Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Native theology.

For the past two weeks, my ethics class has been reading Barth (among many other sources) in an attempt to ask the following questions: can the good be known and done? Are some human actions intrinsically evil? For Barth, that which guides human actions is the command of God. All ethics are rooted here. Barth maintains this position with astonishing consistency even when considering the issue of protecting human life. He will never concede to a type of absolutism concerning ethical questions since this would fail to recognize God as Lord over the creature and the person of faith in Jesus Christ must continually remain open to hearing the command of God throughout their life. It is rather liberating yet offers troubling instability. But this is the beauty, in a very real way, of Barth, right? He offers this vision of the Christian life that includes continual dependence and tension that very much accords with the reality of faith. However, if I may be so honest, while this perspective was welcomed, it also caused a great deal of anxiety. When I read that the ethical life is rooted in the command of God, the Canaanite genocide immediately came to mind. This was a direct result of the command of Yahweh to His people, Israel. If I am to remain forever open to the command of God, must I be open to this same sort of atrocity in order to genuinely maintain that I am indeed the creature and God is Lord? And to answer this angst, must I preserve an analogy of being so I can "rationally" maintain that God would never command anything of this sort since it doesn't accord with what I believe as a Christian? Some might say that we should now look to Jesus Christ, for here we see where God is truly revealed - the God for us, for all humanity, the perpetual YES to all creatures. But how can even this be an answer to my initial question if Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah and a fulfillment of the very covenant made between Yahweh and the people of Israel. Is Yahweh not the same God revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ? These are basic questions, but I can never get away from them.

And I was reminded today precisely why the Church can't get away from them. I was reading about Native feminist theology (though there really isn't such a thing for the most part) for my liberation theology class and was struck by this immensely challenging excerpt:

Even if we distinguish the 'liberation' church from mainstream churches, the challenge brought forth by Native scholars and activists to other liberation theologians would be, Can a 'liberation' church escape complicity in Christian imperialism? Deloria in particular raises the challenge that Christianity, because it is a temporally rather than a spatially based tradition (that is, it is not tied to a particular landbase but can seek converts from any landbase), is necessarily a religion tied to imperialism because it will never be content to remain within a particular place or community: 'Once again religion becomes specific to a group, its nature also appears to change, being directed to the internal mechanics of the group, not to grandiose schemes of world conquest.' Hence, all Christian theology, even liberation theology, remains complicit in the missionization and genocide of Native peoples in the Americas ...

Robert Warrior's germinal essay, 'Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,' furthers Deloria's analysis by again troubling liberatory potential in many of the theological assumptions of liberation theology. In this essay, Warrior argues that the Bible is not a liberatory text for Native peoples, especially considering the fact that the liberation motif commonly adopted by liberation theologians - the Exodus - is premised on the genocide of the indigenous people occupying the Promised Land - the Canaanites. Warrior does not argue for the historical veracity of the conquest of the Canaanites. Rather, the Exodus operates as a narrative of conquest, a narrative that was foundational to the European conquest of the Americas. Warrior's essay points not only to the problems with the Exodus motif but also to liberation theology's conceptualization of a God of deliverance. He contends that 'as long as people believe in the Yahweh of deliverance, the world will not be safe from Yahweh the conqueror.'
- Andrea Smith, "Native Feminist Theology" in Liberation Theologies in the United States, 149-150.

I immediately felt the weight of the sin of the Church when I read this excerpt. No matter what one believes about the Hebrew Bible and the Canaanite genocide, the genocide of the Native American peoples can never be justified. But I ask, how can I make that statement given the fact that this excerpt above offers some very real questions to my struggles with Barth's grounding of the ethical life in the command of God?

If I get time for it, I want to explore the supposed incompatibility between Native theology and Christianity given Smith's omission in this essay that there is no essentialism upheld in Native American understanding of their culture. Rather, the culture and their identity is seen through the lens of performativity. In light of this, I think a proper understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Church lends itself to being genuinely good news for the Native peoples.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Torture and the Imago Dei.

