Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tom Oord is a Nazarene, and I’m a Presbyterian – A (slightly) more critical engagement

I previously posted about Oord’s recent book (bibliographic information below) in which he undertakes a reconception of divine providence. Furthermore, he reconceives providence by reconceiving the doctrine of God on intellectualist ground in an attempt to take seriously what it means to say that God is love in the sense of kenotic self-giving. Oord's book is a stimulating work that is accessible to laypeople and should be one of the first recommendations made for the theologically curious fellow church-goer. That said…

Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015).

…Tom Oord is a Nazarene, and I’m a Presbyterian. Now, I get it: we live in an increasingly post-denominational world. I don’t know Oord’s ecclesial biography, and I’m not a cradle Presbyterian, so chances are that we’ve got quite a few different traditional influences kicking around between us. But at the very least it is significant that Oord approaches matters from a broadly Arminian / Wesleyan perspective and I approach them from a Reformed / Augustinian perspective.

“Sure,” you might say, “that’s all well and good. But why does it matter?” I’m glad you asked, gentle and perceptive reader! The nettle to be grasped between Oord and myself is this: Does God’s providential agency – indeed, all God’s agency – proceed in a noncompetitive manner, or not?

[Ridiculously self-serving note: I've been trying to elaborate the benefits of non-competitive thinking in terms of "paradoxical identity" for a while now. You can find more formal reflections on this in my book on Barth and baptism, my article last year on Barth and baptism, and a forthcoming article on T. F. Torrance and Barth and baptism. (Note within a note: see a thematic trend here?)]

The question of noncompetitive understandings of divine and creaturely agency has lurked near the center of most significant theological controversies throughout the Christian tradition. In short, a noncompetitive account says that divine and creaturely agencies are different in kind such that the relationship between them is not a zero-sum game. The theological locus classicus for this approach is the Chalcedonian Definition, which affirms that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine without confusion, change, division, or separation. In other words, the God-ness and the human-ness are both there in their entirety but in such a way that neither crowds the other out and the integrity of neither is compromised. Jesus and his history can be described according to human modes of explanation, and he / it can be described according to divine modes of explanation. And neither is exclusive of the other because they are different kinds of explanation.

How does this matter for Oord’s book? The first place I noticed it was in Chapter 4, where Oord discusses different models of God’s providence. Model #1 is God as “omnicause.” Oord's description of this model is somewhat flatfooted (or maybe he’s just been reading poor representatives of it), using phrases like “it makes no sense” and it “makes little, if any, sense” (pp. 85–86). He can’t seem to conceive of God working providentially in a way that does not compete with created agency, instead tending to see God in this model as overruling or coercing created agencies. To be fair, that’s sometimes how it gets talked about (especially at more popular levels), but there is more here than meets the eye. B. B. Warfield, for instance, argued that evolution is not a problem for Christian providence precisely because divine and creaturely causes do not compete. That hardly makes one think of coercive providence.

The issue arises most clearly in the book’s last two chapters. Oord develops an interactionist picture of God such that God is involved in influencing creaturely causality, working by way of both created randomness and regularity to produce good ends as determined by the self-giving love that God essentially is. Because God is this sort of love, God’s interaction with creaturely agency cannot be coercive and must remain only influential. Think about this either / or of coercive / lovingly influential. This pattern of thought only works when presupposing that divine and human agency is competitive.

And Oord makes a revealing comment when he says that “God acts as a necessary, though partial, cause for all creaturely activity’ (p. 171). The hallmark of competitive thinking is thinking in terms of parts rather than wholes. Chalcedon did not say that Jesus was part human and part divine such that the divine lovingly influences the human and the human responds positively to that influence. Instead, it uses a logic of wholes: Jesus is wholly human and wholly divine.

Oord’s position ultimately makes God one causal agent among many. Granted, Oord thinks of God’s agency as almighty. But he defines this in terms of being “mightier than all others,” “the only One who exerts might upon all that exists,” and “the ultimate source of might for all others” (p. 189). These are all competitive definitions. God is harder, better, faster, stronger (to quote Daft Punk lyrics), but God’s agency is not here different in kind. God is a being among other beings, albeit the most significant of beings. And given that God only exerts influence and cannot be coercive on Oord's account, we have to at least wonder whether God will ultimately succeed in God's aims. To paraphrase the title of a Rob Bell book: For Oord, we can be sure that God is love, but we're not so sure that love wins.

Consequently, Oord’s attempt to articulate an account of miracles that is consistent with his account of God as self-giving love also falters. He problematically (from the perspective of a non-competitive account) makes God a partial cause for discrete “unusual” and positive occurrences, and asserts that scientific (or world-historical, or creaturely) descriptions / explanations of these events are not exhaustive without the added theological explanation. This can be taken in two ways. It could be that theological explanation and scientific explanation are meant to be different kinds of description, but Oord’s penchant for partialist thinking belies that reading.

