Or we could title this, “The Impossible Trinitarianism of Penal Substitution.” Enjoy!
H/T: Canon Fodder
Or we could title this, “The Impossible Trinitarianism of Penal Substitution.” Enjoy!
H/T: Canon Fodder
So, what’s the deal with Catholic clergy not being able to grow beards? Maybe this isn’t any sort of hard-and-fast rule anymore, but I can’t say as I’ve ever seen a Catholic clergyman in a beard before. Ever. I do remember hearing that one of the issues that was part of the parting of the ways between the Eastern and Western churches involved the fact that Orthodox priests favored beards while the church in the West did not. I don’t know if that’s true, but it would seem at least plausible.
But seriously, what’s the deal? Is there a real reason why Catholic priests don’t have beards? Seems to me that a visible way to preserve the fullness of apostolic succession might involve trying to look similar to the Apostles. Seems like beards would be part of that, right?
“What is wrong with capitalism is simply that it is based on human antagonism, and it is precisely here that it comes in conflict with Christianity. Capitalism is a state of war, but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, as an economy, and those who do not. … Christianity is deeply subversive of capitalism precisely because it announces the improbably possibility that men might life together without war; neither by domination nor by antagonism but by unity in love. It announces this, of course, primarily as a future and nearly miraculous possibility and certainly not as an established fact; Christians are not under the illusion that mankind is sinless or that sin is easily overcome, but they believe that it will be overcome. It was for this reason that Jesus was executed – as a political threat. Not because he was a political activist; he was not. … But he was nonetheless executed as a political threat because the gospel he preached — that the Father loves us and therefore, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are able to love one another and stake the meaning of our lives on this — cut to the root of the antagonistic society in which he still lives.”
–Herbert McCabe, God Matters (London: Continuum, 2005), 192-193.
It’s always interesting what the American superhero genre does to reveal the contemporary zeitgeist. While I wouldn’t doubt that children of all epochs have wished they could fly or had super strength, the American superhero mythos is a particular phenomenon which reveals all manner of interesting thins about the Western understanding of power and selfhood. This has been well documented by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett in their excellent book, The Myth of the American Superhero. They note a variety of key themes in the superhero genre, particularly is continuity with the classic Old West genre: the lonely hero who ventures into a community from outside of it, saves it, and must then leave and continue his heroic isolation for the sake of others (think Superman’s ‘Fortress of Solitude’ here). Now, of course the superhero genre is multifaceted and there are exceptions to this standard narrative (Spiderman being a notable one). Here, however I am interested more specifically in the very idea of “super powers” themselves and what the fact that such powers are an object of fantasy in our culture says about our understanding of selfhood and identity.
So here I will venture a perhaps indefensible thesis: Within the superhero genre, broadly speaking, the ultimate superpower is telekinesis. Moreover, the very idea of telekinesis as an ultimate superpower implies a very specifically modern ontology. Telekinesis is, of course the ability of move and manipulate objects with one’s mind. While flying, having super strength, and telepathy are certainly important superpowers, when it comes right down to it, the person with telekinesis will win every time. This is seen most clearly in NBC’s Heroes which chronicles the exploits of a wide range of “ordinary people” who develop “extraordinary abilities”. The main villain of the series, Sylar is a fundamentally insecure watch-maker whose dysfunctional maternally-instilled drive to be “special” drives him to murder other people with abilities, and through his own (somewhat vague) power, absorb their abilities for himself. In the course of the series he has acquired more than half a dozen unique abilities, but out of all of them the only one he generally uses is telekinesis. And it is precisely this ability that makes him an object of fear and terror. Bullets shot at him are flung back at their caster, people with super strength are immobilized and easily decapitated by his finely tuned ability to manipulate things simply with his thoughts.
Telekinesis is the ultimate superpower in the Western imagination precisely because it embodies the ability of total immediate control. The possibility of controlling ones environment and other persons simply through thought is the zenith of the desire for unimpeded control and mastery. An insecure, timid watch-maker named Gabriel Gray is transformed into the all-consuming power-monger of Sylar simply by gaining the ability to move things with his mind. Indeed, one of the things that Heroes shows in a distinctly clear manner is the way in which the quest for immediacy, power, and control issues in the creation of monsters who lose touch with any sort of co-humanity.