For my Christian ethics class, we are examining the question whether the ends can justify the means in human action. This question is being asked from the side of the practical by analyzing the issue of torture. We were assigned to read five sources about the issue of torture; two in support of the practice (obviously with qualifications) and three against the practice. I assumed it wouldn't be that difficult to do the reading for this week given the move away from theory toward concrete issues. But reading about torture is no easy task. Even if one is against torture from the outset, the hypothetical and emotionally-manipulative scenarios that the pro-torture side provide are difficult. Afterall, doesn't everyone want to secure the end of perserving thousands of innocent lives in the face of an imminent threat? That is why I was grateful to read the following passage from an ecumenical project against torture. George Hunsinger, in his essay entitled "Torture is a Ticking Time Bomb", provides a necessary theological account for why torture is never an acceptable option for Christians even in the face of imminent acts of terror. He distinguishes between three types of torture: interrogational, terroristic, and demonic. None are ultimately effective and only dehumanize both the torturer and the tortured. In his section describing "demonic torture", Hunsinger offers a moving account for why all forms of torture can never be justified:

"For something to become an absolute end in itself means that it has usurped a
status that does not belong to it. The place belonging to God and God alone can
be only seized by the human creature in the form of a monstrous caricature. The
power of love is replaced by loveless power, compassion for the weak by sadistic
cruelty, fair treatment by demonic subjugation, respect for life by the meanest
contempt. Demonic torture is essentially destructive in its brutal self-elevation and self-justification. It proceeds at the expense of all legitimate obligations and norms. Its needs, its pleasures, and its purposes are carried out by shattering the essential humanity of another.

When Christians appeal to the image of God in their arguments against torture, they
are not, properly speaking, merely adding a religious patina to the concept of
human dignity. They are pointing to the ultimate meaning of human life. From
Bonhoeffer through Barth to recent Catholic theology, the doctrine of the imago
Dei has been reconceived in terms of relationality instead of the traditional
rationality. It is human relationality as such that stands in analogy to the
Holy Trinity, and therefore to the ultimacy of community. For the Trinity is
itself a holy communion of love and freedom, joy and peace. Human creatures
receive the vocation and the gift of living with God and one another on these

When torture is conducted as an end in itself, and is therefore become demonic -when the purpose of power is power, and the purpose of cruelty is cruelty, when torture's purpose is tyrannical subjugation and sadistic degradation - then the divinely given meaning of life is unspeakably distorted and destroyed. The relation of the torturer to the tortured, and of the tortured to the torturer, makes a travesty of the most basic relations given by heaven to earth. In so degrading the human being and human community, torture blasphemes against God, neighbor, and self."

George Hunsinger, "Torture is the Ticking Time Bomb" in Torture is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People of Conscience Speak out, 68.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Subordinationism Revisited.

Earlier today, I received a comment on my post "Barth and Subordinationism" from Tyler Wittman who blogs at Eremos (forgive me, I can't figure out how to put the proper accent in his blog's name). I have never done this before, but I decided to post my reply to Tyler's comment in an entirely new post. I truly don't mean any disrespect to Tyler by posting this exchange. Rather, I'm doing this because I really believe that it is important to properly interpret not only Bruce McCormack's remarks in his recent Kantzer lectures given last week at Wheaton, but also for correctly understanding the Christian tradition in relation to trinitarian theology. Tyler's remarks offer a great opportunity to clarify some prevailing misunderstandings in evangelicalism which I believe Bruce McCormack helpfully highlighted and corrected in his Kantzer lectures. You will have to read my initial post on Barth and subordinationism to gain a full understanding of the context for Tyler's comment and my response. Without further ado ...

Tyler's Comment:

I understand where Giles is coming from, but this doesn't suffice as a sound argument.

First, the simplistic equation of authority structures within the Godhead with the heresy of subordinationism is uncharitable and unsustainable. Bruce McCormack recently made a similar accusation towards Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware that simply smacks of misunderstanding. There is more rhetoric than substance here. The heresy of subordinationism maintained that there was an ontological inequality amongst the three persons. Evangelicals like Grudem and Ware (and ostensibly Smail) advocate no such heresy. People like Giles simply don't want to grant that the persons of the Godhead can be functionally subordinate but ontologically equal. In effect, they want to equate function and ontology, but ...

This is perhaps the most damning mistake I see Giles making, and it's a 'Feuerbachian slip' (to use Vanhoozer's phrase). The implicit assumption is that submission to authority equals inequality. This is a cultural, and not a biblical, value. This is the canon, if you will, for scholars like Giles who hastily categorize opponents into the heresy of the first three centuries. What Giles leaves out is that those divine persons (like the Son and Spirit) who are subordinate are not subordinate simpliciter, and therefore ontologically. Rather, they are eternally, yet freely subordinate. He's making the relationships passive, when in fact, they are active. The Son has authority to lay his life down and to take it back up, but he freely obeys the Father's (eternal!) will and lays it down.

Thus the equation of function and ontology cannot accomplish what Giles desires if our ears are attuned to the biblical witness.

My Response:

Tyler, If I may be so bold without trying to sound rude, I think your interpretation of Bruce McCormack's Kantzer lectures concerning the views of Grudem and Ware "simply smacks of misunderstanding." I am not sure where to start by way of response so I will begin with your interpretation of McCormack's views. I will examine McCormack's views more closely than Giles as such an examination will help to address the heart of the issue more fully (ironically enough, I was pleased when McCormack mentioned and positively affirmed Giles' work on this subject).

