Monday, February 28, 2011

Regularly Scheduled Broadcast

Two missing E.E. posts in a row, and something like four in a row (at least) of Sunday Sabbath Poetry. It'll all be returning soon, but hearing from programs and finishing the first draft of my thesis and simultaneous midterm papers have crowded them out for a bit. Spring Break begins in a week; by then everything should be back on schedule.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Question About Yoder's Supposed Influence and Current Graduate Theological Programs

There seems to be a sense, generalized among those in top-tier seminaries and schools of theology, and especially among those who worry about Stanley Hauerwas, that the influence of John Howard Yoder is prevalent and powerful in the academy, in students, and so on.

I have recently come to seriously question this judgment. Other than Duke -- and there, more or less confined to Hays and Hauerwas, the former now dean and the latter soon to be retired -- is there another top flight theological program with any identifiable slant in Yoder's direction? Are there even such schools with prominent individual Yoderians?

I am thinking: Yale, Princeton (x2), Chicago, Harvard, Virginia, Union, Vanderbilt, Emory, Drew, Notre Dame, Marquette, SMU, GTU, and so on -- do any of these have a Yoderian strand, leaning, or even openness? Would it not rather be more correct to say that an interest in or preference for Yoderian study is, at best, a neutral self-identification in relation to these schools but possibly, at worst, a strike against one's attractiveness as a potential student or professor?

(This is not even to mention the situation with schools in the U.K.)

If my reading of the situation is correct, why is this so? Is it mostly bound up with anti-Hauerwasian concerns? Is it a reaction to Yoder's popularity? Is Yoder (or are Yoderian scholars) perceived as too "something" for these schools -- sectarian, pacifist, political, apolitical, evangelical, biblicist, radical, non-methodological, apocalyptic, white male, or some such other institutional liberal allergy?

Or, perhaps, I am over-reading or misrepresenting the matter. Rebukes and/or amens are welcome as appropriate.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

John Howard Yoder on Liberation Theology, Marxism, Exodus, and the Freedom Proclaimed by the Gospel

"Many are morally offended that some of the definitions of liberation make use of categories of analysis that are derived in more or less direct ways from the impact of Marx on social thought in the West. By no means are many liberation theologians philosophically Marxist, in the sense of dialectical materialism and atheism. More of them are vaguely Marxist, in the sense that categories of class struggle fit the world they know and the exploitive capitalism that they have seen at work. As Jose Miguez Bonino . . . has described it, this commonality of perspectives is pragmatic. It is a coalition in the face of a problem which both Marxists and Christians care about: how to understand and then to transform the oppressive structures under which they suffer. It is no more a betrayal of Christian theism than it was when Augustine borrowed from Plato or Aquinas from Aristotle. It is less a betrayal than it is when our contemporaries borrow their visions of economic justice from Milton Friedman or their vision of personal flourishing from Freud.

"What cannot be wrong is recognizing that the commitment of Jesus to the cause of the poor was not marginal, nor derivative, but constitutive of his ministry. The Magnificat and the preaching of John demonstrate that economic redistribution was part of the salvation expectation of the suffering people to whom Jesus came. His desert temptation and his first 'sermon' in Nazareth confirmed that intention. As an anticipation of its fulfillment, he made his disciple circle an itinerant commune, and, as high point of his public ministry, he fed thousands in the desert. If by 'Marxism' we mean that an elite will impose a new order by the violence of the state, that is wrong, just as it is wrong when Christian patriarchalism, Christian imperialism, and Christian nationalism have done it. If by 'Marxism' we mean an atheistic materialistic determinism, that too is wrong, in the same way as is the commitment of Reaganomics to the sovereignty of the laws of the marketplace. If, however, by 'Marxism' we mean sobriety about the reality of class interest, if we mean the recognition that where one's treasure is there one's heart will also be, and if we mean a moral bias in favor of the underdog, then that cannot be what is wrong with liberation theology.

