Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ecstatic Naturalism & Process Thought

I recently delivered a paper at the Fifth International Congress on Ecstatic Naturalism, entitled "Chaosmic Naturalisms: Exploring the Pantheist Philosophies of Roland Faber and Robert Corrington." In the paper, I attempt to address and negotiate certain tensions between Ecstatic Naturalism and Process Theology by entangling the works of two brilliant contemporary philosophers: Robert Corrington and Roland Faber. If you are interested in religious naturalism, metaphysics, process thought, pantheism, or speculative realism, I invite you to take a look at the paper here.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Theology as Creation

What would a theological method look like beyond representation (i.e., rational theology, the mirror of nature) and projection (i.e., radical theology, the mirror of human desires)? Is the only meaningful alternative some form of strong fideism - whether Barthian, post-liberal, or Radical Orthodox? What if we were to instead think of theology as creation? Such a constructivist method would be rooted in relational philosophies of becoming, which deny the individualistic metaphysical assumption of a stable world of beings or entities that can be re-presented with words or ideal concepts, more-or-less accurately. Theology as creation also resists the anthropocentric and reductionist notions that theology is nothing but human projections or fideistic presuppositions. A method of creation would thus potentially support a theology that is both polydox and yet distinctly Christian.

As a form of postmodern theology, this method attempts to move beyond an orderly rationalism, foundationalism, and anthropocentrism, but without collapsing into a chaotic relativism. As a form of non-representationalist realism, theology as creation is also rooted in a speculative cosmology that is radically ecological. Furthermore, it does not necessarily preclude a form of meaningful God-talk - although it will look wildly different from traditional theisms, with its insistence on immanence! To explicate this method of theology as creation, I would especially point to the philosophies of A.N. Whitehead, Gilles Deleuze, and Karen Barad, and also to the theologies of John Cobb, Roland Faber, and Catherine Keller.

An uncritically realist grounding of theology can be described as a method of representation. When making theological claims, the representational theologian assumes that there is a stable world ‘out there’ that is somehow present to us, which we can then re-present (or mirror) with concepts. This perspective assumes a correspondence theory of truth, in which the aim is to ‘correctly’ relate words and things. The ideal goal for the representational theologian is thus to achieve a unity of human opinion about the world, just as it truly is. The ongoing task is to logically evaluate concepts in relation to entities, and ultimately to arrive at one rationally justified and universal agreement about what really exists. Representation is therefore a process of discovering and classifying entities, of carving up the world into certain stable sections of being. The representational theologian wants to know ‘the facts’, to comprehend the absolute Truth about reality. If such an operation were possible, then some kind of traditional metaphysics and natural theology might indeed be justified. Traditional proofs for God's existence might be more plausible than they are currently seen to be by philosophers and theologians.

But it is well known that the philosopher Immanuel Kant strongly challenged such a naively realist approach to philosophy and theology. Many philosophers and theologians since his time have assumed he was more-or-less correct. Even so, in the process of virtually eliminating the possibility of natural theology and traditional metaphysics, Kant's subjective idealism produced yet another form of representational dualism with his bifurcation of nature into primary and secondary qualities. In response, Whitehead later proposed a persuasive alternative to Kant's dualism in the early 20th century, followed a few decades later by the similar work of Gilles Deleuze, and more recently by Karen Barad. For these great thinkers of becoming, philosophy is certainly not about representation. It is about the perspectival production of concepts. In other words, philosophy is not primarily about discovery, but about creation. Concepts do not simply carve up the world into distinct categories of being: by responding to particular problems, they enable new experiences and release possibilities. 

