First of all, I’d like to thank Jeremy, Andy, Jay, and Brandy for their generous participation in this event, both in terms of devoting their time and in terms of the care with which they constructed their posts. The blogosphere is often characterized by misunderstanding and misreading — but all the authors read my work carefully and interpreted it in line with my intentions and goals, before moving on to their equally well-considered criticisms. It is very gratifying to feel as though I have been understood.
I’ve tried to respond to the individual posts in comments (with the partial exception of Brandy, who raised objections so over-arching that this post seemed like a more appropriate forums). With this post, I’d like to take up Brandy’s question about my rejection of transcendence, as well as a related question that came up in all the posts except Jeremy’s: the question of whether my interpretation of Bonhoeffer is adequate.
First, Bonhoeffer. I think we can all take it for granted that a fundamentally incomplete corpus like Bonhoeffer’s is going to invite multiple interpretations — even within the very compressed timeframe that Bonhoeffer was tragically limited to, he managed to bridge an amazing number of genres and was of course responding to extremely tumultuous circumstances. I have previously made an argument [pdf] for reading Bonhoeffer as a whole, based on the questions he is persistently asking rather than the answers he gives (and I really wish I had thought of that particular wording when I originally wrote the article). That approach informs my reading here. If people want to question my reading of Bonhoeffer in more detail, therefore, I would ask them to first read the article I link above, as it “shows my work” in a way that I felt to be inappropriate in the setting of Politics of Redemption.
I will admit that my reading of Bonhoeffer does not take into account all his texts, but rather focuses on the texts that everyone basically agrees are his most important and are at least the primary source of his influence on theology: the prison letters. I believe that my reading makes sense of what he says about “religion” in those letters and clarifies what he has to say about “religionless interpretation,” while at the same time showing how his thoughts on religionless Christianity respond to persistent concerns that characterize his work from the very beginning.
In short, I believe my reading makes Bonhoeffer usable in a way that goes beyond simply “poaching” particular ideas on a purely occasional basis. It is not the only possible reading of Bonhoeffer, but I will stand by it as a plausible and responsible one. I am not a “Bonhoeffer scholar,” but I don’t think I’m purely instrumentalizing his thought. It is also an interpretation that coheres with that of an important strain of his original reception in German theology, i.e., in the generation of Soelle and Moltmann, who had a greater “gut level” familiarity with the circumstances to which Bonhoeffer was responding than any of us can. Indeed, the German theologians who took up Bonhoeffer’s prison writings were arguably responding to a situation that fulfilled Bonhoeffer’s expectations about the decline of religion and “man come of age” in a way that no American can really claim to be — hence I’m comfortable giving someone like Soelle interpretive privilege over Bonhoeffer.
To push back a little bit as well, I am often suspicious of readings of Bonhoeffer that seem to want to mute the impact and radicalism of his prison letters by showing how traditional he really was in his previous writings and in his own personal practice. I don’t think Jay’s reading of Bonhoeffer is necessarily doing that, but Brandy’s may be — particularly as much of what she’s doing with Bonhoeffer in her response is aimed toward rehabilitating divine transcendence or at least expressing her discomfort with my insistence that we must jettison it.
In debates over divine transcendence, the burden of proof is most often on the person who wants to reject it — and that position does make sense, as the Christian tradition has mostly embraced divine transcendence. That said, the cultures in which Christianity has mostly moved have also mostly embraced divine transcendence as a kind of cultural common sense. That is no longer the case in the Western world, however. In making sense of the world around us, the “God hypothesis” is obviously no longer necessary. Insisting on divine transcendence, therefore, means pushing up against an amazingly successful explanatory system that virtually no one questions in any serious or thorough-going way. There had better be a damn good reason to take that on!
In short, I think that in the contemporary world, the burden of proof is on those who want to maintain divine transcendence. I can think of really good reasons why one might think it necessary, but for me the most compelling is the idea that divine transcendence is the only lens through which we can make sense of Christ. That is to say, even if the world in general can be explained without transcendence, it may be the case that Christ cannot — and if your priority is loyalty to Christ, that is an adequate trump card.
