Sunday, December 2, 2012

Things I Loved in 2012: Books, Movies, & Music

BOOKS: I didn't read a ton of books this year that were technically released in 2012, but here are five worth mentioning.  Below these four is a short list of a few more books that were not 2012 releases but were also favorite reads this year.

Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism by Richard Wolff - This is perhaps my favorite new book of 2012, which I had been anticipating for quite some time.  It did not disappoint.  Anyone familiar with Wolff's brilliant work in Marxian economics will want to read this highly persuasive book, even if they think they have a grasp on his ideas.  He presents his arguments so clearly and with great intellectual force.  Certainly one of the best living economists.   
The Predicament of Belief by Philip Clayton and Stephen Knapp - Philip Clayton was my advisor for my master's program at Claremont School of Theology, so I admit my bias in favor of loving this book.  But seriously, what a brilliant work of constructive theology in dialogue with modern science.  This is an absolute must-read for anyone concerned with developing a coherent argument for (noninterventionist) theism and (progressive/revisionist) Christianity.  If you want to read my review of the book, go to Imaginatio et Ratio and check it out for free in our first issue that is embedded on the website.

Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude by Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan - I am a huge fan of these two authors who write within the broader field of political theology, and this new book that I just finished reading on the Occupy movement and its relation to religion is absolutely fascinating and so very necessary for our time. 
Preaching After God: Derrida, Caputo, and the Language Of Postmodern Homiletics by Phil Snider - A wonderful book for those who have ever read and been challenged by Peter Rollins, John Caputo, and/or Slavoj Zizek but were left wondering how these postmodern theologies "after God" might translate into the life of the church.







The Rich and the Rest of Us by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley - As a regular listener of the Smiley and West podcast and a long time fan of Dr. West, not much of this book surprised me.  But it is a great read with a powerful message about economic inequality, democracy, and justice.  Plus, it's accessible enough to give to just about any of your non-academic friends.




(Older books I read or re-read in 2012: On The Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process by Catherine Keller, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action by John Cobb, God and the Philosophers by Keith Ward, Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton, Discovering Girard by Michael Kirwan)


MOVIES: I've been watching a lot of movies this year, and fortunately quite a few great ones.  I picked six of the best and a few more honorable mentions below.

 The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

A rare, controversial, and painfully brilliant film by one of the best living directors.  It is perhaps my favorite movie of the year, a true work of art - though by no means is it easy viewing.  J. Phoenix and P. Seymour Hoffman are so good in this it hurts.  And Johnny Greenwood's (Radiohead guitarist) minimalist score is perfection.  Be sure to listen to the Film Talk podcast (Episode 212) to dig in to the film's themes and symbolism a bit more with Gareth Higgins and Jett Loe as your guides.


Cloud Atlas, directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer

This enormous piece of work from the Wachowki siblings (directors of The Matrix) surprised me by, well, not being terrible.  It easily could have gone that way by trying to do far too much in one film.  Indeed, it divided critics on this point.  I do not claim that this movie is flawless - not even close. But in the end, I just didn't care about its many shortcomings.  It's a beautiful, moving, thrilling exploration of meaning, purpose, and relationships.  I also love how it resonates with process philosophy (as Bruce Epperly points out)! 



Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino

I was surprised to love this movie as much as I did.  I expected to respond to it in the same way I did to Tarantino's previous film, Inglorious Bastards (with which I have a love/hate relationship).  It turns out that Django works on a number of levels for me: on the one hand, it's incredible entertainment.  Tarantino makes movies that he wants to watch and enjoy, and that is definitely to our benefit as the viewers.  This film is long, but you never notice because it is so engaging, thrilling, and well-crafted.  On the other hand, it provides a lot of opportunity for fruitful discussions about violence - if you are so inclined to consider such themes in film.  Yes, it is extremely violent, but there is something different about the violence in this film, having to do both with the way that the violence means to call attention to itself as absurd and symbolic, but also with the way that violence is used by former slaves, not so much against individuals but the entire despicable system of slavery.  I couldn't help but think of reading Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth in which he advocates for the colonized to use violence against the colonizers in order to recreate or reassert their humanity.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin

This debut film from director Zeitlin is quite simply astonishing: a gorgeously shot, perfectly acted movie with a wonderfully original story and a great musical score.  I have now watched it twice in order to get at the many layers of meaning that this film carries.  The film's main character is only perhaps 5 years old, but by the end of the film you find yourself identifying with her as if she is an adult because of the transformation she undergoes through an existential crisis of sorts.  Indeed, while watching this film and considering its cosmic themes, I couldn't help but think of Tillich's classic book on existential theology, The Courage To Be.  My interpretation of the film has to do with coming to terms with both the beauty and violence of nature and the anxiety of death and contingency.  We see in the film a young girl gain the courage to be in spite of the ever-present threat of nonbeing.   It is certainly one the most theological films I have ever seen.

Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson

Even though Wes Anderson has made better films (The Royal Tenenbaums), his lesser films are still a joy to watch and certainly better than many other director's best films.  With his signature style, a charming story, and a wonderful cast (especially Francis McDormand), Anderson has given us a gem with this one that is filled with careful attention to detail.  Like his other films, it merits repeated viewings.



Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg

A bit like watching a longer episode of the West Wing set in the 19th century (I mean that in a good way), this is a truly amazing film that is - so far as I can tell - surprisingly faithful to the historical record.  Spielberg resisted his old formula to make a grand epic with overblown action sequences and went for a more subtle approach to story-telling.  Daniel Day Lewis is magnificent as Abe Lincoln, but Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones are equally impressive.




(Honorable Mentions: Liberal Arts, Les Miserables, Skyfall, Looper, and Dark Knight Rises)


MUSIC: There has been a lot of great music in 2012, and I only wish I could have listened to more that just haven't made it on to my playlist yet.  But here are six albums that I loved this year, plus a few honorable mentions below.

Lost in the Trees - A Church That Fits Our Needs

I was lucky enough to see this band live not too long ago.  They won me over as an amazing live band and then their most recent album turned out to be gorgeous indie pop/folk rock with a unique classical influence throughout.




Of Monsters and Men - My Head is an Animal

Iceland continues to provide us with wonderful music! While this album received mixed reviews from critics, I have listened to it many, many times since discovering it earlier this year. Truly a great debut album from start to finish.






Sigur Ros - Valtari

Sigur Ros has been one of my favorite bands after discovering their great album in 1999, Agaetis Byrjun.  I've seen them live twice, which remain some of the most intensely emotional musical experiences of my life.  Their new album does not disappoint, with their signature layering of guitars, samples, strings, and other sounds with Jonsi's otherworldly vocals.



Lana Del Rey - Born To Die

Following in the wake of other indie pop female songwriters like Florence + the Machine, Ellie Goulding, and Ingrid Michaelson, the debut album from Lana Del Rey is packed with wonderfully original songs in a style that is all her own.  She has a very unique way with lyrics, managing to fill the album's songs with dozens of pop-culture references to great effect.  Her follow-up EP, Paradise, is equally impressive.




