiemacher's account, albeit the one fact upon which the one decree of God in creation and consummation is seen to subsist.

Schel takes seriously Schleiermacher's often ignored insistence that his dogmatics follows a logic of its own -- a logic that stems from concrete, social Christian experience -- that cannot be simply derived from the general anthropological considerations sketched in the prolegommena.
As Scheiermacher confided to his friend Dr. Lücke, he debated revising the topical order of The Christian Faith, to emphasize that the system as a whole is grounded upon and flows from the collective Christian experience of redemption in Jesus Christ: Schleiermacher insists that the introduction, which sketches a phenomenology of religion as absolute dependence (harkening back to the Speeches on Religion of 1799) and the first part of the dogmatics, which traces the relationship between Creator and creature, are propadeutic moves that find their true meaning in the concrete and collective experience of redemption as conquest of sin within Christian communities. In other words, the (arguably) high Christology of Jesus as the one who incarnates utter openness to the divine presence is the confessional dog that wags the apologetic tail, and not vice versa.

Critics from the right and left, from Schleiermacher's day until now, have criticized (or perhaps praised, as in Barth's case) Schleiermacher's Christocentric focus on a unique Savior as an incongruity that threatens to unravel his system. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), for instance, complained that asserting the Savior's supernatural uniqueness, even in an attenuated form, thwarted the theologian's claim to fully embrace critical historical research. Schel writes:

This observation [by Strauss] touches on the tension at the heart of the present study. Within Schleiermacher's dogmatic theology, the historical appearance of Christ that inaugurates the Reign of God signals the one true miracle of the created world and indeed the miracle of miracles. Yet this affirmation does not -- as Strauss judges -- indicate a point of oversight or inconsistency in Schleiermacher's theology, as if revealing and accidental invasion of transcendence into an otherwise immanent historical system. Instead, Schleiermacher's description of Christ's appearance and surpassing influence in history signals the fundamental relationship underlying his dogmatic vision throughout: the divine redemptive activity of Christ tranforming the natural and historical world from within, bringing creation to is completed fulfillment and perfection (pp. 223-224).

On the contrary, Schel argues: The explication of the figure of Jesus, the new Adam who initiates a new mode of Christian living within the bonds of finite existence, is the linchpin that unites and permeates the system as a whole. By forming a community of discipleship centered on his unique and irreplaceable piety, Jesus initiates a movement that aims to transform humanity from the ground up, building the reign of God on earth. Whether one ultimately accepts, rejects or critically modifies Schleiermacher's revisionist account of Christian faith, Schel at least has made a strong case for the internal coherence and perspecuity -- even beauty, I'd go so far to say -- of the great Berlin theologian's systematic theology.


Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Luther on the Thievery of “Secular Leaders”

I’m taking a little bit of a risk in posting this long quote from Luther. It is a compelling quote with important political implications in our contemporary context. But, as you will see, it is possible to interpret this as being anti-government. I am *not* anti-government. And neither was Luther.

Luther talks not only about “secular leaders” but also “secular princes” – i.e., what passed for government at the time. However, I’m inclined to agree with Marx on this one: the heirs of the feudal ruling class are not so much politicians as they are those who directly control capital. In other words, the equivalent of a baron these days is a corporate CEO, not your district’s congressional representative. Now, of course, your district’s congressman may well do the bidding of said corporate CEO. There’s far too much private money in politics – dark and light money, so to speak – to entertain the delusion that this is not the case. And your district’s congressman may in fact also be something like a corporate CEO. They tend to be very wealthy today. But, my point is that this passage should not be read as anti-government, but as anti-“rich-ruling-class.” It is anti-government insofar as particular forms of government are allied with said class.