Now, the reason I framed this all in terms of Oord being Nazarene and my being Reformed is this: the Arminian / Wesleyan tradition is predicated on a competitive account of the relation between divine and creaturely agency. This is the whole point of talking about “free will” and rejecting “predestination.” The Reformed / Augustinian tradition, on the other hand, has (arguably) always been about a non-competitive account, even if proponents of that tradition haven’t always lived up to it. Now, as Presbyterians and Nazarenes go, I suspect that Oord and I are much closer together than most. But we come at those similar affirmations by very different roads.


Monday, June 27, 2016

"Game of Thrones," Baptism, and the Drowned God

*spoiler alert

If you’ve been watching this season of HBO’s Game of Thrones you might remember that visceral scene from episode five where Euron Greyjoy (the new king of the Iron Islands) is held under water by the priest until his lungs are filled with water and he loses consciousness.

By Henry Söderlund [CC BY 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
This is the “drowning” ritual practiced by worshipers of the Drowned God in George R.R. Martin’s world. When I first came across this ritual in the books I was immediately reminded of Christian baptism.

Christians have never held baptizands (those who are being baptized) under water to the point of drowning, but the meaning behind the two rituals is strikingly similar.

In the first chapter of A Feast for Crows, Aeron Greyjoy, priest of the Drowned God, holds a thrashing boy named Emmond under the water, saying: “Lord God who drowned for us…let Emmond your servant be reborn from the sea, as you were.” [1]

“Finally, it was done. No more air was bubbling from his mouth, and all the strength had gone out of his limbs. Facedown in the shallow sea floated Emmond, pale and cold and peaceful.”

Shortly thereafter, with some prayer (and what we would call CPR), “the sea came gushing from [Emmond’s] mouth. The boy began to cough and spit, and his eyes blinked open, full of fear.” (25) Aeron the priest then says, “Rise…You have drowned and been returned to us. What is dead can never die.”

This might sound a bit different from the Christian baptisms you’ve seen, but consider what the Apostle Paul says in Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rm 6.3–4, NRSV)

With all the joy that (appropriately) accompanies baptism, we should never forget the stark severity of what this sacrament entails. It means our death.

The famous reformer, Martin Luther, speaks of baptism with characteristic color:

“Your baptism is nothing less than grace clutching you by the throat: a grace-full throttling, by which your sin is submerged in order that ye may remain under grace. Come thus to thy baptism. Give thyself up to be drowned in baptism and killed by the mercy of thy dear God, saying: ‘Drown me and throttle me, dear Lord, for henceforth I will gladly die to sin with Thy Son.’”[2]

This death is grace because it is the death of us as sinners, the doing away with our opposition to God. It is, therefore, the death of death itself. Karl Barth writes that, “to be baptized means to be immersed, to be sunk in a foreign element, to be covered by a tide of purification. The [person] who emerges from the water is not the same [person] who entered it. One [person] dies and another is born.” (193)

As Christians, we may not have come away from our baptism literally coughing up sea water; but we can be sure that our baptism testifies, earnestly and decisively, that in Christ we are those who have died.

And what is dead can never die.


[1] George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2005), 24.

[2] As quoted in Karl Barth, Epistle to The Romans (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1968), 194.

[Ed. note: Alex DeMarco (@Alex_J_DeMarco) is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary who now lives on the North Side of Chicago. He blogs (irregularly, alas) at Religionless-Worldly Christianity.]


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

It’s been nearly a month since the last link post, to be perfectly honest. A lot has happened. Here’s a quick recap:

Right on the heels of losing John Webster (index of tributes / my tribute post), the theological world suffered the loss of Elisabeth Moltmann Wendel (here’s the piece from the EKD). Does anyone know if there’s a collection of tributes to her out there?

Also, the Karl Barth Conference in Princeton happened this past week, on the topic of Barth’s pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit) and global Pentecostalism. DET brought you a guest post by J.T. Young on one of the papers, and David Guretzki posted discussions of a number of them as well. Here’s a quick index for those:

Finally, DET’s own senior contributing author, Scott Jackson, had a guest post over at Jason Goroncy’s blog: Theology and Issues of Life and Death: A Review.

And if you’ve made it past all that, here’s what we’ve been up to at DET:

And here’s some reading from around the interwebs:


Thursday, June 23, 2016

When a Jesuit Evolutionist and a Religious Existentialist Cross Paths; (Or) Why Won't the New Humanity Emerge Already?

Caveat: This piece is chock full of non-inclusive language. That's the least of what's troubling about it.

The Eiffel Tower at sunrise,
taken from the Place du Trocadero.
By Tristan Nitot. (Via Wikimedia Commons)
In the aftermath of World War II, Paris was teeming with intellectual life. The most dominant schools of philosophy were Marxism and existentialism -- or better, Marxisms and existentialisms. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) engaged in vigorous conversations with representatives of both groups -- who also, of course, were in spirited engagements with each other (See Novak). By this point, late in his career and life, the Jesuit geologist and paleontologist was world-renowned, especially for his field work in China, where, among many other accomplishments, he worked on the research team that discovered "Peking Man" (Sinanthropus pekinensis); he also helped establish the fact that pekinensus was homo faber, a tool-maker.