"[Another] axis along which liberation visions vary among themselves is the extent to which they promise quick success. Triumphalism has become the code label for visions of God's victory that shorten its time frame and narrow the circle of its beneficiaries. That 'we shall overcome some day' is simply not true, if by 'some day' we mean tomorrow and by 'we' we mean only ourselves. That distortion of the promise has sometimes been fostered by a too-simple application of the exodus metaphor. It is clear that the event at the Reed Sea was foundational for the identity of ancient Israel. Our texts of the Decalogue and the rest of the self-definition of the Hebrew people arise from their having been brought forth by the mighty acts of God. But there was only one exodus. It is not a paradigm to be replicated any time we wish. It would not have happened in the first place without prior people-building events in the land of bondage, and it would not have been remembered had it not been followed by many other people-building events at Sinai, in the wilderness, and in Canaan. Had it not been for the failure of kingship and the new mission of Diaspora in the age of Jeremiah, the exodus would not have been transformed from the mission of Israel into the mission of Judaism for the blessing of the nations. All of this together is the shape of liberation. If our reference to the metaphor of exodus refers to all of that, in an authentic synecdoche, that is fine. If, however, we foreshorten the image, concentrating on our survival at the cost of drowning the Egyptian cavalry and slaughtering the Amalekites and assorted Canaanites, then we have made of the imagery of liberation a new engine of oppression. The only use of the word exodus in the Gospels is to refer to the face Jesus was to encounter in Jerusalem, as he spoke of it with Moses and Elijah on the mountain.

"Crucifixion and diaspora, not conquest and revenge, are thus the shape of the liberty through which Jesus's victory frees humankind. When the apostles use eikon language, it is of the crucified Messiah that they speak, not of some other kind of hero or victor figure.

"In sum: Jesus as unique bearer of the divine image cannot but be a liberator, since Yahweh is a liberator. Yet, in our conformity to that image, we shall be mistaken if we assume that freedom can be the product of coercion. We shall hold lightly any of the human sciences whose language we borrow, whether it be Marx's or someone else's. We shall proclaim God's freedom as imminent and incipient, as present in Jesus and in ourselves and in the victims of our world. We shall provide no timetables for its final victory, however, and we shall not repeat the mistake of the twelve in the upper room, debating about which of us belongs at the head table."

--John Howard Yoder, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (ed. Glen H. Stassen, Mark Thiessen Nation, Matt Hamsher; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), 171-72

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 3A: "The One Who Has To Do WIth Us"

This post belongs to an ongoing series engaging David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, as part of an online reading group for the year 2011. For more information, read the introductory posts here and here.

Previous posts: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"; Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"; Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"; Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Project This Isn't"

Section of text: Chapter 3A: "The One Who Has To Do With Us"

Pages: 120-131

Guest reflection by Garrett East:

Rather than offer a summary of Chapter 3A, I would like to start my engagement of Kelsey’s chapter with several criticisms and questions, and then end my response with some affirmations of what I found helpful in this chapter. I will focus most of my response on criticisms/questions, but that is not because I disagree with Kelsey a lot. Instead, it is because I think my disagreements might be more interesting than my reiterations of his best points.

My first question concerns Kelsey’s decision to frame his entire theological anthropology around the roles each person of the triune God plays in each of the three ways God relates to creatures (creation, consummation, reconciliation). Are there substantial anthropological implications to be learned from the Trinitarian relations in each scriptural story? Kelsey assumes that a claim like “the Father creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit” is packed with anthropological implications and he elaborates on some of those implications in this chapter. However, I am not yet convinced that that statement tells us as much as Kelsey believes it does. For example, all of the implications that he gleans from “through the Son” seem to be true to Scripture, but it is not clear to me that they have to be grounded in “through the Son.” I am not seeing the connections as clearly as Kelsey is.

Another place where I am not seeing the connections is in his section on the Spirit’s role in eschatological consummation. For example, Kelsey says, “In enacting love to draw creatures to participate in God’s own life, the triune God is at once self-consistent and freely self-determining. That is the force of saying ‘the Spirit,’ rather than the Father or the Son, ‘draws creation to eschatological consummation’ ” (126). Would this statement not be true if we said “the Son” draws creation to eschatological consummation?

