Monthly Archives: July 2009
As some of you know, I’m a big fan of William Stringfellow, as are a number of my publishing cohorts. Currently we publish all of Stringfellow’s works and we’re getting more and more secondary works on him in print as well. Anthony Dancer’s forthcoming book, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow will be coming out in the next couple of months and will be a great addition to the line of works on and by Stringfellow.
Currently Myles Werntz is looking into putting together a discussion group on the work of Stringfellow, and more importantly, the directions his work suggests for those of us seeking to be theological engaged in the complexities of the contemporary world. Anyone interested in this imporant opportunity should email him.
In his Undergoing God, James Alison says a lot of provocative and important things, not least about the nature of worship. He details two different accounts of what worship is, which he terms “the Nuremberg” and “the un-Nuremberg,” drawing on the imagery of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. “The Nuremberg” form of worship consists in the crowd being whipped into a frenzy of devotion to the Führer on the basis of past humiliations and future threats which necessitate the loyalty and devotion of the populace. As such this form of worship is always centered on the reproduction of an in-group identity that makes enemies (i.e. the Jews) necessary.
What lies at the heart of this is that “In the case of Nuremberg, it was the party officials, for whom the faithful only had interest in as far as their mobilisation served the purpose of keeping party officials in power and wealth. The faithful had to be made ready to do things, or acquiesce in things, with which calm and unenthusiastic people might disagree. A quite specific set of desires was being put forward, and the faithful were being inducted into acquiring these as their own.” In short, this sort of “worship” is a form of utilitarian calculus centered in a discourse of power. The Führer needs the worship of the populace to get them to do what he needs them to do. The worship is all about the one in power, the one worshiped.
In contrast to this form of worship, which Alison thinks is at the heart of what usually passes for worship in the world, he offers a vision of “the un-Nuremberg”:
In the case of the un-Nuremberg we have something rather different: the “they” whose desire the faithful are being inducted into acquiring as their own is God, who has made his desire manifest. God has no desire for us to worship him for his sake; he needs no worship, no adulation, no praise, no glory. No divine ego is flattered, stability maintained, nor is any threatened petulance staved off, by our worship. No, the only people for whom it matters that we worship God is ourselves. It is entirely for our benefit that we are commanded to worship God, because if we don’t we will have no protection at all against the other sort of worship. . . .
In other words, True Worship is for our own good, no one else’s. It is the gradual process by which someone who likes us reaches us while we are in the middle of a Nuremberg rally, and gradually, and slowly gives us our senses, allowing us to stumble out of the rally, and walk away, being amazed at what it is we have been bound up in, and shocked at what we have done, or might have done as a result of where we were going. On learning to give glory to God, to render God praise, is our being given to have our imaginations set free from fate, from myth, from ineluctable forces, from historical grudges. It is a stripping away of our imaginations from being bound down by, tied into, inevitability, submission to power, going along with things. It is the detox of our Nuremberg-ed imagination. (p. 37-8)
In light of the ensuing discussion, it seemed like a good idea to fill out the whole issue of the ethical relevance of intentions a bit more. What is absolutely important in regard to this issue is to understand the way “intention” must never be used to absolve us of our actions. This is at the heart of what I was putting forth earlier. So, rather than the stark language of “intentions don’t matter” that I used to cheaply grab your attention, what really needs to be said is that any attempt to posit a morally meaningful disjunction between intention and action is illicit. What absolutely cannot be allowed is for ethical analysis to take the shape of, “Yes, this horrible thing happened, but when you see it from my ‘inside view’ you’ll understand why I’m not really all that culpable.” This is exactly the way the “appeal to intentions” functions in regard to the example given by Bacevich in regard to America’s action in Iraq. It is this sort of attempt to posit a disjunction between intention and action that is morally disastrous, and shrouded in self-deception.