Crucially, theology as creation does not imply sheer relativism, for creation is never out of absolutely nothing. Even the writers of Genesis knew as much. There are always prior conditions that any act of creation must take account of – and in turn, every condition is thus a potential for new creative becomings. As Deleuze wrote, philosophical thought always starts “in the middle.” And theologically, Keller makes a similar point: creation is always out of a dynamic matrix of potentiality - the deep, or tehom!
So if we do in fact live in such a world of becoming, as Whitehead, Deleuze, and Barad claim, we should therefore say that theology is not about representation or discovery, but the adventurous creation of concepts. And as Barad points out, concepts “are not mere ideations but specific physical arrangements." In other words, theology is a thoroughly "material practice." If theologians were to take seriously the insights of Whitehead, Deleuze, and Barad, might we then move beyond a method of representation and towards a method of creation? This method aims to be an alternative to modern representational theologies, as well as to anti-metaphysical styles of postmodern thinking that never move beyond Kant’s anthropocentrism. By affirming a constructivist metaphysics, a post-foundationalist, post-rationalist method of creation is deeply ecological, as it speculates in order to "regain the great outdoors" (as the Speculative Realists like to say).

But how can we proceed to construct a recognizably Christian theology if one’s method is that of creation? How does a method of creation differ from the Feuerbachian view of theology as mere projection? Can it be rooted in the Christ-event in any meaningful sense? Does it have any room for a creative-responsive divine that exceeds and precedes our language for it? 

First of all, while I push further than him, I partially side with John Caputo, who argues that theology cannot be totally reduced to projection; it also involves projectiles. According to Caputo, such projectiles or events come from the outside, taking us by genuine surprise and reconfiguring our horizons of expectations. To some extent, events thus precede human invention. Secondly, we can also take a note from Jürgen Moltmann, who argues that all theological claims are like "parables," which do not resemble divine reality in terms of analogy, but are constructed to evoke hope for God's coming future of justice. And finally, I also find significant John Cobb's claim that Christians participate in a particular ontological "field of force" that was initiated by Jesus' life and death. Through memory, attention, and activism, Christians can freely participate in and be shaped by this Christic field of force. In a more Deleuzian sense, we could say that Christians are those who intentionally repeat (always with a difference!) the power of the Christ-event or field of force. This need not imply an imperialistic view of Christianity. It might contribute to what Philip Clayton helpfully calls "Christian minimalism." So consider the possibility that the Christ-event produced a particular plane of immanence that remains uniquely relevant to followers of Jesus. Christian theology, in the constructivist sense that I am suggesting, would therefore become the endless creation of concepts upon a Christic plane, which is dynamically reiterated by Christian communities.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pannenberg's Challenge To Barth: Theology After Rationalism & Subjectivism

Wolfhart Pannenbeg (1928-2014)
It is well known that the late German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg was a sympathetic critic of Karl Barth. While studying with Barth at Basel, Pannenberg became increasingly dissatisfied with the former’s sweeping critique of all natural theology and thus set out in a different direction than his teacher. While Pannenberg would ultimately reject the kind of natural theology that is supposedly grounded in “pure reason,” he still believed that we require the “critical function” of philosophical theology to place “minimal conditions for talk about God that wants to be taken seriously as such” (Systematic Theology I, 107). But his various theological (and political) divergences from Barth were not well received, as Pannenberg noted: “I learned…that Barth did not like criticism from his students.” Even so, his theology remained in Barth’s debt to a great extent, particularly in his view that all knowledge of God depends upon God’s self-revelation: “God can be known only if he gives himself to be known” (STI, 189). However, despite this conviction, Pannenberg swerved from what he viewed as Barth’s “faith subjectivism,” moving instead in a seemingly more rationalist direction (STI, 48). 

For Pannenberg, the truth of Christian faith must be established in theology, rather than simply presupposed through an act of faith: “…dogmatics may not presuppose the divine truth…[but] has to present, test, and if possible confirm the claim. It must treat it, however, as an open question and not decide in advance” (STI 50). Pannenberg believed that Barth presupposed too much (despite his dialectical method), and therefore protected the truth of faith from genuine, open-ended debate. While Barth believed that the truth of Christian faith is grounded in the “self-evidence” of the Word of God, he could not avoid claiming that it also involves a human “risk of faith” to affirm the genuine reality of the Word: “In the Church Dogmatics, he said expressly that dogmatics ‘demands Christian faith’ and is itself an ‘act of faith’ (STI, 44). 