Dave Matthews Band - Away From the World

What a surprise to discover Dave Matthews Band releasing a new album that reminds me of some of their best work from the 90s.  While they may never make an album as great as Crush (1996), this one certainly qualifies as one of their best studio albums to date.





(Honorable Mentions: Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, Alabama Shakes - Boys and Girls, John Mayer - Born and Raised, Jack White - Blunderbuss, Mumford and Sons - Babel, The Killers - Battle Born)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Confronting The Violence of Capitalism

It is often said that capitalism is preferable to Marxism or socialism, if only because the latter has been responsible for far more violence throughout history.  Those who falsely assert this point to Stalin and Mao as primary examples.  Following on arguments from Terry Eagleton's brilliant Why Marx Was Right and Richard Wolff's Occupy the Economy, here are two main problems with this kind of claim:

1) Stalin and Mao were not socialists in the sense that Marx argued for - not even close!  

That is, they were not democratic socialists who insisted on economic democracy for the sake of authentic political democracy (genuine self-government), but dictatorships that simply shifted ownership of the means of production from capitalists to an oppressive and violent state.  It merely shifted from private capitalists to state-appointed ones.  This left the exploitative capitalist mode of production (which Marx obviously criticized) essentially unchanged in what Wolff provocatively calls "state capitalism."  The workers remained in a subordinated position to a competing class; the fundamental contradiction inherent to capitalism (class conflict) remained in place with Stalin and Mao.  Their top-down approaches to developing so-called "socialism" in the Soviet Union and China, respectively, went against the bottom-up approach advocated by Marx.  As Wolff writes, "[The Soviet Union] got rid of the private boards of directors, they got rid of the private shareholders, they closed the stock market.  But they did not turn over these enterprises to be run by the workers in them through institutions and mechanisms of democracy.  What they did instead was dismiss the old, private boards of directors and they replaced them with state officials.  So instead of 15 people running the company who were selected by the shareholders, you had 15 people who were selected by the government or by the Communist Party."
       A final important and relevant issue here, as Eagleton points out, is that Marx never imagined socialism could be brought about under conditions of poverty (as in the Soviet Union and China): "You cannot reorganize wealth for the benefit of all if there is precious little wealth to reorganize...all you will get is socialized scarcity...without the material resources [socialism] will tend to twist into the monstrous caricature of socialism known as Stalinism."



2) The history of modern capitalist nations is just as horribly violent as Stalin and Mao, and even today it continues on a path of (mostly) silent destruction of our planet.  

To blame Marx for the atrocities of Stalin and Mao is rather like blaming Jesus for the horror of the Crusades.  Of course there is a historical connection, but one would be hard-pressed to justify such actions through the teachings of Jesus or the writings of Marx.  But those who are naive enough to say such things also tend to go on to whitewash the bloody history of capitalism.  As Eagleton writes, "Modern capitalist nations are the fruit of a history of slavery, genocide, violence and exploitation every bit as abhorrent as Mao's China or Stalin's Soviet Union.  Capitalism, too, was forged in blood and tears; it is just that it has survived long enough to forget about much of this horror, which is not the case with Stalinism and Maoism."  America, the world's leading capitalist nation, was built on stolen land and on the backs of slaves through genocide and its original sin of racism.
        Beyond this, we must look at the effects of capitalism in contemporary America where the rhetoric of freedom and liberty often serves as a cover for harsh realities.  By privatizing its health system, it has destroyed the lives of countless individuals on the alter of the The Market.  Meanwhile, almost every developed country has a single-payer health system that results in better overall health, longer life expectancy, and lower stress and depression levels for its citizens.  America - the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth - ranks embarrassingly low (37th) by the World Health Organization when it comes to these criteria, thanks to the truly immoral effort to make enormous profits off of people's health and well-being.  As Richard Wolff also explains, America is today the most unequal in terms of wealth and income of all advanced industrial nations (even just thirty years ago this was not the case!).  America is clearly not a democracy, but is in fact a plutocracy - rule by the rich.  So however well capitalism generates wealth - and indeed it does, as Marx himself clearly recognized - it comes about at an enormous human cost, largely today because of ever-increasing wealth and income inequality where the top CEO now makes over 200 times the lowest paid worker -it was only around 25 times more than the lowest paid worker just 30 years ago.  Things have gotten much worse for the poor thanks to neoliberal capitalism, even in America, where (brace yourself) almost half of the population - over 150 million - lives near or below the poverty line.  As Cornel West and Tavis Smiley write in The Rich and the Rest of Us, "There are more than 150 million poor and near poor people living in America who are not responsible for the damage done by the Great Recession. Yet they pay the price.  The poor did not create the deindustrialization of America, unmatched corporate profiteering and greed, more than a decade of foreign wars, and unregulated tax benefits for the wealthy."  And yet the right in this country continue to insist on slashing social welfare programs and giving tax handouts to the rich and transnational corporations.  But in all of this discussion of the many atrocities of capitalism, we certainly cannot forget the cost to the non-human world either.  Make no mistake about it: the blame for our ecological crisis falls heavily on the ideology of neo-liberal capitalism (deregulation, privatization, free trade, etc).  The anthropocentrism of capitalism is plainly obvious, so those who recognize the need for limits to growth and a sustainable economics argue (rightly) for much greater regulation of the market - or even alternatives to the market.  The profit (greed) motive that drives capitalism will only continue to destroy the earth without radical shifts in our economics.  Do not let the lack of a Stalin-type dictator fool you: capitalism is violent in all kinds of ways.

So what is a genuine alternative to capitalism?  Democracy at Work.  I have not found a more persuasive argument for an alternative to neoliberal capitalism than Richard Wolff's idea of economic democracy, which he explains briefly in Occupy the Economy and is releasing a full treatment of in the forthcoming Democracy at Work: The Cure for Capitalism. As Wolff writes, "It was always a mirage to imagine that you could have a political democracy expressed in elections and not also have an economic democracy.  It's really simple.  If you allow an economic system in which 1 percent of the people have more than half the wealth and the other 99 percent have to share the other half, then the 1 percent are not going to be so stupid as to not realize that one of the ways you secure yourself is to control the political system.  And they accomplish that with their money, because that's what they have in abundance...If we want political democracy to work beyond the formality of elections, then we have to change the economic system.  The basic way to do that is through organizing mass movements that can change the organization of production.  We need democracy in the workplace, real worker control of decision-making."

