The Barthian distortions in Aulen’s atonement typology

I’m getting ready to write a couple pieces for a reference volume on atonement, and that has got me thinking once again about how profoundly strange Aulen’s Christus Victor is. On the one hand, it was an absolutely decisive intervention insofar as it demonstrated the variety of approaches to making sense of Christ’s saving work through history and drew much-needed attention to the patristic “ransom theory.” On the other hand, his argument is at times tendentious and willful. This is clearest above all in his insistence that the patristic view is to be recommended because its narrative is a completely one-sided exercise of divine sovereignty from beginning to end. In reality, the whole point of the theory according to basically all the patristic authors is that God doesn’t use unilateral violent means to save us but intervenes non-violently in order to undermine Satan’s rule from within — and when people start objecting to the theory, it’s precisely because it’s not unilateral enough and grants too much legitimacy to Satan.

There are other odd points as well, though. For instance, he faults Anselm for overemphasizing Christ’s humanity, hence undermining the axiomatically desirable divine unilaterality — when it seems to me that Anselm and the patristic theory are at one in equally emphasizing the importance of Christ’s humanity and divinity, which is on the face of it the most “orthodox” way of going about it. Further, he credits Abelard with inventing the “moral influence” theory, when I show in Politics of Redemption that Abelard does no such thing.

What is going on here? I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is the Barthian framework that Aulen is working with. He finds the ransom theory in Luther and in the New Testament, and hence it must be Protestant in the full Barthian sense — which means divine unilateralism, etc. The moral influence theory is obviously much more associated with Liberal Protestantism, but it’s not enough for it to be a modern innovation. Instead, his strategy on both Anselm and Abelard is to show that Roman Catholicism was secretly Liberal Protestantism the whole time. With Anselm, this works because he turns redemption into too much of a human achievement, and with Abelard it’s a matter of finding some Roman Catholic root for the modern Liberal Protestant theory.

Overall, I’d say Aulen’s book is a huge net gain for theology — his Barthian-Protestant bias was probably necessary to give him “eyes to see” the ransom theory to begin with, and he gathers a lot of helpful material that would be hard to track down otherwise. The only problem is that the very bias that allowed him to see the variety in the tradition also led him to misread his own evidence.

On the toxic nostalgia for Christian hegemony

Adrian Pabst has a column up at ABC Religion and Ethics on the challenges facing the West — a situation that may even, God forbid, lead the West to split! What we need, it turns out, is a reinvigorated West united on the basis of Christianity (along with “other people of good will”), presumably to turn the tide of Islam (and Chinese communism, though that’s more of a footnote to his argument than the main thrust).

The notion that Christianity is the solution to modern problems is laughable. The Westphalian nation-state, which religious critics of modernity almost always single out as virtually demonic, arose as a way of quelling the hugely destructive religious conflicts that followed the Reformation. The Christian roots of capitalism are well-known, and the majority of mainstream Christian groups are either actively proud of capitalism or calling for moderate reforms at best. Christian moral formation did nothing to teach the majority of Western subjects to resist nationalistic wars, imperialism, or the slave trade. In fact, Christianity was used to legitimate both colonialism and slavery. Christians in Germany were generally supportive of or silent about literally the worst regime in human history and, as a group, did nothing to stop or even impede an unprecedented systematic genocide.

In short, if you were to rack up the greatest crimes of modernity, Christianity was deeply implicated in nearly all of them. The minority of Christians who resisted those crimes were marginalized and at times even actively persecuted by Christian leaders. The notion that we should overlook all this and return to some form of Christian hegemony repeats the signature move that makes Christian moral formation such a complete world-historical failure — the emphasis on forgiveness to the exclusion of almost anything else. Dan Barber has thoroughly documented this structure, wherein we are all sinners, but Christians are “better” because at least they acknowledge they are sinners. Indeed, in the current instance, I can already anticipate Christian apologists claiming that Christianity’s very complicity will ensure that Christians, as opposed to the self-righteous Muslims, are properly chastened and humble in their hegemonic role. It’s utter nihilism.

Helpful Feedback for Derrida on “Structure, Sign, and Play”

Perhaps [weasel-word!] something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event,” if this loaded word [loaded according to whom?] did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function [is this really its only function?] of structural–or structuralist–thought [which is it?] to reduce or to suspect [again, which?]. But let me use the word “event” anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling [why? Unpack this].

It would be easy enough to show [then show it! This is a big generalization that you never support!] that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the episteme [is this a reference to Foucault? In that case, cite]–that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy [this is a big claim, citation?]–and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the episteme plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement [unclear -- I think I see what you're getting at, but it could be expanded and unpacked a bit more]. Nevertheless, up until the event which I wish to mark out and define [maybe you should lead off with what this event is supposed to be, rather than making the reader wait? I'm already losing the thread], structure–or rather the structurality of structure–although it has always [careful with these generalizations] been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence [this feels jargony to me], a fixed origin. The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure–one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure–but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the freeplay of the structure [what does this mean? Unpack]. No doubt [this does not seem as immediately obvious to me] that by orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form. And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself [this seems a bit overblown -- maybe nuance?].