With that introduction out of the way, I have only this to say about the quote. Wow. Luther dances around so many key issues – such as private vs. common good, the public commons and the evil of privatizing it, the rule of law that is no respecter of persons, the idea that it is possible for there to be unjust or immoral or evil laws, what is owed to those at the lower levels of society, right to health-care access, etc. – that are pressing today in so many ways that it deserves re-reading and careful explication. Unfortunately, I cannot provide that here. It would take a whole series of magazine articles (or blog posts…) to tease out all these connections and implications. So instead, I will leave you (for the time being?) to ponder Martin’s words.

Be sure to be alive to his use of satire. And, coincidentally, this is part of his commentary on Romans 2.1.

Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia, Luther’s Works volume 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1972), 172–73. Bold is mine.
On the basis of what authority do secular princes and secular leaders act when they keep for themselves all the animals and the fowl so that no one besides them may hunt them? By what right? If anyone of the common people would do that, he would justly be called thief, robber, or swindler, because he would take away from common use what does not belong to him. But because the ones who do these things are powerful, therefore they cannot be thieves. Or is it really true that . . . we can say that princes and the powerful lords are of course not thieves and robbers but that they nevertheless do the things that thieves and robbers do? The vice . . . is so deeply ingrained in them that they cannot rule without also oppressing people and hunting vigorously, that is, violently, which means seizing for themselves things that do not belong to them. Blessed Augustine in his book, On the City of God says: “What are the great empires but great dens of thieves?” And he adds the following story: “When Alexander the Great asked a pirate who had become his prisoner of war what business he had to make the sea unsafe, the pirate in boldest defiance answered, ‘What business do you have to make the whole world unsafe? To be sure, I do this with a small boat, and I am called a robber; but you do it with a huge fleet and are called an emperor for it.’” . . . They are hanging the thieves and executing the robbers, and thus the big thieves act as judges of the little thieves.

Along the same lines they exact taxes from the people without urgent reason and exploit them by changing and devaluating the money, but they fine their subjects for greed and avarice. What is this but stealing and robbing those things which do not belong to us? Indeed, who will finally absolve of theft people who collect regular tribute and rightful compensation and yet do not fulfill their duties owed to the people by giving them protection, health, and justice? For their eyes are only on tyranny, on collecting riches, and on boasting with empty show of the possessions which they have acquired and kept.


Saturday, February 06, 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

This is just embarrassing. I need to take that line about a “fortnight” off of my template for this post because it has been a long, long time since I lived up to it. In fact, it has been over a month since the last DET link post! My apologies, gentle readers, for leaving you for so long without both a handy collection of interesting reads with which to while away your weekends (or, let’s be honest, work-weeks), and a convenient index of what we’ve been posting about around here. Fear not! The links you seek draweth nigh.

Here’s what you might have missed around here at DET:

And here are some things that you may have missed across the wider theo-interwebs:


Thursday, February 04, 2016

That Time When Hunsinger Commended Dutch Neocalvinism

Twenty-one years ago, theologian George Hunsinger wrote an essay titled "What Can Evangelicals and Postliberals Learn from Each Other? The Carl Henry/Hans Frei Exchange Reconsidered."
Leiden's east gate, by Erick Zachte (wikipedia)
Back in the mid '80s, Carl F.H. Henry, the Christianity Today editor and major architect of the post-war neoevangelical movement gave a series of lectures at Yale Divinity School that offered a respectful but highly critical assessment of the burgeoning postliberal theology movement. Hans Frei responded, defending a his narrative-theological biblical hermeneutics and theology.

Hunsinger's essay was printed in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, edited by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (IVP, 1996) -- an important book, though it has been quite a while since I read it. It was later reprinted in Hunsinger's own book
Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Eerdmanns, 2002) What? Didn't you go out and buy this book when McMaken recommended you do so? If that's the case, go out and remedy the situation now. It's a feast.