Slavoj Žižek, in his book Violence makes this point absolutely clear with regard to the horrors committed under Soviet Communism:
When, in the 1960s, Svetlana Stalin emigrated to the U.S. through India and wrote her memoirs, she presented Stalin “from inside” as a warm father and caring leader, with most of the mass murders imposed on him by his evil collaborators, Lavrenty Beria in particular. Later, Beria’s son Sergo wrote a memoir presenting his father as a warm family man who simply followed Stalin’s orders and secretly tried to limit the damage. Georgy Melenkov’s son Andrei also told the story, describing his father, Stalin’s successor, as an honest hard worker, always afraid for his life. Hannah Arendt was right: these figures were not personifications of sublime Byronesque demonic evil: the gap between their intimate experience and the horror of their acts was immense. (Emphasis added)
This crystallizes my point. Whenever appeal to “the inside” functions by way of introducing a disjunction between what is happening “out there” and “the real me/you,” then everything is wrong. That is what absolutely cannot be allowed within morally meaningful ethical discourse. The reason for this is because who we really are, the true story about us, lies not in our self-contemplations, but in who we are to others. Whatever Svetlana thought about who her father “really was,” in his private, tortured soul, the truth of who Stalin was is inscribed the masses of unmarked graves he left behind. That, not any internal reflection or emotional complexity he may have felt is who he was. The truth of who we are is not found inside us, but always outside ourselves in how we act on others and how they act on us (I think there’s a christological point in here somewhere).
Žižek drives the point home:
The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie—the truth lies outside, in what we do. (p. 47, emphasis added)
So, when put carefully, it isn’t that intentions have no relevance at all to ethics. Rather it is that they can never be allowed to function in an exculpatory way in ethical discourse. Appealing to the intentions may be licit in terms of condemnation of what seem, on the surface, to be acceptable acts, but they can never function as justification for ostensibly evil ones. Thus, to pull some sort of axiom out of all this, one might say that there cannot be any licit appeal to intentions to justify an act. Intentionality may, however serve to indict what may appear as acceptable acts in some cases. However, the overriding point must always be that any attempt to establish a disjunction between intention and act for the purpose of self-justification is to be rejected in all circumstances.
Bacevich’s article, which I mentioned earlier dovetails with what I continue to be more and more convinced of in ethical evaluation. Motives, intentions, or whathaveyou seem to me to be almost totally irrelevant to substantial ethical discourse and discernment. How you feel about what you do only matters to you, not the people you do stuff to. Locating morality in intentions and motives is, quite frankly, just pathological. Either it is a form of deluded self-assuaging, or maschism of self-despising. Either way it is quite dangerous.
All vestiges of ethical reflection (the fact that we even call it “reflection” shows the problem) that center on the internal motives of the agent are best done away with and the sooner the better. Ethical or non-ethical action is something that takes place between people within social and political structures, not within the recesses of my feelings and intentions. Until we can begin to think ethics in distinctly interpersonal and structural terms we will continue to be bogged in the pathological morass of internal self-obsession.
Andrew Bacevich has an interesting reflection in World Affairs Journal on Graham Greene and American foreign policy. It really unpacks the way in which innocence (i.e. having only the best and truest intentions) is horribly dangerous in the world of violence and power. As Greene puts it, “Innocence is a kind of insanity.” The conscience that is clear, on the basis of good intentions needs not pay attention to the havoc that has been wrought by the actual actions taken.
Bacevich points out the kind of moral malaise this creates among Americans, who have enshrined this notion of innocence into our national moral sensibility:
America means well: on this point the vast majority of Americans will permit no dissent. We differ from all other great powers in history. Our leaders differ as well. To those who formulate U.S. policy, ideals really do matter. As President Obama insisted in his Cairo speech, anyone depicting the United States as a “self-interested empire” is way off base.
When U.S. policy goes awry, therefore, the culprit might be bad luck, bad planning, or bad tactics, but American motives lie beyond reproach. Thus, the reassuring take on the Iraq War, now emerging as the conventional wisdom, is that—however mismanaged the war may have been early on—the “surge” engineered by General David Petraeus has redeemed the enterprise: a conclusion doubly welcome in that it obviates any need to revisit questions about the war’s purpose and justification, while meshing nicely with the Obama administration’s inclination simply to have done with Iraq and move on.
