For those of you who are interested, I’ve joined a small group of friends who are reading through Barth’s Church Dogmatics together, fifteen pages per day. At this rate it’ll take us two years to get through it, but I think there’s far less chance of burning out than if we had gone for the thirty-pages per day plan to crank it out in one year.
Category Archives: Theologians - Page 2
Resentment is a pattern of desire such that someone is much more occupied with the obstacle to their project than with the project itself. The sign of grace is when someone finds that their desire has been reformed, so that what had seemed like an obstacle becomes relatively indifferent, and they are ever freer to open up a new and creative project. The difference is that between the pattern of desire which creates suicide bombers and that which creates ministers of the Gospel.
~ James Alison, On Being Liked, 130.
CALL FOR PAPERS
New Conversations on Bonhoeffer’s Theology
A Graduate Student Conference at the University of Notre Dame
April 10-11, 2011
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) remains one of the most prominent and contested modern German theologians. His theology has been at the center of important discussions on pastoral theology, practical ethics, political responsibility, and the role of the Christian in the modern world. Bonhoeffer’s dramatic involvement in the assassination plot against Hitler, and consequent execution, has no doubt contributed to the widespread interest in his work. Today he is among the most widely read theologians in North America and Europe. Recent scholarship on Bonhoeffer’s theology, while attentive to these earlier discussions, has branched out in new directions. First, there has been increased interest in Bonhoeffer’s early and more academic works. Second, a number of recent studies have drawn Bonhoeffer into debates in continental philosophy and other disciplines. Third, there has been a renewed attentiveness to Bonhoeffer’s early twentieth-century theological and historical context. These developments indicate a growing interest in reading Bonhoeffer along systematic, philosophical and historical lines. Fourth, closer attention to Bonhoeffer’s engagement of Catholic interlocutors along these same lines has raised new prospects for Protestant-Catholic dialogue. The purpose of this conference is to draw together and further these developments.
New Conversations will feature papers by graduate students and senior scholars from North America and Europe, including:
Robin Lovin (Southern Methodist University)
Christiane Tietz (Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz)
Bernd Wannenwetsch (Oxford University)
Gerald McKenny, Randall Zachman, Cyril O’Regan, Krista Duttenhaver and other Notre Dame faculty will chair graduate student paper sessions.
We cordially invite graduate students to submit a one page abstract by 1 December 2010 to NDBonhoeffer@gmail.com for a paper 25 minutes in length. Please also indicate full contact details and institutional affiliation. We especially encourage abstracts on Bonhoeffer’s theology in relation to the following:
Early 20th century theology and history
Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist theology
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Ethics and moral theology
Enquiries may be directed to Adam Clark and Mike Mawson at NDBonhoeffer@gmail.com. New Conversations intends to provide accommodations for all student presenters and some travel costs for European students.
This event is sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and the Notre Dame Theology Department.
The always awesome Will Campbell has an article online about Elvis Presley as a redneck that provocatively explores the nature of racism in America:
America is a racist society to the core and we all know it. Ah, we have dressed it up now. We don’t need a Bilbo, a Pitchfork Ben Tillman to scream “nigger!” from the courthouse steps on election eve to keep poor whites voting right. We have code words. Is it not obvious that last year’s election had to do with race. When we heard talk of welfare abuse it meant welfare for black people, though statistics show more whites than blacks on welfare, when we heard, “…get rid of affirmative action,” it was from those wanting to hang on to the piers of privilege being mildly threatened by enterprising and struggling minorities. “Teen-age pregnancies” meant black teenagers having babies. “Crime in the streets and let’s build more prisons” was a euphemism for incarcerating and executing more black people. Was that not obvious? And is it not manifest already that the next presidential campaign will be waged on that same cunning and pernicious ground? Perhaps not as brazen as the Willie Horton syndrome but the message will be loud and clear.
I think I can make a case that the poor, white, rural, working class, the redneck, is guilty of less true racism than any other group in white American society. Not guilty of less prejudice, perhaps, but less racism. There is a distinction that must be made between racism and prejudice. And between racism and racialism for that matter. (Racialism. A concept that you might want to consider.) I am not saying that all or any one of the poor, working class are without prejudice. History would not bear me out. We can be educated, or converted out of prejudice; sheer raw, naked bigotry. But racism is a condition; the structures, the institutions in which we move and breathe and have our being that give white males the advantage. That is what racism is. Every one of us afflicted with this incurable skin disease called whiteness is a racist. That does not mean we hate black people or wish them ill. It simply means that our skin color has given us ascendance. That is what racism is. Prejudice is something else. Something on a more conscious level. The “redneck” is less racist because he operates from a base of considerably less power. It is not the poor, rural, laboring class that produces the rulers, the governors, the managers of this present age that harbors the racist cycle.