The American mind imagines telekinesis as the ultimate super power precisely because it is the apogee the modern ontology. In a world in which persons are self-enclosed individuals who exist in fundamental strife with one another, the lure of total immediate control is precisely what is most desired. The Siren’s song to the modern mind is precisely to lust after such a vision of total immediate control. Telekinesis, then embodies within the American superhero mythos the Promethean height toward which modern humanity reaches, and in reaching it loses their relational and creaturely nature. The ontology of telekinesis is the ontology of modernity, the desperate drive to become the Nietzschean übermensch. Indeed, whether inadvertently or not, one of the things that the superhero genre, and Heroes in particular shows most clearly is the inherent incompatibility between exercising dominating power and being human. To be human is to eschew the kinds of power that are the objects of fantasy in the world of superheroes. To take up the reigns of power is always to imperil or eviscerate one’s humanity. To be human is to live in essential vulnerability. When this vulnerability is forsaken for the pursuit of power, any chance of living a truly human life vanishes into the void of the eternal antagonism between superheroes and supervillains.
I’ve often wondered what kind of Christian Slovoj Žižek would be if he converted. Would he likely be a Roman Catholic? Protestant? Eastern Orthodox? I’d say his theology lends itself to a particularly protestant flavor, sometimes reading almost just like Eberhard Jüngel or Jürgen Moltmann. His notion of the crucifixion as the end of any sort of abstract transcendence or God as a guarantor of meaning has a particularly Lutheran-theology-of-the-cross ring to it. However, Žižek’s socialist politics would certainly be at home among the radical Catholicism of someone like Herbert McCabe, so perhaps he could at least conceivably become a Catholic. Of course we would be hard pressed to ignore both his slavic roots and his very Eastern Orthodox-worthy beard, which indicate he would be quite at home among the Orthodox. But, what think you? If Žižek were to really take the plunge and become a Christian, what branch of Christianity do you think he’d likely wind up in?
One of the topics that consistently comes up in discussions of whether or not Christians should endorse capitalism is that of complicity. All of us in the West are very much cogs in the machinery of the capitalist engine, and as such speaking out against it seems hypocritical to say the least. How can one legitimately critique a system they grow fat off of? Likewise when the question of the just use of violence is raised, the objections to the Christian pacifist always entail pointing out the fact that he generally lives in a country which allows him to uphold his convictions at no risk to himself. It is the work of violence that makes his commitment to nonviolence possible, and as such he occupies a highly compromised ethical position.
Now, on one level the force of these criticisms simply has to be acknowledged. Yes, most vocal Christian opponents of capitalism drive decent cars and have comfortable houses. Yes, most vocal Christian pacifists have never been in a situation where the temptation to use physical violence has been a real temptation and their safety is largely secured by the violence they decry. And this is a scandal. However, the tacit assumption of the above objections is that the hegemony of capitalism and the ubiquitous use of violence to safeguard social life in the West places a moral obligation on Christians living under the benefits of such systems to either endorse them or refrain from participating in them altogether. Once we grant that we are all kept safe by violence, and that capitalism enables me to have my precious iPod, we either need to buck up and stop our moralistic jabbering about the injustices of violence and capitalism, or move to Belize and live in utter simplicity.
However, such binary alternatives are precisely the creation of the very global order in question. The either/or of support or get out is a false alternative, precisely because there is no way to get out. There is no idyllic “outside” into which Christians may flee. The fact that Amish furniture can be bought online with the greatest of ease illustrates capitalism’s ability of absorb and sublimate attempts to withdraw from it.
The point of all this simply to state with the greatest clarity that there is no pristine, untainted position of moral high ground in which Christian social critics might be insulated from complicity with the violence and injustice of our world. The simple fact is that we are all complicit people, deeply embedded in violence(s) we fail to see, and pervasively compromised by the principalities and powers of this world. The key to proper theological action in a world in which we are all guilty lies precisely in not allowing our complicity to lead to resignation. That is precisely what the ruling powers are always after. Once we can be made to see that our lives are ruled by the powers of the state and the market, we rushed to believe that therefore we should simply become good citizens and good consumers, rather than placing ourselves in the precarious position of being a critic with blood on their hands.
