Religion as “baggage”

Recent discussions on this blog have reminded me of a tic of many theologians: a tendency to jump straight to the level of competing, incompatible presuppositions, which presumably can never talk to each other. Often this is couched in the language of the other guy excluding the theologian who’s speaking: “If you can’t buy into my religious framework, then I don’t see how you’re going to be convinced.” On a less severe level, there’s a definite resistence to speak about Christian truths in anything but Christian jargon, as though a failure to use the traditional vocabulary is a step down a slippery slope. In many ways, it’s like the dynamic where Republicans claim government can’t work and then govern poorly in order to prove it — theologians claim that fundamental dialogue is impossible and then demonstrate it in their practice.

Thinking about this dynamic, I’ve returned to Bonhoeffer’s notion of “religionless Christianity.” Admittedly, the passages in the Letters and Papers from Prison are difficult to interpret and his definition of “religion” is idiosyncratic — to me, he seems to mean something like “the drama of the soul with its God,” centered on the fundamental weakness or sinfulness of humanity — but I think there is a kernel there that can be applied to these types of discussions.

A clue in this regard is his claim that he prefers to discuss theology with non-believers, because there he can be open and frank, whereas conversation with believers is stifling. So even if his definition of “religion” might be different if he were writing today, I’d say there would still be an overall push toward a Christianity without all the baggage.

For example, in this baggage-less Christianity, one would be able to view the life of Jesus as an event of the utmost importance, bearing directly on the meaning of human existence; to find the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (or at least part of them: we all have a “canon within the canon”) compelling and worthy of serious study and consideration; and to find certain Christian communities and practices attractive — and that could be enough. You wouldn’t have to sign up for the bullshit, whether that bullshit be a literal six-day creation, an infallible structure of apostolically-sanctioned authority, a conflation of abortion with murder, a mutated Aristotelian view of sexuality that renders all non-reproductive sex acts sinful, or even more basic stuff such as traditional theism or the existence of the soul.

The benefit of this approach is that you would be able to talk to actual human beings about your convictions. You would be able to give reasons why Jesus is a compelling figure or why the Scriptures have continued relevance, without playing the trump card of “God says so.” More broadly, you could talk directly about what you’re actually doing rather than first getting people to buy into some kind of narrative where they have to make sacrifices in this world in order to guarantee their place in the next.

Some might say this is “cafeteria Christianity” and that you have to take it all or leave it and that an attempt to “water things down” like this is just a capitulation to liberalism (which we oppose because… it’s not Christianity, I guess) — but I think that underlying all that rhetoric is a profound lack of faith in Christianity. If we don’t have hellfire to threaten people with, then no one will bother to show up for church. If we don’t present it as a key to the transcendent realm of God, people will leave the Bible on the shelf.

I don’t think that’s true, though, or at least I’m willing to take the gamble that people can find the Christian intellectual tradition, Christian communities, and Christian practices appealling without having a bone to pick with evolution, without caring about sex acts between consenting adults, without declaring fealty to the pope — indeed, without “believing in God.” Perhaps that’s a bad gamble to take, but if it turns out that Christianity can’t survive without the bullshit, then it’s all bullshit.

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70 Responses to “Religion as “baggage””

  1. Evan Says:

    I think there are some great points here, but I wonder to what extent useful dialogue might be hampered by one’s notion of “bullshit” in religion as much as by the absolutism of competing incompatible presuppositions. An example… when David Tracy spoke at the Deconstructing Dialogue conference at Chicago this past January, he made some comments to the effect that “you can’t dialogue with a fundamentalist”. Now, I’d agree with that as far as it goes; if someone refuses to suspend certain commitments for the sake of engagement, there’s really not much you can do with them. But it also seems to me that, before I can really make such an accusation against someone like a young earth creationist, I need to consider whether I’m simply the other side of the coin… whether dialogue is just as much suspended because I’m not wiling to bend or bracket my own presuppositions/conclusions for the sake of engagement. I guess I’m wondering, to what extent must we all put up with some measure of “bullshit” for the sake of letting someone else be frank and open? Presumably the life of Jesus could be just as much a bullshit basis for living one’s life as an Aristotelian system, right?

    I also wonder whether the options of 1) giving up on dialogue because incompatible presuppositions prevent it or 2) relieving oneself of eccentric or bullshit baggage in order to speak without constraint, really exhaust our possibilities. I could imagine a situation where two people holding incompatible and equally bullshit beliefs nonetheless find a way to talk to each other about what they believe… and they may continue to think “gee, this other guy is a moron” throughout the whole exercise, but I could also imagine someone saying that while still genuinely “talking to another human being about their convictions”. Morons are humans too, after all. Or perhaps better… humans are morons.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Certainly my examples of what counts as “bullshit” are influenced by my own personal opinions, and that may obscure my argument. I’m not talking about the necessity of giving up one’s own beliefs, though, or I don’t intend to be — it’s more a matter of minimizing the amount of “baggage” one has to buy into in order to enter the conversation at all. One can conceivably talk about Jesus without it necessarily entailing that you tie Jesus closely to the question of young-earth creationism, right?

    I’m reminded of a quote from Hauerwas about inter-religious dialogue. He was skeptical of the need to find some kind of metaphysical common ground to discuss — instead, you can just talk. For instance, if he came across a group of Buddhists, he could just talk to them (and his example was that he’d ask them, “What are you doing in South Bend?”). That’s kind of the spirit I’m going for — or to put it in Pauline terms, “everyone should be convinced in his own mind,” but you still have to find a way to live together. Making it a requirement to give up “bullshit” is an obstacle as well, though you know that I’m reluctant to claim symmetries — the people who are subscribing to the “bullshit” beliefs seem to be much more tempted to make them entry requirements.

  3. BB Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts, Adam. I stumbled across your blog recently and it gives me some measure of hope that this Christianity-without-the-bullshit is possible.