As Pannenberg explains, Barth tried to avoid basing his theology on human experience by claiming that the reality of the Word precedes human faith. He thereby saw himself as ensuring that God, rather than the human, is prioritized. But Pannenberg did not buy this move, at least as Barth had presented it. The only way that God can maintain priority over human faith, according to Barth’s own methodology, is “by way of the concept of an act of faith,” Pannenberg points out. But at this point – and despite Barth’s intentions – it is no longer clear that God is unambiguously prioritized over the human. Thus Pannenberg poses a question at the beginning of his Systematics that sends him off in his own direction: “If one wants to insist with Barth on the priority of God over the act of faith, is it not necessary, perhaps, to abandon the assumption that the reality of God is a presupposition for dogmatics from the very outset?” (STI, 45). 

Like Jürgen Moltmann, Pannenberg’s post-Barthian theological method was inspired by the biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad, who persuasively argued that the God of the Old Testament was revealed indirectly through God’s acts in history, rather than through theophanies of a more direct nature (Revelation as History, 125). Thus revelatory events are, for Pannenberg, thoroughly public and “humanly visible,” rather than private, subjective, communal or exclusive in any sense: “In the Old Testament…it is [God’s] acts in history that were the events through which Jaweh proved his deity to all peoples, not just to Israel” (RH, 135-136). As such, revelation in history “is demonstrated before all eyes for the benefit of all people” (RH, 150). Pannenberg claims that if Christianity is to avoid Gnosticism, this position is crucial. Revelation is not a “knowledge of secrets” mysteriously given by God to the few, but appears “in the language of facts” for all to see and understand (RH, 136, 137). Why all persons do not see or understand the truth of these historical events is a paradox that Pannenberg continually struggled with. 

Pannenberg’s claim that revelation appears in the medium of public facts implies that it is open to rational and historical investigations – quite unlike the positions of Barth and Bultmann. As such, understanding and believing the historical events of God’s revelation in history do not necessarily require presuppositions or leaps of faith. For example, in Jesus: God and Man, Pannenberg argued that the resurrection of Jesus is an event of public history that can be reasonably verified (although one that eschatologically points beyond itself). There is no need to add any kind of supernatural knowing beyond one’s innate rational capacities to discern such events: “The special aspect is the event itself, not the attitude with which one confronts the event. A person does not bring faith with him to the event…Rather, it is through an open appropriation of these events that true faith is sparked” (RH, 137). While Pannenberg does not believe that all Christians must engage in such debates in order to have genuine faith in Christ (this is where preaching and the life of the church are crucial), he believes that a major part of the work of church theologians is to continually show that the Christ event can be “taken to be reasonably and reliably true” (RH, 138). To make Christian truth-claims independent of public facts in history – through fideistic leaps of faith or supernaturalism – is to “cheapen” what God has done in history for all to see, Pannenberg argues (RH, 137). 

But do these convictions about the importance of historical criticism and rational argument mean that Pannenberg is ultimately a theological rationalist? Some commentators have read him this way, but this view is certainly debatable. While Pannenberg did affirm the reality and necessity of reason in theology, he also firmly denied that it provides a genuine foundation. His post-foundationalist, post-rationalist method arguably cuts both ways: between a fideistic anti-rationalism and a rationalistic foundationalism (for a defense of this reading of Pannenberg, see Shults, The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology). In order to see how this is the case, I want to note a few key principles or convictions that Pannenberg incorporated into his theology, all of which keep it open-ended and hypothetical. 

1) All theological claims are provisional until the eschaton. Although for somewhat different reasons, Pannenberg acknowledged that he is in basic agreement with Barth on this point. The provisional nature of theology follows from Pannenberg’s understanding of the biblical narrative, in which God is fully and directly revealed only at the end of history. All revelation in history is indirect; thus, all theological claims are constantly debatable (RH, 131-133). 

