Politics of Redemption book event: My response

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.

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30 Responses to “Politics of Redemption book event: My response”

  1. Closeted transcendence | the de-scribe Says:

    [...] event engaging Adam Kotsko’s recent work The Politics of Redemption.  Adam has just posted a response to the event and in it engaged one of the topics raised which is the highly debated but perhaps [...]

  2. Brandy Daniels Says:

    Hey Adam, thanks for your engagement with my questions/comments. I appreciate it…. A couple thoughts/questions in response… (and sorry about my delayed response/lack of response to your comments on my post—I’ve been finishing up the semester and moving, which has not only made life particularly busy but limited my internet and computer accessibility, and I really didn’t want to type out a response on my iphone!)

    I’m particularly curious about your comment that my reading of Bonhoeffer might “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.” What I am confused by is the assumption that divine transcendence necessitates a tabling of this radicalism… you make the point that transcendence is not the common sense position in the modern Western world—wouldn’t this support the point that to hold to divine transcendence is, while still traditional in the basic sense of the word, also quite radical? My claim was precisely that what I read as Bonhoeffer’s insistence on transcendence *is* the radical move, in light of a culture that relied on immediacy and immanence to justify and bolster a logic of domination and possession.

    More significantly, however, is your question as to whether your account has missed something specific and crucial because of the jettisoning of divine transcendence. I think that is a great question, and I think you make a lot of great and really important points about potential risks of a focus on divine transcendence—deploying transcendence as a sort of trump card to claim knowledge, the acceptance of violence in the world, or ignoring the realities of the world and spiritualizing Christ’s victory. Sure, these are all risks that potentially can be read into an argument of divine transcendence, but my question is, might divine transcendence actually provide the resistance to such moves? That the transcendence of God makes it impossible for us to make such overarching epistemological claims precisely because we are not God? That, for me, is why such a “standard” is desirable, though I don’t like the idea of a standard at all, which sounds akin to Bonhoeffer’s understanding (and subsequent critique/rejection of) a “principle.” Transcendence, for me, is helpful in that it consistently calls into question whatever standards of judgment I’ve laid claim to, and makes them subservient to Christ. You suggest that it may be the case that Christ cannot be understood without transcendence, that this may be an adequate “trump card” and later comment that you don’t see how one can actually argue for transcendence because it is an argument from/in favor of authority, which, I think, for me at least, is precisely the point. The person and work of Christ is the authority, who calls us to action in light of God’s action in Christ…

    I’d be really curious to hear more from you in response to my concerns of immanence/my reading of Bonhoeffer’s critiques of immediacy… This, for me, is why I find divine transcendence to be so important—because just as transcendence is deployed for ill (but, as I mentioned above, I think the logic of divine transcendence itself counters such deployments), immanence seems to run comparable risks!

    I also think your pushback and concerns about the conversations about divine transcendence seeming “to suck all the air out of the room” is really interesting. On the one hand, I don’t entirely disagree, but I would couch my concern in that regard as part of the nature/context/content of this sort of ongoing debate as opposed to the content of the argument itself. Hell, in part I would couch my concern in that regard as part of academic discourse itself. This might be unfair, but sometimes trudging through various minutae of Deleuzian philosophy or discussion of it seems to invoke the same oxygen depleting affect for me. While I sometimes have found myself drawn towards the social-critical analysis/ emphasis on action that seems to at times accompany an argument of immanence, when I continue to engage, it seems to just be the other side of the same coin. While, as I said in my post, I want to have the cake and eat it too, in terms of transcendence and action in the world, the inverse is also true—I quickly get frustrated by the abstractions/distractions/etc… that comes from these arguments, which seems to be de rigueur when *either* transcendence or immanence are invoked. Which is not to ignore your criticism, I think it’s partly fair, nor to point the finger back, so to speak, but rather to couch it in a broader context about the nature of the theological academy…