  4. Evan Says:

    “One can conceivably talk about Jesus without it necessarily entailing that you tie Jesus closely to the question of young-earth creationism, right?”

    Yeah, and this I think is the important take-home. What I struggle with is the fact that there are folks out there for which young-earth creationism and a certain stance towards Jesus are tied together, and I don’t know quite what to do with that. Of course I don’t want to encourage such connections, but I also want to be sensitive to conscience… perhaps in this sense it’s analogous to Paul’s concern about causing someone to stumble by eating meat. At what point should I say “hang-ups of custom and belief be damned, Jesus stands independent of it all!”? Whether we’re dealing with religious vegetarians, or young-earth creationists, or Christian pacifists, these sorts of questions come up. And they’ll probably just have to be dealt with differently from case to case (so I take your point about drawing unjustified symmetries).

    I think the “just talk to them” is what I’m trying to get at as well, so I imagine we’re roughly on the same page here. I didn’t mean to needlessly nitpick, but was simply thinking through some of what you wrote.

  5. Charlie Collier Says:

    Isn’t this vision of a baggageless Christianity vulnerable to Dan’s critique of a religionless theology? Jesus as event of utmost significance is just a different sort of baggage.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    We’d have to ask Dan.

    I find your second sentence to be frustrating in a way I’m having trouble specifying, though. I felt it was clear enough from my post that “baggage” and “specificity” are not the same thing. Like look at the way we use “baggage” when talking about romantic relationships — if one or both partners bring “baggage,” that baggage is going to generate conflicts, etc., that don’t have anything to do with the person they’re presently dating.

    Similarly, if we want to talk about the importance of Jesus, it seems more or less obvious that we should also talk about the New Testament as the earliest witness to him and the Hebrew Bible as the main authority of the culture from which he came (though I’m willing to debate both points) — but why do we also have to talk about when the fetus gets a soul, for example? Maybe we really do have to, but it doesn’t seem obvious.

    The “baggage,” in short, is the arbitrarily tacked on stuff, or at least the not-obviously-necessary stuff. It’s not just a matter of “having beliefs at all” — and taking that step where “Jesus is just a different sort of baggage” seems to me to repeat the very dynamic I’m talking about in the first paragraph. Choosing a topic to talk about (in this case, Jesus) is different from requiring a priori commitments for any conversation to take place.

  7. Evan Says:

    It strikes me that the difference between what Adam’s doing and what Dan was doing is that Adam is looking for a way to talk with others about these things; Dan was responding in particular to a critique that was leveled against religion. I’m not sure if this is talking about abandoning “baggage” in the same way or for the same reasons as “religion” was being abandoned, so “religion as baggage” to be set aside seems (to me) to be different than religion as idolatry to be critiqued.

  8. Charlie Collier Says:

    Adam, I should add that I agree entirely with your critique of a tendency among some Christians to think that the gospel consists in repeating the esoteric jargon of earlier Christian theological formulations. I think there’s usefulness in learning about and sorting through those formulations, but it’s passing strange to think that what I really need to say to a Buddhist about Jesus must be put in the technical language of Chalcedon.

    I hadn’t read your follow up comment, and I’m also in agreement with the spirit of the post—why try to determine what dialogue is possible before actually talking to people?

    I guess my main point is that the priority of Jesus, which I read you affirming here, is itself a part of the dogmatic tradition, a part of the baggage of the Christian religion.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s tough to know “what to do with” those people, yes. I struggle with that personally, for example in discussions with my family where I really do think they’re wrong about stuff and I do think they’d be better off if they stopped having wrong beliefs — and yet it’s not like I’m going to somehow “opt out” of being a family member just because of them being wrong.

    I don’t handle it well in every situation, but the ideal, I think, has to be to figure out some way for conversation not to be goal-oriented — for conversation to be a way of living together rather than an attempt to persuade (i.e., defeat) them. And this is what I’m getting at with the baggage-loving people being potentially more problematic in our contemporary environment, because for them the goal of such conversations is to persuade and they often experience conflicting opinions as a personal challenge to them or even an attack.

    The question is, do they need to adopt my “looser” stance as a prerequisite for conversation? I hope not, because they’re frankly not going to adopt my “looser” stance any time soon.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not affirming the “priority” of Jesus, I’m affirming the “importance” of Jesus — Jesus is worth considering, worth taking seriously. (“Utmost” may have been misleading language, but I don’t think it goes quite as far as alternatives like “ultimate,” etc.) And I think it should be clear from the last paragraph that I’m open to the possibility that Jesus really won’t turn out to be that important.

  11. Charlie Collier Says:

    But surely the question is begged with “arbitrarily tacked on stuff.” I think Adam concedes as much by saying parenthetically that he’s willing to debate even the things that he thinks are necessary to talk about the significance of Jesus. After all, reading the significance of Jesus *against* the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures is unfortunately a fairly standard practice among Christians. In other words, some folks think “Hebrew Bible” or “the God of the Old Testament” is baggage. Why is it not? Because we’re historicists. Why is historicism not “arbitrarily tacked on stuff”? These sorts of questions could go on forever.

    My concern is not with Adam’s intent, which, again, I strongly affirm. My concern is with the way in which “arbitrarily tacked on stuff” might be a question-begging move. It sounds like an echo of the kernel and husk move of Harnack.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m just trying to make a rough and ready distinction here. The fact that it can’t be rigorously grounded and specified in an inarguable way doesn’t mean it’s not useful.