Watch Wolff lecture on Democracy at Work below:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Doug Wilson's Disturbing Views of Sex & Slavery


I'm not going to add much commentary to this since, well, the horror of these statements should be plain to persons with any sense of reason, understanding of history, and respect for others.  But I'm also not going to mince words here: Doug Wilson is a misogynistic apologist for southern racism.  I say this as a progressive Christian who is disgusted by the most conservative wing of my tradition today (which unfortunately gets most of the attention in the media, thus making Christianity as a whole look bad).  For me at least, to not speak out against such dangerous words would be irresponsible.  He is a prominent example of how the Bible can far too easily be used to support oppressive ideologies.  Even today, Wilson continues to defend the content of these two quotes that were written some years ago.  If you missed it somehow, there has been quite a backlash against the quote about marital sex, but little has been mentioned about his truly despicable defense of slavery in the south (I recommend reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States for a more honest account of southern racism and slavery that does not make excuses for the sins of white America).  I decided to juxtapose Wilson's quotes from two different books he wrote in a single post.  These are the sad and disturbing words of a white man obsessed with justifying power and privilege over women and non-white persons by attempting to speak on their behalf and white-wash/sugar-coat their histories of oppression:
Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based on mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world. … Slave life was to [the slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.” (Southern Slavery As It Was, 23-25)
When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.  (Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man, 86)
For critical responses to the latter quote:

Sexual Conquering is Rape by JRD Kirk
The Gospel Coalition, sex, and subordination by Rachel Held Evans

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Christianity Must Be Secularized - and Liberated

That is the provocative thesis of a recent book by John Cobb, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action.  What does this mean?  Secularizing (a dynamic term) is contrasted with secularism on the one side and religion on the other (both of which are more static sounding terms).

Religion or religiousness tends to be supernaturalist and otherworldy to the point that it lessens concern for this world.  On the whole, it refuses to secularize its tradition.  It tends to be overly cautious about innovation and stubbornly, even unreasonably committed to the past (tradition, creeds, texts, historical individuals).  Innovation is something to be feared more than embraced.  It is constituted by an "us" vs. "them" way of thinking: we have it, they don't - we're in, they're out - we get it, they don't.

Secularism is concerned almost exclusively with contemporary experience and understanding, especially through the sciences, philosophy, higher education, and economism.  It is concerned to define and categorize based on presently available information.  As such, it accumulates vast amounts of information but is "barren of wisdom" through the critical appropriation of a traditional body of knowledge.  Unlike secularizers, secularists are open to other Ways but committed to none of them.

Secularizers are those who are primarily concerned about making the world a better place for everyone to live in, but they do so with the knowledge resources of the past and present in dynamic interaction.  They are fully open to the influence of other Ways, other wisdom traditions, even as they commit to their own.  They affirm their tradition even as they understand that tradition itself to make a secularizing imperative: critical, reasonable appropriation and transformation rather than fearful, unreasonable, and stubborn commitment to past modes of thought, wisdom, and action. They embrace innovation in conversation with their own heritage.

The great secularizers (who Cobb makes a short list of that includes Plato, Aristotle, the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus, and Paul) agree that "It is possible to recover, refine, and reappropriate the wisdom of the past and clarify its relevance to the present...it does not discard the past, but it [does] not take any one past formulation as beyond further critical discussion.  On the contrary, thinkers critically examine the inherited ideas, clarify their valid meaning and use for life in the real world, and organize the resulting thoughts so as to ensure their mutual coherence."  As an example, Cobb points out that the true prophets (as opposed to the false prophets) were those who did not accept past formulations or the present culture on face value but "were the most critical of society and of the economy of the time and particularly of its religiousness."  Jesus was similarly extremely critical of the political-economic situation of his time, as well as the religious status quo.  He proclaimed and created alternative communities of nonviolent resistance against the Roman empire.  The way of Jesus drastically differed from the violent way of the Zealots as well as the way of other Jewish sects who avoided innovation in favor of reverent obedience to the past, even at the expense of human well-being in the present.

But secularizers, especially those from the First World, from the West, must also be committed to the revolutionary Pauline experience of radical conversion, rebirth, the absolute paradigm shift.  Why? Because they also recognize the possibility that many aspects of their heritage may be so profoundly mistaken and aligned with those in power rather than 'the least of these', the poor (who are consistently given a preferential option in the Bible while the rich on the other hand will not even be a part of the kingdom without giving up their possessions and exploitative way of life) that it might need to be trashed rather than merely fixed, so to speak.  A revolution comes from below rather than from above - a point that cannot be missed in any talk of 'revolution.'  Christian secularizers attempt to recognize their privileged positions and to respond accordingly to the voices of the oppressed, the colonized, the marginalized.  Especially in today's globalized economy - which is merely another disastrous stage in a long colonial project - those of us who are secularizing Christians must recognize the need for more radical revolutions than reformist projects, a more complete conversion in solidarity with the subaltern.  This is what it means, I believe, to be a disciple of Jesus today: a commitment to both secularizing and liberation.  We critically appropriate the wisdom of our tradition for the sake of the common good.  But we also live in the humble and even uneasy awareness that perhaps our vision of the 'common' good must be radically challenged from the perspective of those upon whose backs we have built our Western identities, our economic and national projects, and - dare I say it - even our religious tradition as received from Christendom to the present.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

When Complementarianism is More Problematic Than Patriarchal Hierarchy

It's been interesting to see the debate on complementarianism take off around the blogosphere lately (see Rachel Held Evan's great post, and another over at Femonite).  Glad to see it happening, as this remains an important issue in the church today, especially for those of us who have a background in evangelicalism.  I have been in conversations many times with well-meaning evangelicals who just don't see the problems with complementarianism, either from a biblical or practical perspective.  In other words, they think that complementarianism 'works' for some couples, so why challenge it? But I think Rachel Held Evans was right to point out that in actual practice, complementarianism is nothing more and nothing less than patriarchy. I've been thinking about this statement a lot for the last week or so and want to add a few theological comments.

If gender dualism is accepted, as complementarianism demands it must be, it raises all kinds serious issues.  It supports the simplistic and dangerous stereotypes of what a 'real man' and a 'real woman' should be.  Any man who is more stereotypically feminine or any woman who is more stereotypically masculine are criticized by complementarians for not conforming to their supposedly God ordained nature - married or not.  Thanks to the dualism inherent in the views of prominent complementarian Christian leaders like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Keller, and Al Mohler (wow, that's a lot of straight white conservative men!! hmmmm...), both sexism and heterosexism are alive and well in the evangelical culture today.  It seems to me that complementarianism simply can't handle the actual multiplicity that is characteristic of real life.  Its advocates fear genuine difference because their simplistic ideology is grounded in a Western theology obsessed with order - especially that sticky order of dualism or binaries.  But as Brazilian liberation theologian Vitor Westhelle writes, order is "most often an ideological disguise for domination, repression, and persecution."