    Overall, I really appreciated your book, and your engagements in this book review series, and I think it has been clear that your emphasis on immanence and a social-relational ontology stems from serious, sustained commitments to, well, the full flourishing of humanity—which I think is really, really important, and tragically often missing in a lot of theological discourse. This, for me, was, as one of my professors often says, “worth the price of the book.” I just still—at this point—have concerns about the risks of a logic of immediacy for said flourishing…

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Can you tell me one instance where immanence has been used to shut down a conversation? I just don’t see the comparable risk at all. You also seem to make the common Christian theological mistake in thinking that immanence somehow means “it’s all like this and can’t be otherwise”. That isn’t a position you can find in Bergson or Deleuze. It isn’t like immanence means “it’s all within our grasp” or that human beings are somehow above everything. I think people often make a confusion between Dawkins-esque naturalism and philosophies of immanence.

  4. Scott Prather Says:

    Adam, thanks for this.

    I’ll say up front I haven’t yet read your book, or your Bonhoeffer article (and thus your defense of your reading of him), so I’ll hold off directly questioning your approach until I do. But based on what you say here, and my own reading of Bonhoeffer, I would like to offer a minimal (and, I think, somewhat obvious) comment:

    It seems to me that part of the rub with your Bonhoeffer interpretation, at least in Carter’s critique, is coming from a different evaluation of the role of the prison letters — namely, outside of the Moltmann / Soelle strain in Germany, it’s mainly just been the American liberal academy that has taken this text as his “most important and the primary source of his influence on theology.” That’s been his primary influence on mainline liberal theology in America, but as far I’m aware, nowhere else — especially not 20th c. European and British theology.

    I do agree with you that the Letters are an important and perhaps in some way definitive crystallization of his “persistent questions” and criticisms of mainstream theology, but most 20th c. German Lutheran dogmatics (and ethics), for example, finds that coherence by reading them as the culmination of a critique of religion already begun in Sanctorum Communio, gaining its explicit center in his Christology texts, and perhaps even in his exegetical work (Genesis, Psalms). I read him along those lines as well, and take him as consistently seeking a kind of christocentric reconstrual of the categories of transcendence and immanence, particularly with an eye towards how they’re functioning in his context (the “religion” of German Protestantism, and the “philosophy”/metaphysic of German Idealism). Carter’s response (in the comments) about Bonhoeffer seems to cohere with this reading — it’s not that Bonhoeffer is insisting one begin with “orthodoxy”, or with a certain dogmatic image, but there are, nevertheless, certain dogmatic presuppositions about the identity of the divine Word and the human Jesus that persistently fund his critique of religion.

    I don’t think the latter is too far off from some of your own concerns; and I do look forward to reading both the book and your Bonhoeffer stuff when I get the time.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Brandy, Thanks for your response, and for taking on this event so close to the end of the term.

    I agree with Anthony that you’re misconstruing Deleuze — but more to the point, I don’t talk about Deleuze at all. In fact, I’ve hardly read any Deleuze! I don’t mention the word immanence even once in my book (I literally just ran a search on the text). The fact that you jump to that kind of language indicates to me that you’re coming from a perspective that is at least strongly influenced by Radical Orthodoxy — which makes sense given that you’re taking transcendence as your starting point and then defining “immanence” (and hence my position) as necessarily lacking.

    You acknowledge the question of what I’ve missed in my account, but you then turn right back around and talk about how transcendence can prevent all the problems I point out. But if we are to maintain transcendence, there has to be a positive account of what it does — simply pointing out that it’s not always and everywhere bad is not a very good reason to maintain it. I mean, you could probably say that patriarchy is preferable to some imagined alternative, but I don’t think any of us would find that to be a good reason to keep it. Similarly, I don’t think that theology should contradict cultural common sense for the sake of doing so, such that holding to transcendence in a secular world is “radical.”

    So I repeat my question: what does my account miss due to my lack of appeal to transcendence? Or taking account of your starting point, how does my account in specific fall victim to the problems you see with “immanence”? I’m not going to be satisfied with a response that starts with a generalization about “immanence” and then assumes that because my account is “immanent” it must also fall victim to the same problems. Based on what’s on the page, rather than what category you put it in, what exactly is the problem?