I believe that my book provides both positive and negative evidence against the necessity of divine transcendence for understanding Christ. First, it reviews a wide range of compelling interpretations of Christ’s life and work that do not rely on divine transcendence. In addition, I provide my own account as well. I put forth my account as a “sketch,” but as with my reading of Bonhoeffer, I don’t want to use a cheap escape hatch. I believe I hit the main bases, and anyone arguing that divine transcendence is necessary in response to my account has to show that there is something specific and unequivocally crucial that my account has missed directly as a result of denying divine transcendence. (Furthermore, this can’t be done in a question-begging way as in the Radical Orthodox strategy of claiming that a secular philosopher “can’t account for” some Christian doctrine, etc.)
Brandy’s response makes gestures toward the good aspects of divine transcendence without really laying them out, and she also worries about some of the drawbacks of immanence as opposed to transcendence (above all, the supposed lack of any basis for judgment) — but in neither case has she shown how my lack of recourse to divine transcendence has specifically held back my interpretation of Christ’s life and work. The question becomes transcendence vs. immanence rather than Christ, and this is a pattern that I think holds true in most of these discussions.
This leads me to the negative evidence I provide: all three of the interpreters of the atonement tradition that I review in chapter 3 make a mess of things, precisely because of their insistence on divine transcendence. This is most pronounced in the case of Aulen, who makes divine unilateralism into such an axiomatic point that it keeps him from making sense of the specific features of the very patristic traditions he is trying to champion. Boersma winds up embracing a kind of “argument from God’s authority” whereby we have to accept violence because God has structured the world so as to require violence and God is, after all, God. Weaver, who in many respects is much better than Boersma and certainly better-intentioned, runs the risk of “spiritualizing” Christ’s victory in a kind of Colossians/Ephesians style — things may suck on earth, but we know that up there, where it really counts, things are going our way. (These are simplifications, of course, and not entirely fair, but I hope readers will indulge me as I’ve done the interpretive work in the book.)
Divine transcendence seems to me to suck all the air out of the room. Whenever it enters the conversation, the conversation is about transcendence — not about interpreting Christ’s work, not about how creation is structured, not about social-critical analysis, etc. At its worst, this can lead to a kind of “decadent Barthianism” where we’re supposed to praise the profound radicality of embracing a God who seems to exist solely to humiliate humanity. Even at its best, though, I can’t see how one can argue for divine transcendence — it’s always going to be an argument from authority, because it’s fundamentally an argument in favor of authority.
Transcendence is supposedly good, for instance, because without transcendence we’d have no objective standard of judgment. Well, fine — but why would that standard be desirable, or at least better than what we could collaboratively come up with on our own? Why are the Ten Commandments better than human rights, for instance? Are human rights more problematic to interpret or apply than the Ten Commandments? Do they lead to worse outcomes, outcomes that offend against our basic sense of justice? If not, what’s the “value-add” of claiming divine grounding? (Not that human rights are unproblematic — they’re just a good example of a human-grounded set of standards that seem basically functional.)
Look: I’ve been sucked into it! Maybe some people find divine transcendence to be appealling, but they are an ever-dwindling group — and I think we’re all familiar with the fact that claims of “God’s law” are most often instrumental and opportunistic, little more than rhetorical flourishes in arguments over one’s own personal prejudices and preferences. Obviously not all people who believe in divine transcendence are like that, but there are many young theologians out there in the blogosphere who basically embrace transcendence as a kind of gesture toward the appeal of the counterintuitive — belief in God is the true radicalism! They exert a great deal of intellectual energy trying to make sense of something that, deep down, I suspect doesn’t really makes sense even to them. (Bonhoeffer himself may be something like that — a person who was trying really hard to make traditional Christianity livable but finally just snapped in prison.)
To echo Bonhoeffer, is the dwindling group of people who find divine transcendence appealling really the future of Christianity? Are we willing to give up the Christian legacy to them? Does Christ’s work and message have no future in a world without transcendence? Maybe it doesn’t! But if divine transcendence truly is non-negotiable, I think we can safely predict that Christianity’s future is going to be primarily as a reactionary movement — which is no future at all, or at least not a future worth having.