The essay, which closes a volume of essays on Barth, actually doesn't discuss Barth at all: It offers, rather, a "thought experiment" meant to advance an ecumenical dialogue among partners who all take the Bible seriously but, otherwise, seem to have a hard time getting along. Hunsinger begins with a lengthy quote from the Roman Catholic thinker Hans Küng and goes on to engage not only Henry and Frei, but also the Dutchmen Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck and the Englishmen John Stott and Alistar McGrath. Hunsinger gives a shout out to conservative evangelicals as stalwart defenders of a soteriology of substitutionary atonement -- an affirmation I heartily endorse. But what intrigues me especially is Hunsinger's engagement with Kuyper and Bavinck, two of the most important architects of Dutch neocalvinism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who are brought into the conversation as potential catalysts for unraveling the impasse between evangelicals and postliberals on questions of revelation, truth and biblical authority.

I won't unpack here all the nuances in Hunsinger's intensive close reading of the Henry-Frei debate. But just to hit some of the high spots: Henry, a student of Gordon Clark, rigorously affirmed biblical inerrancy and situated the the veracity of the biblical text in the propositional statements found in the text itself or derived from its narrative and symbolic passages. Henry lauds Frei for taking the unity of the biblical canon seriously but chides the Yale thinker for (as he sees it) a certain worrying fuzziness about the nature of biblical truth -- in particular, about the veracity of historical accounts in the Bible. Frei is not deterred by this critique and counters that Henry and other conservative propositionalists have insinuated a major category mistake into biblical hermeneutics: Biblical truth is much broader, richer and mysterious than a narrowly cognitivist approach would have it. Henry and others, Frei claims, have succumbed to a modernist project of vindicating religious truth on rationalist epistemological foundations. For Frei, human creaturely knowledge is much more tenuous and ambiguous, but in God's grace the scriptures are sufficient to render God's true character, whether all the events recounted in the narratives actually happened or not. (He does believe a minimal belief in the existence of Jesus, his proclamation of the kingdom, his death and resurrection remains essential, but faith cannot rest on the effort to prove such matters through modern historical critical investigation). The gospel narratives, in particular, are meant to faithfully render an impressionistic portrait of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh. Faith accepts this as foundation enough.

Thus, Hunsinger locates the main difference between Henry and Frei in the realm of predication -- particularly, how statements in scripture are seen to refer to God. For the "experiential expressivist" (to use George Lindbeck's categories) scriptural and theological language is equivocal: That is to say, there is no intrinsic relationship between the textual statement and the referent, but the veracity of Christian truth relies in subjective religious experience or in its transcendental horizons.
Henry, by contrast, construes the predicative effect of biblical and god talk as being univocal: That is, there is a direct correspondence between the statement and the reality to which it refers (so the argument goes). One reason Frei can live with the ambiguities and apparent incongruities of a narrative hermeneutics, Hunsinger argues, is because the Yale theologian upholds an analogical view of Christian truth. Such an approach highlights the tenuous, creaturely and fragile character of human language to refer to an infinite and all Holy God; nonetheless, in God's gracious accommodation to human frailty, the scriptural texts are enabled to render real knowledge of God's character, if only through the clay jars of analogy.

None of these moves is too surprising, perhaps, but what is striking is the next move in Hunsinger's argument: He turns attention from the dispute between conservative evangelicals and postliberals over the Bible to a key divide within conservative Protestantism itself in these matters. Frei and his followers (including of course, many Barthians as well) would reject the cognitivist and propositionalist view of truth as univocal. But what if there is a way, via a venerable tradition within Protestant orthodoxy itself, to affirm the high view of scriptural authority typically seen as central to evangelical identity without submitting to univocal propositionalism?

Hunsinger suggests a richer and more organic analogical mode of interpretation and theologizing is a key feature of the work of Kuyper and Bavinck, modern representatives and interpreters of the orthodox Protestant heritage.
Abraham Kuyper
According to Hunsinger, what gives the postliberals and the Dutch Calvinists common cause -- over against a thinker like Henry -- is that it affirms the unity and integrity of scripture without attempted to demonstrate it on a modernist, rationalist, foundationalist basis. Rather, an a priori faith in God's revelation in Christ is the condition for the possibility of for affirming scripture's unity and (for Herman and Bavinck, if not for postliberals) its inerrancy. Such a broader analogical hermeneutic, for example, makes space for typological readings of scripture.

