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.

The Prince of This World: Thinking the Devil in Light of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[This paper was presented on Sunday, November 18, 2012, at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, under the auspices of the Theology and Continental Philosophy and Theology and Religious Reflection groups.]

The reader of the first three volumes of Agamben’s Homo Sacer series—the eponymous first volume, State of Exception, and Remnants of Auschwitz—could be forgiven for being skeptical. Though Agamben’s meditations on the question of sovereignty had an immediate purchase during the dark days of the Bush Administration, it could sometimes seem that he was guilty of stretching the concepts of the sovereign exception and bare life to the breaking point, forcing them to take on an explanatory burden they could not really bear. One could concede that when pushed to a certain extreme, the Western theologico-political machine breaks down into the confrontation of sovereign power and bare life, and perhaps even that the Western machine operates within the tension between the two—yet there is so much going on in that “between” that it seems impossible that it can all be accounted for in Agamben’s terms.

From this perspective, The Kingdom and the Glory represents a crucial turning point in Agamben’s project, deepening his account of Western theologico-political structures by beginning to work out how the logic of sovereignty is deployed and transformed in order to penetrate the fine-grained textures of everyday life. In place of the easily delimitable “state of exception” where the sovereign suspends the law in order to save it, we are directed toward the workaday realities of flexible management.

Though it is perhaps surprising that he derives this logic from the Christian theological tradition, it appears in retrospect that many of his key points were more or less hiding in plain sight. Read the rest of this entry »

Hierarchy in proofs of the existence of God

Yesterday was my last class session for Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology. Our final reading included Locke’s variation (from the Essay) on the proof of the existence of God, which has naturally been a recurring theme in the course. He emphasizes throughout that God must be an intellectual being, because it’s inconceivable that matter could produce intellect — and an intuition struck me: is there a proof of the existence of God that doesn’t rely in some way upon mind-body dualism?

I threw the question out to both sections, and some interesting conclusions emerged. First, in none of the other proofs we discussed — Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes — was mind-body dualism so obviously crucial as in Locke’s. Yet it does seem that belief in some kind of spiritual reality is necessary for infinite-regress-prevention proofs (like some of Aquinas’s Five Ways) to be proving God rather than, for example, the Big Bang. The end of all his proofs is “And this, everyone agrees, is God” — but it’s ultimately mind-body dualism that makes it seem intuitively obvious that the first cause or prime mover can’t be material.

Second, and more essentially, it seems that all the classical proofs depend more broadly on ontological hierarchy, of which mind-body dualism is a decisive piece. God can be purely spiritual and yet produce matter because the spiritual is above the material and can therefore produce it, while the opposite could never be the case. And while Anselm’s proof may seem immune to this, he isn’t sheerly trying to prove the “existence” of that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought — he’s trying to prove that that thing is God, in the familiar and traditional sense. The definition isn’t just a clever move to be able to deduce existence, but to be able to simultaneously deduce everything else we know about God — and that depends on an ontological hierarchy providing “objective” standards for what’s greater.

This reliance on mind-body dualism and ontological hierarchy, more than any logical missteps in the proofs, may account for why they are so unconvincing to most people today.

The mystery of the economy

I’ve been working my way through the new translation of Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory and finding it just as remarkable and thought-provoking as the first time around — only this time, I’ve had a few years to digest the ideas.

One thing that puzzled me when I first read it was his insistence on the importance of the shift between Paul’s notion of “the economy of the mystery” to the later patristic “mystery of the economy.” This time, it seems much clearer. Read the rest of this entry »

“Existence” in the ontological proof

Yesterday, my students discussed Anselm’s Proslogion. I began both sections by claiming that they must feel relieved to have a big question like the existence of God so definitively settled, but naturally they were quite skeptical. As usually happens, the leap from the mind to reality proved to be a controversial point, but one student emphasized an aspect of the argument that I had not previously focused on in quite the same way: namely, the fact that Anselm claims that the concept of God exists in the mind once you understand it.

