Saturday, May 17, 2008


The youth have been corrupted. The piper has been paid. It's now judgment day. Last week was spent catching up on pre-exam, paper grading and administering final exams. This week coming I will be knee deep in grading exams and final papers. That means things will stay pretty quiet in these parts. I'd say to expect a new post some time during the middle of week after next (27th/28th).

pax vobiscum,

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Kingdom of God: Ever Coming Never Arriving?

Tony J got me thinking. He got me thinking about God's kingdom, and the way in which Derrida and Caputo represent it as a perpetual deferral. Tony finds the D&C conception alluring and attractive. I suspect many in the emerging movement do. I myself don't find it appealing. I want to know what others think. And I want to wonder aloud about whether it might not actually be something else that Tony, et. al. find appealing in the D&C model, something that they misidentify as the doctrine of eternal deferral.

I make no pretense at all to being a Derrida scholar. So, I am open to correction in what I'm about to say, and I would invite others more knowledgeable than I to weigh in here and to offer correction where correction is needed. Let me lay out what I understand to be the gist of the D&C model of the impossibility and undeconstructibility of the kingdom, and say why, as a Christian, I think we ought to reject it.

As I understand it, the kingdom of God or Justice or The Wholly Other or Messiah is never fully present on the D&C model but always a reality yet to come, always a reality beyond, a future, a hope, an aspiration. Indeed, God is not even to be thought of as a being, an individual, but rather as an uncontainable, unconditional, undeconstructible Event that is, as some who talk about such things put it, "astir" or "harbored" in the name of "God".

Why is the kingdom eternally deferred? Because words and worldly structures are finite, contingent, particular, limited, deconstructible and thus inhospitable abodes for the Wholly Other and the un-deconstructible. At best what we are ever presented with are "traces" of the Event that is God, and these traces call us beyond and invite us into a transformed way of being in the world.

As I said, I'm certainly open to correction here as I am admittedly outside my own areas of professional expertise. But, to the extent that I've got Derrida/Caputo right, I'm inclined to think that this discarnational model of the kingdom is utterly foreign to the incarnational kingdom of Christian faith. Whereas the D&C "gospel" regards the contingent, particular and deconstructible with suspicion and as inhospitable to the Wholly Other/Messiah/Kingdom or Justice, the God of Christian faith dwells within, inhabits, incarnates himself precisely in the particular, deconstructible and contingent. And far from "traces" of God within the particular, deconstructible and contingent the gospel suggests a fullness of presence.

Moreover, while the idea of a transformative event lies at the very heart of the gospel, the Trinitarian God of Christian theism is not himself an Event, but a God-in-three-persons. Events don't have intentions, aims, loves, etc. I can't enter into a reciprocated relationship of love with an event.

What, then, might Tony and others find so appealing in the D&C idea of eternal deferral? I'd like to think that it's not so much the eternal deferral and impossibility of the kingdom that they find so attractive, as that hardly strikes me as good news. That's about as "good" as the news delivered up in Waiting for Godot. At least in the case of the latter the two main characters believe Godot is coming, though he never arrives. Not so in the D&C story where God's coming is impossible.

Perhaps what TJ and others find appealing is the perpetual deferral of understanding, the realization that no matter what we come to understand of God and of his justice it is inexhaustible; there is always more. I wonder if it's not the idea that we ought never to be satisfied or settled with a particular theology or political arrangement, for example, but always questing, always reaching and searching.

In a way, insofar as the emerging movement can be viewed as a development within evangelical protestantism, it is easier for me to see how some of Derrida's ideas are consonant with emergent sensibilities than it is for me to understand how Caputo, a Catholic, would be attracted to such discarnate, disembodied, otherworldly notions. Catholicism's emphasis on the Eucharist, a place where Christ is really present (one almost wants to say re-incarnated) would seem to more easily prevent one from flights of disembodiment than the thin "commemorative" understanding of the Eucharist in low-church protestant denominations and non-denominations.

In any case, what do you think? Have I misrepresented the D&C model? If not, do you find the notion of an eternal deferral of the kingdom appealing?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

In Reply to Mr. D and All Christians Who Sow Seeds of Division by Demagoguery

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4.1-6

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Theology Stupid: Humility and Relativism

This is a long, fun chapter (chapter 4) of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. And there's a lot we could talk about. After hitting a couple of the highlights, I'm going to focus on two charges leveled at emerging Christians and discussed by Tony in this chapter. The one charge is that emerging Christians lack conviction in their Christian beliefs, owing to their embrace of epistemic humility. The second charge is that emerging Christians are relativists. Both charges, Tony responds, are false.