Established professionally by his theories of the earth's past, though, Teilhard's company was more broadly in demand for his views as a futurist, who articulated the lines for a bold science (or "phenomenology") of the human as such, seen as the crown and perfecter of cosmic and terrestrial evolution.

Perhaps sentiment in war-ravaged Europe was ripe for a bit of visionary optimism. In a fit of premature exuberance (it would seem), Teilhard writes:

I am excited and absorbed by everything I see in France. Could it be that France is truly the cradle where, after two thousand years, Christ is pleased to be reborn "universally"? In any case, a light is certainly rising on the horizon (Cuénot, p. 251).

(France was awaiting Christ the Omega; instead, they would have to settle for Charles de Gaulle.)

Through scores of essays, the majority of which were not published during his lifetime, Teilhard articulated a revisionist Catholic natural philosophy and theology that seeks to integrate a mystical, Christ-centered piety with a modern evolutionary cosmology. Such radical ideas, though, were a bit too edgy for many church leaders in the decades between the bruising modernist controversies at the turn of the century and Vatican II (still, at this point, almost 20 years in the future). Consequently, Teilhard had been admonished by his superiors in the Jesuit order not to publish his speculations of a philosophical or theological nature, nor to promulgate his views in large public gatherings.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1947)
Archives des jésuites de France
(via Wikimedia Commons
Teilhard, a loyal member of his order until his death, complied with the ban, though clearly he chafed under it -- and he fudged a bit (or so it seems to me). Thus, in the late '40s, Teilhard gave lectures to smaller groups and engaged in conversations with leading intellectuals in France (as well as in the United States; he was residing in New York, virtually in exile from his native country when he died in 1955). Teilhard's biographer, Claude Cuénot, recounts a fascinating interchange between Teilhard and the religious existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). Marcel and Teilhard met on January 21, 1947; the topic was "Science and Consciousness." The two thinkers debated about the extent to which material and social organization might serve to advance human spirituality.

Teilhard's overarching anthropological claim is that the evolution of humankind has moved from the physiological sphere into the realm of thought and culture, and that all these lines of development are converging toward an ultimate point of unification and fulfillment. Marcel, a bit skeptical, demurs. He charges Teilhard's thought with being "Promethean" and "anti-Christian" in its pretensions to build a radiant spiritual future from the ashes of its material miseries.

By "spiritual" I understand a reference to certain values which are very precise. Let me take the example of the doctors at Dachau. On this level, can one be optimistic? What is the integrating consciousness of these scientists worth? I see nothing hominizing there (ibid.).

"No!" Teilhard retorts:

Man, if he reflects on what he does, finds himself forced to realize that he must rise above himself to attain his summit. What makes a man Promethean is his refusal to transcend his deeds. The Promethean man is confronted by total death (ibid.).

The key issue dividing the two thinkers is theodicy, the problem of evil from the perspective of religious philosophy. Marcel fixates on the broken and fragmentary character of human existence, whereas for Teilhard, this propensity to evil is really a sort of inertia and resistance in the face of collective human progress. For the priest, evil is a roadblock to be resisted and -- through the power of God instantiated through human striving -- eventually overcome. Cuénot summarizes what polarizes the two philosophers:

[G]ranting this deep rift that evil has introduced into the human condition, granting that man, in a very personal drama, wavers between invocation and refusal, Marcel is particularly sensitive to what collectivization and the development of technique (linked phenomena) mean as far as dehumanization is concerned. He sees in the triumph of collectivism and technique a new manifestation of the Promethean spirit which is pride and a refusal of God, the will to snatch from God his good in order to become God oneself (p. 252).

For Teilhard, this evil is precisely what humanity must struggle to overcome as it releases and synthesizes the spiritual potentials of its material organization. In his view collectivization, properly understood, does not eviscerate diversity and individuality but rather unites fully actualized people in a higher communal synthesis. Somehow this process of emerging complexity that converges to a point of collective spiritual maturity realizes a union with "God" -- indeed, for Teilhard the evolution of human culture and civilization (the "noosphere," meaning the expanding envelope of collective thought that crowns the biosphere) somehow realizes and extends of the progressive incarnation of "Christ," the ultimate catalyst and term of human evolution. Note my emphasis on somehow; in my reading Teilhard tends to wax rather wooly on the practical details.

Cuénot writes:

Teilhard replies that he has never denied the existence of men at once intelligent and perverse, and that the concentration camps only illustrate with more intensity the very essence of evil, which is the refusal of unity, integration and the love of God (p. 253)

Prometheus bringt der Menschheit das Feuer
by Heinrich Fueger (1817) (via Wikimedia commons)
Unloving, to say the least. But what I (along with Marcel) find troubling is that the Nazis had a very clear vision of a future, united humankind, and it was either sublime or hellish, depending upon your perspective and how "advanced" your ethnic and culture group happened to be. Keep in mind that Teilhard himself foresaw a role for eugenics in the self-directed evolution of an enlightened human vanguard.