The potential payoff of this investigation, Hunsinger suggests, would be a point of contact for fruitful discussion between conservative evangelicals and postliberals (or, one might add, Barthians more generally). These two major options within contemporary Protestant theology could then be seen as possibly vantage points along one line of tradition stretching back to Calvin.

Hunsinger admits he is not deeply versed in the work of these two Dutch thinkers (nor am I); in interpreting them, he relies on Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) scholar Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. His main goal is to suggest possibly lines of fruitful dialogue that might facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between evangelicals and postliberals. I wonder how relevant this thought experiment might be today, as the movement (if that's what it is) spawned by the work of Yale thinkers Frei, Lindbeck, Brevard Childs and others has spun off in so many directions.

For my part, the heritage of Reformed orthodoxy as a whole is very much the other to my background, inclinations and training. Though I grew up within conservative evangelicalism, our brand was more within the pietist and Arminian heritage. Calvinist doctrine became a dominant tradition within Southern Baptist life only gradually, and mostly after I was basically already grown up. My modern theology exam reading list in grad school focused mostly on the post-Cartesian and post- Enlightenment trajectories of modern theology; we didn't really read the Protestant scholastics, so I find myself always playing catch-up in this arena. And as most of you know, gentle readers, Barth wasn't exactly kissing cousins with the 20th century Dutch Calvinists (the sympathetic and penetrating reading of Barth by C.K. Berkhouwer being a major exception), and even uttering the name "van Til" in Barthian circles elicits a similar reaction to blurting out Voldemort at Hogwarts. But could it be that Protestant orthodoxy, especially this strand of it, has important insights to yield to the patient Barth-leaning theologian? Perhaps we shall see.


By the way, if you're interested, Barth and Bavinck did have a convo -- if only a hypothetical one -- on this very website, in these posts  by Andrew Esqueda and Joel Esala.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3.18–4.2

Malachi 3.18–4.2

[18] Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. [4.1] See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, say the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. [2] But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.


COMMENTARY: Calvin begins this portion of his commentary by reprising the discussion with which he concluded the previous portion, and which I highlighted in the last installment of this series, concerning the question of merit. He summarizes succinctly: “We saw in the last lecture that no works of the faithful please God, except through a gratuitous acceptance: it hence follows, that nothing can be ascribed to merits without derogating from the grace of Christ.” But what comes out here more so than in his previous discussion, is that Calvin regards this as a hermeneutical point, i.e., it explains how different sorts of biblical statements can fit together. So Calvin (again): “We now see how these two things harmonize—that reward is promised to works, and that works themselves deserve nothing before God; for though God can justly reject them, he yet regards them as acceptable, because he forgives all their defects” (610).

The last installment of this series also highlighted Calvin’s discussion of hope, and the idea that faith involves patience during the gap or delay between God’s promise and its fulfilment. In this way faith also means persisting in trust of God when experience or outward appearances suggest that this is fruitless. But for those who persist in this hopeful faith (or, faithful hope?), Calvin points out that verse 18 includes the promise that “experience will then at length teach you” what you have heretofore believed in spite of experience to the contrary (611).

Continuing with verse 18, Calvin notes the parallel between those who are righteous / just and those who serve God, and those who are wicked and do not serve God. He then makes the penetrating application: “there is no justice where there is no obedience rendered to God” (613). This is a typical Calvin point, but there are other places in his work where I have encountered this sentiment (though I can’t think of where off the top of my head right now) where he has more clearly taken the next step and reversed it to say something like there is no obedience rendered to God where there is no justice. But Calvin does not take such a step this time, instead doubling down: “We must then always come to this,—that men must obey God, if they desire to form their life aright.” Talk about a missed opportunity.