2) Not only are Christian truth-claims provisional until the eschaton, they are also fallible in the present. It is hard to see how Barth could claim the same, with his self-authenticating Word. However much he denied human appropriation of the mysterious Word, Barth nevertheless insulates it from genuine debate, thus making it infallible - at least until the eschaton (which will either confirm or, in the case of its non-occurrence, obviously disconfirm Christian hope). But for Pannenberg, this is a crypto-foundationalism that cheapens faith. He argued that Christianity may in fact turn out to be false at any moment – and another religion or worldview true – if it cannot continue to show that it is both reasonably plausible and capable of illuminating human experience. As Pannenberg writes, “All talk about God must validate itself by being able to make the world of experience a proof of its power” (STI, 106). We must therefore continually ask, “Does God prove in actual experience to be the power he is claimed to be?” (STI, 160). 

3) Pannenberg argued that a rational demonstration of faith (as plausible and illuminating) is never simply a “human interpretive achievement.” It is also, “if only provisionally, God’s own self-demonstration of his deity” to humanity in the medium of experience in history (STI, 170). This follows from his understanding of history as revelation.

4) Pannenberg insisted that rational and historical arguments “from below” are only methodologically prioritized. Their purpose is to provide both critical analyses and intelligible presentations of Jesus as the Son of God. However, when he made this argument late in his career (in Systematic Theology II), he conceded that faith does require a minimal presupposition in the truth of the Christ-event – that is, he affirmed the necessity of theology “from above.” Even though theology from below is necessary to provide a provisional demonstration of the truth of faith within one’s context, and also to “differentiate critically between the essential content of Christological dogma and secondary features or distortions,” theologians can only proceed in this way by first “presupposing…that this procedure leads to the conclusion” that Jesus is the Son of God. As such, rational and historical arguments “from below” and confessional presuppositions “from above” are “complementary,” Pannenberg argued (STII, 288-289). And while Pannenberg thought it extremely unlikely, the critical and corrective functions of theology from below could, in principle, undermine and eventually overturn the confessional presuppositions of theology from above. Again, if theology cannot in any way genuinely demonstrate that Christian truth-claims are powerfully illuminating of human experience and reasonably plausible, the Christian must consider the possibility that her worldview is finally flawed or even illusory. 

5) Pannenberg eventually clarified his argument from Revelation as History that human reason does not require anything beyond itself to see the truth of God's self-revelation in history. This clarification develops out of the paradox of why all humans have reason, and yet only certain persons are able to see the truth of revelation in history. Reason is not "pure," but ambiguous and fragile. Certain cultural prejudices can blind individuals from discerning the truth of faith. To address these problems, Pannenberg suggested that there might be a need for “a kind of illumination” through the Holy Spirit, which can enable one’s reason to discern the truth of a divine event in history. But the Spirit “adds nothing substantive to the content of this event,” Pannenberg argues. To a certain extent, this brings him closer to Barth, since both agreed that revelation is not easily read off of the pages of history apart from divine grace. But Pannenberg rejected Barth’s view that the Spirit must continually come from the outside to make revelatory events become true. For Pannenberg, the Spirit is already within revelatory events in history. Revelation is therefore open to the public through rational argumentation and historical analysis – not just for Christians through faith. As such, through the Spirit’s illumination, Pannenberg claimed that human reason might be enabled to function more adequately, and thereby to discern the truth of Jesus Christ in history (Basic Questions 2, 40-42; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 54-55). 

Moltmann with Pannenberg
It seems to me that Pannenberg importantly challenged Barth’s method in a way that cannot be dismissed on the grounds that it is an outdated rationalism. Like so many theologians throughout Christian history, Pannenberg brilliantly attempted to balance reason and faith by exploring a way between naïve rationalism and irresponsible fideism. It is an extremely delicate balance, to be sure, and one might legitimately ask if he was finally able to consistently maintain such a position. But in general, I find his approach to be instructive and useful for my own theological work, even if I cannot follow him in every way. I find his defence of God's omnipotence deeply unsatisfying, for example. But perhaps more problematic was his resistance to all feminist theologies, his notorious heterosexism, and his lack of serious engagement with liberation theologies. It is thus not surprising that Pannenberg became increasingly conservative in his political views (as Moltmann has recently noted with horror, his old friend Pannenberg thought that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president in US history!). 