    Scott, I really wish you had waited until actually reading my work before commenting. The point about Bonhoeffer’s influence is well-taken, but I still feel confident that I’m not going terribly astray if the greatest living Protestant theologian (Moltmann) agrees with my assessment of the significance of the prison letters.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Also, just as a general rule of thumb: the fact that you read Bonhoeffer differently from me is not a counterargument. The very language you’re using indicates that there are multiple readings. The way to argue against my reading of Bonhoeffer is to argue directly against it. I still maintain that (1) my reading is coherent, that (2) it makes Bonhoeffer’s ideas useful, and that (3) it’s not unheard of or totally idiosyncratic. (Even if the consensus in favor of my prison letters-centric approach isn’t as great as I portray it above, I still think I’m pretty clearly in-bounds on point 3.)

  7. Scott Prather Says:

    Yes — I basically admitted I wasn’t making a “counter-argument.” I just assumed that my reading Bonhoeffer and Bonhoeffer scholarship for seven years, as well as all the posts and comments on your book, might allow me to point out the idiosyncracy involved your claim that your approach takes as its focal point “the texts that everyone basically agrees are his most important and at least his primary influence on theology.” My bad.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No need to get sarcastic.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Also, to clarify (something that was actually extremely unclear): my “rule of thumb” comment didn’t apply only or even primarily to you, Scott. Virtually all the critics of my reading of Bonhoeffer have responded with “I read Bonhoeffer differently.” Maybe that’s just a polite way of saying my reading is wrong! And maybe it is wrong. Still, I think it’s best to prioritize clarity over politeness in this case and directly argue against my reading if you (meaning all readers) think it’s wrong.

    As for your (Scott’s) point about the relative influence of Bonhoeffer’s texts, I conceded the point. I incorrectly overstated the prevelance of a letters-centric reading. The Soelle-Moltmann line plus the liberal theological academy is not nothing, though — I’m not coming out of nowhere, even if there are other readings of Bonhoeffer out there.

  10. Scott Prather Says:

    Understood, and agreed.

  11. J. Kameron Carter Says:

    Adam: Thanks for hosting a book event on *The Politics of Redemption*. I was very glad to participate in the conversation.

    By way of concluding postscript on the conversation about your book, there has been a lot of hand wringing about this issue of immanence and transcendence. I guess, if pressed to name as clearly as possible where I’d like to press your thinking is this: I think that you’ve fallen into the trap of having to choose between transcendence and immanence as the options by means of which to put forward an ontology. I think these are false choices.

    Now, as one who mobilizes theological conceptualities that could be (mistakenly) taken for transcendent conceptualities, I want to say that I understand. Transcendence is in trouble. It has been the dominant mode of theological conceptuality in the history of christian thought–and it is implicated in any number of forms of atrocities. There is not denying this. Transcendence has done itself on favors, and you’d never get an argument from me to the contrary. In this, I agree totally with Adam and other champions of immanence.

    But let’s suspend the question of transcendence for a moment–because that’s easy to beat up on–and consider immanence for just a second. The record is not spotless for immanence by any stretch.

    Someone asked earlier for an example in which immanence shut down a conversation. Well, here’s one: Richard Wright’s notable break with the Marxist party in the US (surely an expression of political immanence founded on philosophical and theoretical immanence, right?) was precisely because he espied connection between their leftist Marxist politics and their need to control his black voice.

    OK, another example from the antebellum era. Fredrick Douglass’s break with Wm Lloyd Garrison, the undisputed leader of the ‘leftist’ abolitionist movement in the US, was precisely because this ‘immanentist’ movement and this spokesman of immanence was in ‘progressive’ fashion recapitulating white supremacy.

    One last example, Fanon’s critique of Sartre in *Black Skins, White Masks* was also a critique of the latter’s hegelian immanentism. Fanon came to understand how the hegelian logic of the immanent in Sartre was but a ‘leftist’ iteration of black domination in the benign mode of assimilation.