This is something of a random comment, but Calvin takes up the issue in connection with verse 1 of God’s timing for the execution of judgment, and it made me think of the college admission process. Some institutions do what is called “rolling admission” where applications are processed and acted on continuously; other institutions (and this was more common in past decades) had particular admissions periods and deadlines. Calvin makes the point that God works more like the latter than the former: “God does not execute his judgments in an even or a continued course, but that he has a fixed time, now for forbearance, then for vengeance, as it seems good to him” (616).

Finally, I want to highlight some larger bits of Calvin’s interpretation of verse 2 specifically relating to his identification of Jesus Christ as “the sun of righteousness” and as “the sun of righteousness” (repetition is mine, as is emphasis on “sun”):
The meaning . . . of the word sun, when metaphorically applied to Christ, is this,—that he is called a sun, because without him we cannot but wander and go astray, but that by his guidance we shall keep in the right way. . . . Christ then daily illuminates us by his doctrine and his Spirit; and though we see him not with our eyes, yet we find by experience that he is a sun. (618)

He is called the sun of righteousness, either because of his perfect rectitude, in whom there is nothing defective, or because the righteousness of God is conspicuous in him: and yet, that we may know the light, derived from him, which proceeds from him to us and irradiates us, we are not to regard the transient concerns of this life, but what belongs to the spiritual life. The first thing is, that Christ performs towards us the office of a sun, not to guide our feet and hands as to what is earthly, but that he brings light to us, to show the way to heaven, and that by its means we may come to the enjoyment of a blessed and eternal life. We must secondly observe, that this spiritual light cannot be separated from righteousness; for how does Christ become our sun? It is by regenerating us by his Spirit into righteousness, by delivering us from the pollutions of the world, by renewing us after the image of God. (618–19)


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast appointed thine only-begotten Son to be like a sun to us, we may not be blind, so as not to see his brightness; and that since he is pleased to guide us daily into the way of salvation, may we follow him and never be detained by any of the impediments of this world, so as not to pursue after that celestial life to which thou invitests us; and that as thou hast promised that he is to come and gather us into the eternal inheritance, may we not in the meantime grow wanton, but on the contrary watch with diligence and be ever attentively looking for him; and may we not reject the favour which thou has been pleased to offer us in him, and thus grow torpid in our dregs, but on the contrary be stimulated to fear thy name and truly to worship thee, until we shall at length obtain the fruit of our faith and piety, when he shall appear again for our final redemption, even that sun which has already appeared to us, in order that we might not remain involved in darkness, but hold on our way in the midst of darkness, even the way which leads us to heave.—Amen.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations ~ The Praxis Question

The authors of this volume engage contemporary postcolonial theory primarily to articulate a critique of Western Christianity, as it has been practiced for centuries, and to suggest lines for reconstructing evangelical identity and constructive theology in a more inclusive and liberating key. Still, postcolonial theory is not taken for granted without critical pushback. In one particularly intriguing piece, "The Problem and Promise of Praxis in Postcolonial Criticism" (which earns high marks not only for its content but also for the alliteration in the title), Gilberto Lozano and Federico A. Roth interrogate academic postcolonial thought, especially in its impact upon biblical criticism: Is this mode of theoretical inquiry practical for human flourishing? Does it liberate? The authors sharpen such questions by bringing postcolonial theory into dialogue with Paulo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis, Edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha and L. Daniel Hawk (IVP Academic, 2014)

Lozano and Roth offer a friendly critique of postcolonial thought with the intent of retrieving it for theology. I'm not qualified to evaluate postcolonialism as a body of thought nor to propose possible rejoinders to this essay from the critical theory guild, so I will stick to summarizing the main arguments.
Postcolonial theory is, first and foremost, just that: theory. It subsists within an interdisciplinary academic context, with all the socio-economic and cultural ambiguities and compromises that beset that milieu. The foundational text for the discipline is the classic Orientalism, by the Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, who lays out a damning genealogy of how nonwestern peoples have been stereotyped and silenced in Western literature and literary criticism. This analysis evokes a justified suspicion of any totalizing discourse that obscures the cultural diversity and agency of among the members of colonized groups. (This concern with false totalities brings postcolonial theory into line with a general worry of postmodernist theory. On this point, see Brian McClaren's introductory remarks to this volume, pp. 13-15.) Postcolonial criticism along Said's model is a species of ideology critique, unmasking oppressive power dynamics between the colonizers and the colonized.