Catherine Keller
When you think about it, Christian theology is often saturated with an obsession with order - but why is this so, and how can we move beyond it without creating a nihilistic mess?  Feminist process theologian Catherine Keller shows in her book Face of the Deep how the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo can in fact be used to legitimate gender dualism by creating an ultimate foundation: an absolute cosmic origin and a dictated order of nature from an omnipotent deity.  The problem is that there actually isn't such an absolute order/origin to be found in the Genesis narrative (nor in the views of postmodern science, for that matter).  In fact, what we have in Genesis is God's creation out of the Deep, a dense multiplicity that is always already there, and God lures it toward greater harmony and intensity: and God said "Let there be differences! But the difference itself will have preceded its Word."  The biblical word for this Deep is tehom, as in "the earth was tohuwabohu and darkness covered the face of the tehom."  As Keller writes, "Might tehom henceforth suggest the chaoid (so not necessarily chaotic) multidimensionality of a bottomless Deep: the matrix in which the creation becomes?  In which the strange inter-fluencies of creatures - in ecology, predation, genetics, cultures - crisscross the abyss of difference?"  She brands homogenizing ideologies like complementarianism that fear the "chaoid multidimensionality" of creation as tehomophobia, while on the other hand calling for a more tehomophilic theology that can embrace the multiplicities of life.

Joerg Rieger
Another important critique of complementarianism that I want to mention is from political theologian Joerg Rieger in his book Christ and Empire, who sees this ideology as a symptom of the 'Spirit of Empire.'  He points out that while Paul largely affirmed the equality of men and women in his writings, as in Galatians 3:28, his egalitarian views often were distorted when read through certain Deutero-Pauline writings, like 1 Timothy 2:12, that are much more patriarchal (I am reminded here of Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan's great book The First Paul in which they argue similarly by differentiating the radical Paul from the conservative and reactionary Paul).  While these Deutero-Pauline texts support hierarchy and/or complementarianism, we might return to the question considered at the beginning (and in the title) of this post: what is more problematic?  We might assume patriarchal hierarchy, but in fact, Rieger points out, complementarianism can be worse because it conceals unequal relationships by naturalizing and absolutizing gender differences.  It uses softer language ("complement") that takes some of the edge off of a troubling perspective.  I conclude with Rieger's provocative response to our initial consideration:

"Complementarity in this context is a more insidious concept because, like the idea of hierarchy, it naturalizes differences, but unlike hierarchy, it tends to hide power differentials.  If women and men are seen in hierarchical relationships, the power differential is clear; if women and men are seen in complementary relationships, however, each appears to fulfill an important role as part of a larger whole and even the most subservient roles of women are justified.  The question of power is thus covered up."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wrestling with the Bible


The last time I went to a school that taught me to read the bible as a conservative was in my elementary school, which was run by a conservative baptist church.  Between that and growing up deeply rooted in a pentecostal church, I assumed that the bible had to be read strictly and literally.  If I ever came across an inconsistency in the bible, it was obviously a problem with our human understandings rather than with the text itself.  We assumed the bible was without error, that it was literally dictated by God to the authors of the bible.

But when I turned sixteen, I started taking some classes at a community college and learned about how mainstream biblical scholars read the bible.  As it turned out, Genesis wasn't written by Moses, it was stitched together from multiple sources, and Adam and Eve weren't historical individuals.  Seeing this 'secular' reading of the bible was rather shocking for me, to say the least.  I wasn't really sure what to do with it, so I started reading conservative apologetics like Ravi Zacharias and Josh McDowell to defend my faith from 'liberal attacks.'  This didn't work very well.  I gave up biblical inerrancy, but remained basically conservative in most ways.  But curiosity sent me further down the rabbit hole...

I ended up going to another university a few years later as a religious studies major where we learned about the quest for the historical Jesus, reading works from the Jesus Seminar and other critical scholarship.  Between a deeper reading of biblical scholarship and learning about other religions, I lost my confidence in conservative beliefs.  I then started engaging philosophical questions like the problem of evil at a whole new level.  To make a long story short, this process sent me drifting in and out of faith - never actually leaving church, but rarely sure what 'faith' meant to me anymore.  The rug had been pulled out from under my feet and I often felt lost in a sea of relativity.

At some point, I found myself able to embrace faith again, largely due to discovering the rich tradition of progressive Christian thought.  While it was always there, I just didn't take it very seriously - after all, conservatives often despise liberal Christians more than non-Christians.  But now I'm finishing a master's degree in theology and philosophy of religion at a liberal Protestant seminary where mainstream biblical scholarship is taken for granted.  So things have changed a lot for me as a 'biblical' Christian over the past twelve years or so.

What do I think of the bible, twelve years into this slow and sometimes painful journey out of conservative Christianity?  While for years I sometimes lost sleep over questions of biblical interpretation to know precisely how to believe and act as a pious evangelical, today that's thankfully no longer as much of dilemma.  I love the bible, I read it often and also want to know what the best scholars say about it - but it is not an inerrant or infallible book, in my view.  Few things are more obvious to me than that the bible is a human product, filled with a variety of voices that sometimes do not agree.  That does not mean it is not inspired as well - indeed I really believe it is as a witness to the Christ event that continues to be of central importance to me.

But sometimes the bible is wrong, not simply on external grounds like modern science, but (as my Hebrew Bible professor at CST often said) on internal grounds of other voices in the text and the approach to such a multi-voiced text should thus be dialogic.  Sometimes the very things that one voice in the text criticizes as wicked are upheld as righteous by a competing voice - and this is not about the New Testament vs. the Old Testament!  Take for example one famous feminist reading of the bible.  It is difficult to deny the patriarchal/androcentric aspects of the text, but as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has pointed out, one also finds alternative, more redemptive and affirming views of the full humanity of women in the text upon critical examination.  Rosemary Radford Reuther thus argues for the 'critical principle of feminist theology': "The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive...presumed not to reflect the divine..." (Sexism and God-Talk, 19)  Similarly, one can also point to postcolonial readings of the bible that "operate with more troubling ambivalence, tracing decolonizing and colonizing themes within scripture."  While they "mine the bible for liberative strands" they also point out that the same bible "contains elements of bondage and disenfranchisement." (Postcolonial Theologies, 10)

All of that goes to say that the diversity of voices in the text refuse to be watered down into an easy, harmonious whole to extract a neat set of logical propositions.  And I really thank God for that.  Seriously, the idea of having an inerrant book dropped from heaven (so to speak) creates far more problems than it solves.  We really don't want that kind of omnipotent God who could arrange such an unquestionably inerrant situation. 

Maybe a truly 'biblical' Christianity, then, is one that boldly enters in to a surprisingly dynamic conversation in the text, forfeiting the dogmatic certainties of conservatism for a more lively approach to biblical faith.  As Christians, we need not drop our primary commitment in the text to the Christ event to see the bible in this more critical way.  In fact, to follow the way of Jesus, taking seriously his prophetic critique of injustice, may actually mean bringing a similar critique against parts of the text.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Suchocki's Eschatology: Resurrection & the Justice of God

In this second post on Marjorie Suchocki’s excellent book God-Christ-Church, I want to show how she develops her eschatology.  We have discussed process eschatology before on the blog, but Suchocki argues for probably the most famous version of such a doctrine through a slight modification of process metaphysics - which gets very technical, so we will not concern ourselves with the fine details that philosophers argue about.  Here I just want to show the basics of Suchocki's approach.  For those interested in a deeper discussion, see her book The End of Evil.   