The article is from 1995, by the way, just to put the “last election” comments in their proper context.
David Guretzki has posted a quote, with his own reflections, on Karl Barth’s provocative — but correct! — claim that to call the church an “extension of the incarnation” is ultimately blasphemous:
Thus to speak of a continuation or extension of the incarnation in the Church is not only out of place but even blasphemous. Its distinction from the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Creator from His creature. Its superiority to the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Lord seated at the right hand of the Father. Hence it must guard as if from the plague against any posturing or acting as if in relation to world-occurrence it were an alter Chrisus [another Christ], or a vicarius Christi [vicar of Christ], or a corredemptrix [co-redemptress] , or a mediatrix omnium gratiarum [mediator of all graces], not only out of fear of God, but also because in any such behaviour, far from really exalting itself or discharging such functions, it can only betray, surrender, hazard and lose its true invisible being, and therefore its true distinction from the world and superiority to world-occurrence. (CD IV.3.2, 729)
Be sure to check out the rest of David’s post for his own reflections, which are, in my opinion, right on the money.
The KBBC is continuing unabated this week and today my own contribution, reflecting on the relationship between the work of Stanley Hauerwas and Karl Barth, has been posted. I’ve reproduced the entire entry here, but have closed comments. Please direct all conversation to Der Evangelische Theologe where the conference is being posted in full.
Barth and Hauerwas in Con-verse
By Halden Doerge
The topic with which I am concerned is what it might mean to bring Karl Barth into conversation with Stanley Hauerwas. As such I will try to avoid simply contrasting the two figures, or lodging a critique of one’s thought based on the other’s. Rather what is vital here is to investigate what it might mean to place these two figures in conversation with one another, and most specifically, as the theme of this year’s conference is “Karl Barth in Conversation,” my central concern will be with determining how we ought to read and appropriate the theology of Karl Barth in light of the work of Stanley Hauerwas. In short, my concern is what impact or opportunities Hauerwas makes for our reception of Barth.
Toward this end I will pursue two lines of inquiry. First, I will examine Hauerwas’s own articulation of his theological relation to Barth, showing how Hauerwas seeks to “place” himself and Barth in relation to one another theologically. As any reading of Hauerwas’s Gifford Lectures, With the Grain of the Universe makes clear, Hauerwas clearly understands Barth to be a vital theological witness in regard to the mission of the church in the world, even as he seeks to, in his view, move beyond Barth toward an ecclesiology “sufficient to sustain the witness that he thought was intrinsic to Christianity” (WTG, 39). As such, Hauerwas understands his own work to exist, in some significant sense, along the trajectory of Barth’s own work, carrying it forward in a way that exceeds Barth’s own limitations. It is this self-perception of Hauerwas’s own project as a further development, or extension of Barth’s project that must be laid to rest before we can see these two figures in their proper relation, a prerequisite for any sustained and fruitful conversation between their particular perspectives.
Secondly, having gestured towards a more accurate understanding of the relationship between Barth and Hauerwas, I will move towards an investigation of what truly reading Barth in conversation with Hauerwas might mean. In doing so I will begin to show the degree to which Hauerwas’s particular departures from Barth help us to see and hear anew the particular challenge that Barth’s theology poses for the task of theology and the faithfulness of the church to its mission in the world.
The Hauerwasian Quest for a Barthian Anchor
In his earliest book, Character and the Christian Life, Stanley Hauerwas engages Karl Barth’s work in relation to the question of growth in the Christian life. In doing so Hauerwas discerns a vital contribution in Barth’s work, namely in Barth’s “attempt to describe the Christian life in terms of the fundamental relationship of the self to God” (CCL, 176). Where Barth falls short according to Hauerwas is in his failure to “exploit the language of growth and character” (CCL, 177). Hauerwas is critical of the fact that Barth “treats the Christian life primarily in terms of events and acts, which, while repeatable, cannot contribute in a theologically significant way to the development of ourselves as men of character” (CCL, 173). In other words, Hauerwas, while appreciative of Barth’s centering of the ethical question on God’s own agency and action, is troubled by Barth’s refusal to find, in the language of character and growth, a point of ethical concreteness.