1. McCormack's "accusation" is only lacking in charity and cannot be sustained if it is baseless and without good evidence. If McCormack is indeed correct in categorizing Grudem and Ware as subordinationists in the way he explain based upon the tradition as such, then claiming the opposite would in fact be uncharitable and unsustainable. I think McCormack went out of his way to take Grudem and Ware's positions seriously and provided a detailed and carefully researched critique.

2. When I listened to the Kantzer lecture, I heard quite a different line of argument from McCormack. He maintained that Ware and Grudem presuppose a Social Trinitarian understanding of the Trinity when they construct their notions of the relationship(s) between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Social trinitarianism is based upon the idea that each person of the Trinity (and the term person is key here) has their own mind, will, and mode of operation. What makes them unified is that they share the same essence. Thus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit harmoniously work together in order to secure the same end and purpose. McCormack argued that this presupposed model of the Trinity, which is a development of 19th century Catholic theology, is not the same model presupposed by the Nicaean fathers. Thus, the egalitarianism among the members of the Trinity is "functional" as McCormack noted. But McCormack argued quite well that such an understanding is a modern theological import to Nicaea and not compatible both with the Christian orthodox tradition or with the biblical witness that testifies to One God. The fathers understood that in order to avoid committing the error of maintaining tritheism in their Trinitarian theology and also a hierarchy of beings (as both McCormack and Giles properly note), they could not simply adhere to "functional egalitarianism." Thus, they maintained that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not merely one in essence but also in mind, will and operation ("principle of inseparable of operation"). It is fine if Ware and Grudem want to argue that the Son has a different will than the Father, which he willfully submits from all eternity, but this is not the understanding of Nicaea. Disagreement with the council of Nicaea has been termed "heresy" by the Christian tradition. McCormack maintains the position that the Son's submission to the Father is one of voluntary, self-submission since he applies "the principle of inseparable operation". Therefore, the submission is not passive at least from McCormack's standpoint (though Giles doesn't seem to support this passivity either given the overall theme of his essay). Moreover, egalitarians fear that such an "eternal" understanding of submission would necessarily equate to subordinationism but that is simply because they are working from within a social Trinitarian framework. Which takes me to my next point ...

3. Ironically enough, both egalitarians and complimentarians use the Social Trinitarian model to support their respective commitments to gender relations. But I think this reminds us that the Trinity is wholly unique and cannot be used as a model to support gender relations between men and women. It is a misplaced analogy also because social trinitarianism essentially equates to tritheism. To maintain that there are three distinct minds and wills yet one substance and then say there is not a hierarchy of beings is simply "fundamentally incoherent" as McCormack argued. McCormack does not seem to be concerned with defending the Nicaean tradition in the way he does because he has a stake in the gender debate. In fact, McCormack even said off the cuff in the Q&A that he does not adhere to any metaphysical notions of "manhood" or "womanhood." But this is rooted, it seems, in his post-metaphyical commitments rather than any prior commitment to the feminist agenda.

4. I don't think Giles is so much concerned with the gender debate either. But sometimes it is necessary to show, as he does in his article, that using the Trinitarian model to support a specific view of gender relations is problematic. I realize that I can't use the Trinity to support my understanding that men are women are ontologically equal and submission in the way it is conceived my complimentarians compromises such equality. To maintain anything less is also fundamentally incoherent and simply saying that it isn't and then pointing to the biblical witness to say they maintain the same isn't helpful. This understanding of complimentarianism is also rooted in a metaphysical understanding of the genders which I find unbiblical.

5. McCormack and Giles' point seem to be that the biblical witness testifies to the revelatory understanding that the Church confesses one God who is revealed in the eternal relations as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, subordinationism as conceived by Ware and Grudem compromise monotheism.

6. This issue, in the end, doesn't seem to be McCormack's unconscious Feuerbachianism, but rather who interprets the Christian tradition - particularly Nicaea - correctly. Moreover, you might maintain that the tradition interprets Scripture incorrectly. That is an entirely new debate and one that might be worth having as good Protestants do.

P.S. McCormack's position is hardly new. In fact, during the Q&A session of one of John Webster's Kantzer lectures, he noted that the pactum salutis must be conceived and explained very carefully if there is not an unintentional support of competing wills between the Father and the Son (hinting that anything less would support tritheism). McCormack noted the difficulty of competing wills in the penal substitution model of the atonement at the Croall lectures this past year since this would mean that the innocent Son is suffering at the hands of the vindictive Father. But the problem only arises to a very real extent when the Father and Son have competing wills. Thus, it is rightly understood as a self-sacrifice since the Father and the Son share but one will.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Butler on Gender and Barth on Suicide.

