a few words

Month: July, 2008

Ward :: Love as Economy or Ontology

“The economy of [Christian] desire is not locked into love as not-having [in distinction from some postmodern accounts]. Rather, love is continually extended beyond itself and, in and through that extension, receives itself back from the other as a non-identical repetition. Love construed as having or not-having is a commodified product. It is something one possesses or doesn’t possess. It is part of an exchange between object and subject positions. But love in the Christian economy is an action not an object. It cannot be lost or found., absent or present. It constitutes  the very space within which all operations in heaven and upon earth take place. The positions of persons are both constituted and dissolved. The linearity and syntax of Indo-European languages barely allows access to the mystery of trinitarian persons and processions: where one ends and another begins. As such suffering and sacrifice are not distinct moments, kenoo [emptying] is also and simultaneously pleroo [filling up]. The wounds of love are the openings of grace.”

Graham Ward, “Suffering and Incarnation,” in The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 205.

The Suffering God Cannot Save :: Addendum

It seems that a few other folks are poking around with the same question as my recent series of posts on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite and the question of divine impassibility. Their thoughts are more concise and poignantly articulated than my own stumbling efforts, so if thinking through God’s compassionate suffering is a live question for you, you might do well to visit:

Halden’s post—“Divine Suffering is Divine Impassibility”
Kent Ellers and James Merrick’s—“David Bentley Hart on the Trinity”

The Academy and the Poor (Part 3 of 3)

(Back to Part 2

5. In the end, I still dislike framing the question in terms of justification, as if there is a right path (presumably paved with gold) to be found. Are the activities of reading, writing, and teaching just in the face of the world’s poor? I am tempted to answer simply and quickly, “no.” Nothing can be justified in the face of five year-olds dying of malnutrition and diarrhea or young girls violently robbed of virginity by uncles and cousins. To be blunt, the whole situation is shitty and we are all implicated. We all, academics included, need to hang our heads in shame—and redouble our efforts to eradicate such blatant evils. But how are we to go about dealing with these problems? Obviously, we should not isolate ourselves from the world’s horrors (frequenting only “the nice parts of town”), and when we are in position to act directly (by providing food or intervening on behalf of the vulnerable), we ought to do it. But we also need to see more clearly the tangled network of problems (cultural, social, economic, political, spiritual, ecological) that make these horrors more likely to occur, and take steps to counter them. And we all need to see it, at least in part, which is why we need skilled teachers in many disciplines. The analysis, conversation, and collaborative action that this requires is a larger and (unfortunately) much slower project.

And even beyond the quest to overcome specific problems with exact solutions, academic inquiry is no worse-off in a quest to justify its own continued existence than is, say, painting, playing the cello, attending an opera, or debating the merits of some piece of legislation. One of Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison has been haunting my thoughts for months, “The only thing I am really clear about in the whole problem is that a ‘culture’ that breaks down in the face of danger is no culture. Culture must be able to face danger and death….By finding forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror?” The gist of Bonhoeffer’s statement (assuming I understand it), is that any activity that cannot be carried with us into the hardest and most broken parts of the world is not worth bringing along at all. Culture, in this sense, cannot be diversions that ignore suffering (like the Buchenwald zoo) or the dissipated merriment of cynics resigned to a dark “fate” (fiddling while the Titanic sinks). But, it is possible, I dare say necessary, to put expression to profound moments of beauty, rage, fear, and reverence even where taking the time to do so seems, at first glance, superfluous. What else might the first seeds of redemption (a “re-deeming,” a new birth of meaning) in the present look like? It is impossible for any of us to hold shattered lives together in a seamless narrative of “meaning,” but giving some fragments of meaning space to expand—whether howling lament or salvaged scraps of laughter-is perhaps to find God’s Spirit at work already. I do not want to be a part of any theology that floats by the slums on a luxury cruise-liner, or tours them on an air-conditioned bus. Rather, I want to find theology “in the face of danger and death,” to search out “forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror.” Anything less is no theology at all.

The Academy and the Poor (Part 2 of 3)

(Back to Part 1)

3. The study and teaching of theology, of all disciplines, is perhaps most likely to turn out to the benefit of the poor. This assertion has never been truer than it is in the present. The hegemonic economic and political structures that bind people in poverty (or encourage them to bind themselves) are based on myths about humanity and humanity’s role on the planet. The beginnings of justice are found in the telling of a better story; the trajectory that leads to real justice culminates in worship. The operant myth behind the thick curtain is that human beings are essentially (naturally, rationally, pragmatically—pick your adverb) in charge, in control, and self-directed. Some people lose, and some people win, but the game is all about who gets the most choices. And far too many of us are eager to participate in the eschatological promise of “Progress”: perpetual growth through cycles of innovation, consumption, and commodification that opening ever new vistas of “liberation” enabling us to increasingly self-determine the reality we recieve (from family size to facial structure, from the temperature of our desk chairs to the “branding” of our own personalities).