While it is important to note that as his work developed, Hauerwas has moved away from the language of character and growth in favor of emphasizing the church as a configuration of social practices which form its members in virtue (see CC, 129–52), this initial critique of Barth remains fundamentally unchanged. Barth’s insistence that “the relation between God and man is not that of parallelism and harmony of the divine and human wills, but of an explosive encounter, contradiction and reconciliation, in which it is the part of the divine will to precede and the human to follow” (CD II/2, 644) remains problematic for Hauerwas in that such an insistence on the asymmetry of divine and human action is unable to adequately express the “growth characteristic” of God’s work of sanctification (CCL, 176).
In summary, the central dissatisfaction that Hauerwas has with Barth is that, in his view Barth does not leave enough room for human—and specifically ecclesial—action to contribute to the formation of the good. Barth’s insistence on the radical verticality of grace seems to occlude the notion that the church as a community of virtue can form its members in the way of Jesus. Indeed, for Hauerwas “Jesus” names not so much a historical figure to be reconstructed, or a divine inbreaking into history, but rather the communal story of the church which forms it into a peaceable community. Hauerwas is quite clear on this point, Jesus simply is the morally formative story the church tells: “Jesus is the story that forms the church. This means that the church first serves the world by helping the world to know what it means to be the world. For without a ‘contrast model’ the world has no way to know or feel the oddness of its dependence on power for survival” (CC, 50).
For Hauerwas, the problem with Barth is that his transcendental Christology, which insists that Christ is a sovereignly free actor who breaks into history, who alone is the agent of the world’s salvation, does not allow for what he deems to be a “sufficient” ecclesiology (WTG, 39). For Hauerwas, Barth’s depiction of Christ as the sole effective agent of the divine work threatens to eliminate any necessary place for the church in the economy of salvation (see WTG, 192, 203).
This fundamental dissatisfaction of Hauerwas with Barth is expressed in its mature form in Hauerwas’s With the Grain of the Universe. While the title of this work is taken from John Howard Yoder, interestingly Yoder makes only a minor showing in Hauerwas’s argument. Rather it is Barth upon whom Hauerwas calls in attempting to rehabilitate a (Christological) natural theology. For the purposes of this post I shall leave aside the viability of such an attempt to read Barth in a manner amenable to any sort of refurbished natural theology and concentrate on the primary way in which Hauerwas positions himself relative to Barth.
What is crucial for Hauerwas in With the Grain of the Universe is Barth’s insistence that witness to the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ is the proper form of Christian discourse (WTG, 174–76). Indeed, Hauerwas posits throughout With the Grain of the Universe that the whole project of Barth’s Church Dogmatics is in fact to offer “a manual designed to train Christians that the habits of our speech must be disciplined by the God found in Jesus Christ” (WTG, 182–83). Thus Hauerwas finds Barth to be a major ally against Protestant liberalism in that he insists on the particularity of Christian theology as witness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. However he fears that Barth’s constant emphasis on the radical completeness of God’s act in Christ eliminates the church’s necessity for the world’s salvation.
This point is crucial, for Hauerwas it is vital that the church, as a community of moral practice which forms its members in virtue, be necessary for the world’s salvation. In contrast to Barth’s argument that the world would not necessarily be lost if there was no church—since “Jesus Christ, his Word and his work” alone actualize the world’s salvation (CD IV/3.2, 826)—Hauerwas insists that “If the world is not necessarily lost without the church, then it is by no means clear what difference the church makes for how we understand the way the world is and, given the way the world is, how we must live” (WTG, 193). Here we come to the crux of the matter: for Hauerwas the church provides an anchor, a fundamental point of theological, ethical, epistemological, and indeed, soteriological concreteness. Were the church not necessary in this fundamental sense we would literally have no place to stand, no way to get our bearings, or even recognize the revelation of God in Christ if such thing had occurred at all (see PK, 99–102; CC, 89–94; CET, 59–62).