    There are also a number of black female (the ones I just noted are male) examples of the same, which are deployed at the same time against racial and gendered structure of the immanent. Example: the classical critique of black feminism/womanism against white feminism whose feminism at times has been a form of ‘white masculinist’ domination.

    Now just to be clear, my own politics are certainly to the left. I’m not hatin’ on immanence. I read my Deleuze, my Ken Surin (who is a dear friend from whom I’ve learned so much), my Hardt/Negri . . . und so weiter und so fort. But my point is that immanence is not a panacea.

    The question is this: doesn’t a christian theological imagination offer us something beyond these limits?

    The early Barth understood this question, and he offered a response to it that, the many changes and developments in his thinking notwithstanding, never left him.

    The shift from Romerbrief I to Romerbrief II arguably is the recognition of the problems of immanence. One might take it that this meant for Barth the need to make a binary turn to transcendence. I think this is a bad reading of Barth (a topic for another day). No. Rather, Barth’s turn in Romans II is to the christological, to the man Jesus, as the way to understanding the order of things (politically and in every other way) beyond the order of things, if i may put it this way. His was a turn that confounded the transcendence/immanence binary.

    I think also that Bonhoeffer understood this deeply, which is why in my post I brought his most explicit christological material to the conversation as a way through which to understand the prison letters–both in their own right but also in continuity with the work especially of the middle period–as offering something beyond the transcendence/immanence binary. In other words, I think Bonhoeffer’s notion of religionlessness was a call for christianity to be beyond the transcendence/immanence frame, for it is a single frame, what together is a totality, always in itself ever on the precipice of domination. It’s the christological therefore for Bonhoeffer that opens up a new mode action or ethics. (I’m grateful to Brandy for a fine paper she wrote for me that lays this out nicely.)

    In conclusion, what I like about Adam’s book is that it in turning to the atonement we get a glimpse, a glimpse that must must be theorized, of what the death of Christ and his resurrection means against the backdrop of this issues–the problem of transcendence as the problem of immanence and vice versa. (This clearly is my reading of possibilities of what Adam is doing, not Adam’s characterization of what he is doing.) One could say that it means stepping beyond transcendence/immanence as choices for a christian theological imagination. This doesn’t mean that transcendence/immanence conceptualities can’t be drawn upon. They can–but not as conceptual ends-in-themselves. But rather, pragmatically or strategically for purposes of elucidating the christological which exceeds transcendence/immanence binary. The person and work of Jesus take us beyond the binary in a way that only he could do. Jesus as the atonement means the death in his person of precisely the space of death that transcendence/immanence offer up to us to live and think into.

    But this means that Jesus’ being, his person and his work, is utterly unique. It is irrepeatable. He is irreplaceable precisely in his connection with creation and therefore with us human beings and what he does on our behalf to open up a new modality of action (ethics) for us.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Why does everyone think I’m doing a Deleuze-style immanence?! I don’t cite Deleuze a single time or mention his name. I don’t use the word immanence. If Barth and Bonhoeffer are able to escape the transcendence/immanence binary, and if Barth and Bonhoeffer are two big points of reference for my project…. why can’t it be the case that I am also escaping that binary? Is it because I’ve been publicly critical of Milbank, or what?

    I honestly do not see where this is coming from at all, and I’m disappointed that it’s the frame in which my project is being discussed.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m literally rereading the first chapter to see where you all are getting this. And I say explicitly that I’m starting with atonement because theology has to start with and return to Christ. I say that I’m developing this social-relational ontology out of the major traditional accounts of Christ’s work, so that I can then use it as a tool to create a new account that will benefit from thematizing that implicit ontology.

    My governing conflict is not between transcendence and immanence, but between individualism and social-relational thought. I don’t see how you could even really map these two different oppositions onto each other.

    Again, I don’t see why we have to use the Radox framework to pigeonhole my work — I don’t even make Radox anything approaching a major theme, as I basically dismiss it in a footnote!