So which of these francophone philosophes is more on target? A Teilhardian could always say, of course, that the best is yet to come and that the love of God ensures that the process comes out right in the end. In my view, the best way to weigh these options in a proper perspective would be to lay out a "phenomenology" of some of the shit that's gone down in the seven decades since this debate occurred, years in which the power of a fallen technical reason has developed new means of inflicting cruelty, suffering and death more subtle and insidious than even the Nazi doctors could imagine. (While we're in post-war France ... Paging Jacques Ellul?) Dirty wars and cold wars, genocide and ethnic cleansing, torture and terrorism -- all of which have been aided and abetted by advances in technology and social experimentation. If Jesus is en route to arrive soon, we've all got some explaining to do; and he likely won't be ratifying our collective achievements as much as judging and forgiving them.

To be fair, I'm not suggesting Teilhard is blithely unaware of the problem of evil; on the contrary, as I argued in a paper many years ago, he's practically obsessed with it. Rather, the issue is that the cultural and technological progress of humankind poses an enigma whose answer cannot be found within the world process itself. At all. That, in a nutshell, is what I think he doesn't get.

"Everything that rises must converge," claims Teilhard de Chardin. But I'm inclined to rewrite it: "Everything that rises steps on top of something -- or someone -- else."


Works Cited:

Cuénot, Claude. Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1965).

Novak, George (ed.). Existentialism versus Marxism: Conflicting Views on Humanism (New York: Delta, 1966).


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

“Karl Barth’s Pneumatology and the Global Pentecostal Movement” - A report on Christian T. Collins Winn's paper at the 2016 Princeton Barth Conference, by J. T. Young

[Ed. note: J. T. Young is an MDiv student at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a graduate of the Lindenwood University Religion department. He attended the part of the 2016 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, currently underway at the time of writing, and sent in this report from the scene.]

The theme of the 2016 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary was “Karl Barth’s Pneumatology and the Global Pentecostal Movement.” One of the speakers at the conference was Christian T. Collins Winn, Professor of Historical Theology at Bethel University and contemporary theology’s authoritative voice on the Blumhardts: the 19th century father-and-son German pietist pastor-theologians who would become extremely important in the development of the young Karl Barth in his years as a pastor in Safenwil, Switzerland from 1911-1921.

Collins Winn offered a paper titled “Barth, Pentecostalism, and the Cry for the Kingdom” in which he laid out a comparative study of prayer in Barth and Pentecostalism. His paper was composed four parts. In the interest of time, Collins Winn summarized the first part, “Barth, Pentecostalism, and Eschatology,” into three concise theses:
  1. Both Barth and Pentecostal theologians agree that eschatology is not just a doctrine of last things.
  2. Pentecostal theologians and historians are rejecting dispensational pre-millennialism.
  3. The ongoing revision of eschatology in Pentecostal theology is a dialogue, primarily with Moltmann, Wesley, and Fletcher, but Barth is not absent.

The second part of Collins Winn’s paper, “Thy Kingdom Come: Barth on the Cry of the Kingdom,” sought to discuss Barth’s concept of prayer. Collins Winn took as his primary focus in this section Barth’s idea of the Christian life as a history of invocation. He went on to discuss two dialectical concepts in Barth’s theology:
  1. Jesus Christ as the “immanent Kingdom of God” and “telos of all things” and
  2. the participatory action required of the Christian community in praying the second article of the Lord’s Prayer.
Attention is also given here to Barth’s idea of “hastening-and-waiting” as the Christian community both strives toward the Kingdom of God and experiences “penultimate bursts of the kingdom in history.”

The paper’s third section, “Sighs too Deep for Words: Pentecostal Tongues and the Coming of the Kingdom,” gives special attention to the current work of Frank Macchia, who happened to be in attendance at Collins Winn’s presentation. Here, Collins Winn discusses Macchia’s work on glossolalia and its origin in a trinitarian pneumatology. Macchia went on to praise Collins Winn’s understanding of his work, saying that the key question for Macchia is whether or not, for Barth, Pentecost is determinative for Christology.

Collins Winn’s final section, “Conclusion: Barth, Pentecostalism, and the Ecstasy of Revolt,” offered final thoughts on the differing emphases between Barth and contemporary Pentecostalism: Barth’s Christocentrism and Pentecostalism’s trinitarian pneumatology. The baptism of the Holy Spirit, for Barth, is the divine decision to break into the current day and set free the captives and the eccentric life of prayer, of invocation, is nothing other than the constant crying for the Spirit to be outpoured anew.

Collins Winn’s work here has opened an important door in Barth studies and Pentecostal theology. As Barth’s dogmatic task remains unfinished and his pneumatology fragmentary at best, Collins Winn has helped provide a way forward. As this conversation continues, Collins Winn’s voice will not be able to be ignored, nor will his excellent analysis undertaken in this study.