Also, I recognize that creation, eschatological consummation, and reconciliation are the three central events in God’s relationship with his creation, but I wonder what anthropological implications would come from exploring everything that happens in between each of those definitive events. Is there anything anthropologically significant about God’s calling of Abraham, his election of Israel, his great acts of deliverance in the Exodus and the return from exile, in his opening up of the people of Israel to Gentiles, or in his mission through the church? Are all of those things included in God’s reconciling humans back to himself? Or, does Kelsey set them aside to focus on the three major events of creation, incarnation, and new creation?

Kelsey also focuses a lot on metaphysical claims about Jesus, specifically focusing on him as the eternal Word/Wisdom of God. However, it seems to me that Jesus’ life on earth is more illuminating of humanity than his preexistence is. I wonder if Kelsey is going to explore Jesus’ humanity more, specifically as it is narrated in the gospels, or if he will continue to put more emphasis on Jesus as the Logos.

In his discussion of the triune God’s relating in the eschaton, Kelsey says that the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, draws creatures to eschatological consummation. However, while the Spirit is certainly connected with the future renewal of all things throughout Scripture and definitely has a vital role, I am not convinced that the Spirit is the primary actor here. There seem to be many canonical witnesses that point to the Father as the primary actor, though of course the Son and Spirit are intimately involved as well (I am specifically thinking of Revelation here).

I am interested to see where Kelsey’s anthropology based on the Trinity and these three central scriptural stories will go. Prior to encountering Kelsey, I have had very little exposure to theological anthropology. The little I have read and heard has focused on scriptural claims about humankind being made in the image of God, being a little lower than the angels, being children of God, or falling short of the glory of God. The focus has always been exegesis of Scripture rather than exploration of normative theological claims, and so I am looking forward to seeing how this proposal works itself out.

Another thing: it is not altogether clear to me what Kelsey means when he emphasizes that creation is ontologically and logically, but not chronologically, prior to consummation (121 and 126). Is he making a claim about God’s existence outside of time? What does it mean to say creation does not chronologically precede consummation?

Kelsey continually emphasizes that God is self-determining and radically free in everything he does. One question I have for Kelsey is if he believes God has any qualities/characteristics that compel him to act in a certain way. For example, would he be able to say something like, “God’s love compels him to draw his creatures to eschatological consummation”?

In addition to all of these questions and concerns, here are some of the things I found most valuable from Kelsey in this chapter: the independence yet interconnection between each scriptural story (for example, God’s relation to creatures as “consummator of” is ruled by God’s relation as “creator of”); the changing pattern of relationships among the three persons in each of the three sets of scriptural stories so that each type of story has a distinctly different character; the prepositions used to emphasize the ways in which God is both near and distant in each Scripture story (“to” in creation, “between” in eschatological fulfillment, and “among” in reconciling action); and the asymmetries among the three scripturally narrated ways in which the triune God relates to creatures.

Finally, my favorite quote from the chapter: “There is no single, simple Christian metanarrative. Nor can there be, parasitic on it, any Christian anthropological metatheory about human persons that can, at least in principle, systematically synthesize all relevant truth claims about human being, Christian theological claims and otherwise. Human beings are in their own way too richly glorious, too inexhaustibly incomprehensible, too capable of profound distortions and bondage in living deaths, too capable of holiness, in short, too mysterious to be captured in that fashion” (131).

Next week: Chapter 3B: "The Concept of Christian Canonical Holy Scripture," pages 132-156

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


In approximately five weeks, I will know where, if anywhere, I am going for doctoral work.

Three weeks later, my completed thesis is due to be submitted to my reading committee.

Five weeks following that, I will graduate from Candler School of Theology with my Master of Divinity.

And two weeks subsequent to graduation, if I have been accepted to a PhD program, my wife and I will be leaving our three-year home and friends and church in Atlanta for a new home elsewhere.