    To use the Hebrew Bible example, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wants to talk about Jesus who doesn’t talk about the Hebrew Bible at all — even Marcion had a ton to say about the Hebrew Bible. But you’ll find plenty of people who manage to say a lot about Jesus without so much as mentioning the literal historical truth of every apparent fact-claim in the Bible. The fact that the Hebrew Bible connection can be disputed and discussed is a feature, not a bug.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Or another way to put it: saying that if you want to talk about Jesus you have to talk about the Hebrew Bible (in some way, even if negatively) would be met with a shrug by nearly everyone. Of course that’s relevant! But if you said that to talk about Jesus you had to acknowledge that evolutionary theory was terrible, I think most people would be pretty confused — maybe they’ll turn out to be connected, you’d obviously be skipping some steps if you simply asserted that there was a necessary connection. I’m not trying to find a kernel so much as a starting point everyone can at least provisionally agree on.

  14. Hugh Thomas Says:

    I think there are two somewhat different ideas present in your original post, Adam. One is the possibility of a baggage-free *conversation*, and the other the possibility of a baggage-free *religion*. I agree that the ability to have a baggage-free conversation about one’s religious convictions is something to be cultivated. I’m not so sure about the possibility of a baggage-free religion.

    Perhaps the relationship metaphor you’re drawing on is useful here. You meet someone. You’d like to have a couple of conversations with them where they don’t go off on a huge rant about their father, or past girlfriends, or the truth of 9/11, or what have you. But you have to expect that they do have some baggage there somewhere. It’s part of being human. And if you’re going to develop a relationship of any depth with the person, you’re going to have to (and in fact, you’re going to want to) get into the baggage to some degree.

    The risks of a cafeteria-style Christianity seem pretty clear. Many people will prefer not to eat the green leafy vegetables. Professional nutritionists will figure that out for themselves (though even they might find that a more forceful reminder might do them good once in a while), but not everyone is cut out to be a professional nutritionist.

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s not at all clear to me that the “baggage”-type stuff I mention is equivalent to “green leafy vegetables.” It’s not like we eat the candy bar of God’s love but then have to do a little queer-bashing to get our vitamins.

    If you want to use a cafeteria metaphor, I’m trying to get rid of the hot dogs and deep-fried Twinkies and leave the stuff that actually provides some nutrition. If you want a deep-fried Twinkie, eat it at home.

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ll also note that I’ve eaten a lot more green leafy vegetables lately because (a) they’re actually present on menus in the city and (b) they’re really good when well-prepared. The childish view of them as something you have to choke down is something that you put up with from a child, but hope they’ll grow out of.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And finally, to compound the problem of my serial commenting: the primary “baggage” I was talking about was the way that the lingering effects of a past relationship can generate conflicts that ultimately have nothing to do with the new partner. For instance, something completely innocent that tangentially reminds them of the old partner can cause a huge blow-up. Asking the new partner to plan their entire life around these past triggers is a bit much — at some point, you have to move on and realize you’re in a different and (hopefully) better relationship and not let everything be determined by the “baggage.” Someone who can’t take that step probably can’t be in a relationship in any meaningful sense — the other person becomes a prop in their battle with the ex.

  18. Brad Johnson Says:

    The issue of whether “baggageless” means “absence of content,” or to what extent this is the case, is a very secondary issue, I think. (I.e., that kind of thing is up for negotiation, and will probably both evolve and be different from case-to-case.) Adam gets to the most crucial, and indeed most productive point of conversation, when he wonders above: The question is, do they need to adopt my “looser” stance as a prerequisite for conversation? I hope not, because they’re frankly not going to adopt my “looser” stance any time soon. This is more fundamental even than defining “baggage.” I think it raises the question of how freedom manifests itself practically in a functioning collective. As I expressed it elsewhere: is it possible to conceive of a “freedom within an evolving construct, wherein limits are binding but also evolving? [If so], how, though, might we then understand (and/or participate in) this evolution of the limits; what role does it allow for hierarchy, orthodoxy, heterodoxy, rivalry, spontaneity, death, decay, rebirth?”

    I often point to jazz as a kind of microcosm of this dynamic. But it is by no means a perfect microcosm. There is, for starters, still a “leader” in every trio or quartet. One can be expelled for not knowing one’s role; or for not playing one’s role well enough. Etc. Is this a practical necessity to the maintenance of a baggageless dialogue, and a necessity that simply must be negotiated gingerly?

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think it’s pretty clear that the baggage/content issue isn’t really going anywhere — I’ve said what I have to say, others don’t see it, and saying more probably won’t do much. So I would encourage further commenters to follow up on what Brad has said here, because he really is getting at the core question motivating this post (as it has been clarified in subsequent discussion in comments).

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And man, would it ever be hilarious if there were no subsequent comments once we isolated the really central question!

  21. Adam Morton Says:

    I like what Adam said just a few lines before the remark highlighted by Brad: for conversation to be a way of living together rather than an attempt to persuade (i.e., defeat) them. That notion of defeat is key, I think. Conversation happens only to the extent that I am willing to give up the possibility of victory. The trouble is that I have commitments which I am unwilling to give up–and so does my partner/opponent. A ceasefire can hold for a time, but it must finally be understood just as a ceasefire, not a solution. Continued engagement demands movement.

    So it seems we are stuck. However, there may be a way out. It is peculiar that the central commitment of the Christian faith is to one who conquered through submission to death. It is more than a bit curious that I can speak even of this one having conquered me. But then, if I really have been overcome by this one (precisely in his yielding to me), then I might actually “count all things as loss”, and so concede victory in all these things to my interlocutors. This would not be abandonmnent of my central commitment, but in fact the only mode of faithfulness to him. And it nearly goes without saying that this concession must take place unilaterally.

    Practically, I think this means that to be unyielding in this one commitment is to be singularly yielding in all other matters. But it leaves us free to actually talk, rather than busy ourselves with the defense of great swaths of intellectual/cultural territory.

  22. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So we’re giving up in advance on the idea that conversation can be about anything other than victory and defeat?

  23. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Okay, now I see that wasn’t a fair response — you’re saying that the way past the victory/defeat paradigm is just to unilaterally concede defeat. Then we can see what happens in the wake of that.