Friday, June 17, 2016

Christology in the Key of Middle C (pt. 3)

If a "high" Christology emphasizes Jesus' identity as God incarnate while a "low" Christology mitigates or denies this emphasis for faith and theology, what might a "middle" option look like? (To follow the thread of my discussion so far, click here and here). In exploring this issue, I'm drawing upon an essay by George Hunsinger, in which he reviews a critique Hans Urs von Balthasar leveled against Karl Rahner (see "Baptized into Christ's death: Karl Barth and the future of Roman Catholic theology (See Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, Eerdmans, 2001, chapter 11). Hunsinger does not attempt a full assessment of this critique, and nor do I.

Though Hunsinger here does not relate this middle Christology to the low-high dichotomy with which I have been working. But clearly a third way is in view here. Middle Christology is maximal, in a certain sense: Jesus is unique, at least as the only perfect member of the species. His specialness, however understood, does exercise an effective role in human salvation.

 Portrait of Karl Rahner by Letizia Mancino Cremer,
wife of Karl Rahner´s nephew Christoph Cremer.
(via Wikimedia Commons)
As Hunsinger points out, Rahner's own Christology is extraordinarily complex, and assessing the extent to which his position fits this rubric would get quite technical. Allow me a brief thumbnail of the main issue, at least. For Rahner, human existence is characterized by an intrinsic openness to grace, a capacity to receive divine self-communication, which he labels the "supernatural existential." As a modern thinker who takes Immanuel Kant's philosophy seriously, Rahner understands this openness as a capacity of the self to transcend itself. For this orientation to make sense, in his view, there must be an infinite horizon and source of all existence, as the matrix within which human life is actualized in transcendental knowledge and freedom. This horizon is identified as God, the ground and horizon of our existence that we encounter as ineluctable mystery.

If this framework is presupposed, then perhaps we can understand the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the perfection, within a concrete human life, of this capacity for self transcendence. Jesus is the unique individual who enjoys unimpeded communion with God. Every moment of his existence is lived out in total submission in love and obedience to the infinite horizon of mystery that is God. Perhaps the life of the Savior can also be related to the overall history of human self transcendence within a modern evolutionary understanding of world history. (Rahner develops these ideas in numerous places, but they are conveniently -- if rather densely -- summarized in his Foundations of Christian Faith, chapter 6.)

To recap my last post: von Balthasar worries that Rahner has mitigated the classic view (at least, the classic Western view) that Christ's death is an expiatory sacrifice that atones for an ineluctable human guilt -- a concrete, unique moment in history that decisively alters the human situation.

Rahner's Christology, on the face of it, seems to fit the description of a middle-C position, as Hunsinger defines it. But for Rahner, matters are not so simple; for he is an ecclesiastical theologian of a high order and he affirms the dogmatic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as a matter of principle. Along with this commitment goes a high view of the ancient church councils and theologians who articulated and defended the doctrine of the Incarnation. As I read Rahner -- and I'm far from being an expert, though I benefited greatly from a Rahner seminar with the late Anne Carr -- he is trying to reconcile classical views of Christ's person and work with his modern transcendental view of human nature. In this view, Rahner is attempting a mediating Christology -- that is, a position that embraces both the dogmatic tradition and the reframing of that tradition to address particularly modern concerns.

Nonetheless, it seems to me, one cannot avoid the logical and existential decision posed by Hunsinger's analysis, the question posed by von Balthasar to Rahner: Does this position mitigate the objectivity of the atonement? Moreover, is an account of the atonement that situates soteriology in a transformation within the human subject as such adequate to address the plight of the human situation. This question is both deep and complex, and I scarcely have begun to scratch the surface in these short posts. All I have done is raise the questions. There is a certain rubric to which I often find myself returning: I once heard a superb historian of Reformation theology, Susan Schreiner, say that the work of the Reformers, with their fixation on the theologia crucis only makes sense for folks who are desperate. How desperate was Karl Rahner? More to the point, how desperate are you and I?


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Sinful Incurvature of American Whiteness (Part 1)

In a rousing rector’s address,[1] my largely white congregation in Chicago was tasked this year with beginning and sustaining the “life-giving, soul-searing” work of dealing honestly with our white privilege, and its underlying injustices. One of the first steps we took was to have a one-church one-book conversation on Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Coates offers a vivid and eye-opening account of what it was like for him growing up black in Baltimore, and I was especially struck by his criticism of the language of “intention”—namely, that it functions more to appease white consciences than to change black circumstances.[2]

In this post, and the one following, I want to consider this criticism from a theological perspective—first demonstrating that our white tendency to focus myopically on our intentions is a symptom of our sinful condition as human beings curved in on ourselves; and second, showing how the gospel has the power to free us from the prison of our self-absorption, so that we may truly serve our black brothers and sisters rather than ourselves.

First let’s look a little closer at Coates’ criticism.

By Montesbradley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Looking back at his years in the Baltimore City Public School System, Coates concludes that the schools effectively served “to sanctify failure and destruction” in the streets. “It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble,” he says. “Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary…The point of this language of ‘intention’…is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history.”[3]

Reading this passage, I reflected on the seemingly well-intentioned question we white Americans inevitably ask each other and ourselves: “is X or Y racist?” And it seemed to me that Coates was on to something—that this question is, much of the time, really a question about our white intentions. It isn’t what happens to our black brothers and sisters that primarily concerns us, it’s whether we have to feel bad about it personally. As long as we “mean well” (or at least feel that we do) we can feel good about ourselves. And as long as we can feel good about ourselves we’re content.