Is it possible to go beyond the minimalist eschatology of Whitehead and Hartshorne within a credible, coherent process philosophical system?  Suchocki believes that we can and most definitely should if we truly believe in the justice of God.  Only resurrection can bring justice to history's victims.  Suchocki's views are obviously speculative - but from a perspective shaped by Christian faith, they are nevertheless highly significant for many believers. Suchocki sees her form of process eschatology as answering questions of justice in history that other process eschatologies are unable to do.

Suchocki points out that Christian faith affirms two eschatological realities when it speaks of the ‘reign of God’: “to participate richly and deeply in this life through personal and social structures of love, and to participate everlastingly in the life of God.” For her, rather than a God who intervenes at the end of history, we see a dynamic model of eschatology in which resurrection happens all the time as events in the world are transformed in the divine life and then, in a sense, pass back into the world through God's ongoing creative-redemptive work. There is a circular motion in this view where historical time continually passes into God’s own experience, is judged and brought into a reconciled relationship with all things, but then qualifies the possibilities that God can offer to becoming occasions in history. And this 'cycle' continues on and on. So these two eschatological realities that Suchocki says are implied in the symbol of the reign of God are interdependent: “in God, beyond all histories, there is a fully actualized reign of God in which the world participates. But once again, the dynamics call for the return of motion toward history.”
Marjorie Suchocki

In the framework of process theology’s dynamic God-world relationship, we can then think of eschatology in terms of a ‘world without end.’ There is no possibility of even imagining an apocalyptic end of history here – however, following Suchocki, one can also talk meaningfully and plausibly about a resurrection, judgment, and everlasting life. There is even a sense in which we can speak of traditional ideas like heaven and hell, although hell for Suchocki is more like purgatory and thus all will eventually be reconciled into the divine life (yes, she's a dogmatic universalist). For her, God is heaven: through the ongoing prehension of the world process and integration into the divine life, the world becomes “partakers of the divine nature.”

While Cobb and Griffin place more emphasis on the existential struggle of meaninglessness, Suchocki is also concerned to show that great historical injustices like genocide are not simply tragic ends to valuable lives that God is only able to address by 'remembering' those persons in the consequent nature (objective immortality). On the contrary, she affirms subjective immortality, a process whereby God saves every finite occasion in the world in their full subjectivity, resurrecting them into the divine life for an everlasting intersubjective relationship - not merely a subject-object relationship as in Cobb and Griffin. She argues that those Christians who do not affirm a more robust resurrection theology such as this to instead focus on things like social and political progress ignore the reality that “those who have fallen victim to the earlier modes [of injustice] do not participate in the new order…such Christians frequently fail to see the tremendous issue of justice that stands or falls on the reality of resurrection.”

So Suchocki is clearly motivated by issues of justice, refusing to believe in a God who would lure a world into existence that has created so much suffering – as Hegel famously said, history is a "slaughter-bench.” But Christian hope rejects this as the inevitable reality, affirming a God who does not give up on her creation, who is powerful enough to reconcile injustices through resurrection. For Suchocki, God resurrects the ‘new creation’ into the divine life, reconciling it into the primordial vision of beauty, bringing healing to the relationships of oppressor and oppressed in a complex and dynamic movement in God’s life. As Suchocki writes, “In the center of God, the many are one everlastingly.”  This eschatological reality in God then acts as a model and lure towards the reign of God in history, passing back into the world. For example, Suchocki points out that the ecological crisis should be seen in the light of a renewed and resurrected nature in God, which therefore “has its own earthly analog as we incorporate responsible care for the earth…"

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The God Revealed in Jesus: Suchocki's Process Perspective

In this post on Marjorie Suchocki’s excellent book God-Christ-Church, I want to show how she develops a process Christology in close dialogue with the tradition. What is striking about her approach to theology is her ability to hold together a realist interpretation of the central beliefs and symbols of the Christian faith while not leaving behind her progressive, philosophically rigorous, feminist convictions.  First we'll look at Suchocki’s method and then her understanding of the the person and work of Jesus.

As a Methodist theologian, it is clear that Suchocki’s theological method is founded on the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  When she develops her doctrine of God, she especially emphasizes reason and experience. With her process Christology, she builds on this process doctrine of God to think with the Christian scriptures and tradition about the person and work of Jesus Christ. She clarifies this overall line of thought by differentiating between general and special revelation. Rightly pointing out that these are Christian categories, she then argues that because all knowledge is situated and contextual, any distinctly Christian process theology first depends on the biblical texts (as well as tradition) that shape their ultimate concerns – that is, “Special revelation…is prior to general revelation.” In this, I think Suchocki is right to acknowledge that engaging in process philosophy is not a purely objective activity for her. It is always informed by her Christian “frame of reference.” I would add that Whitehead himself was already shaped by the Christian tradition, and this is certainly reflected in aspects of his philosophy.
Marjorie Suchocki

Suchocki’s explanation of the person of Jesus as the Christ is similar to John Cobb’s Christology, although she is somewhat more pluralistic (that's for another post). She points out that process thought, unlike the creedal tradition, is able to coherently affirm that God was incarnate in Jesus, that he was both truly human and divine, in the sense that he was “co-constituted by the divine and human aim.” This was in large part because God uniquely provided Jesus with initial aims that had a special content, a “full communication of the nature of God.” This special content in the initial aims that uniquely revealed the nature of God was made possible, not because God unilaterally initiated a revelatory event, but because of the particular covenantal history of Israel that Jesus as a Jew was constituted by. This made it possible in the contingencies of history for such a decisive event to occur – “the ‘fullness of time’ is absolutely central,” Suchocki argues. Jewish covenantal history progressively revealed a God of love and justice, but first century Palestine also created messianic expectations of a reversal of the imperial order. Jesus “himself is such a reversal” of the religious status quo and imperial order. Furthermore, Jesus also had to be continuously receptive of God's initial aims in order for such a revelatory event to take place, to adopt them fully rather than to merely adapt to them as most other human beings do. So the incarnation of God in Christ occurred because the cumulative history of Israel that God was decisively working through provided God with unique possibilities to offer Jesus who then responded perfectly, adopting the divine aim as his own.

Suchocki then moves beyond the revelatory life of Jesus to consider the revelatory death of Jesus on the cross. She argues that the difficult symbol of the cross of Christ “is at the heart of the Christian faith.” But the tradition has always struggled to articulate how this is so: what does the cross actually mean for sinners and the oppressed? How is it continuous with Jesus’ revelatory life that showed a God of justice, love, and compassion? Fortunately, the church did not take a stand on a particular theory of the atonement since there are multiple images in scripture. This provides flexibility in new contexts for new understandings of the cross. Unfortunately, the tradition – especially after the Protestant Reformation – emphasized a penal model of atonement in which Christ became the substitute for sinful humanity, taking upon himself at the cross the punishment due for human sin from a wrathful omnipotent deity. But the tradition also had thinkers like Abelard in the 12th century who emphasized a 'moral influence' theory of atonement. This is where Suchocki picks up her approach to the cross.