Hauerwas finds in Barth the truly praiseworthy virtue of breaking with liberal Protestantism and its individualism and social fragmentation (see WTG, 147–59). With Barth Hauerwas wants to assert the particularity of theology as a specifically ecclesial witness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. However Hauerwas is dissatisfied with Barth precisely at the point where Barth is most forceful about the fundamental shape of Christian witness itself. For Barth it is axiomatic that the church, as a witness, points to a reality outside itself, the singular and irreducible reality of Christ’s work of reconciliation:
In Jesus Christ the alteration of the human situation did take place, and does take place to-day, the situation of Christians and of all men, the reconciliation of the world with God in Him who is the living Mediator between God and man in the power of His resurrection. What remains for them is high and appropriate and joyful and stringent enough—to welcome the divine verdict, to take it seriously with full responsibility, not to keep their knowledge of it to themselves, but by the witness of their existence and proclamation to make known to the world which is still blind and deaf to this verdict the alteration which has in fact taken place by it. Their existence in the world depends on the fact that this alone is their particular gift and task. They have not to assist or add to the being and work of their living Saviour who is the Lord of the world, let alone replace it by their own work. The community is not a prolongation of His incarnation, His death and resurrection, the acts of God and their revelation. It has not to do these things. It has to witness to them. It is its consolation that it can do this. Its marching-orders are to do it. (CD IV/1, 317–18)
For Hauerwas this insistence on the utter gratuity and completion of the divine work of reconciliation leaves no space for the church. Rather the church’s witness, if it is not to be rendered superfluous and unnecessary, must, in fact be constitutive of the reality of salvation itself. Hauerwas insists that “the truth of Christian convictions requires witnesses” (WTG, 211). Unlike Barth, for Hauerwas the performance of Christian witness does not point to something beyond itself, but rather is, at least in some sense, reflexive. It is precisely in the church’s own faithful act of witness that the Gospel is rendered true:
Does the truth of Christian convictions depend on the faithfulness of the church and, if so, how do we determine what would constitute faithfulness? Am I suggesting that the ability of the church to be or not to be nonviolent is constitutive for understanding what it might meant [sic] to claim that that Christian convictions are true? Do I think the truthfulness of Christian witness is compromised when Christians accept the practices of the “culture of death”—abortion, suicide, capital punishment, and war?
Yes! On every count the answer is “Yes.” (WTG, 231)
Here we see the zenith of Hauerwas’s mature position about the nature of Christian witness vis-à-vis Barth. While Hauerwas has sought to break company with liberal Protestantism’s faith in humanity as an immanent field through which God’s will is achieved in the world, he has regurgitated a vision that is structurally identical to it, simply replacing and immanent faith in humanity with an immanent faith in the church. For Hauerwas it is no longer Christ himself, but the church that is “the subject of the narrative as well as the agent of the narrative” (CET, 59). Or more precisely, in the logic of Hauerwas’s position Christ has become so utterly appended to the church that any meaningful distinction between them is not apparent. The church is no longer a witness in any ordinary understanding of the term, for after all witnesses are, by definition, those who point away from themselves to a reality beyond them. This is fundamental to Barth’s understanding of the church as witness. Hauerwas, in his zeal to make the church’s witness “necessary” rather than a superfluous overflow of grace (see CD IV/3.2, 608) has actually constructed a notion of witness diametrically opposed to Barth, whose very project he claims to be carrying forward. Far from taking up Barth’s impetus and seeking to extend his thought, Hauerwas loops back behind Barth’s critique of liberal Protestantism and recasts it in ecclesiocentric form. Hauerwas’s quest to find in the church a conceptual anchor from which to go beyond Barth has yielded something entirely opposite: a retroactive bypassing of the very challenge that Barth poses for theology and the mission of the church.
Barth’s Witness to Hauerwas
If the exposition of Barth and Hauerwas above has merit, where then does that leave us? If Hauerwas’s theology does not represent an extension of Barth’s thought, but rather its calculated reversal, what might it mean for us to place these two theologians into conversation? What would it mean to read Barth in light of and in contrast to Hauerwas’s rejection of Barth’s theology of witness? There are, I believe two important consequences that would follow from such an attempt at conversation between the theologies of Barth and Hauerwas. I will gesture towards these, albeit briefly and incompletely.
First, reading Barth in light of Hauerwas’s turn to an ecclesiocentric rather than Christocentric notion of witness offers us an opportunity to hear anew Barth’s critique of liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Indeed, as I have argued previously (Ed: David Congdon’s essay and Halden’s complete response from the 2009 KBBC) Barth’s critique of liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are two sides of the same coin (see especially WGWM, 112–15 on this point). For Barth both of these ecclesiastical modes were problematic in that they reduced God to an object within the immanent frame of either humanity or the historical process (Protestant liberalism), or the hierarchical church as the extension of the incarnation (Roman Catholicism). In both cases the diastasis between God and the world is lost and we are left with an ideological rejection of the gospel.
In an interesting way Hauerwas’s move towards an ecclesiocentric notion of witness actually brings together both the Roman Catholic and the liberal Protestant tendencies which were the very objects of Barth’s parallel critiques. Indeed this is born out in that Hauerwas’s own critique of Barth is couched in the assertion that Barth is not “sufficiently catholic,” by which Hauerwas means that “his critique and rejection of Protestant liberalism make it difficult for him to acknowledge that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are made part of God’s care of the world through the church.” Hauerwas further specifies this lack of catholicity as consisting in the fact that Barth “cannot acknowledge that the community called church is constitutive of the gospel proclamation” (WTG, 145).
