Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Theology is Women's Work

The close intellectual partnership between Reinhold Niebuhr and his wife has been a subject of interest in recent years (For more on this, see this article by Rebekah Miles). By any measure, Ursula Keppel-Compton Niebuhr, who founded and headed the religion department at Barnard College, a stone's throw away from where Reinhold taught at Union Theological Seminary, was a remarkable scholar, teacher and leader in her own right.

As I've recently begun to read or re-read as much Reinhold Niebuhr stuff as I can get my hands upon, I ran across this remarkable "confession" in the intro to one of his later books. Note especially the part I put in bold typeface.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Man's Nature and His Communities (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965), pp. 28-29.

Writing these lines in my old age and being conscious of the spiritual and intellectual debt I owe my wife, not to speak of more precious debts incurred in decades of a happy marriage, I must close this autobiographical introduction with a confession. I do not know how much Ursula is responsible for modifying my various forms of provincialism and homiletical polemics. But I know she is responsible for much of my present viewpoint and that it would be difficult for either of us to mark any opinion expressed in these pages as the unique outlook of one or the other. This volume is the fruit of a lifetime of study in the field of social ethics and political philosophy, dealing with problems we have discussed together and in which we have had parallel interests. I know my wife is the more diligent student of biblical literature and of the relation of psychology to literature and social dynamics. I cannot, therefore, promise that this summary of my lifework is strictly my own. I will not elaborate an already too intimate, autobiographical detail of a happy marriage except to say that this volume is published under my name, and the joint authorship is not acknowledged except in this confession. I will leave the reader to judge whether male arrogance or complete mutuality is the cause of this solution.

So which is it, gentle readers, "complete mutuality" or "male arrogance"? At any rate, as with other texts I have published by Scribners, it's his name and mugshot on the front cover, not hers.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

It has been over a month, actually, since the last link post. There’s been lots happening these past weeks, some of which is reflected in the selection of links below. I should note, however, that I save lists of links and am usually running a bit behind the calendar by the time they get up here. So some of the most current events may be under-represented. I will try, however, to dig up some more recent “breaking news” sort of links.

As something of a random note, some of you may be interested in a bit of blogosphere press garnered recently by my book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth.

In any case, here’s what’s been happening at DET:

And here are the rest of the links:


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Toward a Metaphysics of Solidarity: Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (6)

The notion of solidarity is pivotal for Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. He strives diligently to articulate a "solidaristic" reinterpretation of the classic loci of Christian theology as a corrective (or replacement? It's debatable, I think) of a mainstream theological tradition he deemed too solipsistic and otherworldly for a modern age -- too focused, that is, on the salvation of individual human souls in some putative afterlife to the detriment of a concrete soci-political praxis of transformation in the here-and-now.

Nowadays when we hear about solidarity, we probably tend to think about specific struggles for economic, social and political justice, and such commitments certainly are a defining feature of his project to renew and transform theology and ethics. Certainly, for example, in his classic manifesto Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Rauschenbusch draws upon early socialist critiques of industrial capitalism, arguing that socialism goes hand in hand with the emerging labor movement (406-407); he also cites with approval the claim by Karl Kautsky, the Marxist thinker and architect of German social democracy, that early Christianity before the time of Constantine was a laboratory for a form of communism that was pretty much the best form of social welfare on offer (133). Still, as Gary Dorrien has pointed out, Rauschenbusch is no thoroughgoing Marxist but remains a faithful heir to the liberal heritage in politics and religion who insists that real justice ensues only through egalitarian, democratic and non-violent means. (See my second post in this series.)

Rauschenbusch's 1907 text deals explicitly with the socio-economic upheaval and carnage wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and he seeks to retool historic, prophetic Christianity to meet the practical demands of this crisis. His late work, A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), attempts to trace the implications of the emergent social Christianity for the reconstruction of Christian theology.

Rauschenbusch's Theology begins with an homage to the old-school theology of his friend and Rochester Seminary colleague Augustus Strong. The Social Gospel thinker even claims to have garnered significant lessons from Protestant orthodoxy. (Keep in mind that Rauschenbusch grew up in a pietist German-Lutheran household.) It's a curious dance: I wonder if he doesn't really personally believe too much of it but is, rather, trying to be charitable and politic. As I read through the later chapters of the book -- whether the topic is the doctrine of God, Christology, ecclesiology or eschatology -- it becomes clear that no major theological stone is to remain unturned. Like other followers of Albrecht Ritschl, Rauschenbusch eschews metaphysical "speculation" as a distraction from the proper work of theology: forging a discourse that empowers believer to begin building the Kingdom of God on earth, a progressive yet always asymptotic process.