The death of Jesus can be seen, at least in part, as a revelation of the nature of God for us. On the cross, Suchocki says Jesus experienced ‘Godforsakenness’ (echoing Jurgen Moltmann) in his incredible pain – but he nevertheless continued to model love, forgiveness, and justice in the darkest hours of his life when most would be without the ability to do so. In the midst of dying a cruel death in which he experienced the absence of God, Jesus continued to forgive his enemies and show care for loved ones. As Suchocki writes, “Jesus continues to love, through deepest pain, in a great reversal of what one would normally expect…through the cross we see not only that God’s love is stronger than death, but that God in love endures the pain of death, and that God’s love is unconquered by death.”  As in Jesus' life, he turns everything upside down in his death by embodying a 'topsy-turvy' kingdom.

A God who experiences pain is a reversal of normal religious expectations (one that the church itself has struggled to come to terms with!). If God was in Jesus on the cross, we see a God who not only suffers with us in our sufferings but also redemptively feels our sins. Every sin in society is therefore also a sin against God: “We crucify God.” So Jesus shows us that God loves even in the midst of our sins against God that, in fact, actually cause God pain: God loves in the midst of both our pain as the 'fellow sufferer who understands', and also in spite of God’s own pain due to our sins. In a process universe, the cross of Christ as a revelatory symbol of redemption and hope actually makes sense. Precisely because God in the consequent nature feels every sin and knows our situations in full, God can then graciously offer us redemptive possibilities in the next moment of our existence. Suchocki concludes, “Through God’s crucifixion, God provides us with a resurrection fitted to us in a love that demands our well-being. Who would think of a God whose love involves God in our pain? Revelation comes through the reversal of our normal expectations.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Three Questions for Philip Clayton

[This post is about Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp's "The Predicament of Belief", which I previously blogged about in order to outline some of the main arguments: the book's preface here and first two chapters here and here.]

Here are some questions that I have for Clayton's theo-nerd book party that is being organized by Homebrewed Christianity this Thursday to celebrate his new (and excellent) book "The Predicament of Belief" that is co-written with Steven Knapp.  They are questions that have come up for me while reading the book at the end of last year and also while listening to his presentation of the book's major themes at the Emergent Village conference on process theology last month.  I don't think that any of these questions are necessarily "going to make Phil sweat", but I believe they are still quite relevant.  Perhaps one or more of them can be brought into the discussion on Thursday.

1) Realism?: Clayton stated in his Emergent Village presentation that he and Knapp originally wrote 1,000 pages of this project from an "anti/non-realist" perspective (post-structuralist? post-liberal?). This is somewhat surprising because of Clayton's critical realist commitments he has written about throughout his career as a philosophical theologian. Was the anti-realist draft of the book just a thought experiment of sorts, or has Clayton changed his mind from time to time, swinging between his post-foundationalist commitments and post-structuralism or post-liberalism? What were the main factors that pushed C&K away from ultimately taking the anti-realist route that they tried out early on in writing this book?

2) Pluralism?: Clayton and Knapp address religious pluralism at the epistemic level (something I also wrote about in a post last month) in chapter 4, but I also wonder if they see any possibility of there being multiple ultimates, as in Griffin's Deep Religious Pluralism, or religious ends, as in S. Mark Heim's Salvations?  Perhaps an even more interesting question would be to ask whether Clayton as a comparative theologian has undergone any significant theological transformations through his studies of other religions, such as Hinduism?  Here I am thinking of comparative theologians like Francis Clooney and John Thatamanil whose theologies have been deeply changed through their comparative work with Hinduism.  I suspect that he has, but this was not reflected in the book because of its primary goal of arguing for the reasonableness of Christian faith.

3) Miracles?: In the light of Clayton's more limited perspective on divine action, what does he make of the half-billion Pentecostals around the world today, virtually all of whom believe in and many who also claim to experience miracles, physical healings, or the 'supernatural'?  This seems to be an important issue to address since, as Harvey Cox has also noted, sociologists are calling Pentecostalism the fastest-growing Christian movement in the world today - especially in the global south - that will likely reach a billion (mostly non-white) adherents by 2050.  For those who agree with the "not-even-once" principle proposed in the book, how are claims of supernatural miracles and healings from Pentecostals to be explained? A naturalistic explanation of some sort?  Just leave it to mystery?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Exploring Process Eschatology: How is it Different from Traditional Views?

(Process eschatology is definitely not like this!)
In this post, I want to discuss Christian eschatology by comparing the way that process and traditional theologies commonly explain this doctrine.  I will primarily be drawing on Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin (the standard process text), but will also make some reference to texts by Bob Mesle, Marjorie Suchocki, and A.N. Whitehead himself (as a side note, I have also read the collection of essays edited by Joseph Bracken on process eschatology called World Without End.  I recommend it only for those interested in a much more technical and comprehensive discussion, although Bracken himself has an interesting argument for a more orthodox form of process eschatology). I begin with a consideration of Christian views of eschatology by comparing three influential perspectives of contemporary biblical scholars. This will provide an interesting way to contrast traditional and process views of Christian eschatology before outlining a process eschatology.

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet?
At the center of the Christian tradition is an emphasis on eschatology – the doctrine of ‘the last things.’ There is little doubt that this theme is derived from the New Testament itself. Although modern biblical scholars generally agree that the apostle Paul and early Christians expected a supernatural apocalypse within their lifetime, in which Christ would return, God would intervene to defeat the powers of evil, and the dead would be raised, biblical scholars continue to debate the nature of Jesus’ eschatology.  Some scholars like E.P. Sanders argue for an apocalyptic Jesus: like Paul, John the Baptist, and the early church, Jesus believed that God would literally intervene within a generation (Mark 13:30). As such, Jesus was wrong since this obviously never occurred. Depending on the interpreter, this illustrates the full humanity and perhaps the delusional apocalyptic views of Jesus as well.

Liberal vs. Orthodox Jesus Scholar
Other prominent biblical scholars like N.T. Wright agree that Jesus expected God to intervene to raise the dead and usher in the new creation, but they also argue that Jesus did not expect this to occur imminently. The Christian tradition has generally agreed with Wright. Most Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians have affirmed some sort of temporary life after death until the second coming of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the inauguration of the new creation in which the redeemed will live in communion with God forever. As we will see, this perspective is not affirmed by mainstream process theology, largely because of its dependence on an interventionist God.

Differing from Sanders, Wright, and the tradition, Marcus Borg argues that Jesus did not hold to apocalyptic expectations: no second coming or supernatural intervention by God. According to Borg, apocalyptic eschatology was probably affirmed by Paul and the early church, but not by Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, he places Jesus more firmly within the Jewish prophetic tradition, holding to a “participatory eschatology”: humans are called to participate in the ongoing work of God in history in hopeful anticipation of the future ‘kingdom of God’, an age of global justice and peace that has nothing to do with a supernatural intervention. Borg claims that although Jesus likely believed in life after death, this was not central to his gospel. It is this perspective on eschatology that Christian process theologians can most fully endorse (I should note that Cobb wrote most of his work all the way through the 90s with a view more like that of E.P. Sanders.  But he now finds Borg more persuasive).