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Since Adam is finding this discussion of immanence and transcendence to be a misunderstanding of his work I won’t really offer any responses to Carter’s points. I have to admit that I had read your work being broadly in the realm of a kind of immanentist theology, regardless of if you use the word or not (and regardless of quoting Deleuze or not), but if you’re insisting that this conception misses the point of your project than I’ll accept that. I’m sure though that the reason Brandy and J are attributing this to you is because of the Milbank thing as well as your connection with your friends (i.e. the other authors here).

    Thinking about it I suppose this would be the same with Derrida, who claimed he didn’t understand why Deleuze used this word even though I wouldn’t really see Derrida as providing a philosophy that appeals to any real transcendence (transcendentals are different and are “in” immanence). But as to Carter’s points, I just think you’re moving too quickly from a “non-religious” philosophical framework to equating that with immanence tout court. I’d still like to have this conversation on race and immanence though as I think it is important. I think Dan Barber’s forthcoming

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    What is bothering me about these discussions is the ways that I’m being lumped in with immanence without any real effort to prove that I belong in that category, and then the kind of deployment of standard anti-immanence tropes that sound exactly like the kind of things Radox figures say about the various nihilists. I don’t like getting caught up in this preexisting scheme that I make very conscious efforts to avoid getting entangled in throughout the book.

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In other words, I don’t mind or deny the perceived sympathy with theologians of immanence. What I do mind is being lumped in with “immanence as perceived by Radical Orthodoxy.” A debate starting from those terms is rigged.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Finally, given that we’re “off topic” anyway, I wouldn’t mind hearing Anthony’s response to Jay’s remarks about the bad side of immanence.

    And where exactly is Dan Barber in all this?!

  18. dbarber Says:

    indeed, i am forthcoming

  19. Tim McGee Says:

    From this post, I took you, Adam, to be critiquing transcendence but not questioning the whole transcendence/immanence framework, and so I too made the conclusion that you were advocating immanence. I haven’t read your book, so when I do, I will definitely keep your clarification in mind that you would take your project as disrupting or bypassing the transcendence/immanence framework. As such, I take it that you’d have no objections to Carter’s penultimate paragraph (“in conclusion…”), and would be comfortable with people seeing your “perceived sympathy with theologians of immanence” as a kind of pragmatic emphasis for purposes of freeing Christology from the stratagems of transcendence.

    I’m not trying to put words in your mouth but just seeing if this way of putting it would allow the conversation to move forward by returning to the Christological question within the framework of your social ontology. From what I’ve read in these posts, perhaps the key question could be reframed this way: is the “social ontology” developed Christologically adequate, meaning, both developed adequately from within Christology and also functioning as a beneficial way to articulate and develop a Christian politics.

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Tim, That standard is close to what I’m trying to articulate, but I’d shy away from the language of “Christology” as that would presuppose the traditional orthodox account, which presupposes a lot of the metaphysical commitments I’m calling into question.

  21. dbarber Says:

    Where am i? Just a few thoughts:

    1. I don’t really agree that the problem is transcendence / immanence binary. It feels a bit like when people say both the Left and the Right have problems. True, but that doesn’t make the problem the division between them, nor does it mean that they are “equally” mistaken.

    2. The attempt to avoid the transcendence / immanence binary seems to be its own kind of transcendence: note that the Christological overcoming of this binary requires that Jesus be seen as transcendent (note that Jesus is described as “irreplaceable”, “utterly unique”, etc.). This, it seems, is just to transfer transcendence from the being of God to the being of Jesus.

    3. It does seem, in some of the criticisms of immanence that have been made against Adam, that the version of immanence being criticized is the RO version. (Which is not exactly reliable.)