Ultimately, I believe that if one takes Pannenberg's method with absolute seriousness, it is probably not possible to maintain his clear sense of theological orthodoxy or the absolute truth of Christian faith. In my view, philosophical and historical arguments “from below” pose much more radical challenges to Pannenberg’s complementary presuppositional theology “from above." Both John Cobb and Philip Clayton are, in their own distinct ways, Christian theologians who have been able to think both with and yet beyond Pannenberg's theological (and political) conservatism. If faith must continually demonstrate its illuminating power and plausibility, then in my opinion, deeper revisions of Christian theology are required today. The cost may indeed be too great for some to follow Pannenberg's method all the way. A return to some form of Christian subectivism or fideism - through Barthian, Radical Orthodox, and post-liberal theologies - will always be very tempting. But I think that Panennberg was right: such strategies will only cheapen faith. Greater courage and methodological rigor are required.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Moltmann and Natural Theology

(Here's a theological reflection that diverges from my normal posts on process thought. I've been diving back into post-Barthian theologies this year.)

Every contemporary theologian must somehow respond to Karl Barth’s radically Christocentric critique of natural theology. His famous “No!” to even Emil Brunner’s minimalist form of natural theology simply cannot be pushed aside. However, while the tradition of natural theology has been reevaluated many times over, it has never ultimately died out after Barth. Indeed, the questions that tend to draw out the kinds of reflection that natural theology attempts to respond to have remained – and in some ways increased – for many thoughtful Christians today: What is the place of experience and reason in theology today, especially in the light of liberationist, feminist, black, and queer theologies? How can Christians maintain any common ground with the natural sciences as well as other religions without some form of natural theology? What is the relationship between divine action and history, or divine revelation and biblical criticism?

Because these kinds of questions continue to haunt persons of faith, natural theology has maintained a place of importance for at least some Christians – perhaps especially in Roman Catholic theology, however much its Thomism was chastened by neo-orthodoxy and existentialism. But there were also a number of Protestant theologians who followed in Barth’s wake who attempted to reformulate natural theology in response to his critique. In the United States, one significant theologian to do this was John B. Cobb, Jr. in his Christian Natural Theology. He introduces that text by announcing that he hopes to respond adequately to Barth’s critique of natural theology by realizing Brunner’s attempt to explicate a genuinely Christian natural theology. Cobb aspired to develop a more relativized natural theology that was not based on a naïve assumption of neutral reason and universal experience, but rather on the particular assumptions and experiences of Christians. In Germany, Wolfhart Pannenberg similarly attempted to negotiate a viable natural theology that did not compromise the centrality of the Christian commitment to revelation. For him, natural theology cannot ground faith, although it does serve an important “critical function.” Like Cobb, he attempted to seriously engage the natural and social sciences, history of religions, biblical scholarship, and Western philosophy in order to show a reasonable – although not quite rationalist – approach to Christian faith that avoided what he saw as the irresponsible (and even un-Christian) subjectivism or fideism in Barth’s theological method.

Besides Pannenberg, one additional German theologian who famously attempted to respond to Barth’s critique of natural theology was Jürgen Moltmann. But his method was ultimately much closer to Barth’s own. In fact, perhaps especially in his earlier work, it often seems as though Moltmann was attempting to show that Barth’s critique of natural theology was not radical enough! He was convinced that Barth’s doctrine of revelation was not sufficiently Christocentric because it was based on a theophany of the present rather than on God’s revelatory promises for the future (Theology of Hope, 44). And precisely because revelation is essentially eschatological for Moltmann, he argues that traditional natural theology must be rejected on the grounds that it is little more than human reflection on the present state of things: “…the form in which Christian theology speaks of Christ cannot be the form of the Greek logos or of doctrinal statements based on experience, but only the form of statements of hope and of promises for the future” (TH, 3).