The principal, recurrent objection to orthodox theology, apart from its ostensibly individualist account of sin and salvation, is that speculating, say, on the inner life of the Trinity or the topography of heaven or looking for Jesus to return on the clouds of heaven distracts believers from putting Jesus' prophetic Kingdom ethic into action, liberating real living humans and breaking the bonds of social oppression. (For my part, I take this critique seriously, but would suggest it is possible for a chastened orthodoxy to answer such charges. But that's a task for another day.)

My first read-through of Rauschebusch's chapters on sin and evil yield up some expected sources of his solidaristic doctrine: Kant's interpretation of the Kingdom of God as ethical commonwealth and Schleiermacher's notion of original sin as a defect in piety mediated through socio-cultural processes, both of which are filtered through Ritschl's synthesis. In Rauschenbusch's telling, the essence of sin is selfishness, mediated from individuals -- through a sinfulness that is hereditary in some unspecified way -- into the corrupt social institutions they construct. This liberal modernist trajectory takes a more radical turn in his embrace of a sociological perspective and an activist's commitment to a more just and equitable socio-economic order.

I'm finding, however, the matter does not end there; rather, there is another strand in his thought I've been trying to tease out. Might it be possible that in Rauschenbusch a certain form of speculative thought might sneak in the back door, after all, through a sort of empirically rooted ontology of communal personhood? As he explores the "super-personal forces of evil", he inserts this fascinating quote from a contemporary:

There are in the human world two profoundly different grades, or levels, of mental beings, -- namely, the beings that we usually call human individuals, and the beings that we call communities. -- Any highly organized community is as truly a human being as you and I are individually human. Only a community is not what we usually call and individual human being because its mind, if you attribute to it any one mind, is therefore not manifested through the expressive movements of such a single separate human organism. Yet there are reasons for attributing to a community a mind of its own. -- The communities are vastly more complex, and, in many ways, are also immeasurably more potent and enduring than are the individuals. Their mental life possesses, as [German philosopher Wilhelm] Wundt has pointed out, a psychology of its own, which can be systematically studied. Their mental existence is no mere creation of abstract thinking or of metaphor; and is no more a topic for mystical insight, or for phantastic speculation, than is the mental existence of an individual man (71).

With a little editing, one could almost imagine that the quote could have been written by the late Walter Wink, who has powerfully retrieved the biblical doctrine of the principalities and powers for our late-modern age. The quote, in fact, comes from The Problem of Christianity (1913), a late work by Josiah Royce, the preeminent philosopher of absolute idealism in the United States who sparred intellectually with his good friend William James. (DET is perhaps one blog where it's fairly safe to admit I've never read Royce for myself, but I hope to begin redressing this lack soon, as my encounter through secondary sources is stimulating some interesting ideas.)

Royce's ideas appear again later when Rauschenbusch examines the church as "the social factor of salvation" (chapter 12). Despite his outsider status as a secular philosopher, Royce, according to Rauschenbusch, has contributed decisively to the social gospel in his emphasis upon the church as the locus of salvation. Rather than viewing the community as being comprised of autonomous human subjects, Royce holds that communal life is the primal datum that constitutes individual subject. Such ideas make Royce seem contemporary for those of us who accept the sociology of knowledge and a socio-culturally framed anthropology. In his view the community is more concrete and more real (if I may put it that way) than the individual considered by herself. Again, note that the community has a life of its own which can be depicted in terms of a sort of collective consciousness. Rauschenbusch, paraphrasing Royce, writes:

The individual is saved, if at all, by membership in a community which has salvation. When a man becomes loyal to a community, he identifies himself with its life; he appropriates its past history and memories, its experiences and hopes, and absorbs its spirit and faith. This is the power which can lift him above his own level (126-127).

To be sure, one might imagine the Schleiermacher of The Christian Faith penning such lines; still, Royce as an absolute idealist goes farther than the father of modern theology in construing the community as constitutive not only of religious experience but of knowledge and being itself. Royce, I am learning, tempers his idealist orientation with critiques from the early pragmatists (e.g., C.S. Peirce) and develops a sophisticated account of the "Community of Interpretation" as constitutive of knowledge and reality itself, as the ultimate existing entity is an absolute, super-personal being that encompasses all finite reality. Consequently, he is critical of the "heroic individualism" animating the ethics of Emerson, Nietzsche and James -- particularly in the religious phenomenology of The Varieties of Religious Experience. From his earliest writings onward, Royce engages the philosophy of religion as central to his intellectual vision, and this includes extensive treatments of the foundations and expressions of Christian experience (Parker).

I don't want to make too much of Rauschenbusch's appropriations of Royce. The Baptist theologian also articulated criticisms of the Cambridge philosopher's account of religion, and I'm not proposing Royce's work, necessarily, is an overriding factor for social gospel theology. This is an exploratory blog post, not a journal article. What I do find striking in this material, though, is this confluence of various streams of late 19th and early 20th century thought into a new paradigm that reconstructs and reintegrates Christian thought and experience around critical social awareness and engaged commitment -- a paradigm, I'm finding, is very much alive still today.