I am tempted to platitudes. Instead, let me just say that it is good to know that others also have been in this same position and have survived.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Project This Isn't"

This post belongs to an ongoing series engaging David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, as part of an online reading group for the year 2011. For more information, read the introductory posts here and here.

Previous posts: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"; Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"; Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"

Section of text: Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Project This Isn't"

Pages: 80-119

Summary: This chapter is an extraordinarily detailed apology (in the classic sense) for why E.E. is not the sort of project one might expect it to be. Its form consists of close readings and interpretations of influential philosophical systems after the Enlightenment whose paradigms theological anthropologies have adopted after them. Kelsey wants to ward off questions about why his own project does not conform to these prior patterns, and he believes he has good reasons for his decision.

In short, the chapter is an articulation of the differences between theologically assessing the logic of Christian faith as such (Kelsey's project), over against the logic of coming to faith or the life of faith (pp. 80-81). Kelsey believes disaster awaits those who conflate these (quite different) questions, as he seeks not to do, and what follows serves as an extended reflection on the various ways things can go wrong and have gone wrong (at least for Christian anthropological claims) when they have been conflated.

The bulk of the chapter is dedicated to variations on the theme of the modern turn to the subject (pp. 82-86). These consist of explications of Kant and Schleiermacher vis-a-vis, respectively, the moral and the religious subject ("Subjectivity Constituted by Self-Relating in an Act of Self-Affirmation"; p. 86-100); of Hegel and Marx vis-a-vis self-critical reason ("Subjectivity Constituted by Self-Relating in an Act of Self-Recognition"; pp. 100-108); and of Kierkegaard vis-a-vis the existential center of consciousness ("Subjectivity Constituted by Self-Relating in an Act of Self-Choosing"; pp. 108-113).

Kelsey posits numerous objections to all of these construals in their own right, but that is not his main goal. Rather, his thesis is "that it is a profound conceptual and methodological mistake to conflate any theological project that attempts to answer the question of the logic of Christian beliefs with a theological project that attempts to answer the question of the logic of coming to faith" (p. 113). The approaches above, as appropriated by various theologians in the last two centuries, can prove and have proved helpful in certain respects, especially in the apologetic enterprise. But when they serve to provide "a systematic structure by which to unify anthropology as a single theological locus" (p. 112) they distort the question which E.E. is seeking to explore.

The problems resultant from this distortion are fourfold: "utilitarian and functionalist trivialization of understandings of God and God's ways of relating to human beings, quasi-Manichean theological assessment of nonhuman creatures, anthropocentric and instrumentalist theological views of human beings' proper relations to nonhuman creatures, and an anthropocentric moralizing of accounts of Christian beliefs about human beings" (p. 113). Kelsey spends the rest of the chapter expanding on the particular facets of each of these "serious systematic consequences" for Christian theological anthropology (pp. 113-119).

Reflection: For the philosophically uninitiated, such as myself, this chapter was both the most difficult so far (a description I think will hold for the rest of the book) and the most enlightening. I greatly appreciated Kelsey's consistent commitment to his own clearly delineated scope, and while it can be tedious reading -- it is, after all, part of a 156-page methodological preface to the actual substantive work -- I think it will be immensely helpful once Kelsey begins to make his concrete proposals.

I especially enjoyed the final seven pages, in which we got a hint of what Kelsey is going to be about in the coming chapters. First, he is unwilling to make sin the center of his anthropology, instead insisting on the created goodness of humankind and on God's relationship to creation not as The Great Fixer-Upper. Second, he is equally resistant to belittling the wider creation, such that the drama of God's life with the world includes both creation and eschatological consummation as brackets to reconciliation as well as the nonhuman world within all three of those decisive divine acts. Finally, Kelsey wants nothing to do with anthropocentric anthropology to the exclusion of God or to the detriment of nature, nor does he have any patience for human-centered moralizing. All, in my judgment, excellent things to be wary of.

(Also: This chapter suggests areas in which Kelsey does believe it to be legitimate to reject culturally current forms of knowledge [see p. 117], which the last chapter had left us wondering about and hoping for.)