But up first, a couple of bottom-of-the-ninth, two out, two men on, game-saving diving catches and last-second, buzzer-beating three-point shots with a hand in the face.

Theology, Tony tells us, is what Augustine did in City of God, Michelangelo sculpted in his Pieta, John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, Peter Paul Rubens painted in The Allegory of Peace and War, Dostoyevsky wrote in the The Brothers karamazov and Bono sings in "Mysterious Ways" (p.105). Theology, in an important sense, is any human activity that reveals what it is we believe to be the case about God, who we think God is and what we think God is up to in the world.

In short, "human life is theology. Virtually everything we do is inherently theological. Almost every choice we make reflects what we think about God. There's no escaping it" (p.106). To which I say, Amen and amen.

And there's this:

the emergent church movement is a counterreaction, a retrieval of the deep theological tradition of wrestling with the intellectual and spiritual difficulties inherent in the Christian faith
(p. 109).

Yes, there are spiritual difficulties inherent in the Christian faith. Take something like the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian formulation of the two-natures of Christ, for example. It is tempting to think that these formulations of Christian belief were the last words on matters of Christian belief and doctrine. That would be a mistake, however. What the creeds do is to establish parameters or fences, inside of which is the Christian faith and outside of which is not Christian faith. But within those parameters spiritual difficulties remain. We believe that God is a Trinity. But just how to understand the Trinity is difficult business and open to exploration and a variety of acceptable interpretations. Jesus was both human and divine. But how to understand that is an open issue, and one as deeply mysterious as is the Trinity itself. Christian formulae such as the creeds circumscribe for sure, but they don't eliminate mystery and they most assuredly leave room for a variety of views and understandings of the various truths they seek to express. As one of Tony's friends says "to every answer there is a good question" (p.110). Indeed.

And to those emergent detractors who claim that folks like Tony are infatuated with novelty and disdain tradition, let me quote from the horse's mouth, where he says of theology that it is only:

done in the aftermath of the multifarious theologies that have gone conversation with two thousand years of Christian theology and four thousand years of Jewish theology before that (113).

A couple of bloopers and then the main event: humility and relativism.
At the very beginning of the chapter, Tony suggests that both the methods and the message of Christianity "are bound to be reconceived over time" and he says that "if one changes the methods one will inevitably change the message (p.96).

Well, I dunno. The message of Christianity, as I understand it, is essentially this: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. I know Tony won't like this, but that seems to me the Christian message in a nutshell. To human beings and a world broken and fragmented by sin, the Christian story comes as good news: God's response to sin and lovelessness is love and redemption. If that message should change, it would simply cease to be the Christian message. Now I agree with Tony that the gospel is always already enculturated. And I agree that to try and freeze any particular articulation of the gospel, actually does an injustice to the gospel. But there is a gospel. It has a particular content. And if the content should change in such a way as to entail that God was not in Christ reconciling the world to himself, or change in such a way as to entail that God did not become incarnate in Christ, and did not suffer, die and rise again to reverse the curse of sin and death, well, then, it is, in my view, no longer the Christian message.

Granted, how best to tell the story or show the story or live the story, all of that may change. But the story, should it change in its essentials, it doesn't become something else. It simply ceases to exist and gets replaced with a different story, a non-Christian story.

Tony also says that God is a being whose activity is, by definition, not contingent. And I'm not sure what he means by that. It is, of course, a long standing belief that God's existence is not contingent, that God exists a se or in himself. You and I and all created things, by conrast, are contingent beings. God, it has long been believed, is not a contingent being but a necessary and utterly independent being.

I bring this up because it seems to me that at least some of God's activity is, indeed, contingent on the activity of humans and Tony says that the bible suggests otherwise. I guess I don't see that. Suppose God does not have knowledge of the future free actions of human beings. It would seem to me that if that's the case, then what God does in the future (if God should act in response) is at least partly dependent on what free actions human beings perform in the future. God's getting angry at human beings before the flood, for example, was contingent or dependent on human beings having displeased him. Had those living on the earth not displeased him, he would not have been displeased and sent the flood in response. So, the biblical witness itself seems to point in the opposite direction than what Tony suggests, i.e., that at least some of the activity of God is contingent on the activity of humans.

Okay, from page 115, Dispatch 11:

Emergents believe that awareness of our relative position--to God, to one another and to history--breeds biblical humility, not relativistic apathy.