  24. dbarber Says:

    But Adam Mortaon also seems to imply that this concession can only be made by those who adhere to “the central commitment of the Christian faith,”i.e. to “one who conquered through submission to death”? I feel like we are in Thesis 4 territory again…

  25. Hugh Thomas Says:

    I feel inspired by writings of people from religious traditions very different from my own. That seems like an example of the kind of conversation that Adam is interested in promoting conditions for. (Obviously, this example is not apt in all respects — it’s easier to manage a conversation in which only one of the interlocutors is alive.) But I think drawing inspiration from texts from a variety of traditions is a pretty common experience, and provides some kind of suggestion of how we might also be able to converse in person.

  26. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I am trying to navigate a few different ideas here, having trouble bringing them all together. I’ll try to provide a really incomplete sketch, probably shouldn’t even be posted, but we’ll see if it moves anything forward.

    On the one hand I see a real need to avoid liberalism. Political liberalism and a kind of liberalism within thought. This isn’t axiomatic, it is derived from seeing the destructive aspects of liberalism and its inability to restrain capitalism, such that the two are usually thought together. While I’m very sympathetic to Adam’s ideas here I am worried by the lack of some kind of firmer resistance to the liberal “equivalence of positions”.

    There is also a certain “politics of truth” I am attracted to. This is put forth in Toscano’s book in a forceful way, but it has its roots in a lot of different radical traditions (Taubes and Foucault do similar things, but with a different set of materials, for instance). Thus the fanaticism of John Brown was pitched precisely against the liberal openness to dialogue, forcefully captured by Lerone Bennett Jr:

    Always, everywhere, John Brown was preaching the primacy of the act. ‘Slavery is evil,’ he said, ‘kill it.’
    ‘But we must study the problem…’
    Slavery is evil – kill it!
    ‘We will hold a conference…’
    Slavery is evil – kill it!
    ‘But our allies…’
    Slavery is evil – kill it!

    Now, obviously, we’re intellectuals, we’re not John Brown, we’re not revolutionaries putting our lives on the line here. But it seems like, if we are committed to left-wing politics (is this baggage? To me it is truth), we have to come up with the defense of the fanatic in these cases.

    To me there is a qualitative difference between young-earth creationism and homophobia and the idea that everything must be equal, yet there is a homology between them as well, since both are demanding that reality submit to the idea. The difference, perhaps crucially, is that the conservative tries to show that the idea is actually what reality is, while the leftist does not have recourse to anything like this “nature”.

  27. Timothy Morton Says:

    One of the problems with Sam Harris’s book is his belief about belief—that it means rigidly holding to bs. Thank you for this post.

  28. Adam Morton Says:

    But Adam Mortaon also seems to imply that this concession can only be made by those who adhere to “the central commitment of the Christian faith,”i.e. to “one who conquered through submission to death”?

    I didn’t quite say that people couldn’t, just that I only know of one commitment that actually will work this way. But if you were to press me on it, I’d probably say that apart from Christ, people just won’t.

    Okay, now I see that wasn’t a fair response — you’re saying that the way past the victory/defeat paradigm is just to unilaterally concede defeat. Then we can see what happens in the wake of that.
    Yes. This way our part in the conversation is actually free, and not governed by the law of self-preservation/power relationships/etc.

  29. Brad Johnson Says:

    Anthony, I would suggest that the truth “proclaimed” in what Adam sketches here ‘t needn’t resist your allegiance to the “politics of truth.” If anything, I rather see Adam’s tactic very similar to what Ranciere is on about w/ respect to radical egalitarianism, in that the “dialogue” aspect of Adam’s notion seems intended to be a fundamental game-changer (ie., it changes the contours of what is and can be considered true, and in doing so resists the conservative agenda that appeals to “nature” as the foundation for truth). Moreover, just as egalitarianism doesn’t so much establish everybody on the same footing as it practically exposes the exclusion of those who are not counted as equal (or, indeed, counted at all) — that is, it keeps equality in play politically, as that which can be asserted quite unexpectedly, rather than as an end already achieved or as infinitely deferred — I think conversation of the sort described here could work a similar way.

  30. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Right, this is now reminding me of John Mullarkey’s article in… you know…the volume… After the Postsecular and the Postmodern. I think what he has to say there is instructive on this.

  31. Alex Says:

    There is another quick anecdote from Hauerwas when he is talking about inter-religious dialogue which appears to talk to what you are saying with regard to intra-religious dialogue. Its in The State of the University (this is where the anecdote Adam was talking about above viz. Buddhism is from as well). Talking about David Burrell, he says when asked about the “problem of religious pluralism” and dialogue, he just points to Burrell’s work and says “well, this seems to happen”*. So this kind of thing, ie leaving baggage worries behind, is primarily a practice, one that in day to day life we seem to manage to cooperate with people (one could say the same about political commitments).

    Though again, I’m interested to know when would the baggage come to a point where the signifier Christian becomes worthless – this seems vital. I’m not particularly one, in a Spinozist bent, to care if you are a unitarian universalist or a Catholic or any form of Christian if you are practicing beliefs that lead to justice and charity and I think the inability of post-secular types to tell me how certain metaphysics are performed (eg post-Scotist thought say) to cause detrimental effect or why someone like . But it seems minimally, that to be Christian, it should have at least something to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ, even if he is seen as far less than in traditional Christianity, even if he is seen as purely human and the creeds go out the window. Otherwise, what would make it distinctive from generic theism, or some other non-religious grouping? Of course, such issues have been played out ad infinitum with regard to things such as anti-realist Christianity, sea of faith stuff etc. And this applies to all traditions – it is difficult to see what Islam would be like without Muhammed, or Buddhism without the Buddha. In the latter case (and I am dealing only with Theravada here), though the Buddha took relatively great pains to say he was revealing the truth of reality, one that others had also realised and that he was not the path, but had revealed a path, it would be difficult to call something Buddhism if they thought the Buddha was not significant. Maybe you have answered this above…

    Wouldn’t it be better to say that the traditions is far more plastic, and far more translatable than most claim? There is even theological precedent for this – laws written on hearts and the natural law tradition (not a fan of, but…) have an idea that because Christianity is true, then the truths must be true even in another ‘language’. Though I don’t know what would happen to translation once you start to destabilise what you claim is underlying that allows natural law (or whatever) to work.