Hauerwas is quite correct that Barth cannot acknowledge the church as constitutive of gospel precisely in that Barth rejects liberal Protestantism’s commitment to immanence and Pelagianism. Indeed, insofar as Hauerwas seeks any sort of “catholicity” that finds its constitutive source in the church rather than solely in the death and resurrection of Christ, Hauerwas forsakes Barth at the most fundamental level possible. Indeed, Hauerwas’s mature statement of an ecclesiocentric vision of salvation and the church provides the most perfect crystallization imaginable of the object of Barth’s multifaceted critique of religion:
Religious righteousness! There seem[s] to be no surer means of rescuing us from the alarm cry of conscience than religion and Christianity. Religion gives us the chance, beside and above the vexations of business, politics, and private and social life, to celebrate solemn hours of devotion—to take flight to Christianity as to an eternally green island in the gray sea of the everyday. There comes over us a wonderful sense of safety and security from the unrighteousness whose might we everywhere feel. It is a wonderful illusion, if we can comfort ourselves with it, that in our Europe—in the midst of capitalism, prostitution, the housing problem, alcoholism, tax evasion, and militarism—the church’s preaching, the church’s morality, and the “religious life” go on their uninterrupted way. . . . A wonderful illusion, but an illusion, a self-deception! We should above all be honest and ask ourselves far more frankly what we really gain from religion. Cui bono? What is the use of all the preaching, baptizing, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, . . . the efforts enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God? Are we even expecting something different from it? Are not we hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will? Are we not, with our religious righteousness, acting “as if”—in order not to have to deal with reality? Is not our religious righteousness a product of our pride and our despair, a tower of Babel, at which the devil laughs more loudly than at all the others? (WGWM, 19–20)
Secondly and finally, reading Barth in light of Hauerwas provides us with the opportunity to appropriate anew Barth’s explicitly missionary vision of the church. While for Hauerwas the first task of the church is “to be the church” (e.g. PK, 100), for Barth the fundamental meaning of “church” to be called and sent out into the world as witnesses of Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, one cannot put too fine a point on this difference: for Hauerwas the mission of the church is to be; for Barth the being of the church is mission. For Hauerwas the reality of the church is fundamentally oppositional. It exists as a “contrast model” for the world (CC, 50). This oppositional definition of the church gives rise to a fundamentally concentric notion of mission in which the form of the church’s (reflexive) witness is primarily that of fixating on its liturgical practices which are then asserted to be its “effective social work” (PK, 108). Thusly the church’s central task in the world is to “find a way to sustain its existence generation after generation” (PK, 107). The Hauerwasian notion of mission is thus rendered in a thoroughly concentric mode in which the church’s primary task is to preserve, defend, and prolong itself.
Barth, by contrast understands the being of the church fundamentally in terms of Christ’s sending of the church into the world as the community that witnesses to the resurrection. Indeed, for Barth the reality of the church cannot be grasped except in terms of denying that the church, in any sense, constitutes an end in itself. From beginning to end the church exists as a community sent into the world, for the sake of the world, bearing witness to the world in word and deed that in Christ all creation has been reconciled to God:
As an apostolic Church the Church can never in any respect be an end in itself, but, following the existence of the apostles, it exists only as it exercises the ministry of a herald. It builds itself up itself and its members in the common hearing of the Word of God which is always new, in common prayer, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in the practice of its inner fellowship, in theology. But it cannot forget that it cannot do these things simply for its own sake, but only in the course of its commission—only in an implicit and explicitly outward movement to the world with which Jesus Christ and in His person God accepted solidarity, for which he died, and in which He rose again in indication of the great revelation of the inversion accomplished in Him. For this reason the Church can never be satisfied with what it can be and do as such. As His community it points beyond itself. At bottom it can never consider its own security, let alone its appearance. As His community it is always free from itself. In its deepest and most proper tendency it is not churchly, but worldly—the Church with open doors and great windows, behind which it does better not to close itself in upon itself again by putting in pious stained-glass windows. It is holy in its openness to the street and even the alley, in its turning to the profanity of all human life—the holiness which, according to Rom. 12:5, does not scorn to rejoice with them that do rejoice and to weep with them that weep. Its mission is not additional to its being. It is, as it is sent and active in its mission. It builds up itself for the sake of its mission and in relation to it. It does it seriously and actively as it is aware of its mission and in the freedom from itself which this gives. If it is the apostolic Church determined by Scripture and therefore by the direction of the apostles, it cannot fail to exist in this freedom and therefore in a strict realism more especially in relation to itself. And when it does this it cannot fail to be recognisable and recognised as apostolic and therefore as the true Church. (CD IV/1, 724–25).