However, this is precisely what prophetic action in the world entails. The way beyond complicity is neither resignation nor the pursuit of moral purity. It is rather to continue to speak words of resistance and newness in the midst of our own complicity. It is to allow ourselves to be put into question, to insist that every theological critique we make of anything must always also be a critique of ourselves and our practices. All of this is to say that Christian critique of political and social injustice is never the critique of the outside observer, but always and only the words of repentance. Of course, the belief that repentance is a true response to our pervasive complicity in injustice is quite tenuous. The idea that attempts at repentance can be a viable “answer” to those who would dismiss theological critique is a precarious one indeed. Nearly as precarious and counter-intuitive as the confession that the Crucified one is risen.
“The messianic future proper to Christian faith does not just confirm and reinforce our preconceived bourgeois future. It does not prolong it, add anything to it, elevate it, or transfigure it. It disrupts it. ‘The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.’ The meaning of love cuts across the meaning of having. ‘Those who possess their life will lose it, and those who despise it will win it.’ This form of disruption, which breaks in from above to shatter the self-complacency of our present time, has a more familiar biblical name: ‘conversion,’ change of heart, metanoia. The direction of this turning, the path it takes, is also marked out in advance for Christians. Its name is discipleship.”
–Johann Baptist Metz, The Emergent Church (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 2.
Amongst theologians and churchmen today talk of “postmodernism” is legion. Everywhere people are trying to figure out what it is and how to deal with it from a Christian perspective. This is particularly seen amongst evangelical Christians who certainly spill more ink on the cultural and philosophical issues of modernism and postmodernism than Christians from other traditions (perhaps due to Protestantism’s inherently more pliable nature as a tradition vis á vis the wider culture).
However, one of the largest problems with how such issues are approached theologically has to do with the way in which theologians often assume that “modernism” and “postmodernism” stand for philosophical ideologies and their attending effects on culture. In other words, when people talk about “the culture of modernity” or the “postmodern culture” most of them are talking predominately about ideas and their impact on culture. What is assumed in discussions that take up the grammar of modernism versus postmodernism is that the perceived shifts in cultural and philosophy are predominately intellectual shifts that trickle down as it were into the culture. Perhaps we can call this way of narrating contemporary culture and thought as philosophical Reaganomics (or Thatcherism, if your a Brit).
The point of all this is that the notion that contemporary cultural shifts (such as those that the emerging church movement seeks to engage) are brought on by the trickling down of “postmodern” ideas in contrast to the old ideas of “modernism” is naive and, well, simply wrong. The idea that the constellation of philosophers and philosophical trends commonly called postmodern are somehow actually “beyond” the modern is simply silly. Derrida, Foulcaut, Lyotard and company are nothing if not the progeny of modernity. Only if “modernism” is clumsily equated with a radically Cartesian philosophy could we ever imagine that “postmodernism” takes us beyond it.
It seems to me that a more fruitful way to think about the cultural and philosophical shifts that have been taking place since the later 20th century is to view them under the rubric of (as suggested above), economics. What are commonly identified as modernism and postmodernism are better understood as early and late capitalism. In early capitalism, emerging as it does with the breakdown of Christendom and the rise of the Enlightenment self we have the beginnings of the creation of the capitalist subject: the isolated individual who produces and consumes. The notion of the self that is informed by the political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau is precisely the nascent self of capitalism. This is the birth self-contained individual whose goal is to secure happiness, flourishing, and safety through production and acquisition of capital, making social arrangements by means of a social contract.
What is commonly called the postmodern, then is better understood simply as the flowering of the capitalist self. The transition from stable, self-defined individuals to the ever-illusive, hypermobile self of postmodernity is simply one of maturation, not rupture. The self-contained individual of the Enlightenment must inevitably come home to roost as the infinitely constructable self of contemporary western culture. And this is nothing new. In evaluating modernity, one should never forget that romanticism, just as much as rationalism is a thoroughly modern philosophical mood, both of which are birthed in the waters of capitalism.