The implications of trivializing Iraq are already evident in the debate regarding “Af–Pak”: the overriding concern becomes one of finding the general best able to apply to Obama’s war the “lessons” taken from Bush’s war. That such an approach should find favor in Washington would not have surprised Graham Greene. Those who conceived the Iraq War, the cheerleaders who promoted it from the sidelines, and critics of that war who have now succeeded to positions of power share a common interest in wiping the slate clean, refurbishing the claim that the United States meant well because the United States always means well. No doubt mistakes were made. Yet America’s benign intentions expiate sins committed along the way—or allow those in authority to assign responsibility for any sins to soldiers who in doing Washington’s bidding became sources of embarrassment.
Vietnam once laid waste to Washington’s claim of innocence, until Ronald Reagan helped restore that claim. Every indication suggests that American innocence will survive Iraq as well, this time with Barack Obama as chief enabler helping to sanitize or erase all that we do not wish to remember. A people famous for their self-professed religiosity won’t even bother to look for someone to whom they can express contrition.
Good news for friends of the Ekklesia Project. The EP blog, bLogos has undergone a splendid update and is now featuring regular posts reflecting on the Lectionary texts for each week. There is a great lineup of diverse and brilliant contributors, as well as some distinctly lesser luminaries like yours truly. The most recent post is a thought-provoking reflection on the story of David and Bathsheba by Debra Dean Murphy. Here’s a snippet:
King David’s private feelings certainly were the beginning of his very public troubles, and the violence he undertook to save his political skin was born of a view of bodies (women’s and men’s) as dispensable and disposable. That God had called into being a covenant community—Israel—to be the means through which all of Creation would glimpse divine love and glory was a truth David would learn in time. But this week and next we see the monumental failings of man consumed entirely with self-love and personal glory.
For our own time, the story of David and Bathsheba ought to function less as a vehicle for delivering isolated prohibitions about sex and more as a parable for our failure to locate sexual fidelity within a shared way of living and loving that resists all forms of violence and coercion, and that communicates something of the God who created us for community with himself and with one another. This kind of community, sustained by trust, patience, respect, friendship, and forgiveness—that is, by the practice of love—is what makes such fidelity not only intelligible but possible.
Turns out that the only way to really own a book is to . . . well, actually own a book. Farhad Manjoo has a good article in Slate about the recent debacle regarding Kindle users who had purchased 1984 and then subsequently had their book deleted when it came out that it was in violation of a copyright:
Let’s give Amazon the benefit of the doubt—its explanation for why it deleted some books from customers’ Kindles actually sounds halfway defensible. Last week a few Kindle owners awoke to discover that the company had reached into their devices and remotely removed copies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Amazon explained that the books had been mistakenly published, and it gave customers a full refund. It turns out that Orwell wasn’t the first author to get flushed down the Kindle’s memory hole. In June, fans of Ayn Rand suffered the same fate—Amazon removed Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and The Virtue of Selfishness, with an explanation that it had “recently discovered a problem” with the titles. And some customers have complained of the same experience with Harry Potter books. Amazon says the Kindle versions of all these books were illegal. Someone uploaded bootlegged copies using the Kindle Store’s self-publishing system, and Amazon was only trying to look after publishers’ intellectual property. The Orwell incident was too rich with irony to escape criticism, however. Amazon was forced to promise that it will no longer delete its customers’ books.
Don’t put too much stock in that promise. The worst thing about this story isn’t Amazon’s conduct; it’s the company’s technical capabilities. Now we know that Amazon can delete anything it wants from your electronic reader. That’s an awesome power, and Amazon’s justification in this instance is beside the point. As our media libraries get converted to 1′s and 0′s, we are at risk of losing what we take for granted today: full ownership of our book and music and movie collections.