Conviction is one thing it seems to me emerging Christians have in spades. They believe, and believe strongly, lots of things. Apathy is not one of their trademarks. Yet I have heard it said that emerging Christians lack conviction. That seems false. And yet their convictions are tempered with humility. The humility comes in when one realizes that one's forebears also believed, and believed strongly, lots of things, things we now believe they were dead wrong about. For example, the moral permissibility of slavery and the moral impermissibility of inter-racial marriage. Emerging Christians, although they hold very strong convictions on lots of things, they realize that they are finite, frail and deeply situated creatures and, as a result, it might actually be them that has blindspots. So, they're more inclined to say, "look, this is how I see it and why. How do you see you see it, and why?"

To go along with that, emerging Christians are also aware that cultural realities such as marriage and family did not drop down out of the sky fully worked out and unalterable. They realize that such institutions even within the church have been thought of differently at different times. Even friendship--same-sex and cross-sex-- has been understood differently at different times in Christian history. In fact, to read Saint Augustine and other of our theological forebears on friendship many today would be certain they were gay, for the language they use in correspondence witht each other and the language they use to describe their same-sex friendships sound borderline romantic to our ears.

It is such talk as this that leads critics to charge emerging Christians with being relativists. And Tony's response is "well, we're all relativists" (p.117). And he goes on to offer examples of how all of us work with biases, and how every English translation of the the ancient Jewish and Christian sacred manuscripts is biased. And we, when we read the scriptures, we each of us employ what one might call a canon within the canon. In other words, some believe women cannot be pastors or teachers and believe that this is what the bible teaches. Others believe the bible teaches that in Christ there is no more slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female. The first allows one set of passages to serve as his or her controlling texts (his or her canon within the canon) while the other allows other passages to serve as his or her controlling texts. Both are working with biases when it comes to their understanding of what the bible teaches about women pastors and teachers.

Now, my own view is that what Tony is talking about is not exactly what most people have in mind when they charge emergents with relativism. Usually relativism is thought to have something to do with truth or morality. The contrast to the relativist is usually thought to be the absolutist or objectivist. So when someone charges the emerging Christians with being relativists, I take them to be saying that emerging Christian believe (say) that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, but only relative to the Christian story. The critics want to know, however, is it true that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself? The charge is that the emerging Christian will say something like, "well, for the Christian it is, but not for the Hindu."

So when it comes to relativism, most people do not have in mind the problem of canons within the canon. They have in mind relativism. Are homosexual unions wrong? Full stop. The moral relativist is likely to say, well, they're wrong perhaps from a Christian perspective, but not from all perspectives.

Are emerging Christians relativists? Certainly not all. At least most (if not all) of the ones I know are not relativists. They think it's true that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Period. Now they might go on to say something like, "But of course, I sometimes wonder if I've been duped. I sometimes wonder if this story can really be true after all." But that's perfectly consistent with their believing it's true.

And as for homosexual unions being wrong, an emerging Christian might says something like: "Well, as I understand it homosexual unions are at cross-purposes with God's ultimate intentions for human sexuality and so they're morally wrong. But I also recognize that war is at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for human relations and so too divorce. Now, why are we willing to say when it comes to war and divorce--which we believe to be at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for the world--that it is sometimes morally permissible to engage in these activities? And why aren't we willing to say that about homosexual unions?"

Now let me add this: imagine that you find yourself in the following psychological predicament. You believe (say) war or divorce is at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for the world, but you also believe that you have exhausted every conceivable avenue that might avoid going to war or getting a divorce, and you decide to engage in the war or get the divorce, fully recognizing that it is not the best all things being equal decision, but is, to your lights, the best all things considered decision. And so you decide to embark on a path that is at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for the world. And you think it is morally permissible to do so. That would be a psychologically hellish place to live.

In any case, many of us believe that war is at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for human relations and yet we believe that it is sometimes morally permissible to engage in war. Why do we not think the same about homosexual unions? That's the sort of question emerging Christians might ask and worry about. And, so far as I can see, there's nothing relativistic about it.

I'll close this off with another quote from the book, p. 122:

Like myriad Christians through the ages, emergents are attempting to...figure out where God is in the world, what God is up to, and how the biblical narrative jibes with our own 21st century lives.

If I were to have written that sentence, I might have changed that last clause to this: "...and how to fit our 21st century lives into the biblical narrative." But Tony gets it.