But why is this our modus operandi?

Following St. Augustine, Martin Luther identifies the sinful human being as homo incurvatus in se — the human being curved in on itself.[4] “Scripture,” according to Luther, “describes man as so turned in on himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.”[5] Human nature “knows nothing but its own good, or what is good and honorable and useful for itself, but not what is good for God and other people.”[6]

Listening to Coates’ criticism of the language of intention, I heard echoes of Luther. It started to dawn on me that as we white Americans grapple with the legacy left by slavery, we do so, to a large degree, as an attempt at self-justification.

Curved in on ourselves, we struggle, not so much for racial equality, as for our own self-respect. We white Americans learn about our past and our present with black Americans, about the theft of human beings from their ancestral homes, about the generations upon generations bought, sold, and disposed of as mere property, about their children strung up in trees lest they forget their place,[7] and about their children shot dead in the streets, or else shipped off and warehoused in mass,[8] legally stripped of their rights as citizens—and we become desperate. Yet, curved in on ourselves, we are not nearly as desperate to help our black brothers and sisters as we are desperate for some ground on which to proclaim to the world, and perhaps chiefly to ourselves: “not my fault!”

Such is the depth of our sinful self-absorption; so grotesque is our incurvature. Faced with generations of black suffering and dehumanization, we yet have the audacity to make this about ourselves. And we do so quite naturally.

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Adding to our understanding of this sinful condition, this incurvature, Karl Barth writes that “all sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge.”[9] We are those who reach for the forbidden fruit, for the knowledge of good and evil, pretending that the judgment seat is ours—that we are “like God.”[10] Curved in on ourselves, we presume to pass judgment on ourselves. Confronted with our history, and our present, with our black brothers and sisters, we white Americans are desperate for any excuse by which we might nevertheless pronounce ourselves free and righteous. This is our overwhelming concern. We are so consumed by it, so enslaved by it, that we aren’t free for God and for our black brothers and sisters. We are homo incurvatus in se. “The fruit of [that] tree which was eaten with such relish is still rumbling in all of us.”[11]

All this is not to suggest that our intentions are unimportant. It’s only to point out that we white Americans have a tendency to reduce the problem of racism to a matter of our intentions in an attempt to justify ourselves; and in the process we fundamentally miss the point. The point isn’t about whether white Americans “mean well.” It’s about whether black Americans have to go through life with the deck stacked against them. To the extent that we approach the issue of racism in our sinful self-absorption, as an exercise in self-justification, we white Americans will stop short of addressing the real problem. We will rest content with our coddled consciences while the systems of oppression continue their destruction.

Thankfully, however, we need not approach the problem of racism in our sinful self-absorption. There is another way. We can confront the sinful injustices of our past and our present in the freedom of the One who takes our place as judge.[12] In that freedom we can have true repentance. In that freedom we can be open in love for our black brothers and sisters rather than curved in on ourselves.

More on this freedom in the post to come.




[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 33.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on ‘homo incurvatus in se’ (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 47ff.

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Vol. 25: Lectures on Romans, ed. Hilton C. Oswald (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 345.

[6] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[7] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).

[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: The New Press, 2012).

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 220.

[10] Genesis 3:5, NRSV.

[11] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 231.

[12] Ibid.

[Ed. note: Alex DeMarco is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary who now lives on the North Side of Chicago. He blogs (irregularly, alas) at Religionless-Worldly Christianity. This is the first of two guest posts from Alex on this theme. The full title is: "On the Sinful Incurvature of American Whiteness: Lessons from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Karl Barth, and Martin Luther (Part 1)." Part 2 here]


Monday, June 13, 2016

Gollwitzer Gold: Some recent quotes from Twitter

If you read DET at all, you know that I’m currently working on a book on Helmut Gollwitzer. Because there are so few of Gollwitzer’s works available in English—especially his more politically oriented writings—my book will include translations of a couple short pieces. I’ve been working away dutifully on those translations and, every now and then when one of Golli’s turns of phrase has gotten me excited, I’ve posted some snippets of my translations on Twitter. Since I’ve got complete drafts of my translations now, I figured that I would collect those tweets for you to enjoy here in a centralized location.

Hopefully this will also whet your appetite a bit for that book I mentioned…


Friday, June 10, 2016

Christology in the Key of Middle C (pt. 2)

In my last post , I explored what difference a "high" Christology makes for Christian faith and theology. To review: A "high" Christology is a position that affirms Jesus' divinity and the doctrine that he is the incarnate Son of God, whereas a "low" Christolgy eschews this construct, focusing exclusively on the humanity of the Savior. Might there be a third option lying somewhere between these two? To delve into this question, I draw out a thread from an essay by George Hunsinger, a contribution to ecumenical theology titled "Baptized into Christ's death: Karl Barth and the future of Roman Catholic theology (See Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, Eerdmans, 2001, chapter 11). Hunsinger introduces the notion of a "middle Christology" -- a kind of position about which he clearly is ambivalent, to say the least.