    It would seem you’d need something like Rawl’s comprehensive doctrines (which covers all moral outlooks), combined with the idea of overlapping consensus (you say charity, I say dāna) where all comprehensive doctrines can translate into public languages. But then we stumble into the whole post-secular thing – that this requirement robs religious traditions of their specificity. The we observe that without something like a overlapping consensus, we can’t talk, so we go back around the merry-go-round.

    * In actual fact I don’t think, like all people following MacIntyre, this at all solves the problem of dialogue between different traditions, even different traditions of Christianity. Seems to me that for all intents and purposes, religious pluralism is irreducible and this is a axiomatic of any attempt to formulate modern societies – even in Iran, say, religious traditions, intertwined with various racial and nationalistic allegiances are myriad – indeed any Islamic republic. This is not to recommend the “privatisation” of religion as liberalism supposedly does (this never seemed entirely convincing to me sociologically, as religious practice remains, where it is high, even under liberalism – ie the States – corporate – even in the UK many ‘spiritual not religious’ types, if they are actually into it, have meeting, publications, dialogues etc), but that you are going to still have to deal with the problems set up by early liberalism and secularism that there are a plurality of incompatible metaphysical premises. This is why I have elsewhere written that religious people actually have to reclaim the secular – the secular does not mean atheism, any more than it means Baptist confederation.

  32. Foregone Conclusions « the de-scribe Says:

    [...] 22, 2010 by dcld Leave a Comment Adam Kotsko and others at AUFS have continued to put up engaging posts around religious dialogue and maintenance.  In the most recent post Adam proposes an attempt at [...]

  33. Rob L Says:

    We get back on the merry-go-round when the task seems to be translating abstracts concepts. It’s seems the point of Hauerwas’ question to the Buddhists is rather to avoid abstraction and stick with practice – “What do you do? Interesting. I do xyz because Jesus says to love my neighbour and I try to be obedient to that”.

    This can’t be ‘baggage’ for it is “so handle ich eben” – simply what I do. I’m basically taking the general point to be that this practical-descriptive approach, as exemplified by Bonhoeffer’s talking to non-believers about theology, should be possible between the ‘liberal’ and ‘fundamentalist’ strands of Christian belief/practice, and should enable some dialogue without needing reference to the divine status of Jesus or otherwise.

    It’s interesting the mention of B and his letters from prison, which reminded me of one of my favourite letters, the context being the shelling of the prison complex:

    “As we were lying on the floor last night, and someone exclaimed ‘O God, O God’… I couldn’t bring myself to offer him any Christian encouragement or comfort; all I did was look at my watch and say ‘it won’t last more than 10 minutes now’…it came quite automatically, and perhaps I felt that it was wrong to force religion down his throat just then. (Incidently, Jesus didn’t try to convert the two thieves on the cross; one of them turned to him!)” 30th Jan 1944.

    (Incidently, in Matthew’s gospel, neither turned to him, but only heaped insults.)

  34. Rob L Says:

    *It seems..

  35. Adam Morton Says:

    I’m basically taking the general point to be that this practical-descriptive approach, as exemplified by Bonhoeffer’s talking to non-believers about theology, should be possible between the ‘liberal’ and ‘fundamentalist’ strands of Christian belief/practice, and should enable some dialogue without needing reference to the divine status of Jesus or otherwise.

    I think it’s dicey to presume that Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer are doing something similar here. The above approach works for Hauerwas precisely because his theology tends to collapse toward ethics. Bonhoeffer, however, speaks of talking about theology, which is not necessarily the same thing.

    The trouble here is “reference to the divine status of Jesus” treated as a secondary matter. For some, it might be. For others, it’s the point of the conversation (even in simple description of practice). What if a theologian other than Hauerwas were asked why he does a thing (let’s make this doubly difficult–the thing he does isn’t something easy to explain by reference to “love your neighbor”, like giving food to a homeless guy, but something rather odd, like telling a person you barely know that all their sins are forgiven), and responded, “Because Jesus takes away the sin of the world”? For such a one, this theologoumenon isn’t abstraction, it’s the point.

  36. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Anthony, If I’m simply repeating liberalism, then I would regard this sketch as a failure. Brad’s comment in response to you gets at the direction I’d like to push it, from this admittedly very liberal-sounding post.

  37. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    @Adam: could a baggage-free way of articulating being Christian look like this: “Because of my relation to Jesus, I am neither a Jew nor a pagan.” One might be tempted to jump immediately to the question, “What am I then?” But maybe the real point is to ask: “Who are the Jews?” and “Who are the pagans?” I think the former question is pretty easy to answer, there are Jews around today so that’s not a problem. The really hard question is, “Who are the pagans?” It was once easy to identify them: they were polytheist idolaters. Maybe the whole discussion thread about the critique of religion is apt here. Maybe Christianity is any relation to Jesus that lets a non-Jew renounce his or her idolatry. And what is this idolatry? Again, it is the particular fault of the “goyim” (ethne) as such: their belief in their national god as embodied in their nation. So, the relation to Jesus that is most important is one that dissolves one’s identification with the (god of the) nation. Can this serve as a baggage-free point of conversation?

  38. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think that is a great starting point, and one that might help with Anthony’s objections. It seems to me that when you really start to examine what “not being a pagan” might mean, then that usefully turns the conversation away from trying to positively define Christian identity and toward other questions such as what the “god of the nation” might be (national loyalty as such, or perhaps more specifically our relationship to the money that our nations create out of thin air to obligate us?) and what we do to actualize that renunciation of loyalty.

