Thursday, December 29, 2011

Loneliness and David Foster Wallace.

I stumbled across this fascinating interview with David Foster Wallace:

A phrase in one of your recent letters really struck me: “The magic of fiction is that it addresses and antagonizes the loneliness that dominates people.” It’s that suggestion of antagonizing the reader that seems to link your goals up with the avant-garde program—whose goals were never completely hermetic. And Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way seems to be your own meta-fictional attempt to deal with these large areas in ways that are not merely metafiction.

”Aggravate” might be better than “antagonize,” in the sense of aggravation as intensification. But the truth is it’s hard for me to know what I really think about any of the stuff I’ve written. It’s always tempting to sit back and make finger-steeples and invent impressive sounding theoretical justifications for what one does, but in my case most of it’d be horseshit. As time passes I get less and less nuts about anything I’ve published, and it gets harder to know for sure when its antagonistic elements are in there because they serve a useful purpose and when their just covert manifestations of this “look-at-me-please-love-me-I-hate-you” syndrome I still sometimes catch myself falling into. Anyway, but what I think I meant by “antagonize” or “aggravate” has to do with the stuff in the TV essay about the younger writer trying to struggle against the cultural hegemony of TV. One thing TV does is help us deny that we’re lonely. With televised images, we can have the facsimile of a relationship without the work of a real relationship. It’s an anesthesia of “form.” The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness. You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like subdreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self(a psychic self, not just a physical self ), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

The entire interview can be found here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Forgiveness of Sins and Divine Solidarity with the Oppressed.

It has taken me longer than I'd like to admit to realize that the choice between progressive politics and traditional faith is a false dichotomy. Thankfully, there are many faithful examples to show that the task of theology necessarily includes prophetic witness to the cause of oppression (Stringfellow, Romero, Gutiérrez, Barth, etc.). As one who was raised in evangelicalism, the cause of the suffering and oppressed was not emphasized much. This general trend is no surprise and the neglect of global oppression is well-noted by liberation theologies. Yet, after taking a liberation theology course this past fall, I struggled with the binaries between the oppressor and the oppressed. I noticed the binaries even more at the liberation theology session this year at AAR. My continual experience of this forced dichotomy left me wondering if the only way forward is to abandon a commitment to the understanding that Jesus Christ died for sinners. In my own understanding, Jesus Christ is first priest, and from that mediation He becomes our liberation. However, this becomes all the more complicated when one realizes that most who are committed to Jesus Christ's primary office as our priestly Mediator (including much of the great tradition) don't see that liberation is a necessary consequence (either in speech or act). To me, liberation of the oppressed is neither optional nor a fashionable add-on to conjure up some sort of relevant Christianity. Thus, I feel very torn.

All of that background information serves to show the significance of the following excerpt. Hunsinger's words are a verbalization of all that I wanted to say, but could not for so long (and far better than I ever could). The only amendment I would make is that there are not only "good reasons" for connecting atonement for sin and divine solidarity with the oppressed, but rather necessary reasons. If this sort of objective theological orientation does not offer genuine freedom for the oppressed and suffering, what hope is there for humanity? It must always be said that the cause of liberation is a necessary and direct consequence of the forgiveness of sins. Parsing out this connection for the Church is the task of the theologian in the next century:
"During the last twenty-five years or so, the church has increasingly witnessed the emergence of victim-oriented soteriologies. The plight of victims, variously specified and defined, has been urged by prominent theologians as the central soteriological problem. It can scarcely be denied that the history of the twentieth century has pushed the plight of the victims to the fore. Nor can it be denied that the church has too often seemed ill-equipped to bring the plight of victims, especially victims of oppression and social injustice, clearly into focus for itself so that reasonable and faithful remedies might be sought. Victim-oriented soteriologies have undoubtedly made an important contribution to a better understanding of the church's social responsibility.

Polarizations and animosities have developed, however, to the extent that the plight of victims has displaced the soteriological plight of sinners, or even eclipsed it. Victim-oriented soteriologies have unfortunately tended to define the meaning of sin entirely in terms of victimization. Sin ceases to be a universal category. It attaches to perpetrators and to them alone. Since by definition victims qua victims are innocent of being perpetrators, they are to that extent innocent of sin. If sin attaches only to perpetrators, however, victims can be sinners only by somehow becoming perpetrators themselves (a move not unknown in victim-oriented soteriologies). Victim-oriented soteriologies, with their bipolar opposition between victims and perpetrators, display a logic with sectarian tendencies.

How the cross of Christ is understood by these soteriologies is also worth noting. The cross becomes meaningful because it shows the divine solidarity with victims, generally ceasing to find any other relevance, at least positively. (In extreme cases, the theology of the cross is trashed as a cause of victimization. But such denunciations, when meant de jure, exceed the bounds even of heterodoxy and so cease to be of constructive interest to the church.) The cross, in any case, is no longer the supreme intervention for the forgiveness of sins. It is not surprising that more traditional, sin-oriented soteriologies should react with unfortunate polarization. When that happens, however, sin as a universal category obscures the plight of oppression's victims, rendering that plight just as invisible or irrelevant as it was before. Atonement without solidarity seems to exhaust the significance of the cross, and forgiveness supposedly occurs without judgment on oppression.

The task of generous orthodoxy in this situation is to dispel the polarization by letting central truths be central, and lesser truths be lesser, but in each case letting truth be truth. No reason exists why the cross as atonement for sin should be viewed as logically incompatible with the cross as divine solidarity with the oppressed. Good reasons can be found for connecting them. The great, historical, ecumenical consensus remains, however, that the central significance of the cross, as attested by holy scripture, is the forgiveness of sins. This established consensus pervades every aspect of the church's life, not least including baptism and the Lord's Supper."