Christus Pantocrator in the apsis of the cathedral of Cefalù
Photo by Andreas Wahra (via Wikimedia commons)
In the second section of this essay (pp. 261-267), Hunsinger revisits a debate between the two leading Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner; more precisely, it concerns a critique of the latter by the former. Not even 100 blog posts would begin to do justice to these two figures; I will spare you, gentle readers, three years of steady blogging on this topic. My interest here is the basic contrast Hunsinger elicits from the debate.

At issue are the "extrinsic" and "intrinsic" dimensions of our atonement -- what Christ does on our behalf apart from our appropriation of salvation and what the Savior effects within us, respectively -- and how the two poles might be related. As an astute Protestant outsider, Hunsinger invites the question: To what extent, according to Roman Catholic theology, is our salvation a process brought to fruition within the lives of believers? As Hunsinger reads him, von Balthasar, amid the complexities and ambiguities within his tradition on this questions, takes a firm stand in favor of affirming Christ's saving death as an objective event in its own right -- an event whose reality and power are not dependent upon our knowledge or appropriation of it. Von Balthasar, then, holds to a "high" view of Christ's person that is concomitant with a high view of his saving work. Hunsinger writes:

The work of Christ is regarded as materially decisive, because it brings about our reconciliation with the God toward whom we as sinners are hostile and by whom we stand otherwise condemned. A high view of Christ's person is logically indispensable to this work (p. 264).

Matters are different with a middle Christology; in this kind of perspective, an attenuated view of the human plight goes hand-in-hand with a relativizing of the claims for Christ's uniqueness. Perhaps Christ finishes and perfects some sort of process already underway in common human experience. Hunsinger continues:

The work of Christ is again regarded as materially decisive for our salvation, but the definition of that work has changed. Sin is now more merely a matter of bondage than of guilt, so that what we are saved from is more nearly sin's power than its penalty. Consequently, the word of Christ is significant for us, because what it effects is more nearly our re-empowerment than our complete recreation (ibid.).

In this middle-C scenario (as I'm calling it), it is more accurate to say our problem is estrangement from God than standing under an objective condemnation based, say, on some violation of an external moral law. Consequently, the restoration of the human being in salvation is more aptly to be viewed in terms of subjective personal experiences wherein this estrangement is overcome than it is to be seen in juridical terms, as a transaction that occurs out there, objectively on the cross. Jesus is seen as the "redeemed Redeemer" who enables this process of transformation within us. And here, for our purposes, is the central issue for a middle Christology:

This person [of the Savior] would be materially decisive, because the work he actually accomplished is efficacious for us. But he is not logically indispensable, because it would seem at least in principle that any other human being, if sufficiently empowered, might have accomplished or might yet accomplish much the same thing. The person of Christ required by a middle Christology is unique but not unique in kind (p. 265).


Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Preview of a Series on Charles Hartshorne

At the suggestion of a professor on my committee, I’ve recently begun reading Charles Hartshorne. He was on my scholarly “to do list” so I was happy to have an excuse to begin reading his books. So far the experience of reading his work has been gratifying and I resonate with much of it to a degree which has surprised me. Part of why this has been surprising is because he has an approach that I normally don’t go in for. As Gary Dorrien and Roland Faber have noted, Hartshorne works out of a rationalist orientation and Hartshorne doesn’t reject the label (though as I will possibly discuss in the future, he would also include important explanations and qualifiers in his embrace of it).

By Rick Dikeman [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0]
via Wikimedia Commons
What has made Hartshorne so enjoyable for me to read thus far is that he weds this orientation to an acerbic tone, and for some reason I’ve found this combination engaging, humorous, and enjoyable, even though at times I doubt it fosters positive academic engagement. Hartshorne may be wrong sometimes, even most of the time (for some), but when being critical of perspectives he really goes for it to make his point. When talking about Hartshorne’s approach with a few of my friends, I like to use a basketball analogy (my other non-familial love); Hartshorne is not content with winning, he wants to win by dunking on people or by hitting deep threes like Steph Curry. While this admittedly may not reflect well on me, as I’ve read him the last couple weeks this approach has to some degree already endeared him to me.

Of course, all of the above is not of ultimate consequence when considering Hartshorne’s thought, and might merely serve to distract from his work or augment the enjoyment of it. Well, that’s definitely not true, because it has also served to preview a future series I will write here at DET! In this series I will write several “Hartshorne 101” posts to introduce his thought to any readers who aren’t familiar with it and to help me process (ha!) what I’m reading and why I’m resonating with it. But for now I want end to this announcement of my intentions by returning to the issue of Hartshorne’s tone.