Bizarre title, eh? They are connected. But be patient, dear reader, for it might take a while to explain said connection.

This afternoon I rented Judith Butler's preeminent Gender Trouble from the library. I read most of the first chapter by the time I walked from the library to my dorm room. It was truly engrossing. Butler's basic argument is that historically speaking, feminism has not questioned the content of the term "women" as the subject of emancipation in gender politics. Feminism has wrongfully assumed that there is universality to the term "women" that transcends the particularity of culture, class, race, etc. As such, feminism has unintentionally created "domains of exclusion" which produce "coercive and regulatory consequences" (6). Butler goes even further to say that not only does sex not determine one's gender, but even the category of sex itself is constructed by society. Thus, "it does not follow that the construction of 'men' will accrue exclusively to the bodies of males or that 'women' will interpret only female bodies. Further, even if the sexes appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution (which will become a question), there is no reason to assume that genders ought also to remain as two" (9). At this point, Butler can make the reader a bit uncomfortable as Butler begins to question axioms which are generally unquestioned by society as a whole namely the very existence of a binary sex system: "And what is 'sex' anyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such 'facts' for us? ... if the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called 'sex' is as culturally constructed as gender" (9). Some might be fearful that such a lack of universality in relation to a definition of "women" might prohibit political action. But Butler insists that "unity" traditionally conceived as solidarity might not be necessary for the political ends feminists hope to achieve.

I welcomed most of what Butler had to say in the first chapter. The conception of "womanhood" and "manhood" seems to depend entirely upon a metaphysical understanding of sex that I don't find helpful, compelling, nor even biblical. One doesn't have to think very hard to recognize that most of what constitutes "masculinity" and "femininity" both within society and the Church is almost entirely culturally constructed. And most individuals spend their lives either consciously or unconsciously trying to live up to these imposed standards. Sometimes they can become excessively oppressive and violent, for these standards expose one's own supposed shortcomings and particularities that are undesired by society at large.

Despite my relief at Butler's conclusions, I found implicit in Butler's words an understanding that the human subject is utterly sovereign and this allows one to determine their own sex and gender free from any external standard. Any external standard that does not take into consideration one's own particular culture and personal experience is violent and imperialistic. I wondered how I could possibly agree with these basic modern assumptions considering the fact that I confess to be a Christian and acknowledge the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord over my life. Butler makes conclusions about gender based upon Butler's own understanding of the autonomy of the human subject. As a Christian, I agree with a lot of Butler's conclusions because of what God has revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In light of the Incarnation, all humanity is defined by Jesus Christ as the second Adam. There is no distinction in Jesus Christ, but rather all are one.

A few hours later, I started reading Karl Barth for my ethics class. I was assigned to read a section entitled "The Protection of Life" where Barth eventually begins to speak about suicide. Barth, with very sensitive and careful prose, writes about the struggle involved when anyone considers taking their own life. Barth writes that one who is tempted to take one's own life does not need the law but rather the Gospel. And in the Gospel, one finds the truth that
"we must live. To will it is to will what we are permitted. It is to will in the freedom in which man is not sovereign or solitary, but always has God above him as the Creator, Giver and Lord of his life. Why do we want to be sovereign and solitary, so that in some way we come to see nothing but emptiness around us, and become desperate, and finally have to contemplate suicide? These things, i.e. sovereignty, solitariness, emptiness and despair, are necessary only if we must live, if life is not the freedom bestowed by God. They are necessary only if we are charged to help ourselves, if pressure is exerted from some quarter to take life into our own hands, to be our own masters, to make something significant of ourselves, to justify, sanctify, save and glorify ourselves, and therefore to have to recognise at some point and in some way that we cannot really succeed in doing this. But this supposition is false. For God is gracious to us. It thus follows that we may live, and that, since He is God, we are able to live by the fact that He is gracious. We can simply accept the fact that He is sovereign and not we" (CD, III.4, 80).
I will assume that to Butler, this entire passage is dripping with violence and imperialism. But must the Christian not grapple with the radical notion and claim that we offer to society when we witness to the truth that real freedom does not come from being autonomous and sovereign over one's own being, but rather recognizing the reality that God has a claim over all of humanity regardless of any distinction as Lord, Redeemer, Reconciler and Creator? In short, I wondered if Butler's entire project is possible from a radical christocentric methodology. Or must I admit to the fact that such a methodology is undesirable to most since Christianity will always be seen as inherently violent and oppressive by the non-Christian because it claims from first to last that the individual is not the captain of their own soul?