Alfred North Whitehead
In what follows, I will summarize one major form of process eschatology. This will require a brief explanation of two metaphysical issues: a relational view of nature and of God (hang in there with me! I try to keep it simple). This will illustrate ways that Christian process theologians affirm life after death and the redemption of creation in a naturalistic, not supernatural way.

Process philosophy views nature as made up of actual occasions of experience. As Whitehead writes, “The actual temporal world can be analysed into a multiplicity of occasions of actualization. These are the primary actual units of which the temporal world is composed…each is a microcosm representing in itself the entire all-inclusive universe.” Process theologians thus affirm a kind of relational atomism in which momentary actual occasions are constituted by their relations as experiencing subjects and then perish to become an object for new becoming occasions. Everything that exists is ultimately made up of actual occasions, while the things we normally experience with our senses that endure through time (e.g., a dog, chair, mountain, etc.) are groupings of occasions – what Whitehead called “societies.” As such, material bodies and living souls are in fact different kinds of interrelated societies of actual occasions. Souls are not a special kind of substance, as much traditional theology affirmed, but an especially complex part of nature.

John B. Cobb, Jr.
With this in mind, we can understand what process theologians say about the immortality of the soul. As it turns out, there is nothing metaphysically implausible about an individual soul continuing to live on after the death of the body – although whether it will live forever is another question. While Whitehead is more neutral on life after death, arguing that it should be decided on “more special evidence”, Cobb and Griffin are more open to it as Christians who affirm the resurrection appearances of Jesus (as for an empty tomb, Cobb is open to it but does not think it is very plausible). Christians can thus affirm the real hope of life after death.  Note that process cannot be simply dismissed as Gnostic - it is nondual rather dualistic and thus does not place matter as an evil substance in opposition to the soul as a higher, spiritual substance - as the rest of the discussion will further illustrate, we are talking about very different ideas here!  Suchocki also takes the resurrection of Jesus seriously: “If we take the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be a revelation of God for us, then the resurrection is a vital part of this revelation.” As such, many process theologians affirm the eschatological significance of the resurrection of Jesus, even though they do not agree with traditional theologians that it was a supernatural event that necessarily produced an empty tomb. But there is more to process eschatology than life after death.

For process theologians, the primary problem of existence to be overcome is not death but meaninglessness due to the perpetual perishing of occasions. Without some ground of permanence, our accomplishments would finally seem to be insignificant. It is ultimately God who is this ground of meaning, since process theologians see God as not only creative as the source of novelty but responsive to the world, eternally preserving every occasion that has ever existed in her own nature. As Mesle explains, “God shares the experience of becoming of the entire universe, and synthesizes it into God’s own, infinitely vast and complex experience.” This means that occasions are given objective (not subjective) immortality in the divine life, forever preserved in their immediacy and woven into an ideal and growing harmony. As Whitehead wrote, this is the kingdom of heaven, which “is not the isolation of good from evil. It is the overcoming of evil by good.” As such, the ultimate eschatological 'fact' is the redemption of all things in God.  Suchocki is one of the few process theologians to argue that this is subjective not just objective immortality.

Beyond the hope for subjective life after death of the soul and the objective redemption of creation (soul and body) in God, there is also an emphasis on historical eschatology in process thought that coheres with Borg’s view of Jesus. In cosmic history, there is no end to the process of creation or need for a final new creation, as in traditional eschatologies. The future is radically open, and God continuously creates by luring the world toward greater richness of experience and complexity. As Borg argued, this means that Christian eschatological hope in history takes the form of participation: we are co-creators with God for the future kingdom or “commonwealth." As we respond more positively to God’s lure, we participate in God’s ongoing work for justice and shalom in creation. Cobb and Griffin conclude, “There is no divine action apart from creaturely action, but equally the divine action is the principle of hope in the creaturely action…Trusting God is not assurance that whatever we do will work out well. It is instead confidence that God’s call is wise and good.”

Friday, February 24, 2012

Postfoundational Pluralism: Beyond Traditional Inclusivism & Pluralism?

In this post, I want to consider the issue of religious pluralism and begin to sketch a way beyond the usual options with a model I'm calling "postfoundational pluralism."  In a nutshell, this is the attempt to hold together confessional inclusivism with a qualified form of epistemic pluralism.

To begin, there are many ways of responding to the reality of religious pluralism from a theological perspective. Paul Knitter's book Introducing Theologies of Religion is a great place to gain familiarity with this field of study.  Although the categories are problematic in some ways, the three basic responses to religious pluralism are:

1) Exclusivism/Replacement: 'the one replaces the many' - i.e., salvation through Christ only available through the Christian religion, and/or the absolute self-revelation of God in Christ means all religion is false.  This is the typical evangelical position and it can include everything from fundamentalism to a kind of universalism such as that of Karl Barth (who claimed, paradoxically, that Christianity is the one true religion because it is the only religion that knows it is a false religion - that is, all 'religion' is false because revelation is absolute in Christ).

2) Inclusivism/Fulfillment: 'the one fulfills the many' - i.e., salvation through Christ possible through many religions.  Basically the idea is that Christ can save persons through the means of non-Christian traditions because they contain partial truths, perhaps even truths lacking in Christianity.  A classic version of this perspective is Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who said that persons of other religions may be legitimately understood as 'anonymous Christians.'  Note that this does not necessarily entail universalism.

3) Pluralism: 'many ways and many norms' - i.e., Christ for Christians, Torah for Jews, Nirvana for Buddhists, etc.  This is popularly articulated as 'many ways up the same mountain.'  It typically involves relativizing the respective truth claims of the religions such that they all point more or less in the same direction - towards 'the Real', to use John Hick's term.  But there are a number of versions of pluralism and a whole variety of theological responses that do not fit into any of these categories.  I have blogged about S. Mark Heim's confessional pluralism before and am very sympathetic with it.

In a follow-up post later this weekend, I want to discuss an aspect of John Cobb and David Ray Griffin's pluralism, which like Heim's pluralism, stands in an interesting space between inclusivism and pluralism - the broad space that is occupied by postfoundational pluralism as well, which I argue is the most defensible perspective in theology of religions.  All perspectives inevitably are inclusivist to a greater or lesser degree - including those pluralists like Hick (see Heim's argument on this point in his excellent book Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion [especially chapter 4]).  In liberal and conservative forms, religions make truth claims that are not always compatible with others.  They may even allow for multiple ultimates, as in Cobb, Griffin, and Heim.  Even so, they finally stand within a particular tradition of sorts and thus continue to make claims of universal significance: about the Christ-event in the case of Cobb/Griffin, about the Trinity in the case of Heim, and about the Real in the case of Hick.  All four arguably hold to different types of inclusivism, even though they might label it "pluralism."  This is ultimately misleading, even if one has multiple ultimates based on process metaphysics (Cobb/Griffin) or the social Trinity (Heim).  On the one hand, these are radically open forms of inclusivism in the broadest sense.  On the other hand, they need to be placed in tension through a consideration of epistemology, especially considering the particular locations of all who make any sort of truth claims.