In setting up his book The Logic of Perfection he admits that one could criticize the book for being “excessively polemical,” noting that one could observe this tendency in “almost any chapter.” (xi) However, he counteracts the notion that this serves no valid purpose. As he puts it, “Since the theories I reject are often deeply entrenched majority opinions, it seems unlikely that moderately expressed objections, unspiced with occasional argumenta ad hominem, will even be noticed.” (ibid) More important than the question of who doesn’t like their (theological and philosophical) food to be a bit spicy, here Hartshorne reveals that he sees himself as a bit of a loner who is trying to win while playing one on five. In upcoming posts I will explain some of the fundamental building blocks of his thought, which will hopefully illuminate what he believed he was fighting against and how he tried to win. Tune in!


Monday, June 06, 2016

Moltmann, Pannenberg, and the Future: Once More with David Congdon

I have posted about Congdon’s book before, and some of those posts have been rather weighty. This one is a little more lighthearted insofar as it deals with the relative merits of Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhard Pannenberg when measured against the backdrop of Barth and Bultmann. Who’s better, Moltmann or Pannenberg?

David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Fortress, 2015).

I must begin by acknowledging that Congdon makes his comparative remarks about Moltmann and Pannenberg in a particular rhetorical context. At this point in his book, Congdon turns to a set of standard criticisms against Bultmann and identifies Moltmann, Oswald Beyer, and Robert Jenson as exemplars of these criticisms. This extended discussion (pp. 789–823) is one of the most interesting in the book insofar as it has a much more direct – or, perhaps I should say, tangible – bearing on contemporary theological conversations. In any case, while introducing his section on Moltmann, Congdon mentions Pannenberg and Käsemann as folks who – with Moltmann – were part of a shift from worrying about the theological relationship of the past to the present and to worrying about the future. It is while outlining this shift that Congdon stops to offer a footnote on “the differences between Pannenberg and Moltmann.” I give you the footnote below. As usual, bold is mine and italics are in the original.

The differences between Pannenberg and Moltmann are worth highlighting. While both offered sustained criticisms of both Barth and Bultmann, they carried out these criticism in distinctly different ways and with different understandings of eschatology. Pannenberg, whose views are strongly shaped by the German idealist tradition, understands the eschaton as the fulfillment of historical progress, so that salvation history is the universal goal of history as such. This is why he is so strongly attracted to the thinking of Jewish apocalyptic literature with its literal conception of the world’s imminent end and its cosmic, universal notion of redemption, and it is also why he connects his doctrine of revelation as history to the rehabilitation of natural theology, in contrast to Barth. Pannenberg’s eschatology is ultimately an exercise in apologetics, since he believes that the resurrection of Christ, as the proleptic inbreaking of the apocalypse, is historically verifiable. Moltmann shares Pannenberg’s claim that revelation is inherently future, meaning that the truth of God can only be known at the end of history, but he understands the eschaton as radically other than the history we experience or the history of the historians; it is a complete novum. This precludes any natural theology by which we could gain scientific access to revelation. Whereas Pannenberg’s eschaton is a chronological, quantitative future, Moltmann’s is a theological, qualitative future. In this regard, Moltmann is the more significant intervention in the theological scene, even if we must finally regard both as inferior to the still more radical and unsurpassed work of Barth and Bultmann. (790n232)


Thursday, June 02, 2016

Christology in the Key of Middle C (pt. 1)

In a recent post, I playfully explored the question of what difference a "high" Christology makes for Christian faith and theology. Recall that a "high" Christology is a position that affirms Jesus' divinity and the doctrine that he is the incarnate Son of God.
The Baptism of Christ, by Francesco Trevisani
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Though the piece is whimsical, the central claim around which it spins is a serious one: The coherence, perhaps even the validity of Christian thought depends upon the categorical uniqueness of the Savior, a uniqueness that is qualitative and not merely quantitative.

This claim has a corollary: If the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is situated only within some aspect of his creaturely existence -- say, his perfect piety or obedience to God -- then it becomes difficult to affirm his unique dignity in any absolute sense. Whatever his blessedness might mean, in this case, it cannot be utterly unique if it resides merely within a perfection of some attribute(s) that all human beings share. In other words, the claim that Jesus is the unique Savior in a qualitative sense pushes us toward something like a traditional affirmation that he is truly God incarnate.

Of course, one might well counter: Why must Jesus be absolutely unique in the first place? Perhaps the human situation is not as dire as the doctrine of the Incarnation --- not to mention the atonement -- requires. Perhaps what Jesus does is to lead us into some form of completeness or perfection already latent without our humanity as such, albeit in a defective or stunted form. These retorts, by the way, show how intimately the Christological question is interwoven with the soteriological and anthropological ones. "To know Christ is to know his benefits," wrote Philip Melancthon.

At any rate, an astute interlocutor pushed back on my attempt to frame the Christological decision in terms of a simple binary: High Christology versus low? Bah! Posing the matter as a stark choice may have some rhetorical punch -- recall C.S. Lewis' famous trichotomy: Jesus is liar, lunatic or Son of God. Yet, perhaps, matters are more complex than my post suggested. Indeed, my friend is right, so in the next post I will discuss some of those complications. To do so, I will pull a thread from a fascinating essay by Princeton theologian George Hunsinger.