This critical project, which originates with secular theorists, is taken up within contemporary biblical and theological studies as well. Lozano and Roth write:

More an approach than a method, postcolonial biblical criticism seeks to accomplish a pair of indispensable goals. As a style of inquiry it attempts to catalog the presence of imperialistic impulses in the biblical text as well as in the academic and ecclesial appropriation of the biblical text (p. 185).

(Not surprisingly, the prospect of applying such a hermeneutic of suspicion to the biblical texts themselves is controversial in conservative evangelical circles. This issue comes to the fore, for example, when Gene L. Green recounts some of the bewilderment he elicited from both students and colleagues while teaching a course on "World Christian Perspectives" at Wheaton College, Illinois. See pp. 19-21. Like the authors of the "Praxis" essay, Green discerns the natural affinity between postcolonial conversations and theologies of liberation.)

Still, despite the critical perspectives informing postcolonial biblical interpretation, the Lozano and Roth fault the discipline for failing to engage concrete, transformative political practice. They attribute this lacuna to several factors -- for example the open-ended and pluralistic (non-totalizing) character of the discipline, its use of abstract jargon (terms such as "subalternity" and "hybridity" feature prominently throughout the essays in this volume) and an academic tendency toward hyper-specialization. The authors quote theorist Gayatri Spivak, who levels the charge that postcolonial discourse alienates its practitioners from the very populations for whom they presume to speak. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, postcolonialism exhibits a certain "tendency to romanticize oppression" (p. 186). The authors write:

A roll call of its scholarly voices would reveal many who number among the self-exiled, wealthy and socially advantaged. Some use the postcolonial marker to incite Western guilt and sentimentalize subalterneity [meaning low or marginalized social status] (pp. 187-188).

Such tendencies, the authors argue, tend to reify victimhood and minimize the agency and power of those who suffer the effects of colonial oppression. Are these charges completely fair and to the point? Again, I'm not sure, but they seem plausible enough to me, on the face of it. Perhaps the constructive part of essay is the main point, anyway.

To remedy these problems, the authors seek a corrective in Friere's pedagogy of liberation. A unified proposal, along these lines, would integrate critical reflection -- which postcolonial analysis is well heeled to supplement -- with concrete action to alleviate actual human misery. This would be a liberating, non-patronizing praxis from below, in which members of oppressed group learn to articulate their own aspirations for freedom and justice, thereby empowering themselves to work toward a new society. This entails consciousness raising among the oppressed themselves, the expression of solidarity by the erstwhile oppressors with the erstwhile poor and oppressed and radical reconfiguration of socio-political relations from bottom to top.

Essentially, the postcolonial angle is, quite appropriately, ingrafted into liberation theology. In Friere's ethical vision, the goal of pedagogy is not simply regime change wherein the last are now first, but rather a transformation that dissolves oppression as such. Rather than seek retribution, the oppressed seek the reclamation and liberation of the oppressors as well -- within a more just and egalitarian society. The proposal that Lozano and Roth suggest is both evangelistic (that is, about spreading good news) and humanistic:

Affirming the diversity of human experience and human knowledge, we have proposed that truth is found in the joint and collaborative efforts of people across multiple boundaries of wealth, geography, class, gender and so forth. Believing that postcolonial biblical interpretation should itself overcome the logic of colonialism, we suggest that interpretation should be done collectively by allies in solidarity with the oppressed and with them as full partners (p. 196).