The hipster who lives in a loft appartment (paid for by his parents) doing art and doing his best to be “authentic” and a “non-conformist” is but the current incarnation of the decadent romantic self. Such cultural realities are not indications of a postmodern culture that is displacing the old, modern culture. Rather they are just further examples of the way in which capitalism produces and sublimates its own antibodies. The hipster artist who drinks organic espresso and local microbrews and carries a copy of Of Grammatology in his backpack is precisely the product of capitalist discipline. The erratic identities and social fragmentation of contemporary youth culture in the west has nothing to do with a shift from modernism to postmodernism. They are simply the products of global capitalist hegemony bearing themselves out.
For the Christian theologian then, the order of the day is for us to stop yammering about “postmodernism” and start talking seriously about the demonic nature of the social relations engendered by the global capitalist order and how the church must manifest a different form of sociality from that of the world around us. However, until we are able to talk openly about the fundamentally economic nature of how culture is constructed we will simply be spinning tales that serve no purpose other than to satiate our furtiveness about “kids today”. Of course it is easier just to rabble-rouse about how these young punks are destroying our traditional values than to look seriously at how such cultural realities are constructed in the undulations of global capitalism. Because if we do that then we may actually have to change the shape of our lives. And that’s just far too self-implicating, isn’t it?
No, I don’t mean the current buzz word amongst western evangelicals for their version of how to coordinate a worship service. Actually, ironically enough, this term, as far as I can tell was first used in 1980 by Johann Baptist Metz as the title of one of his books on political theology. The Emergent Church is a trenchant critique of Metz’s constant enemy which is “bourgeois religion”. In fact, his book bearing this title was intended to be titled “Beyond Bourgeois Religion”, but apparently the publisher wouldn’t go for that.
Regardless, I find it at least a bit ironic that the first book to be titled “The Emergent Church” would be a critique of bourgeois Christianity when the contemporary phenomenon that bears the same name is almost exclusively a phenomenon of the Christian bourgeoisie in the West! Here’s a quote from the book:
“Did not Jesus himself incur the reproach of treason? Did not his love bring him to that state? Was no he crucified as a traitor to all the apparently worthwhile values? Must not Christians therefore expect, if they want to be faithful to Christ, to be regarded as traitors to bourgeois religion? True, his love, in which everything at the end was taken from him, even the whole majesty and dignity of a love which suffers in powerlessness, was still something other than the expression of a suffering with others, which the the unfortunate and oppressed, out of sheer solidarity. It was rather the expression of his obedience, and obedience that submitted to suffering because of God and God’s powerlessness in our world. So must not Christian love in following after Christ continually strive toward that same obedience?
“Identity-in-sin means not to live from God, not to honor God as the constant source of our being, not to be thankful to God as the one who constantly gives us ourselves. Identity is sin when persons imagine that their being has been conferred over to them, when they try to live out of themselves in terms of the reality which God may have once conferred onto them by which they now hold in their possession. Sin is to refuse to life out of the reality in which a person constantly receives from God.”
–Arthur C. McGill, Death and Life: An American Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1987), 52.
One of the things that has so annoyed me in working on engaging the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II has been the fact that there is no complete collection of his encyclicals in print. There once was such a volume, but it has since gone out of print and can’t be found online for under $200 (U.S.). I’ll certainly be doing what I can to get a Wipf & Stock reprint going for this book, but I don’t know what complications there might be in trying to get a collection of a former pontiff’s back in print. Regardless, it is a tragedy that these important theological writings are not readily available in one volume. Being able to print stuff of the Vatican website is no subsititute for a bound and printed volume!
In The Fragile Abolute, Slavoj Žižek opens his book with a discussion about how to best encapsulate the “gist of an epoch.” He argues that to understand the cultural-political reality of a particular time and place we must look, not so much at the explicit features that define the “social and ideological edifices” of that cultural formation, but rather for the “disavowed ghosts that haunt it”. The example of this he turns to is the “Balkan ghost”, the way in which the people of the former Yugoslavia are seen from the perspective of the rest of Europe. For all the various countries in Europe, ”the Balkans” constitute the “barbarian Other”, encoding an ideological antagonism into the fabric of European consciousness which embodies a particularly modern form of racism.