In the thought of Barth and Hauerwas we are confronted, despite certain affinities and even Hauerwas’s own self-presentation, with two decidedly divergent understandings of the gospel, the church, and the world. From what has been said up to this point it should be abundantly clear that I believe that Barth offers a decidedly necessary corrective to the views exposited by Hauerwas. Whatever else it may mean to place Hauerwas and Barth in conversation it cannot mean less than clearly presenting the radically different theological visions at work in their respective proposals. In so doing we are given the opportunity to see how deeply Barth’s vision of the gospel stands in variance to that of Hauerwas. At the very least such analysis will serve to exemplify the important differences between these two thinkers. At its best, we can hope that such an exercise will spur us on to ever and again fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2).
Works by Stanley Hauerwas:
CCL: Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.
CC: A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.
CET: Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living in Between. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001.
PK: The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
WTG: With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001
Works by Karl Barth:
CD: Church Dogmatics. Edited by G. W. Bromily and T. F. Torrance. 4 vols. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956–77.
WGWM: The Word of God and the Word of Man. Translated by Douglas Horton. New York: Harper, 1957.
Today’s post at the KBBC on Barth in dialogue with the Coen Brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men has been a real treat. It seems to me that this dialogue which has been helpfully rendered by Coutts serves, among other purposes, to show us the utter radicality of Barth’s understanding of salvation. The film mercilessly and starkly portrays the utter ferocity and ubiquity of evil in the world. There is, ultimately no country for old men, or for anyone. Barth, I think, would agree with this. The “no country” is indeed all that there is for the old man, for humanity as it is. The sheer banality and ferocity of evil in this world is, quite simply, something with which we cannot deal. There is no way to deal with it, to, as it were, “have dealings” with it in such a way is to make life come out even marginally ok. There simply is no country there that can be had, only a wasteland.
Thus hope, if there is to be hope can only be hope for a new world that in no way could have been inferred, unfolded, or derived from the old. If there is to be redemption it can only the redemption that is new creation in the most fundamental sense. As such it makes perfect sense that the Coen brothers would refrain from including anything “redemptive” in their account. For any such redemption would be but a falsifying of the radicality of the problem which is that we all inhabit the “no country” of death. Any redemption that might come to us, that might bring us into a new country, or as Psalm 66 has it “into a wide open place” can only come from beyond, from a resurrection beyond death, a resumption beyond rupture.
In a sense, as has been discussed in the comments of the original post, one might argue that Carla Jean could be construed as a Christ-figure, but I think we can only say this in the strict sense that her death, refuses to “deal” with the evil that is Chigurh but rather manifests a sort of independence over against the determination his power seeks to impose on her. In that she does somewhat image Christ’s death, or perhaps better, a martyr’s death.
What the Coen brothers so rightly withhold from us is any image of resurrection. If there is to be a resurrection, an irruption of new creation beyond the “no country” we have, it can only come from beyond the story that the movie (and the world) is. This seems to get at the profound truth that the resurrection cannot be inferred from anything immanent within the course of the story that is the world.
Another angle on the matter would be to suggest that the story told in No Country for Old Men articulates, in the most profound way possible, the reality of Holy Saturday. As Alan Lewis puts it, Holy Saturday, is not the day before the resurrection in the disciples’ original experience of the event, rather it is nothing, a void, “the day after the end.” That is precisely the reality of the world which No Country for Old Men so starkly presents. There is no assurance that a resurrection is coming, and no reason to think there should be. If there is to be a resurrection it can only be an absolute and utter miracle that explodes and dissolves the whole reality that is the “no country”.
Precisely by eliminating redemption from the film, the Coen brothers have demanded that we think redemption in the most radical and truthful way possible—if we can bear to do so, wagering on a word of hope that hangs in the air and defies us the moral and religious certainty we so deeply crave.
J. Kameron Carter has recently posted an extremely interesting piece on the roots of the modern racial and political imaginary in Christian iconography. He draws on Mondzain’s Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, which looks to me to be a must-read. Of course, taking on icons is certainly not an enterprise that quasi-Catholics and Christian Hipsters (also now receiving some renewed attention around the interwebs) will much care for, but it seems to me to be very persuasive. A segment:
To put the central objective of the book in terms of my own work on the origins and unfolding of the racial imaginary that our world yet remains in the throws of (claims to post-raciality notwithstanding) and how the racial imaginary arose from within a certain kind of Christian theological and ecclesial practice, Image, Icon, Economy examines how the economy or logic of the icon entails a logic for the conquering of space and from here time and history. This logic works through the visual, which then gives rise to thought or power as knowledge.