    I would also make a connection here with the contemporary reflections on “Christology” and the tendency for Christ’s significance to be negative: for Zizek, Christ allows Gentiles to “unplug” (by engrafting them into the Jewish experience that is constitutively “unplugged”), while for Agamben, the messiah simply stops the apparatus of sovereignty (or what have you). So in a way, the fact that Zizek and Agamben can enter into conversation on this level provides a kind of “natural experiment” for whether this is really baggageless.

  39. Adam Morton Says:

    Interesting starting point. But what then does the Jew renounce?

  40. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    Idolatry is never merely a theological sin, but always a political-theological sin. This sin was clear in 1930s Germany, and it called itself German Christianity. The question, to pick up a point from the thread on the critique of religion, is whether Barth understood the intrinsic connection between the political and the theological.

  41. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ve always found it rather chilling that Barth felt that the gospel had been preserved even in Nazi Germany by means of the Barmen Declaration.

  42. Adam Kotsko Says:

    @Adam Morton: Why should the Jew have to renounce anything?

  43. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    @adam morton: there has been a long history of jews wanting to be like the nations (goyim), from the time of King Saul to Herzel’s Zionism. Jews, if they want to remain Jews, need to renounce the idea that they can ever be free of the burden of chosenness (=abnormality). The state of Israel complicates this, of course, for Israeli Jews. I am not saying the Israeli Jews need to renounce the state of Israel, only that they need to make a clear divide between their Israeli identity and their Jewish identity if they want to preserve their Jewish identity. I think this is a pretty uncontroversial claim.

  44. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So essentially they have to renounce the possibility of renouncing Jewish particularity as such?

    This seems an opportune time to mention that I finished reading Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem today — really interesting text.

  45. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    I think that it is a good way of putting it.

    I’m glad you liked Jerusalem. Yes, it is quite an interesting text, and I think it is also a courageous text.

  46. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Actually, about halfway through I was brainstorming ways to restructure the philosophy of religion course I’m offering in the winter to include it. I was originally going to juxtapose Kant and Schleiermacher, but I think adding Mendelssohn to the mix would be great.

  47. Adam Morton Says:

    Adam and Bruce–

    Sorry, I was unclear. Following on the remark “Maybe Christianity is any relation to Jesus that lets a non-Jew renounce his or her idolatry,” the question arises as to what Christianity is (or what the relation to Jesus means) for one who is also a Jew, and who has never abandoned Jewish identity–what renunciation must be there. If none, then the beginnings of Christianity seem to become impossible to understand–but more than that, so does the relationship between Christ and the law.

  48. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    @Adam Morton: What if we consider Jesus to be the Messiah for the gentiles, at least until the end of history? isn’t this what Paul in Romans 11:19ff is saying?

  49. Adam Morton Says:

    What if we consider Jesus to be the Messiah for the gentiles, at least until the end of history? isn’t this what Paul in Romans 11:19ff is saying?

    Only in part. We also have to take account of him as Messiah for the Jews–and here note that the end of history has already come, in him. He’s not really the Messiah for anyone in this age–the coming of the Messiah is the end of this age and the beginning of the age to come (so Paul can speak as he does in 2 Cor. 5:17). But what Paul contends with in this part of Romans is specifically the breaking off of the natural branches. We can contend with it as Paul does when he quotes Hosea (Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’, and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’), but I don’t see how it can be just pushed aside or bracketed.

  50. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    “the end of history has already come, in him.” Here is where we disagree.

    Let’s stick to this passage and what Paul says in it. It is unmistakably clear that there is more to achieve in this age, namely, the ingathering of the “fullness of the gentiles.” The end of Christ’s activity as savior has not yet occurred. It is a mystery, he says, but the promised redemption of Israel (all of Israel!) has taken a detour through the gentiles (to arouse the jealousy of the Jews). So, until this detour (which is the spreading of the evangel to the gentiles until their fullness is ingathered) is over, Jews have been given a hardened heart (as a people, although there may be individuals who can follow Paul and embrace Jesus as their Messiah, qua human sinners that they are). Paul thus insists that Jews qua Jews have no relation to Jesus and, in the mystery of God’s plan for the salvation for non-Jewish humanity, they are in a sort of limbo until that salvation has been worked out. This means, business as usual for the Jews and evangelizing work among the gentiles for the Christians. And the last thing Paul expects is for Christian gentiles to boast of their Messiah to Jews, or to demand of them that they have any sort of relationship to him other than unbelief.

  51. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Drawing on Mendelssohn’s principle that what Providence has done is what Providence has intended, I think that one really has to assume, from a Christian perspective, that Paul is correct here — it’s one of the few prophecies I can think of that’s been unambiguously fulfilled. Given that the Jews as a people have not converted to Christianity, one can only assume that the future God has for them is something other than Christianity.

  52. Adam Morton Says:

    The end of Christ’s activity as savior has not yet occurred.
    I’m not entirely certain what this means–I don’t know that there is an end to Christ’s activity as savior. Does the new creation end? Rather, there is an end to judgment, but the judgment has already taken place (and so those hardened, at the present time, stand under judgment).

    So, until this detour (which is the spreading of the evangel to the gentiles until their fullness is ingathered) is over, Jews have been given a hardened heart
    The gospel should be understood as the proclamation of the end of this age and the beginning of the new in Christ (that is, as the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen). It would be a mistake to see that proclamation as a continuous outward move–though such language is occasionally used, it is also undermined (Romans 10:18–the whole world has already heard). Paul does this with the time language–in 11:25-32, futures get interspersed with aorists, and in v.31, this is punctuated with the repetition of “now.” So it would also be a mistake to expect the experience of events to correspond to a simple timeline.

    Paul thus insists that Jews qua Jews have no relation to Jesus and, in the mystery of God’s plan for the salvation for non-Jewish humanity, they are in a sort of limbo until that salvation has been worked out.
    On the contrary, Paul insists that Jews have become “enemies for your sake.” This is not limbo, it is damnation, the breaking off of branches. All unbelief stands under judgment.