Thus, the interminable conversation about who should bear the blame for poverty—in caricature, either the lazy, good-for-nothing, mooching addicts or the self-interested powermongers perpetuating the oppressive system that locks people out—is interminable because both options are sub-plots of the same story. Mutual service, genuine friendship, or really anything beyond the hollow pretense of politeness are not possible where the human ideal is buffered autonomy. Puffed up in our own knowledge of good and evil (our pretense to sovereignty), we die. As we die, we kill. Who can tell a story that excises this curse?  The old myth (the old lie, really) needs to die, and theology patiently but adamantly proclaims the truths that choke this dragon. Human beings are for worship and for service; human beings are for the delight of their Creator; human beings are for the good of the whole planet.  Liberation is found in the community reconciled to one another, to God, and to all creation.

Where is this story told? Foremost, it ought to be the hallmark of every church on every street corner. Yet all too often, churches have assimilated (and subsequently promulgate) aspects of the old lie. Theologians are charged with two tasks in this regard: 1) helping (polemically, if necessary) the church to express more clearly in words and action her central commitments, 2) exposing the dangers and deviations, through careful and rigorous analysis, of false stories about gods, humans and creation. Those tasks involve long conversations with people on all sides—those who are members of the church, and many who are not. Theologians, at their best, help to keep the church faithful to the poor. In part, they do so by calling to account the people and systems that benefit from exploitation.

4. Really learning theology (which only means thinking deeply about the whole gospel) always drives people toward the poor because this particular good news is about the God who favors the poor and dwells with them. There are few truly original ideas under the sun (none, according to Qoheleth), so the theologian’s task is not necessarily to formulate a host of new ideas, but to find ways of expressing the gospel that lead people to action. The ideal mode of theology is a conversation rather than a book—an interaction between people (perhaps even in a classroom) that moves toward action. The writing of books is a requisite part of this endeavor, but theological texts can only be understood properly within cycles of conversation that incorporate concrete practice. The impartial or disinterested theologian is a most perverse creature because theology is necessarily modeled as much as it is taught, insofar as it is expressed in the church’s preaching and prayer (neither of which make any sense without active service).

(On to Part 3)

The Academy and the Poor (Part 1 of 3)

About a week ago, Dan asked folks to consider the merit of their academic endeavors in light of the plight of the world’s poor. He argues, quite rightly, that:

I believe that, confronted as we are with the massive brokenness of the world, and the suffering of our neighbours, our academic endeavours must be shaped by certain commitments. We are not free to pursue every little rabbit-trail that we find captivating.

And so Dan asks us: “When confronted with “the Poor” of today, how do you justify your academic endeavors?” 

I wrote this before starting to read Dan’s own efforts to answer the question posed, not least because his answer is likely to be more thorough and insightful than my own. I have five responses, which I will post in three segments. 

1. The strange place of theology within the academy is both a boon and a burden of responsibility in pushing to reconcile the activities of study and teaching with the realities of poverty. Many theologians profess to work for the church even as they are employed by a university (and other academics sometimes wish that they actually did). Theological writing and teaching is always, from my perspective, done in service of the church’s preaching and prayer. Good theology is an aid to preaching the gospel with clarity and an effort to pray more truly. My own modest academic goals are entirely circumscribed within the life of the church-the church whose life is bound to the poor (even and especially when that is forgotten). If I didn’t think that academics could genuinely be an act of service on that order, I hope that I’d have the integrity to start bending nails for a living.   

So if academic theology cannot be done as an act of service, one rendered unto “the Poor,” then I do not want any part of it. No doubt there are countless academics gratified by the satisfaction they find in being able to introduce themselves as some sort of scholar. No doubt there are many who enter the academy with the intention of crafting for themselves a lasting name through a brilliant career of research and publication. I cannot totally disavow every trace of such motives in myself, though I confess them before God and others. But there is still more substance to the academy than mere pretense-abusus non tolit usum-the abuse does not negate the use.

2. Second, taking up academic work is no more a barrier to working for and with the poor than earning one’s living by, for instance, selling shoes. The choices made as an academic can insulate someone from the plight of the unfortunate and broken, or they can bring someone into closer proximity. While academic study does require hours (and hours) of solitary reading, thinking, and writing; when that work is placed within the context of a whole life, it is not inherently alienating-one’s companions are still a matter of choice. Both as a student and as a teacher, one can hide behind a pile of work and find oneself “too busy” to do anything for others-but there is nothing necessary or inevitable about this. In speaking of academics and poverty, we are not talking about oil and water.