Quote: "[The following is] an important systematic point about Christian theological anthropology: it is only as we begin to grasp the mystery of theocentric human being that we can also begin to grasp the profundity of human beings' distortion in the human condition.

"Correlatively, when the human condition construed as a problem focuses and structures an account of the logic of coming to faith, God's relating to human beings is systematically construed in terms of its utility in fixing or healing that condition. God's relating is thus understood in terms of God's function of helping human beings cope with their condition. When that happens, God's relating to human beings is construed more as an analgesic or antidote to the human condition than as the ground of the mystery that is human being. When it is framed in that way, God's reality is understood in a fundamentally functionalist and even instrumentalist way."

Questions: Do you agree with Kelsey's crucial distinctions between conversion, faith, and discipleship (coming to faith, content of faith, enactment of faith)? Do you agree with his readings of Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Marx, and/or Kierkegaard? What do you make of his account of those who appropriated these systems in subsequent dogmatics? What is your assessment of the theological problematics he identifies as inherent in the conflation of the three distinct questions? Do you share his concerns about sin, anthropocentricism, ecology, and moralizing? What other thoughts did you have in reading the chapter?

Next week: Chapter 3A: "The One Who Has To Do With Us," pages 120-131

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Franz Wright (III)

As I've mentioned previously, I'm in the process of finishing -- to the extent that one can -- the various full corpuses (corpi?) of my favorite poets, including Billy Collins and Wendell Berry, and now Franz Wright. I have shared his marvelous and broken poetry before, from more recent publications, but the following is from his 1982 collection, The One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes. Enjoy.

- - - - - - -

St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church: Minneapolis, 1960

By Franz Wright

There are times I can still
sense the congregation
all around me, whispering
to the one who raised the dead;
the one whose own
pulse had ceased, and yet returned
from the tomb.

His face above
in the high
enormously bright golden dome
of the ceiling:
the Face
so different
from the human

face of Jesus clenched
with agony,
or the beautiful Lord
of Hieronymus Bosch
gently bearing his cross through
the sneering crush.
Each Sunday morning

my speechless lost mother
brought me among them there;
they were mostly old people
on canes, and some I remember
were blind: all of them gone
by now, to their Father's mansion
under the grass.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

C.S. Lewis on the Stylemonger, the Antiliterary Reader

"Having said that the unliterary reader attends to the words too little to make anything like a full use of them, I must notice that there is another sort of reader who attends to them far too much and in the wrong way. I am thinking of what I call Stylemongers. On taking up a book, these people concentrate on what they call its 'style' or its 'English'. They judge this neither by its sound nor by its power to communicate but by its conformity to certain arbitrary rules. Their reading is a perpetual witch hunt for Americanisms, Gallicisms, split infinitives, and sentences that end with a preposition. They do not inquire whether the Americanism or Gallicism in question increases or impoverishes the expressiveness of our language. It is nothing to them that the best English speakers and writers have been ending sentences with prepositions for over a thousand years. They are full of arbitrary dislikes for particular words. One is 'a word they've always hated'; another 'always makes them think of so-and-so'. This is too common, and that too rare. Such people are of all men least qualified to have any opinion about a style at all; for the only two tests that are really relevant -- the degree in which it is (as Dryden would say) 'sounding and significant' -- are the two they never apply. They judge the instrument by anything rather than its power to do the work it was made for; treat language as something that 'is' but does not 'mean'; criticise the lens after looking at it instead of through it. It was often said that the law about literary obscenity operated almost exclusively against particular words, that books were banned not for their tendency but for their vocabulary and a man could freely administer the strongest possible aphrodisiacs to his public provided he had the skill -- and what competent writer has not? -- to avoid the forbidden syllables. The Stylemonger's criteria, though for a different reason, are as wide of the mark as those of the law, and in the same way. If the mass of the people are unliterary, he is antiliterary. He creates in the minds of the unliterary (who have often suffered under him at school) a hatred of the very word style and a profound distrust of every book that is said to be well written. And if style meant what the Stylemonger values, this hatred and distrust would be right."

--C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) pp. 35-36