Moltmann then goes on to argue that the “godlessness” of every present stands in total contradiction to God’s promised future: “Hope’s statements of promise…must stand in contradiction to the reality which can at present be experienced…they do not seek to illuminate the reality which exists, but the reality which is coming…present and future, experience and hope, stand in contradiction to each other…” (TH, 3-4). The apparent consequence of this eschatological logic is that natural theology is unable to offer any independent grounds for Christian faith – which is, again, essentially eschatological. Indeed, Moltmann claims that even God must be eschatologically interpreted, with “future as his essential nature” (TH, 2, 15). As such, corresponding to the dialectic of the cross and resurrection of Christ – which stand in absolute contradiction – rationalist natural theology ultimately contradicts rather than corresponds in any way to God’s promises for creation’s future. For Moltmann, the central problem with this kind of natural theology is that it is ultimately idolatrous: it ends in the self-deification of the human knower. The faithful Christian must therefore look first to God’s revelatory promises in history, as narrated in scripture, rather than on reason or experience.

But is this the end of the story for Moltmann? In fact, he does not entirely reject natural theology because he believes that it serves an important function for Christian faith. In his view, revelation can only ever be expressed in “relation to, and critical comparison with, man’s [sic] experience of the world.” The implication is that we cannot simply dismiss the tradition of natural theology, but instead we must properly locate it in relation to revealed theology. Without some kind of natural theology, Moltmann argues that “theology withdraws into a ghetto.” He therefore seeks to show how natural theology can be maintained “between the two extreme possibilities of ghetto and assimilation” (TH, 76). But for Moltmann, natural theology can only ever be expressed “in the light of revelation.” A truly Christian (and therefore eschatological) natural theology will thus not provide foundations or proofs for faith but instead present itself as a series of provisional “anticipations” or “parables” that attempt to faithfully witness to God’s coming future. So even as Moltmann rejects the idea that any form of human reason or experience could ground faith, in the end he does believe that it is necessary to develop some kind of natural theology. As he explains, natural theology must function as “an anticipation of the promised future in history as a result of obedient thinking. Hence it always remains historic, provisional, variable, and open” (TH, 77).

In Moltmann’s later work, this commitment to a revised form of natural theology only deepened – if somewhat ambiguously. In Experiences in Theology, he argues that natural theology is necessary because Christian theology is ultimately a “public theology.” As such, theology must not confine itself “within the closed Christian circle” (ET, 69). He also claims that Barth’s later doctrine of lights is really not so different from the “Christian ‘natural theology’” that he is affirming (ET, 77). But perhaps more than Barth, Moltmann wants to maintain a tension in his method through “a dialectical play of reciprocal knowing – analogia entis in analogia fidei…” (ET, 78). Even as he continues to align with Barth, he believes that Christians living in “multi-faith societies and in a globalized world” must work to “find some common ground where they can present their differences, because otherwise there is no way of presenting them at all” (ET, 82). In his view, the common ground upon which religious and secular truth claims must prove themselves is both “the universe” and “life.” Without a shared commitment to “common life” on our planet, Moltmann worries that humanity and the earth will not survive our escalating 21st century challenges. As I see it, the open question for Moltmann’s post-Barthian method is this: is he able to maintain a dialectical tension between revealed and natural theology, or does he ultimately give up his Barthian commitment to prioritize revelation with this belief in the common ground of life? My Barthian friends think he's gone liberal here, but I'm not so sure - although frankly, I wouldn't think that's such a bad thing.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014: Movies, Music, Books

For a number of years, I have shared my favorite movies, music and books on the blog. While the list is certainly not exhaustive, it represents my favorites of what I was able to see, listen to, and read in 2014. I'll offer a few scattered thoughts about some of my top picks in each category.

Movies: What a strange year for movies. I felt like there weren't very many quality releases until the last half of the year, but a few were just under my radar. While I haven't yet seen Selma, I'm pretty confident in my picks for now, based on what I've been able to see. Calvary is my film of the year. I watched it recently on a plane ride back to California from New Jersey and found it deeply moving. Forget the recent flurry of Bible-based movies like Noah, Exodus, and Son of God - this is the most Jesus'y film I've seen in a long time. It deals powerfully with themes like forgiveness and nonviolence, while the writing, acting, and cinematography are absolutely stunning. As for Snowpiercer, I thought it was a deeply theological film that presents a forceful critique of both classical theism and capitalism. Interstellar has been lodged in my mind since I saw it last week with its amazing imagery, stunning use of current cosmological theories, and excellent performances. Nightcrawler has much to say about the violence of our 21st century reality-media machine while the hilarious but thoughtful Obvious Child portrays one of the most important female characters in cinema in years.
  1. Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh
  2. Whiplash, Damien Chazelle
  3. Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan
  4. Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy
  5. The Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre
  6. Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson
  7. Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
  8. Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher
  9. Snowpiercer, directed by Joon-ho Bong
  10. Willow Creek, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
Honorable mentions: Blue Ruin, The Skeleton Twins, The Normal Heart, Theory of Everything, Lucky Them, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Frank, The Immigrant, A Most Wanted Man, The Double, Under the Skin, Edge of Tomorrow, Enemy.