    4. All that said, Jay is absolutely right, in my mind, that “immanence” has been involved in various kinds of discriminatory violence. This, however, seems to equate immanence with secularism. In my p.o.v., what we need is not to move beyond immanence / transcendence, as i find such overcomings to be repetitions of transcendence, but rather to think immanence in a way that delinks it from homogenizing projects (and that would, in the same moment, affirm religious discourse). (This is one way of summarizing the aims of my own work — immanence as not given but needing to be produced; immanence not as least common denominator but rather as diasporic, etc.)

  22. Tim McGee Says:

    Adam, one way to move forward would be to switch from “Christology” to “atonement” language, which is more consistent with what you’ve been doing but might still lead to the same questions re. metaphysics and also to objections out of Bonhoeffer and Barth for separating the person from the work. However, Carter is saying that Christology itself calls into question certain metaphysical commitments (e.g., the transcendence/immanence binary) so perhaps that would free you up to work with the language of Christology.

  23. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think that we’re getting some good examples of why the transcendence/immanence binary is not a very good way to discuss my work — I myself am getting confused trying to situate myself with regard to it. It is not the case even that my goal is to try to deconstruct that binary — the binary basically plays no role whatsoever in Politics of Redemption, which is focused on another problem altogether.

    My reference to my use of Bonhoeffer and Barth wasn’t so much an attempt to claim that I necessarily am deconstructing the binary, but rather to point out how bizarre it is to assimilate my position so quickly to “immanence” when I don’t make any use of the figures who are the main point of reference for “immanence” but do make use of figures who Jay and Brandy would regard as somehow transcending the binary.

    It’s really, really obvious to everyone that I would favor the immanence side of this binary over transcendence — no use denying that at all. Yet I still maintain that the binary is not helpful for discussing my work, precisely because it’s such a non-issue for me. And I especially think it’s unhelpful to discuss my work in light of the loaded Radox version of that binary, where immanence is always the bastard child of transcendence.

  24. J. Kameron Carter Says:

    Thanks, Tim. As usual you’ve captured the critical points with analytic precision. I would only add that just as thinking with immanentist categories ought to serve the tactical/pragmatic ends of freeing Jesus from the strategems of transcendence (this is certainly what I’d advocate anyway), similarly categories of transcendence ought also (and at times must) serve the tactical/pragmatic ends of freeing Jesus from the strategems of immanence. In short, there is no conceptually safe space. But I’d quickly add, I myself would not conceive of this conceptual play between pragmatic immanence and transcendence dialectically or in some sort of Hegelian fashion, with Jesus as the Aufhebung/synthesis of both. Why? Because Jesus in such a framework is never the person, only the synthetic idea/concept. Hegel, theorizing the height of modern thought at the moment of the European/imperial power coming into its ‘secular’ own, already did that. And Susan Buck-Morss has shown what wrong with that (see Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History).

    All categories and ideas, including the synthesizing idea/concept of Jesus, must be subjected to the counter-Logos (the middle Bonhoeffer) as we press towards a “social ontology” (the early Bonhoeffer) that is the social space of the flourishing of creation and the creature in relation to God with a ethics of action suited to this social space (the late Bonhoeffer).

    One other point. I fully agree with Adam’s that Christology, with its long pedigree in traditional orthodoxy, is metaphysically freighted in ways that have to be called into question. I’m down with that. Full stop.

    But isn’t this also the case with the Atonement? Surely, one of the great gifts of *The Politics of Redemption*, certainly it’s the gift I’ve received from it and is one of the really I’ll probably use it in my upcoming eschatology/atonement course, is its acknowledgement of this and the fine and meticulous and thoughtful work that Adam does to rework that metaphysic in light of an ontology more suited to the relationality that marks us as creatures and that is informed and guided by God’s dealings with us in creation, redemption, and consummation.

    Now if this is the case with Atonement, given its legacy with traditional orthodoxy, can it not also be the case with Christology? In other words, given what Adam has accomplished in *Politics* I see no need to jettison Christology. Rather, what’s needed is a similarly robust engagement with Christology that tries to bring it into better conceptual alignment with the “social ontology” opened up in the social space that is Jesus–a point Bonhoeffer presses in powerful ways in the second half of *Discipleship* and in “Christ, Reality, Good” and in “History and Good” in *Ethics*.