“[Jesus's] kingship has no worldly luster, his power is powerlessness compared to the strength of others. ‘He who alone is rich is . . . the poorest of the poor’ (167). In word and deed he turns especially toward the poor; their poverty corresponds to his. The royal man’s activity shows a marked affinity for the shadowy side of human existence. This, in turn, is closely linked to the ‘revolutionary character of his relationship to the orders of life and value current in the world around him’ (171). Precisely because Jesus proclaimed no program of his own, he called all human programs and principles into question. Living under the ruling order of his day, he nevertheless had the royal freedom to testify to the Kingdom of God, which is the limit of all human activity. No human system is fully valid for God, not is any fully applicable to the human Jesus. God is the one who shatters all human conventions, the judge of all human constructions. And Jesus manifests this in his existence ‘as this (if we may risk the dangerous word) partisan of the poor, and finally as this revolutionary’ (180). But in all this he is not opposed to the human race, but for it—as the Savior of the world, whose assault on the world is spearheaded by the gospel. God judges the human race only in order to restore it.”
~ Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy, 136. (Page references in the quote are to Barth, CD IV/2)
And yet again I am back. The trip ruled. Rivers were floated down and swimmed in. Conversations were had. I totally used my massive Dutch oven for the first time ever. Fantastic trip. I recommend them.
I also finally did a cover-to-cover reading of John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. I really regret waiting so long to really bite into this one. Honestly I’m not sure we can really understand Yoder and his important critique of Constantinianism without this book. I’ll probably post more on it shortly, but for now, here’s just one of the many money quotes:
Radical reformation and [Jeremian] Judaism have in common that they see God as active in correlation with historical change and criticism more than with sanctifying the present. For one tack of socio-cultural analysis, it is possible to distinguish ‘religion’ as that which sanctifies and celebrates life as it is, things as they are, the personal cycle of life from birth to death and the annual cycle of the sun and the culture from spring to winter. Over against this understanding of ‘religion’, the category of ‘history’ represents the morally meaningful particular processes, which may not go in a straight line but at least go somewhere; they are non-cyclical, stable, repetitive.
Such a blunt pair of prior categories is far to simple to deal with many important distinctions we need to make: yet there is something to it. Where it does fit, we find majority Christianity on the ‘religion’ side, and on the ‘history’ side we find the Jews, radical Protestants, and (today) the theologies of liberation.
This means that God is not only spoken about and prayed to as the One who once acted. God is expected to keep on acting in particular identifiable events within history, in discernible and in fact to some extent even predictable ways. The way God acts will be the same, yet will continue to challenge and to change. Salvation or wholeness or peace will come, often at great cost for God’s best friends and at the price of surprise, paradox and humiliation for those who felt the power game was already clear.
~ John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, 108.
I know, I know, I just got back from Chicago and now I’m abandoning you all to the wastelands of the interwebs again. But take joy in knowing that I’m having a hell of a time. Outside of cell phone range. Sitting by a river. Probably reading Charles Taylor or cooking something delicious in a Dutch oven. See you guys next Monday.
In the comments thread on the McCabe quote I posted yesterday, Charlie directed us to a fantastic article deserving of a close reading by James Alison which deals with the difference between idolatry and worship, particularly as this relates to questions regarding homosexuality and Christian doctrine. It is definitely worth the time to read. Here’s just a couple quotes:
I take it for granted that when we talk about God we are not talking about a god, a large and powerful member of the genus ‘gods’ who just happens to be the only one. We are talking, in the wake of the great Hebrew breakthrough into monotheism in the post-exilic period, of God who is not one of the gods. Of God about whom it is truer to say that God is more like nothing at all than like anything that is, because God is not a member of the same universe as anything that is, not in rivalry with anything that is. God is not an object within our ken; we find ourselves as objects within God’s ken. God is massively prior to us, and God’s protagonism is hugely more powerful than any possible action or reaction which we might imagine. Or, in the phrase my late and beloved novice master, Herbert McCabe, used to enjoy saying: God and the Universe doesn’t make two.