The ghost of “the Balkans” ultimately has nothing to do with geography, but rather with a sort of “imaginary cartography” which reflexively attributes to the people of the Balkans a “terrain of ethnic horrors and intolerance, of primitive irrational warring passions, to be opposed to the post-nation-state-liberal-democratic process of solving conflicts through rational negotiation, compromise and mutual respect.” This what Žižek calls “reflexive racism” in which racism is actually “attributed to the Other, while we occupy the convenient position of a neutral benevolent observer, righteously dismayed at the horrors going on ‘down there’.”
Thus, as the benevolent liberal observers, the European consciousness feels no dissonance in attributing things to “them” that are obviously racist, while simultaneously attributing racism to the Other. What Žižek observes about this dynamic is the way in which it moves the locus of social conflict in the world from class struggles to the “multiculturalist problematic of the ‘intolerance of Otherness’”. Žižek argues, by contrast that the answer to the problem of ethnic hatred is not through its “immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance“; rather, “what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred: hatred directed at the common political enemy.” For Žižek, of course, this “common political enemy” is capitalism. However, one wonders how such greater hatred can avoid being sublimated into the machinations of the ubiquitous order of global capitalism. Regardless, however, the call for greater hatred, rather than bourgeois exhortations to tolerance and liberal sentimentality is at least interesting, something the platitudes of liberalism definitely are not.
“Just as God so loved the world that he completely handed over his Son for its sake, so too the one whom God has loved will want to save himself only in conjunction with those who have been created with him, and he will not reject the share of penitential suffering that has been given him for the sake of the whole. He will do so in Christian hope, the hope for the salvation of all men, which is permitted to Christians alone. Thus, the Church is strictly enjoined to pray “for all men” (and as a result of which to see her prayer in this respect as meaningful and effective); and it is “good and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved…, for there is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself over as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:1-6), who, raised up on the Cross “will draw all men to himself” (Jn 12:32), because he has recived there a “power over all flesh” (Jn 17:2), in order to be “a Savior of all men” (1 Tim 4:10), “in order to take away the sins of all” (Heb 9:28); “for the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men” (Tit 2:11), which is why the Church “looks to the advantage of all men, in order that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:33). This is why Paul (Rom 5:15-21) can say that the balance between sin and grace, fear and hope, damnation and redemption, and Adam and Christ has been tilted in favor of grace, and indeed so much that (in relation to redemption) the mountain of sin stands before an inconceivable superabundance of redemption: not only have all been doomed to (the first and the second) death in Adam, while all have been freed from death in Christ, but the sins of all, which assault the innocent one and culminate in God’s murder, have brought an inexhaustible wealth of absolution down upon all. Thus: “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32).”
–Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 97-98.
Earlier I discussed Johann Baptist Metz’s critique of Hans Urs von Balthasar on the basis of his alleged tendency to “sublate” the history of human suffering into the Trinitarian history of God in such a way that the particular historical character of such suffering is glossed over. I think that ultimately such a criticsm of Balthasar fails to really find its target. For Balthasar, the self-dispossessing, kenotic love of the Trinitarian God made known in Christ doest not give us a conceptual system that harmonizes the horrors of human existence and sin with the infinite redeeming love of God. As Balthasar says in his superb little summa, Love Alone is Credible:
“We are therefore not required to bring a systematically conceived hell into harmony with the love of God and make it credible, or indeed to justify it conceptually as love (and perhaps merely as the revelation of self-glorifying divine justice), because no such system could be constructed out of a possible “knowledge” apart from or beyond love and at the same time related to it. We are required only not to let go of love, he love that believes and hopes and through both is suspended in the air so that its Christian wings may grow. Soaring in the air, I also necessarily experience the abyss below, which is only part of my own flight.”
For Balthasar, the claim that the infinite love of the Trinitarian God has entered into the fullest depths of human suffering and hell does not offer a conceptual justification for such suffering and sorrow, but rather speaks a word of vulnerable hope into the abyss of death that may be believed and acted upon. It seems to me that Balthasar and Metz are actually after exactly the same thing, an apocalyptic proclamation of the radical newness promised in the future of the God of Jesus Christ. Neither seek to justify or escape the abyss of human suffering, but rather seek to continue to traverse it in hope that the all-consuming love of the Triune God may be found therein.
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