    Let me reiterate one last time that this is all “friendly fire” from me. I think that Adam has done us all a great service with this book, a sign of which is the vigor with which we are conversing about it.

    Thanks Adam, very much.

  25. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Jay, I’ve long been an advocate of a more forceful debating style — so I can take some friendly fire!

    One thing that I’m not sure came out clearly enough in the book is that I took up “atonement theory” (which I think is a terrible name for this area of theology that basically presupposes Anselm’s theory as the norm) because it’s not as freighted with orthodoxy. First of all, there’s never been an official orthodox doctrine in this area, but more fundamentally, when theologians are talking about this area, things tend to get weird. No matter what their previous metaphysical commitments are (if any — not sure Irenaeus has a strong position in that area), they wind up having to do a lot of ad hoc conceptual formation. This is not to imply it’s a total free-for-all or anything, but just to say that the hold of the traditional Hellenistic metaphysics tends to be a bit looser when theologians are directly and explicitly focusing on the meaning of Christ’s life and work.

    It’s a very fruitful point of attack for my strategy, because of this combination of undeniable centrality (what could be a more important question for Christian doctrine than the meaning of Christ’s life and work, right?) and weird unsettledness.

  26. Tim McGee Says:

    If the emphasis on “the work” of Christ has helpfully dislodged a problematic metaphysics, then perhaps this attentive reading of the work opens up a new space to consider the person who does/is this work, that is, “Christology,” particularly following Bonhoeffer’s discussion of Christ as “counter-logos.”

  27. J. Kameron Carter Says:

    Point taken, Adam. Atonement theory, you’re right, was never subjected to council negotiations and determinations was was christology and trinitarianism (Chalcedon, Nicea, et al).

    But my basic point that I was pressing still holds, I think, insofar as atonement theory, while have wriggle room within it, always strove to be tied to the ‘orthodox’ christology. Hence, Anselm develops his atonement theory precisely out of christology, mores specifically, an orthodox view of the incarnation. Thus, the title of his famed work: Cur Deus Homo? Why Did God become a Human Being?, a title with clear echoes to the Prologue of John.

    By derivation, therefore, atonement theory has been thought, at least traditionally, in relationship to christological orthodoxy. It seems to me that there’s no escaping this, simply as a historical point. Many drew differing conclusions as to what this meant (Anselm and Abelard went in differing directions), but they nevertheless tried to the think the work of christ (atonement) not apart from but in deep relationship, and in fact wanting to be consistent with, the identity of Jesus (christology).

    Of course, this doesn’t do away with your point that there’s wriggle room and untidiness in atonement theory because it wasn’t brought to a council and therefore codified or frozen. But I don’t think this means that there wasn’t an effort to be ‘orthodox’ in atonement thinking–where orthodox here means the effort to be in accord with the identity of Jesus.

    Now if this is so, then I’m back at the question I raised in my previous comment, namely, if atonement theory can be revised and yet maintain the name atonement given its connections with ‘orthodoxy’, why can’t christology?

    I’m not bound to ‘orthodoxy’, as one of my teacher’s (Milbank or for that matter D Hart), is. Emphatically, I’m not. The point for me is that ‘orthodoxy’ does not ‘own’ christology and therefore christology need not be understood as metaphysically determined within the frame of transcendence. Orthodoxy doesn’t own christology because though some might one to own the idea of Christ and be the possessor of the concept, they don’t own Jesus (my unlettered grandmother taught me that) whose person as the Counter-Logos resists assimilation to the Logos.

    “Resistance isn’t futile”–so long as the resister is Jesus of Nazareth.

    Likewise, ‘orthodoxy’ doesn’t own atonement (my grandmother taught me that too, though Adam has made an intellectual argument for it in *Politics*). And because orthodoxy/the orthodox owns neither atonement nor christology, I’m free to engage them.