In Mondzain’s own words:
To attempt to rule over the whole world by organizing an empire that derived its power and authority by linking together the visual and the imaginal [or the notion of the ‘image’] was Christianity’s true genius. (151)
Or to put it yet another way, the theology of the icon, as it arose out of late patristic Christological formulations founds an “iconocracy,” an “empire of the gaze and vision ” (152) or what may otherwise be called a political theology of and through the visual. Within this theo-political regime of the visual, according to Mondzain, we find the basic structure of “the Universal,” that is to say, the structure of “Catholicism.” It is this structure that would provide a framework for the modern/colonial world, as founded in European imperialism, and that arguably continues to provide the inner structure of the global/postcolonial present.
Carter goes on to note how the fundamentally ideological move that is created in the icon is the carving out of a visual imaginary of the beautiful that cannot ever lapse into idolatry. The contemporary sentimentality about icons (especially as I’ve observed it among non Eastern Orthodox Christians, though I think the implications are broader) certainly needs a chastening of the sort that Carter offers via Mondvain.
In the same article, Carter has some choice critiques of John Milbank and David Bentley Hart as well, with which, as you might guess, I am in significant sympathy. Carter is very helpful in reminding us of what the recent comments Milbank made about Islam and “lamentably premature” collapse of Western colonialism made quite clear: the deeply Eurocentric and racist logic of the political project offered by radical orthodoxy:
We must remember that it was a form of theology that called itself orthodox (in fact, it was in significant measure Thomist in structure) that gave birth to the modern/colonial/racial world in the 15th and 16th centuries, which then perfected itself in the 19th and 20th centuries when modern knowledges were consolidated as Wissenschaften. How do we explain the rush, then (and this is the real issue confronting theology today), mainly among theologically minded young white males for the most part, to return to this stuff vis-a-vis what Radical Orthodoxy is peddling?
Again, the question isn’t my dear teacher, John Milbank, as such. It’s what he socially signifies at this moment of Empire and what the attraction to him on the part of many who are struggling with all their intellectual might to retrieve “the Christian tradition,” socially and theologically signifies at this moment.
That is the question indeed.
For those of you who may not have noticed yet, the main theoblogging event of the year is well underway at Der Evangelische Theologe. A notable recent entry is yesterday’s post on Barth and Bonhoeffer. Also recently posted are entries placing Barth in conversation with Schleiermacher, Bavinck, and Tillich. So far all the posts and comments have been really top notch. Definitely worthy of your attention.
Too often we tend to talk about the church as the body of Christ in a way that occludes the distinctly Christological and soteriological importance of this biblical image. The way the image tends to function in much theological discourse is to append Christ to the church in such a way as to bolster the church’s own institutional self-confidence and certainty. It simply functions to assure us that the church is in continuity with Christ and is therefore in the right.
But as Bonhoeffer points out beautifully in Ethics, the body of Christ language in Scripture serves first and foremost to point us to Christ and his act for the salvation of all humanity in the cross and resurrection:
Above all we must turn our eyes to the image of Jesus Christ’s own body — the one who became human, was crucified, and is risen. In the body of Jesus Christ, God is united with humankind, all humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled to God. In the body of Jesus Christ, God took on the sin of all the world and bore it. There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, that has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God. Whoever perceives the body of Jesus Christ in faith can no longer speak of the world as if it were lost, as if it were separated from God; they can no longer separate themselves in clerical pride from the world. The world belongs to Christ, and only in Christ is the world what it is. It needs, therefore, nothing less than Christ himself. Everything would be spoiled if we were to reserve Christ for the church while granting the world only some law, Christian though it may be. Christ died for the world, and Christ is Christ only in the midst of the world. It is nothing but unbelief to give the world — for well intentioned pedagogical reasons to be sure, which nonetheless leave an aftertaste of clericalism — less than Christ. It means not taking seriously the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the bodily resurrection. It means denying the body of Christ. (pp. 66-67)
Bonhoeffer goes show how understanding the church as the body of Christ means not that “the church-community is first and foremost set apart from the world. On the contrary, in line with the New Testament statements about God becoming flesh in Christ, it expresses just this — that in the body of Christ all humanity is accepted, included, and borne, and the the church-community of believers is to make this know to the world by word and life” (p. 67).