On belief

The standard liberal objection to religious motivations for political action is that they are unquestionable and not susceptible of disproof, so that they cannot form a part of the ongoing rational dialogue that should ideally characterize the political process. Indeed, the “special relationship” that secular liberalism posits between religion and violence is based precisely on the fact that religiously-motivated actions are not motivated by reason and hence are arbitrary and unpredictable — i.e., violent.

In one of Zizek’s weakest books, On Belief, he claims that liberals are actually the “believers” in this sense. He doesn’t back up this claim very effectively, choosing instead to indulge in misleading, “provocative” violations of liberal pieties, yet I think we can see that the core insight is there when we notice that the signature gesture of our ruling classes is to present themselves as the mere vessel of impersonal, ineluctable forces. Powerful, impossibly wealthy businessmen have no freedom of choice, as the market determines everything they do. Politicians are similarly guided by what is “politically possible,” irrespective of the range of options their office should theoretically give them.

Obviously it is human to try to beg off responsibility by pointing to forces beyond one’s control — but surely never before in history has a ruling class so thoroughly legitimated itself as constrained by forces beyond its control. It’s as though the one qualification for political or economic power is the ability to divine the messages coming from these powerful occult forces that guide our lives. Any actual deliberation about what should happen is radically foreclosed by this stance: indeed, proposing to debate openly about the shape of our shared life is painted with the same brush of fanaticism as in the liberal critique of religion, except this time the label is “populism” (a catch-all term that completely ignores the unmistakable differences between right- and left-wing principles and priorities).

I would venture to say that back when societies were structured according to religious principles and everyone basically believed in God, a political or business leader who claimed to be a direct channel for God’s will would’ve been regarded as either insane or dangerously disingenuous. Re-label “God’s will” as “the market” or “the politically feasible,” however, and no one bats an eye.

I’d further claim that in settings where religious authority factored significantly in the political process, debate was actually much more vigorous — just compare the Talmud to the editorial pages in a mainstream newspaper, for example. That’s because everyone recognized that the sources of religious authority, as was fitting for something from a divine source, were difficult for us mere humans to understand, so that our conclusions about God’s intent were almost always subject to error and reinterpretation.

Not so with the contemporary impersonal deity who inspires our ruling elites! It’s always right there in the numbers, in black and white. There’s no room for interpretation or debate, unless that means using more sophisticated (and hence reliable!) mathematical tools — at the end of the day, all you need is a literal interpretation and you’re good to go. No religious fundamentalist can possibly be as closed off to alternatives as the secular liberal fundamentalist armed with absolute mathematical necessity.

If you see something, say something: On academic representation

A couple years ago, I was invited to contribute to a reference volume. I was honored to be included and eager to have the chance to demonstrate my expertise on the topic. Yet as I looked at the proposed table of contents, I noticed a problem: no women. I told the editor that I did not feel comfortable contributing to a volume with such a lack of diversity.

I have never mentioned this incident publicly, out of fear that I would come across as boasting about what a Nice Guy I was. Yet as I was talking about writing up one of the pieces, The Girlfriend insisted that I must say something, because what happened next may surprise you: the editor admitted it was a problem but said that he simply didn’t know where to begin in fixing it. I didn’t know anyone personally who would be a good fit, but I recommended he look at a very diverse edited volume on the topic and contact the editor. Within a few months, the entire contributor roster had been revised.

If the story had stopped with the first paragraph, it would be hard to recommend my course of action — a pointless act of martyrdom that would only lead to a “worse person” (someone unconcerned with such matters!) being invited to take my place. Yet it doesn’t seem to be a likely outcome. Even people who are not “directly” concerned with diversity are surely aware that a conspicuous lack of it will cause protest and embarrassment. The earlier they’re able to correct the problem, the less inclusion will look like a patronizing “tokenism.”

Those of us white guys who are in dialogue with women and minorities in our scholarly work know that it’s not a matter of “eating your vegetables” so that you can get the dessert of all the exciting white dudes — a more diverse set of interlocutors makes academic dialogue more interesting and improves our own work. We shouldn’t selfishly keep that goodness to ourselves, nor should we allow academic publications and conferences in which we play a part to be mired in monochrome mediocrity. In an ideal future, of course, this kind of inclusiveness would be the normal course of events — but in the meantime, it’s regretably often the case that white guys more easily gain a seat at the table, and they need to use their power for good.

New JCRT

A new issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory is out, featuring my review [pdf] of Less Than Nothing.