    On this matter, I would simply quote in revised fashion Frantz Fanon (a crucial representative of Africana critical thought): I’m not a prisoner of the ‘orthodox’ past, rather I’m free with respect to it, free because Christ has set me free, in the ‘blues’ of his body and into the resurrected future of that body. Freedom here is analogous to the freedom then of the jazz musician, that technician of the blues, who ever negotiates music’s tradition of orthodoxy and heterodoxy finding therein possibilities that s/he is not bound by but in creative relationship with.

    This is what you’ve done, Adam, on atonement in this book–acted somewhat like the jazz musician–and it strikes me that the same needs to be done with the matter of the identity of Jesus to plum the christological depth of the social ontology of atonement that you’re pressing.

  28. J. Kameron Carter Says:

    Tim: I’d fully concur with you. I punched out my last comment before I saw your more pithy remark on the Counter-Logos/Bonhoeffer.

  29. J. Kameron Carter Says:

    I originally missed Dan Barber comments. I’d only say in response that trying to refuse the immanence/transcendence binary mean does not entail moving to another transcendence, one transferred from God to Jesus. The irreplaceableness of Jesus need not entail, and it doesn’t for me, an argument for transcendence.

    Example from the racial world/the world of racism: It’s sometimes thought that to know one black person is to know them all. To have one Asian or one black or one [fill in the blank] on a faculty, for example, is to have that something represented.

    Now we all know that this is ridiculous.

    And so to say back to those who might think this way or function under this way (even if they don’t talk this way) that black people are not replaceable cogs, that black person X is irreplaceable, utterly unique and not to be equated with black person Y, is not an argument for the transcendence of black person X over black person Y. It’s simply an argument for that which is personally specific about persons or individuals.

    (Similar arguments can be made about how patriarchal societies often view and treat women, but I digress).

    Now one might say, well, this just means that all persons are unique, and Jesus’ uniqueness is not a uniqueness different from the fact that all persons we’re all unique. Uniqueness is a feature of what it means to be a person. And Jesus as a person in this regard is not unique.

    In some sense, this is true. But in another it misses the point. I’m not arguing for the idea of uniqueness, the idea of irreplaceableness. That would fall into the trap of transcendence and immanence. But more specifically to turn back to the concerns of Adam’s book, it would reenact the problem of individualism (individuals are all the same; this is the problem arguably with individualism as an ideology) and in its own way close off sociality (because sociality requires the difference of individuals). Rather, I’m trying to press into the reality of Jesus Christ, the specificity of this person, the one who as Counter-Logos meets our will to capture and possess, thus making social life fraught or an agon.

    I like your notion of diaspora, Dan. But I’d want to connect the diasporic with what it means to be person. Personal being is diasporic being, it is social being as individual being and vice versa. It wasn’t immanence that the imperialist refused in the operations of colonialism. It was people, specific people–bodies, specific bodies.

    The diasporic embrace of creation, of creatures, of bodies, of scribes and tax collectors and sinners, is precisely the form of personal existence we see in Jesus. This is his personal uniqueness, given the horizon of sin and the fall. This diasporic embrace that constitutes his uniqueness personal being is carving out in his person of a space of life, a loophole of retreat (the Christian slave, Harriet Jacobs), within the horizon or the space of death. As the Israel of God, he is the revelation of diasporic being, or what it means to be a person.

    It’s this way of thinking about Jesus, the Couner-Logos–or something in this direction–that I offer up when I speak of his irreplaceableness. This is no retreat, or at least I hope not, back into transcendence. It’s the pathway, again I hope, to the social ontology that is at the heart of Adam’s project.

  30. dbarber Says:

    Thanks for the clarification — I was, it’s true, interpreting the characteristics of irreplaceableness, utter uniqueness, and irrepeatability in terms of exceptionality, i.e. such that they were being contrasted, dialectically opposed, to the rule of replaceability, repeatability, etc. Whereas it sounds like you are trying to keep to a more contingent, specific description of Jesus’s person, without seeking to put such a person on a plane that would differ from the plane to which others belong. I look forward to that work.


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