    This means, business as usual for the Jews and evangelizing work among the gentiles for the Christians. And the last thing Paul expects is for Christian gentiles to boast of their Messiah to Jews, or to demand of them that they have any sort of relationship to him other than unbelief.
    There is no “business as usual.” Paul calls himself an apostle to the Gentiles, distinguishing himself from other apostles who have gone out to the Jews. The hardening is a mystery, not an instruction not to preach to Israel. In fact, Paul means precisely for Christian gentiles to boast in the Messiah (not in themselves or in some perception of God’s favor) to Jews, and so to create jealousy. Thus(yes, it violates our agreement to focus on this passage), “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the gentiles.” The faithfulness of God to Israel will be shown in that proclamation.

  53. Adam Morton Says:

    Given that the Jews as a people have not converted to Christianity, one can only assume that the future God has for them is something other than Christianity.

    Clearly (and hopefully so for the Gentiles as well, unless the promised future is to look a lot like the last 2 milennia of carnage). Other than Christianity, but not other than Christ.

  54. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    @Adam Morton: If you refuse to take “until the fullness of the Gentiles has been brought in” as a reference to the future, we have no common ground of discussion any more.

    But, I cannot let one further point pass without remark. If you take “they are enemies for you sake” as an expression of God’s judgment of damnation of the Jews who remain unbelieving, you have a real problem with the following clause, “but concerning their election, they are beloved for the father’s sake.” I am frankly shocked that you could assert that Paul believes that the Jews, even those with hardened hearts, have been judged to damnation on the basis of this passage. I take Paul to be precisely denying that God has damned those who are his beloved. You seem unwilling to accept what Paul explicitly calls a mystery. If it was as black and white as you make it out, there would be no mystery. Unbelief of the Jews does not stand under judgment, that is the mystery.

  55. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Just to further Bruce’s argument — if the “fullness of the Gentiles” have already brought in, then why exactly does Paul want to use Rome as a staging ground for a whole new branch of his mission to the Gentiles?

  56. Adam Morton Says:

    If you refuse to take “until the fullness of the Gentiles has been brought in” as a reference to the future, we have no common ground of discussion any more.
    Yes, the future, but what we mean by that is not quite the same. In fact, I read that phrase as referring to the age to come (which is not to say it isn’t ongoing)–the bringing in of the nations is an eschatological event, and strictly speaking does not belong to the present age. I think it’s fair to say we understand time in Paul (and the New Testament generally) quite differently.

    I am frankly shocked that you could assert that Paul believes that the Jews, even those with hardened hearts, have been judged to damnation on the basis of this passage.
    That’s what hardening of the heart is. Judgment is to stand under the wrath of God, and all unbelief receives judgment (“And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.”–unbelief is obviously condemned.)

    The mystery is that the ones called (that is, declared, judged, condemned as, etc.) “not my people” will still, in Christ, be called “my people.” They will be given faith. Judgment and redemption are both insisted on, even tied together. So, “they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.” This is the God who kills in order to raise to life.

  57. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Where are you getting this time-warp thing?

  58. Adam Morton Says:

    @Adam–

    To begin with, the prophets, who start clearly to distinguish between this age, which is coming to a close, and the age to come. Jesus talks consistently in this way, with the proviso that the end of the age is apparently his crucifixion, and the new age his resurrection (so, e.g., the rending of the temple curtain and the darkness at the crucifixion–history has come to a close). Then I just follow the language of old/new through Paul and the gospels, and try to keep them straight. Rule of thumb–if it’s new, it’s new. So new creation, resurrection, any of the events associated by the prophets with the eschaton (like the gathering in of the gentiles, the outpouring of the Spirit, etc.), all belong to the age to come. John actually uses much similar time language to Paul–so John 12, “Now is the judgment of this world, now will the ruler of this world be driven out.” That’s not obfuscation, it’s the consequence of two distinct times (the old and the new) experienced in overlapping fashion.

  59. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m distrustful of synthesizing arguments — I’d like to see it just out of Paul’s undisputed letters, or preferably just out of Romans.

  60. Adam Morton Says:

    Well, I’d consider it more multiple attestation than synthesizing, but either way, Romans will probably do.

    The fact that resurrection, the giving of the spirit, the gathering of the gentiles and so forth belong to the age to come is just background, of course. Common pharisaic eschatology out of the prophets, so Paul more often assumes that part than argues it (you can see in 1 Thessalonians, e.g., how he just assumes that the Day of the Lord and the resurrection go together). The issue is the peculiar overlap of the ages. It shows up in Romans in a few places–briefly in Romans 1, more fully in 6-8.

    Romans 1:3-5 gives this in compact form. “Descended from David according to the flesh” and “declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead”–so Jesus is at once identified as belonging to this age (descended from David) and to the coming age (resurrection through the Spirit, both gifts of the coming age. Then Paul ties the two ages together in Jesus to describe the current situation: “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the gentiles…” The past references stand out as strange when the subject matter involves the resurrection and the Spirit.

    In ch. 6, Paul repeatedly speaks of “baptism into his death”. Baptism into Christ is baptism into his death–obviously a past event. Even more, Paul can speak of the “old self” crucified with Christ. The death remains past–possibly even predating the birth (according to the flesh) of the one baptized. Christ clearly lives in the new age–”death no longer has dominion over him.” And so Paul insists that the same way of thinking must be applied to us–”consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.” And he later (6:22-23) makes clear that this life is “eternal life,” not a continuation of the life of the present age.

    Romans does not as often use the language of “this age” –that terminology shows up in 1&2 Corinthians and Galatians, but there is no evidence that Paul has jettisoned the concept. It may appear in 16:25, “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed,” but that isn’t much to go on. It does appear in Romans 12–more on that in a bit.