Thus the church is understood as the body of Christ first and foremost in terms of soteriology and Christology. In Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection God has taken on the flesh of all humanity (or rather all people participate in Christ’s own distinct humanity) and the church is the proleptic sign and sacrament of this reality. Thus, the church as the body of Christ is neither a metaphor or something to be explained in mystical terms. Rather it is a Christological reality. The church is the body of Christ in that it is the sign and sacrament of the event of Christ in which all human flesh, indeed the whole world is united and transfigured in the love of the triune God.
My long silence around here must now come to an end. As folks get back to school and other such pursuits, I will do my part to send some distractions peoples’ way via the blog.
For now, folks would do well to check out a recent post by Tim McGee about John Milbank’s inherently imperialistic theology and its detrimental relation to Christian mission and Christian approaches to Isalm (I would also suggest browsing through the old posts at Rwanda and Theology — there’s a lot of good stuff there). McGee rightly points out that, for all Milbank’s talk of an ontology of peaceable difference, for him “the form of harmonic difference is simply a nondifferential difference, an irrelevant difference, for they will basically become like us (and thus the binary still reigns supreme).”
McGee concludes, rightly, that for Milbank:
For the sake of a better Islam, Islam must be subjugated to Euro-Catholic cultural forms. Since there are some small strands of this culture within Islam, Euro-Catholic Christians can and ought to form them in this way. Since they are small and minor traditions, such a transformation can only be secured by Euro-Catholic rule. Finally, since the differences between Islam and Christianity are irreducible, such Euro-Catholic rule must be perpetual: Muslims must be continually coerced into striving to become what will forever escape them, that is, a proper (Western, Christian) human community. That is missions-qua-Milbank, which is utterly incompatible with missions-qua-scripture (Acts).
Years ago when I first read Alan Lewis’s magisterial Between Cross and Resurrection I remember thinking that the section on ecclesiology was kind of thin. Re-reading it now I can’t imagine being more wrong. The book is so breathtakingly alive with insight into the nature and mission of the church in the world; indeed I’m somewhat flabbergasted with how I missed it before.
“Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The story of cross and grave, as we have been attempting to hear and think it and to ask about its living out, tells of a contradiction between God and the world, a conflict in which evil triumphs over good, death extinguishes life, and the creatures annihilate their Maker. But the contradiction is not absolute, not is the conflict finally resolved in favor of negation. For there flourishes even more grace beyond the great magnitude of evil, a divine fertility beyond the barrenness of the demonic; and and out of the mutual opposition of the world and its Creator, there sounds a final and decisive Yes to the creatures, powerful, living and redemptive, which promises them freedom and fullness within the expansive embrace of God’s own history and life. To this triumphal Easter Yes, which never cancels bud does transcend God’s judgmental No to the world on the cross and the world’s destructive No to God in the grave, ecclesiology must clearly correspond.
So then, just as the mutual hostility between the world and God which reigns on Easter Saturday is not the final state of their relations, but yields to affirmation, renewal, and redemption for precisely those who secured the death of the living God, likewise the protest of the church, God’s chosen, living people, against the sinful, corrupt, and frequently demonic world, cannot be the final word of the Christian community to those around it. Prophetic judgment upon the world and holy separation from it must actively promote and witness to the experiential impact on the world of the greater abundance yet of God’s resurrecting grace beyond the increase of its own hostility, foolishness, and brokenness. Whatever opposition the holy church properly directs to the unrighteousness and injustice of its alien, surrounding culture, that resistance itself expresses obedience to the church’s calling to be truly catholic, immersed in solidarity and presence in the seemingly godless and godforsaken world. And equally that catholic presence is not a supine, quiescent, inert companionship which does nothing creatively for the world in which Christians are quietly embedded. The church’s critical posture toward the world is not ultimately negative, nor is its hidden presence in the world quite passive. Rather, we must reaffirm that the Easter Saturday church, Christ’s buried body, is in essence and identity for the world, and that that identity is realized not just attitudinally or spiritually, but by way of active engagements with and infiltrations of the world. Such actions are not designed to supplant or masquerade as God’s own redemptive work; but certainly, through the Spirit of Christ, they are to provide a humble yet energetic and credible instrumentality for that divine transforming of the world which shall constitute the final kingdom. In that renewal of heaven and earth, the dynamic, eschatological favor of God’s grace toward the world which rejected, crucified, and buried God’s own Son, the church as Christ’s buried but resurrected body cannot but be involved, as servant and participant. (p. 384-85)