- George Hunsinger, "Social Witness in Generous Orthodoxy: The New Presbyterian 'Study Catechism'", 56.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Karl Barth and the Pastorate.

As the semester came to a close this afternoon, I tried to figure out what to do with myself and all this new-found free time. I decided to take a break from reading and instead, started listening to an audio CD I rented from the library of Karl Barth in conversation with students when he gave his Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary on May 2nd, 1962. I thought this particular exchange was rather wonderful:

Student: "What one thing, sir, would you tell a young pastor today if you were asked, is necessary in this day and age to pastor a Church?"

Barth: "Ah, so big a question! That is the whole question of theology, you see! I should say, I hope that during your studies you have visited yourself earnestly with the message of the Old Testament and of the New Testament. And not only of this message but also of the Object and the Subject of this message. And I would ask you, are you trained to visit not only yourself now, but a congregation with what you have learned out of the Bible and of church history and dogmatics and so on? Having to say something, having to say that thing. And then the other question: are you willing now to deal with humanity as it is? Humanity in this twentieth century with all its passions, sufferings, errors, and so on? Do you like them, these people? Not only the good Christians, but do you like people as they are? People in their weakness? Do you like them, do you love them? And are you willing to tell them the message that God is not against them, but for them? That's the one real thing in pastoral service and that is the question for you. If you go into ministry to do that work, pray earnestly. You'll do difficult work but beautiful work.

But if I had to begin anew for myself as a young pastor, I would tell myself every morning, well, here I am; a very poor creature, but by God's grace I have heard something. I will need forgiveness of my sins everyday. And I will pray, God, that you will give me the light, this light shining in the Bible and this light shining into the world in which humanity is living today. And then do my duty."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Body's Grace

This semester, I've had the joy of reading Rowan Williams' exquisite essay "The Body's Grace" more than once. For my ethics class, I signed up to lead discussion group for the week that the class discussed human sexuality and Williams' essay was assigned. Today, a dear friend of mine brought up Williams' essay during a conversation about human relationships. And it reminded me why I love Williams' words so much. During the group discussion a few weeks ago, other students were concerned that Williams does not offer clear standards for relationships. His seeming inclusivity became a worry that any type of relationship between two consenting individuals would be deemed acceptable. However, I actually thought that Williams offers an extremely exclusive picture of relationships since, ironically, his words are those of judgment over most human relationships that are embedded in a desire to control, manipulate, and dominate the other. But Williams compels others to see the radically fragile, life-giving, and beautiful nature of human relationships that are rooted in vulnerability. His essay goes beyond sexuality to describe what happens when two human agents seek to be in true relationship with one another. To know the other and let oneself be known is simultaneously the most terrifying yet grace-filled act human persons can choose. I'll let the good Archbishop tell you himself:

All this means, crucially, that in sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am. Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in something like this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them. But here we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. ...

The discovery of sexual joy and of a pattern of living in which that joy is accessible must involve the insecurities of "exposed spontaneity": the experience of misunderstanding or of the discovery (rapid or slow) that this relationship is not about joy - these are bearable, if at all, because at least they have changed the possibilities of our lives in a way which may still point to what joy might be. But it should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body's grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures. There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another.

- Rowan Williams, "The Body's Grace"

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Merciful Love of God.

Read this. And then read it again.
The most merciful God has taken action on our behalf both in freedom and in power. In freedom: for our sin and guilt were not His and did not have to become so. Because this is so, faith believes in God's grace and election in virtue of which we receive what we have not deserved. But also in power: for He has really taken to Himself and removed from us our sin and guilt. Therefore faith is joy and gratitude, an assurance which can no longer look back, only forwards. In freedom and power, awakening a humble but assured and unshakable faith, He took our place because He was God's eternal Son, because it was manifest in Him that God's eternal being is mercy, because there is nothing more real and true behind and beyond this substitution, because this substitution is the very essence of God's own being, of His divinity, for which we must glorify Him in joy and gratitude if we are not to sin wantonly against Him, if we are to let God be God.

This, then, is how God loves. His love is merciful love. In the nature of the case, we do not need to emphasize the point that God is as merciful in Himself as He is merciful in His action. For the idea of mercy itself refers back from God's attitude and act to the depths of God's being, to His heart, His mind, Himself. All misunderstanding in regard to the idea of grace, as if it were not eternal in God Himself, becomes quite impossible when we have understood it as merciful grace. For it is then understood, not simply as God's turning towards us, but as His free, effectual compassion. Looking backwards, therefore, it is seen, not simply as an appearance, but as the disposition of the heart and being of God. Viewed as merciful grace the love of God descends to earth more deeply, and climbs higher to heaven, than the idea of grace in itself would permit us to suppose."
- Karl Barth, CD II.1, 374-375.

Photo Credit: Monica Rey

Friday, December 2, 2011


"Grace, strictly speaking, does not mean continuity but radical discontinuity, not reform but revolution, not violence but nonviolence, not the perfecting of virtues but the forgiveness of sins, not improvement but resurrection from the dead. It means repentance, judgment, and death as the portal to life. It means negation and the negation of the negation. The grace of God really comes to lost sinners, but in coming it disrupts them to the core. It slays to make alive and sets the captive free. Grace may of course work silently and secretly like a germinating seed as well as like a bolt from the blue. It is always wholly as incalculable as it is reliable, unmerited, and full of blessing. Yet it is necessarily as unsettling as it is comforting. It does not finally teach of its own sufficiency without appoint a thorn in the flesh. Grace is disruptive because God does not compromise with sin, nor ignore it, nor call it good. On the contrary, God removes it by submitting to the cross to show that love is stronger than death. Those whom God loves may be drawn to God through their suffering and be privileged to share in his sufferings in the world, because grace in its radical disruption surpasses all that we can imagine or think."

- George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 16-17.