Bonhoeffer Blog Conference :: Call for Papers

Come November, the theological blogging world will be abuzz with conversation about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and its echoes and implications within contemporary theology. The ever-prodigious Halden of Inhabitatio Dei, has initiated this collaborative endeavor and is asking for contributions. Consider sending Halden a few lines if you are interested in venturing an essay or a response. Those who are involved in the historic first rendition of what is sure to become a venerable tradition are likely to gain for themselves fortune, fame, and a reputation for excellent theological taste.

Probably not, but the conference will still be fun.

the academy and the poor

Dan started a meme on the question: “When confronted with ‘the Poor’ of our day, how do you justify your own academic endeavours?” While there is a limit to the value of introspective and meta-level analyses (let’s do something more than just talk about why we do what we, supposedly, do), this is an inquisition well-worth enduring. And it is especially timely for me to think through the question in light of my own plans for the fall. So, I’ve been intending to respond ever since Dan posted the question, and actually working one out on paper in the last day or so. Until I put those words in their final form, here are a few posts and conversations related to the theme, mostly instigated by the wild fellow from Montana.

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 4 of 4)

(Back to Part 3)

It is precisely because divine apatheia is not a possession subject to loss or diminution that God does not penuriously guard his life, but opens himself to creation and suffers with it. No one can change God or force God to act, no one can conjure or coerce God’s presence or action-God is never passive. But where God is open in love, he does not stand passively aloof, impervious to the plight of his beloved. God’s unchangeable infinitude is not at risk where God aches with longing and is pained by the dissolute state of creation-this too is an expression of the boundless variation within the unchanging generosity of God’s triune life. Thinking in this way helps us to express both God’s suffering and God’s apatheia in properly analogical terms. Hart correctly insists that “God is incapable of experiencing shifting emotions within himself” (as if manipulative ploys had any foothold), but to this similitudo, we must insist upon a maior dissimilitudo and say that God is not devoid of emotional intensity or insensitive with regard to his beloved creation (355). Likewise, if we are to speak of God’s aching solidarity with those who suffer, a solidarity that transgresses every boundary we can imagine (Hades itself), we must also insist that according to a maior dissimilitudo, God’s suffering does not incapacitate and diminish him (as suffering does to us). God never says, “It would have been better if…” with regard to God’s own boundless life; God’s life always is better in the mutual exchange and enrichment of the divine economy. 

Hart’s positive understanding of divine infinitude is sufficiently capacious to incorporate theological attentiveness to the whole of Scripture’s narrative with regard to God’s immutability and impassibility, including a nuanced account of the emotional intensity and pain ascribed to God’s experience therein. Unfortunately, Hart allows his metaphysical predilection for a more univocal understanding of divine apatheia to eclipse this conceptual openness and thereby falsely constrains his understanding of God and in docetic fashion meticulously evacuates the cross of the divinity hung thereupon. Despite himself, Hart helps us understand how Bonhoeffer is, in my estimation, finally correct: “Only the suffering God can help.” 



‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 3 of 4)

(Back to Part 2)

Yet, despite insisting that divine apatheia does not override God’s scriptural self-revelation or make the divine pathos out to be an illusion, Hart insists that even the cross holds no suffering for God (355).  Through the Son, God attends and possesses the human suffering of the cross (and does so “inseparably” according to Chalcedon), but, he insists, God (qua God) does not suffer pain there. Hart rightly upholds patristic paradoxes like that of Melito of Sardis, “in Christ the impassible suffers,” but mistakenly goes further to assert that Jesus’ cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) is only his “human voice,” words uttered in the place of all humanity, rather than as a expression of God torn from God.  He argues, somewhat strangely, that if this cry fits into the divine economy at all, it ought to be heard as a darker expression of the same interval whereby the eternally begotten Son is differentiated from the unbegotten Father (360). Hart insists that only the God who is beyond all suffering is capable of saving us. By restricting the suffering of the cross to the Son’s human nature, Hart (like Cyril before him) draws the blinds on the view that his own thinking about God’s infinity has opened up for him. In so doing, he foregoes an opportunity for greater theological fidelity to Scripture by a manifest preference for restrictive metaphysical preconceptions of divinity. Yet, we must be clear, Hart (again like Cyril) is not wrong in his affirmation of divine impassibility; it is just that impassibility is not a univocal description of God capable of expressing God’s character without the qualification of analogical difference. 

(On to Part 4)