In other words, on the 'pluralist pole' of this position, the relativity of the religious traditions as largely (but not totally) incommensurable interpretive communities is recognized and even embraced as an inescapable reality.  We are shaped by traditions, and with them, the language and doctrines of that tradition that tend to reinforce the experiences associated with it (e.g., Christian experiences of the risen Christ, sanctification, spiritual gifts, etc.).  This need not mean that we retreat into these interpretive communities as many post-liberal theologians do, thereby largely isolating their faith from being falsified, challenged, or internally transformed through sustained engagement with other religions.  Through this process of interreligious exchange, one may find oneself only somewhat changed in terms of religious beliefs, but one may also discover something much deeper - perhaps approaching a kind of dual-religious belonging in some cases (see Francis Clooney's book Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders for a discussion of this from a Catholic Christian who has been deeply transformed by his sustained intellectual and experiential encounter with Hinduism).

But on the 'inclusivist pole' of this position, we also recognize that there is no strong reason why one's particular Christian experiences, so long as they remain sufficiently convincing, reasonable, and authentic to the believer, would not provide one with the basis to make actual religious truth claims - with a great deal of humility, to be sure, but truth claims that may (will) conflict with others.  Again, there is simply no way around this situation, regardless of whether you are liberal or conservative.

As post-foundationalist philosophers like Philip Clayton, F. LeRon Shults, and J. Wentzel van Huysteen also point out, both religion and science are on the same general epistemic level in that they are both based on interpreted experience: "we relate to our world epistemically only through the mediation of interpreted experience, and in this sense it may be said that theology and the various sciences offer alternative [not necessarily conflicting] interpretations of our experience." (Huysteen, Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology, 15)

This implies that, just as the scientific community makes truth claims of universal significance based on always-already interpreted experience, so religions make truth claims on the same general epistemic grounds: "epistemologically speaking, there is nothing unique about religious beliefs." (47)  This then "reveals the commited nature of all rational thought, and thus the fiduciary rootedness of all rationality...the theory ladenness of all data in the sciences therefore parallels the interpreted nature of all religious experience." (44-45)   In the science/religion debate between these different interpretive communities, this reality calls for rigorous interdisciplinary work and between the many religions it calls for open and serious dialogue.  For Christian theology, such a post-foundationlist framework demands "a relentless questioning of our uncritically held crypto-foundationalist assumptions.  This should allow a free and critical exploration of the experiential and interpretive roots of all our beliefs, even (maybe especially) in matters of faith, religious commitment, and theological reflection." (4)

Such is the inescapable reality of being human.  Again, just because others do not share the same religious experiences does not necessarily mean that one must stop believing certain things, such as the universal significance of Christ or the ultimate truth of the Buddha's teachings.  It might be frustrating that others cannot 'see' or experience what one does that inclines one to hold certain religious beliefs, and one must recognize the relativity involved here, including the lack of definitive evidence or arguments that would compel someone outside one's tradition to agree.  But it does not logically follow that one must reject one's beliefs just because they are not accepted by all others, precisely because of the starting point for all claims to truth, religious or otherwise, through interpreted experience.  Our experience is, in the final analysis, the only source of making any claims to truth, and these experiences are in turn mediated through particular traditions.  This makes access to such religious experience difficult but not impossible for those outside the tradition. So if one genuinely experiences Christ as being of universal significance, despite such a claim being in competition with other religious truth claims, one may in humility believe this to be actually true - but again, with the 'pluralist pole' in dialectical tension with this 'inclusivist pole.'  Philip Clayton argues this basic point: "If my own experience leads me to interpret the [ultimate reality] in a way that conflicts with the interpretations of those with difference experiences, I should acknowledge that the community of religious inquirers has no reason to prefer my theory to theirs.  But it doesn't follow that I have a rational duty to stop believing in the reality I think my experience enables me to see." (Clayton/Knapp, The Predicament of Belief, 77)

Is this overall perspective on pluralism something generally held by religious persons?  Obviously not.  But in a postmodern age, if we want to avoid relativism and move beyond foundationalism, this postfoundational pluralism seems to me to be the most coherent option for persons of faith.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reflecting on Liberation & Process Theologies

In C. Robert Mesle’s Process Theology: A Basic Introduction, he shows how process theology can be developed in alignment with some of the major themes in liberation theology. A process theology of liberation is something that I have been interested in since there has been so little work done on the topic. Admittedly, Mesle only very briefly illustrates some of the ways in which process theology can support liberation thinking. Even so, his constructive approach in this book is compelling and helpful. The liberation themes that Mesle raises are all related to and grounded in the rejection of omnipotence in process thought (which I blogged about recently). As he rightly points out, while we should be careful not to overemphasize the cognitive, speculative, and theological at the expense of the practical, concrete, and ethical, “it is a fact that what we believe about God shapes our responses to [ethical] issues.”

Mesle persuasively shows how the logic of omnipotence tends to result in oppressive forms of religion. If God is all-powerful, it follows (at least in some forms of Christian theology) that God predestines individuals to their eternal fates and thus forces persons of other religions to suffer eternally. Taken to its logical conclusion, this kind of omnipotence easily becomes an excuse for violence against the religious other.  It can and has also led to the support of sexism and slavery.

Could it be that this image of an omnipotent God is a distorted projection of the powerful few on top of society to legitimize their authority and domination of the many? Whatever Paul meant in Romans 13:1-4 (and I tend to think a more nuanced reading shows that he is not attempting to legitimize any and every governmental authority), there is no doubt that it has been interpreted in conjunction with a theology of omnipotence to support the status quo in societies. As Mesle writes, it has been a tool for Christians and elites in power “for maintaining oppression.” In contrast to these views of conservative religion, process theology argues for a God who is unable to be used as a tool for legitimizing those on top who exercise power unilaterally, precisely because of the way it understands divine power as persuasive and non-interventionist. God cannot unilaterally determine, and therefore offer ideological support to any governing authority.

A God who suffers with the oppressed, as in process thought, is also a victim of every injustice and oppression at the hands of the powers that be. God never stands outside and above empires, placing the divine on the side of those on top and in authority, unaffected by the sufferings of those on the underside of history. As Whitehead famously wrote, God is “the fellow-sufferer who understands.” God is never simply on the side of the oppressor in this model. Furthermore, God not only experiences the pain and injustice of the victims in full, but also feels an even greater pain through the perfect knowledge of the good that could have been but that was tragically rejected for lesser possibilities.

Nevertheless, this understanding of God in process thought is of one who constantly works in every situation to liberate individuals from oppression and who cannot be identified with any existing social, political, or economic structures. Out of divine love and grace, the God of process theism continually calls individuals to cooperate in the work of liberation from unjust situations: “God’s primary avenue to liberation is through responsive human hearts. We can wait for supernatural miracles or we can roll up our sleeves with God and get to work.”