    Romans 8 gives us the contrast between the two ages rather strongly, however–first located into the life of the believer, then addressed on a cosmic level. The gift of the Spirit is a gift of the age to come, and belongs traditionally to the day of the Lord. In 8:1-17, the whole discussion is of life according to the Spirit rather than according to the flesh. v.9 is clear-”But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” And later, “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Paul speaks to those he considers already dead, therefore, no longer belonging to the present age, but alive in the Spirit.

    8:18ff is key–here the reference to “the glory about to be revealed to us.” There’s an expectation of new birth (the creation groaning in labor), and an assertion that while we “have the first fruits of the Spirit” we wait for the “redemption of our bodies.” Then the discussion of hope and sight–the new creation is as yet unseen, but apparently has been given already. So sight is waited for, but the gift of the Spirit, the resurrection, and so on have already taken place in Christ, and so life is located in the new age while the old still appears to be dying (subjected to futility).

    Oh, yes, Romans 12:2–”Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” Those in Christ are already dead to this age, and so instead should be renewed (made new) in Christ. Every reference to “this age” in Paul’s letters is negative in this way.

    Sorry for posting a novella.

  61. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    while we “have the first fruits of the Spirit” we wait for the “redemption of our bodies.” Then the discussion of hope and sight–the new creation is as yet unseen, but apparently has been given already. So sight is waited for, but the gift of the Spirit, the resurrection, and so on have already taken place in Christ, and so life is located in the new age while the old still appears to be dying (subjected to futility).

    This statement is confusing. Everything turns on your little word “apparently.” Apparently, you are now able to see what has already been given, but is yet unseen (by everyone else, including Paul). Are you actually saying that “the gift of the Spirit” IS the resurrection of the body? And are you actually saying that the bodies of the faithful (in Paul’s day and until this moment) are resurrection bodies? Or is this all a metaphorical way of speaking? The mortal bodies of the faithful are LIKE resurrection bodies? Then in what respect? Not in respect of being mortal, certainly. Maybe in respect of being able to experience no sexual desire (the very sign of mortality)? If the faithful in Christ still have sexual desire (and Paul admits this is the case for many, if not most), what sense does it make to even say that their mortal bodies are LIKE resurrection bodies? Why not admit that to say that this age is dying is just to say that this age is this age: its bodies were mortal before Christ and equally mortal after Christ. History does not end until the age has died (perfect tense).

  62. Adam Morton Says:

    “apparently” here = “is apparent from Paul’s proclamation”

    I am saying there are actually two selves which belong to two times–this mortal flesh and the new self in Christ. No metaphor intended at all, nor similarity. I am also saying that the flesh is not spiritual–it cannot inherit the Spirit. So the gift of the spirit is the resurrection of the dead, yes. Another way of putting it (which does not render the first metaphor) is that the gift of the spirit is faith. Faith therefore does not belong to flesh and blood.

    Why not admit that to say that this age is dying is just to say that this age is this age: its bodies were mortal before Christ and equally mortal after Christ. History does not end until the age has died (perfect tense).
    And the age died with Jesus–that event is portrayed in all four gospels as the last event of history, as the day of the Lord spoken in the prophets, in Revelation as the final victory, and in Paul as our actual death. He means it when he says we have been crucified with Christ. According to the flesh, this is sheer nonsense–but then, what is under the law cannot judge what is beyond it.

  63. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    This sounds exactly like Philip K. Dick’s later novels: we are all living under the illusion that history has moved forward, but in fact it stopped in 60 CE (he lets Acts be the last drama). Of course, the illusion of history needs to be explained, so he invokes various stand-ins for the Roman empire (up to Nixon) as the power still at war with Christ. At least he doesn’t fixate on the Jews. (BTW, I am a very big fan of Dick.)

  64. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Adam Morton seems to be confused about the notion of a promise, in the basic dictionary sense.

  65. Adam Morton Says:

    Not in the least. It’s just that dictionaries don’t quite have the measure of the one who speaks them into existence.

    I’ll take the Dick remark as a compliment.

  66. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Adam Morton is really boring me here.

  67. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Adam M., I’m just not sure that Paul is envisioning an “eternal” God in the same way you are. Yes, God’s promises are trustworthy for Paul, but their fulfillment is a future event — in the normal sense of the future. In the same sense, I think you’re confusing the anticipation of the coming new age (i.e., living “as if” it had already come) with the present reality of the coming new age. I appreciate your willingness to really dig through the text and put forth your position, but I can’t see how your overlapping “age” theory is the most convincing way to interpret those texts.

  68. Adam Kotsko Says:

    To clarify: I think the only way your “overlapping age” scheme can make sense is if the “coming age” is simply eternity (this is what enables it to be on another plane and be “real” simultaneously with the present age). In my mind, it makes much more sense to read Paul as thinking of time in a more common-sense way, such that one event follows the other — for instance, the ingathering of the Gentiles is pictured as a future event, even if God’s promise means it’s a sure bet. Living in anticipation of the coming future age is thus a way of demonstrating faith/trust in God’s promise, which is different from the more anachronistic type of faith that would have us “believing” that on some other level of reality, things have already been fixed or whatever.

    In short, the only way what you’re saying can make sense to me is if you’re importing the logic of eternity into Paul’s apocalyptic thought, and I regard that as a mistake because it seems to me to be a forced reading.

  69. Adam Morton Says:

    I’m not sure either, but I’m not really thinking about “eternity” (in fact, I rarely use the word). Mostly trying to deal with expressions like Galatians 2:19-20–”I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” I’d agree with you if Paul didn’t say this kind of thing, but I don’t know another way to make sense of it. It doesn’t read like anticipation in the usual sense (or like many other versions of apocalyptic though). A ‘common sense’ view of time does not seem to take adequate account of this, or of the end of the law. But I think we’ve gone around on this plenty, so unless another question emerges, that’ll do.


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