The question then arises of the relationship between everything that is and God who is utterly prior to it. Is that relationship something like a symptom, such that from things that are, including ourselves, we can glean something about the One who brings them into being and sustains them? And if that is the case, do we have any criteria at all for what is a reflection of God’s creative will and power, and what is a defection from it? And this for me is the central point in any discussion about monotheism and idolatry: what is the criterion by which we can learn the difference between idolatry and worship? The answer which the Catholic faith gives me is this: the reason why it is possible to be non-idolatrous is because God has given us God’s own criterion for what it looks like to be non-idolatrous. And that criterion, given that God has no parts or divisions, and in every movement towards us is One, is also God. The criterion took the form of a lived-out fully human life story, that of Jesus, whose meaning was the reverse of all the human criteria that are usually brought into play in such stories. God gave, as God’s own criterion for God’s own power, not the power of Emperors, legislators or Priests, but the ability to occupy the space of losing, curse, shame and death without being run by them, in such a way that that space and the whole anthropological structure of human existence that depends on it, is able to be relativised. Idolatry is seen to be an involvement in the human cultural reality of death from which God longs for us to be free.
For my money you can’t do much better than this in talking about the Christian doctrine of God. This is long, but I couldn’t bear to cut the quote off. It’s just too good:
Jesus is God’s word, God’s idea of God, how God understands himself. He is how-God-understands-himself become a part of our human history, become human, become the first really thoroughly human part of our history—and therefore, of course, the one hated, despised, and destroyed by the rest of us, who wouldn’t mind being divine by are very frightened of being human.
In Jesus, says the Christian, we do not understand God but we can watch God understanding himself. God’s understanding of God is that he throws himself away in love, that he keeps nothing back for himself. God’s understanding of God is that his a love that unconditionally accepts, that always lets other be, even if what they want is to be his murderers. God’s understanding of God is that he is not a special person with a special kind of message, with a special way of living to which he wants people to conform. God’s understanding of God could not appear to us as someone who wants to found a new and better religion, or recommend a special new discipline or way of life—a religious code laid upon us for all time because it is from God. God’s understanding of God is that he just says: ‘Yes, be; be human, but be really human; be human if it kills yous—and it will.’ The Law of God is a non-law; it has no special regulations. The Word just says: ‘I accept you as human beings; what a pity you can only like yourselves if you pretend to be super-humans or gods.’ God could never understand himself as one of the gods; only as one of the human race.
Let us be absurd for a minute and try to imagine what it means for God to understand himself. I don’t mean try to think or understand it (of course we cannot do that). But let us try to imagine understanding that limitless abyss of life and liveliness, that permanent explosion of vivacity and awareness and sparkling intelligence and, of course, humour. And remember that in understanding himself God will thereby be understanding all that he has done and is doing, all that he holds in being, every blade of grass and every passing thought in your mind. The concept he has of himself in all this is his Word. This is what is made flesh and dwells among us in the human suffering and dying Christ.
And in contemplating his life in this Word, in this concept, in contemplating all he is and does, God has surely a huge unfathomable joy and immense excitement in all the life that is his and all the life he has brought into being. God takes immensely more joy in one little beetle walking across a leaf than you can take in everything good and delightful and beautiful in your whole life put together. If he gets that pleasure from one beetle he has made, think then what joy he takes in being God. This limitless joy is what we call the Holy Spirit.
To be able, through faith, to share in Christ, in God’s understanding of himself, to be in Christ, is to be filled ourselves also with this joy, this Holy Spirit. It is a joy so vast that we can only faintly sometimes it as our elation and joy—just as our sharing in God’s self-understanding hardly at all seems to us an understanding, a being enlightened. We have a life in us, an understanding and a joy in us, that is too great for us to comprehend. Quite often it has to show itself as what seems its opposite, as darkness and suffering. The Word of God is Christ crucified. But it is God’s way and the truth of God and the life and joy of God. And this is in us because we have faith. We have been prepared to go into the dark with Christ, to die with Christ. And we know that this means we live in Christ. And that life, the divine understanding and joy that is in us, will one day soon show itself in us for what it truly is. And we shall live with the Father, through the understanding which is the Word made flesh, in the joy which is the Holy Spirit for eternity.
~ Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, 104-6.
For the next three days or so posting may be spotty. I’ll be in Chicago, hitting up the best local eateries and bars I can between sessions at this year’s meeting of The Ekklesia Project. The topic for this year is “Economics in the Household of God.”
I look forward to some good sessions and some far better times with great friends.