Music: I am so pleasantly surprised to discover The War on Drugs. It is my album of the year. Driving rock that reminds me of Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits, but with the swirling atmospherics of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. Spectacular. And if you know me, you know that I'm a massive U2 fan, so I can't help but place their latest album high on my year-end list. A nearly perfect late-career album, even if it is not quite at the same level as Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. Ryan Adams' latest album is one of his best - not a bad song on it. And how surprised I was to love Simpson's brilliant country album (which has almost nothing to do with contemporary Nashville country-pop, thankfully). A fine year for music, indeed. I hope this list helps you discover something fresh for your music library.
  1. The War on Drugs, Lost In A Dream
  2. U2, Songs of Innocence
  3. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
  4. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
  5. Damien Rice, My Favorite Faded Fantasy
  6. Beck, Morning Phase
  7. Luluc, Passerby
  8. Asgeir, In the Silence
  9. You+Me, Rose Avenue
  10. FKA twigs, LP1  
Books: Like last year, I don't pretend to lack a serious bias in this list. How could I resist? A number of my professors, both past and present, are listed below - but the truth is, I have had the privilege of studying with some of the most amazing theologians working today. Plus, most of these books engage process philosophy in different ways, which happens to be my primary interest (as readers of this blog are well aware). Keller's Cloud of the Impossible offers a compelling reading of the apophatic and mystical traditions, weaving contemporary science, continental philosophy, and relational philosophies into a provocative new postmodern theology that will create discussions for years to come. Cobb's theological autobiography is a wonderful introduction to his work. Faber's Divine Manifold is a deeply complex but impressive synthesis of Deleuze and Whitehead (hopefully a paperback version is in the works soon!). As for Organic Marxism and Universe of Things, check out my recent blog reviews of these fantastic new releases for 2014.

  1. Cloud of the Impossible by Catherine Keller
  2. Theological Reminiscences by John Cobb
  3. The Divine Manifold by Roland Faber
  4. Organic Marxism by Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr
  5. Universe of Things by Steven Shaviro
  6. Worlds Without End by Mary-Jane Rubenstein
  7. Ask the Beasts by Elizabeth Johnson
  8. Iconoclastic Theology by F. LeRon Shults
  9. Way To Water by L. Callid Keefe-Perry
  10. Panentheism and Scientific Naturalism by David Ray Griffin

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Apocalyptic Cinema

I've been thinking about my love of movies while writing a paper on theology and the recent film Snowpiercer (one of my favorites of 2014). While my family regularly watched many of the great blockbuster movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, by the age of 15 or so, I fell in love with the "Art House" section of my local video rental store (R.I.P.). My cinematic world thus opened out beyond the action-packed movies that I was raised on and into an often grittier, challenging, more subtle, and...well, "artsy" style of film. Visiting the rental store rather often - sometimes multiple times a week - I discovered some of the great directors of the last few decades:
David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, The Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Daren Aronofsky, Lars von Trier, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry, Terrence Malick, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson.

While a few friends and family members enjoyed these kinds of films as well, I often found myself watching them alone. Unlike your average Hollywood action movie or romantic comedy (genres I do not completely dislike!), these art films were particularly attractive to me because of my thirst for meaning, provocation, beauty, and depth of experience. But despite their ability to engage me in all of these ways, they were also sometimes disturbing, frustrating, and exhausting - even depressing. Many of the above directors flirt with nihilism and most of them raise deeply uncomfortable questions about human (and divine) existence. Nevertheless, while I located myself within evangelicalism until my early 20s, art house cinema provided me with numerous challenges and inspirations beyond the boundaries of my sometimes suffocating church experiences. These experiences have made me very sympathetic to (though not quite convinced by) Mark Lewis Taylor's claim that art will be our salvation as religion fades, as well as my own professor Robert Corrington's argument that we should leave religion behind for aesthetics.