Josiah Royce (1855–1916),
philosopher of the Social Gospel?

So there you have it. In Rauschenbusch, decades before liberation theology and the works of Wink and Stringfellow, we find an early gesture toward a theology of the principalities and powers that draws from the wells of bourgeois-liberal Protestant theology -- less muddy and silty a century ago, perhaps, than they seem today -- which has expanded and (at least somewhat) radicalized by a turn to praxis seeped in the emergent modern disciplines of social thought. To cap off these developments, an almost prophetic insight into how community is constitutive of human experience, drawn from the idealist communitarian philosophy of Royce, a thinker steeped in German post-Kantian thought (the very intellectual tradition, ironically, that is often held to offer the quintessential expressions of subjective individualism).

The crucial issue here is this emergent awareness that social realities have an integrity -- and a deformity -- that have a life of their own, a reality that can be simply reduced to the actions and intentions of individuals. The super-personal forces of individual selfishness ramify collectively into corrupt and unjust social structures that coalesce in the "Kingdom of Evil" -- a coalition of forces so powerful that only the power of self-giving love, which the Gospels name as the "Kingdom of God" can withstand, defeat and transform it. These visions of social sin and salvation will reemerge, chastened and baptized by revolutionary fire, in Reinhold Niebuhr's classic Moral Man and Immoral Society and they will echo throughout progressive movements in theological ethics up until our own day. I'm not sure how well Rauschenbusch understood the potentially radical implications of the ideas he unleashed here, but it certainly seems to me that his work is worth a second look.

This post ends my series on Rauschenbusch. Thanks for reading.

Works cited:

Parker, Kelly A., "Josiah Royce", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = . TRAVIS, PLEASE LINK.

Rauschenbusch, Walter, A Theology for the Social Gospel (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1917).

-----, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: Macmillan, 1907).


Thursday, August 14, 2014

What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord”? Paul M. van Buren on Christianity and Nationalism

I’ve been on a kick about reading theology from about 50 or 60 years ago. (Gollwitzer is likely to blame for this . . . ) One nice consequence of this is that I can get my reading materials used for a couple dollars + shipping. But I digress . . .

I’ve posted about Paul M. van Buren at DET before, so regular readers should be at least passingly familiar with him. The short version is that he was the teacher of my teacher, Ellen Charry, and his teacher was Karl Barth (whose name regular readers may perhaps also recognize).

In any case, I was reading van Buren this morning and the following jumped out at me.

Paul M. van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (MacMillan, 1963), 141–42.
The man who says, “Jesus is Lord,” is saying that the history of Jesus and of what happened on Easter has exercised a liberating effect upon him, and that he has been so grasped by it that it has become the historical norm of his perspective upon life. His confession is a notification of this perspective and a recommendation to his listener to see Jesus, the world, and himself in this same way and to act accordingly. It is an important perspective and it can be distinguished from other points of view. We may illustrate the difference by comparing the perspective of Christian faith and the point of view of the man whose perspective upon life is founded on the life of his nation. The nationalist understands himself first of all as a patriot and he defines his freedom in the context of loyalty to his country. He can understand the Gospel only as making a relative claim at most. He may allow that there is some freedom to be found in Jesus and in loyalty to him, but it is secondary to his freedom as a citizen. For the Christian, however, the situation will be reversed. His assertion, “Jesus is Lord,” expresses the fact that Jesus has become his point of orientation, with the consequence that he is freed from acknowledging final loyalty to his nation, family, church, or any other person and is liberated for service to these other centers of relative loyalty. Because he sees not only his own history but the history of all men in the light of the one history of Jesus of Nazareth and Easter, he will not rest content when his nation, family, or church seek to live only for themselves; he will try to set them in the service of others.
Van Buren has a knack for putting his finger on the deep, festering cancers at the heart of Christianity in North America – the things that should be painfully obvious to us today (even if they are not painfully obvious to many of “us”), but which van Buren demonstrates incredible prescience in identifying 60 or so years ago . . .


Wednesday, August 06, 2014

To my deconverted friend – A guest post by Collin Pae Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Pae Cornell writes the always interesting blog Kaleidobible, as well as semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]

The story of your faith – and non-faith – is, of course, uniquely your own.

Yet some parts of your experience are widely shared. You were raised in the American South. Christianity, in all of its predictable Southern dimensions – hokey roadside signage, Sunday finery, hollering preachers, a buttery layer of civil religion – was, to you as to many, as familiar as family. You along with thousands of other evangelical children across the country – like me – opted to attend a Christian undergraduate. And as with many of us, much of your life after graduation has consisted, in one way or another, of making sense out of that decision and its legacy.