My main criticism of this essay, which is overall cogent and compelling, is a bit ironic: With all the emphasis on making it real, the authors do not provide concrete examples, either of academic theorists being obtuse or of liberated critics being enlightened. I suspect that, along with other pieces in this collection, strict space limitations may be partly to blame. Positively, though, Lozano and Roth have laid some promising groundwork for further exploration.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Amos, Micah, and Isaiah – A word much needed again today

My undergraduate degree is in both Bible and Theology, which suits me just fine as a Reformed theologian. Consequently, I like to dip my toes into biblical studies from time to time and—again, as a Reformed theologian—I find myself fascinated by the Tanakh / Hebrew Scriptures / Old(er) Testament. (Regular DET readers will recognize some of these impulses coming to expression in my work with Calvin’s commentary on Malachi.) Lately I’ve been reading about the history of Israelite religion, and I have been not only learning a lot but also finding a great deal of theological stimulation.

The passage that I want to share with you below, gentle reader, has to do with the criticisms leveled by the prophets Amos, Micah, and Isaiah against the cultic institutions of Yahweh worship. This passage jumped out at me because it resonates so clearly with the shape of “Christianity” in contemporary North American society. And it is a word that cuts through North American “Christianity” in all its facets: none of our churches—whether mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, or anything else in between—are wholly untouched. (I don’t consider myself competent to comment on the situation among North American Jews and Muslims, who also claim interpretive rights to these prophetic texts.) As usual, bold is mine and italics are original (I have dropped citations to biblical texts – if you want to see them, get your hands on the book).

Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, Volume 1, From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy (WJK, 1994), 171–72.

Amos, Micah and Isaiah fundamentally reject the cultic practice of their time because it covers up the social injustice and misery in society. Worship in which the upper class put their plundered riches on show and seek to gain religion security, worship which is no longer matched by justice and solidarity in everyday life, is for Amos sheer pesa, rebellion against God. Amos and Isaiah are not afraid to hurl these provocative accusations in the faces of those who take part in worship: they slip into the role of the priest who had to confirm that the performance of the sacrifice was well-pleasing to God, only to proclaim publically in worship that Yahweh refuses to accept this whole cultic practice. Instead of sacrifices and songs they call for justice and righteousness in the name of Yahweh and solidarity with the poor. . . .

Amos and Micah go so far in their criticism as to announce the destruction of the main centres of what for them is a godless cultIn particular the cult of Jerusalem gave the upper classes a certainty of salvation which made them totally insensitive to the injustice that was emanating from them. When Micah claimed, to the contrary, that the city of God would be devastated along with its temple…he was fundamentally putting in question the way in which the official temple theology had commandeered Yahweh for the cult. In the view of the prophets, Yahweh’s bond with justice, his partisan support for those without rights, went so far that he could dissociate himself from his own cult.

I hope the parallel that I’m getting at is clear, but I’ll elaborate a little. Too often, “Christianity” in North America—i.e., those who claim to worship this same God, Yahweh, as vectored by way of Jesus Christ—serves as just this sort of justification for those who have wealth, isolating them from God’s demand for solidarity with the poor. Solidarity, not charity. Solidarity is only possible through breaking down the social structures that get in the way of true mutuality, and it is just these structures that those with wealth are impervious to and that the religion criticized by these prophets supported. Notice how he speaks of “injustice emanating from them,” i.e., from the upper classes. You don’t get this kind of social stratification, where one class is struggling to eke out a living and another class wallows in luxury, from morally neutral social structures. If you have this sort of stratification, then you don’t have morally neutral social structures, much less morally good ones. Those on the receiving end of benefits accruing from unjust social structures are culpable for the injustice perpetuated by those structures. And peddling easy assurances of salvation that don’t question these fundamental social justice issues is not something that God will tolerate, according to Amos, Micah, and Isaiah. Instead, God will “dissociate himself from his own cult” and—unspoken in the paragraphs quoted above but nonetheless true—will become this cult’s enemy.