Fear of the Future: Rehabilitating the “Temporal Cold War”

The film First Contact marks a decisive turning point in the Star Trek franchise’s approach to time travel. Previously, the emphasis was always on preserving the past, which had led to a glorious future. Even at great cost — as in the classic episode “City on the Edge of Forever” — the timeline that had produced the optimistic semi-utopia of Star Trek had to be restored. That emphasis on future greatness continues even in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, whose somewhat contrived plot centers on the hard lesson that present short-sightedness (such as letting whales go extinct) can affect the future in ways that might not even make sense to us now (such as an alien force that had befriended the whales laying waste to earth when they can’t find them). Even if Voyage Home marks a shift, it’s still within the same basic frame of rehabilitating our own accidental behavior in the past.

The new element in First Contact is the malevolent intention of the Borg in disrupting our timeline. A completely unpredictable force, which at that point in history humanity had had no dealings with, blasts out of the future and takes over — and while Captain Picard et al. are able to set things back on the utopian path, humanity’s great hero, warp-drive inventor Zefrem Cochrane, knows that his discovery and fateful voyage were part of a conflict between two mysterious powers from the future.

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Peer review: What’s the alternative?

In what is increasingly becoming a tired schtick, Rebecca Schumann rehearses the most inflammatory cliches about academic practices — in this case, peer review. David Perry’s response reflects my own experience: I’ve had a generally good experience, but I’ve heard about friends who had a much harder time.

Schumann suggests that anyone submitting to a journal should be required to do a “constructive,” timely review of an article for said journal before their piece will be considered. The gap here is that the same editors who let people get away with harsh reviews are going to be in charge of assessing the required reviews — why would we expect anything different? It’s also striking that the solution to the badness of peer review is to get more people to do peer review (especially in the case of the “crowd-sourced peer review” solution she also discusses). Yes, I agree: the solution to the problems of the system is a good version of the system without the problems.

I would like to gently suggest that there are factors other than the badness of reviews themselves that contribute to the bad reputation of peer review. First, it makes sense that an increasingly high-stakes “publish or perish” mentality would lead to a higher volume of lower-quality material. Many articles that I’ve reviewed struck me as simply needing more incubation time — including the time and distance necessary to say, “Okay, so I’ve done all this exposition… but what am I trying to say here?” Students who let the deadline sneak up on them are not the only ones turning in “papers in search of a thesis.” And in some cases, I honestly think the editor should have simply rejected the articles out of hand without involving me. It’s not the author’s fault, but I can understand being irritable when you’ve volunteered your free labor and your input isn’t actually warranted.

Second, the high stakes involved amplify people’s usual defensiveness of their own work. This may lead to an overdiagnosis of “harshness” of tone and an exaggerated suspicion of the reviewer’s motives — isn’t it a little convenient that peer reviewers are so often presented as promoting their own work and viewpoints? We’re all willing to call bullshit when blog commenters say that we’re just afraid of how right their views are and can’t tolerate dissent. There’s always going to be something uncomfortable about getting criticism of one’s work from an anonymous source — I mean, I was sweating bullets when a very close friend was reading my draft of Creepiness, and I can’t imagine how nervous I would have been if it were a total stranger — and while some reviewers may come across as unduly harsh, maybe you wouldn’t read it that way if you knew them personally. The disadvantages of anonymity go both ways.

So here’s my proposal: get rid of the anonymity. Turn the process into a genuine dialogue between peers rather than a high-stakes, up-or-down evaluation by some random person. You could even require people to do some peer review on their own beforehand and submit a signed statement from one or two readers along with the piece. To make sure people aren’t constantly relying on the same two people, you could make it a norm for CVs that your initial reviewers are included in the listing for any peer-reviewed work. If you want an independent assessment, have a named peer reviewer respond to the full package.

Yes, there is potential for abuse with this system, in that it could amplify “old boys network”-type effects — but my #slatepitch position is that many of the cruellest and most pointlessly time-consuming aspects come from pretending that the profession is an impersonal meritocracy and feigning ignorance of the importance of reputation and social networks.

On Zizek’s plagiarism

A former student wrote to ask what I thought of the recent evidence of plagiarism in an essay by Zizek. I replied that Zizek’s own explanation of the incident, which can be found here among many other places, struck me as plausible — indeed, I’d add now that it isn’t hugely different from what traditional academics might ask a research assistant to do for them.

Overall, I’d call this unintentional plagiarism due to laziness, rather than actually trying to pass off someone else’s ideas as his own. If he turned in the essay for my class, I’d give him the chance to rewrite.

Sorry: Another one of those “thinking out loud” posts

I apologize if these posts about future plans are too self-indulgent. Perhaps they could be viewed primarily as a way of coping with my own anxiety, and thus you should feel free to skip them. Hopefully there is some value, however, in seeing how I think through my long-term planning.

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