Other chapters of your life are less common. That you along with numerous high-school friends and acquaintances would simultaneously have renounced various addictions and “made a personal decision of faith” is surprising, unlikely. Some of your story is just thoroughly you. You were always fascinated by the workings of things. By the human body and mind. You thrilled at the anatomy classes you took in college, dreamt of the medical profession. You devoured neuroscience and majored in psychology. By the movement of stars, such that you became an avid amateur astronomer. You are an explorer and a scientist.

I’m not sure to what extent others would recognize themselves in your story of deconversion. There are many roads to that very gradual and very personal choice. I have friends who have left Christianity because they found it inhospitable to persons of their (minority) sexual orientation. I have friends who have left Christianity because real humans punctured the caricatures they had inherited – a sincerely believing, normal Muslim friend could not remain for them an unsaved and dangerous Other – and upset their coordinates for the world. I have friends who have left Christianity because it simply no longer compelled them; God and salvation and all the rest melted away into abstraction.

Your decision to leave arose out of a prolonged sense of suffocation. The Christianity you knew set taut boundaries for what was thinkable to a faithful person. Our undergraduate did not teach us how to open-endedly entertain questions, but how to answer them orthodoxly; how to face the world as a foe to be feared and outsmarted rather than as a resource to be listened to and learned from. This meant that your own person became a site of conflict. The fascinated explorer and the beleaguered orthodox believer competed for mastery, seesawed through several unsustainable truces. Wonder and curiosity motivated the explorer. Duty and fear – familiarity and friendship – motivated the believer.

The existence of God stands close to the core of the orthodox universe you strove to uphold. But as you explored, God became progressively less and less necessary. You were awed at the Big Bang, you were impressed by the elegance of evolutionary science, you saw the sensibility in psychoanalytic explanations of religion. Neither cosmology nor human origins nor even the phenomena of religion itself needed God anymore. God was superfluous for comprehending the workings of things.[1] So your belief in God hung only by the thread of obligation. You had to believe in God to stay Christian. But belief in God only retarded – cloyed – the joy of discovery. Eventually, understandably, the aliveness you felt in learning must outweigh and displace dutiful theism.

Deconverting was making peace for you. It left you clean, clear, free to engage the world with a wonderful sense of unbounded possibility. I told you honestly that I am happy for you in that. I, too, am an explorer. I, too, hate the kind of faith that makes people turn away from what is beautiful and compelling, for fear that it will taint them. I want you to get that out of your system.

But I am a Christian; and what does sadden me is that Jesus had to get pulled down too, sucked into the ruin of your theism.

Maybe that sounds odd. The idea that devotion to Jesus could survive the decomposition of God. As a matter of fact, I have found in my wanderings many a place where poignancy for Jesus subsists apart from subscription to his all-powerful sponsor. And sometimes the appreciation expressed in such quarters is the more perceptive, because unencumbered by a thousand years’ intellection reconciling an executed criminal with the creator and guarantor of cosmic order. I feel a kinship with those who recognize the disturbing allure of this crucified innocent – even if they should fail to connect him to almighty God. Because for me, Jesus is more ultimate. I take it that this is what it means to say “Jesus is Lord”: not that the contents of “Lord” (regnant, strong) fill up what “Jesus” means, but that the contents of “Jesus” (servile, weak) reshape what “Lord” entails.

If this is a true insight, then the path of your exploring that led away from God could just as well have taken you towards Golgotha. You realized, with sadness, that God is dispensable, and eventually dismissed him wholesale. But what if God had determined to be just that? Dispensable. Dismissible. Indeed laughable, to all passers-by outside the gates of Jerusalem.

In that case, your acknowledgement of God’s superfluity need not have been a concession to the scientific worldview, but a “genuinely theological discovery.”[2] The God whom you once called on to explain cosmology, human origins, or religion was a God of power: a God who acts effectually to accomplish his design. In other words, a Lord. To be sure, a more successful executor than the lords we know from human government or business, but nonetheless, cut from the same cloth. This God may be loving, but that quality is additional to his sheer potency.

By contrast, the Lord of the cross is not effectual, but weak, even to death. Loving is no addendum to his mission; it is its heart. He does not compensate for gaps in weak human knowledge with divine strength, but poses God’s helplessness to all human wisdom. Far from being necessary for understanding the workings of the world, he hangs – gratuitous.

I wish that this, the gratuity of God, might have been a start for you, even as it must be an end.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion…for the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible, eliminated” (Letters and Papers from Prison [S.C.M. Press edition, Great Britain: Fontana Books, 1953], 164). See also Richard Bube, “Man Come of Age: Bonhoeffer’s Response to the God-of-the-Gaps,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 14.4 (1971), 203-220.

[2] Eberhard Jüngel. God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute Between Theism and Atheism. Trans. Darrell Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983 [German orig. Gott als Geheimnis der Welt, pub. 1977]), 22, 23.