The arts have apocalyptic potential. They can dis-close novelty, surprising us, interrupting us with flashes of light and darkness, beauty and tragedy, love and death - and so many confusing spaces between. No, this kind of art does not appeal to everyone. Our culture of reality television, Justin Bieber pop, and global capitalist consumerism thrives on overstimulating distractions and quick fixes. It shapes bodies in ways that make many of us resistant to the kind of vulnerability, patience, and attention required for truly transformative art. Art won't solve the world's problems. No, it will not. But it does have the power to shift consciousness, to deconstruct certainties, and to release new possibilities in our lives.

As I look back on certain stand-out films for me over the last 15 years, I recognize that movies have indeed played a decisive role in the development of my philosophical and theological curiosities. Rarely do I write on theology without relating my work in some way to the movies that have shaped my imagination over the years. Here's just a small list of relatively recent movies that have particularly influenced my thinking, especially in terms of their ability to raise theological questions:
  1. No Country For Old Men (The Coen Bros)
  2. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
  3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  4. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  5. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
  6. The Matrix (Wachowskis)
  7. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
  9. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
  10. American Beauty (Sam Mendes)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Theology and Ferguson (Roundup)

Listed below are five of the most interesting and provocative theological posts on Ferguson that I have come across. All are must-reads. Please add additional relevant posts in the comments:

  1. "Honor The Outrage: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 6 and the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision" (Richard Beck at Experimental Theology). Key quote: "Unity is achieved in the church by rehabilitative honoring, caring and respecting, with the privileged and powerful giving greater honor and care--not balanced or equal honor and care but greater honor and care--to those who have lacked privilege, prestige, power or status. And whatever that might mean for White Christians today I think it means at least this much, that we honor the outrage."
  2. "Justice is Possible #Ferguson" (Anthony Smith at Theoblogy). Key quote: "...I can hear Derrida protesting by saying, 'Deconstruction is justice.' We can attain some relative racial justice if we could only deconstruct the entirety of the American system.  In the case of our criminal justice system the issue of mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, communities being policed in a racially disproportionate manner mitigating vast chasms of cultural misunderstandings."
  3. "A Sad Night for America" (Jim Wallis at Sojourners). Key quote: "Whatever the facts might have revealed in the trial that will never happen, the time is long overdue to subject our criminal justice system to the requirements of racial justice. The racialization of that system and its policing behavior toward people of color is beyond dispute. The police force in Ferguson that is completely unrepresentative of the community and whose behavior has caused such deep alienation among the people they are supposed to serve and protect has become a parable. Ferguson has become a parable in America, for how black lives are less important in the ways our laws are enforced. Ferguson is not only in Ferguson."
  4. "'All Lives Matter'" (Adam Kotsko at An und fur sich). Key quote: "The black community in America is on the side of justice, objectively. They’ve seen what evil looks like on a systematic level by living in the machine we’ve built around them, and overwhelmingly, they reject it as a model. Hence at the time that the white community had produced the “best and brightest,” the architects of the Vietnam War, the black community produced Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. At the time of the Civil War, when even the most liberal whites were still racist and viewed the abolition of slavery as the end-all of justice, the black community produced Frederick Douglass, who could see beyond his own immediate struggle to advocate for women’s rights." 
  5. "Michael Brown's Death & the Prophetic Fire" (Cornel West & Peter Heltzel at NY Daily News). Key quote: "And so here is our Thanksgiving prayer — the plea to God and humanity from two prophetic Christians, one black and one white, one young and one old, confronted by our own complicity in a sinful system, but united by our common call to be just peacemakers: As we gather at tables, grieving the state of our nation, may we gain spiritual strength for the journey ahead, drawing on the deepest wells of wisdom from those on whose shoulders we stand and the various faith traditions that have fueled their freedom march and continue to energize ours."