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The calming effect of the ontological argument

I’m currently reading through all the texts I’ll be teaching this fall, and yesterday’s text was Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. I always find Descartes to be a relaxing and enjoyable read, and the same holds for Anselm as well, whose Proslogion is on the docket for today. Whatever one might think of the value of the ontological argument for the existence of God, then, I think it’s indisputable that it is conducive to a very readable and calming writing style.

In other Descartes-related news, I was struck, as always, by how unconvincing and confusing the wax analogy is — but thankfully, John Holbo has done some research into the weird reasons Descartes wanted to use it. (You can probably skip down to the heading “The Wax and the World,” and skim much else besides, given his verbose and digressive writing style.)

The Right-Wing Messiah

Last night I saw a preview for Secret Millionaire, which caused me to seriously question my already tottering faith in humanity. Apparently based on the show where the boss becomes an employee for a day, Secret Millionaire asks its tititular millionaires to move to the areas of the US that have been “hardest hit” (by what?). There they will live among the poor, all the while trying to determine which family is “most deserving” of a sudden influx of cash.

The premise is disgusting, but familiar — after all, what is Jesus Christ but a fabulously wealthy individual who “took the form of a slave”? Read the rest of this entry »

An outline of a Marxist reading of Cur deus homo

Anselm presents us with a God who is first of all a property developer, a kind of cosmic Donald Trump. He has staked his reputation on a major project: The Heavenly City. A highly exclusive development, it is hoped that it will house nothing but the finest and most spiritual angels — the real crème de la crème of the ontological hierarchy.

Sadly, a significant minority of the initial investors back out, led by a particularly troublesome sort by the name of Satan. This unfortunate event threatens to undermine the entire Heavenly City concept. God decides that it is better to reduce the exclusivity of the Heavenly City so as to fill all the plots, so he recruits human beings to be new investors — even expanding the initial development slightly to downplay the connection between the angels backing out and humans being let in.

It seems like the project is saved — perhaps a little less profitable, but it’s still clearly the kind of ambitious project that will really make God’s reputation. Unfortunately, Satan starts spreading rumors about God that the humans take seriously, causing them to fall behind on their heavenly mortgages. Due to various clauses in the contracts, their overdue balances become essentially infinite, and this is at a time when their ability to make their monthly payments is already severely impaired as well.

God could consider a cramdown or a foreclosure, but he’s already had to go back on his plans once when Satan’s group of angels pulled out of the project — further downgrading the development would be an intolerable loss of face. So he creates a clever bailout entity, a co-op that is able to act in the name of the delinquent human investors without being exposed to their bad debts. This entity is fronted by Jesus of Nazareth, who initially made a big splash in the carpentry industry, so that the transition into property development seems plausible.

God funnels his own cash into Christcorp, and Jesus sets things up so that in the event of his death, Christcorp will be liquidated and its assets divided up among the members of the co-op. Jesus does die as the result of an unfortunate legal mix-up, and all the funds flow back to God, who has a lein against the members of the Christcorp co-op. Subsequently, all a delinquent borrower needs to do is come to God’s office, fill out a form, and their Christcorp shares will be applied to their outstanding balance. The Heavenly City is saved! God goes down in history as one of the canniest investors of all time, and the human investors get a really nice house — everybody wins!

The joy of teaching Anselm

This time around I gave myself two weeks of hardcore Anselm in the medieval class, and it’s going really well. I always enjoy teaching Anselm because he’s so thoroughly “discussable” — he has relatively clear argumentative steps, uncluttered by scriptural citations or other appeals to authority (which many students view as prima facie evidence that an author is a fundamentalist or something, so that they don’t really view a text with a lot of citations as an actual argument), and yet he comes to really strange conclusions. Simply walking them through the argument in a Socratic way usually works fine to make sure we’re all on the same page, and along the way there’s always plenty of oddball claims that they want me to follow up on.

The ontological argument, for instance, is basically custom-built for interesting discussion, because of the sensation that (a) it can’t be right and yet (b) you can’t figure out where exactly it went wrong. It’s not as easily dismissable as the various arguments based on using God to plug the hole of infinite regress, and it manages to smuggle more “content” into the idea of God than those ones tend to. And Why God Became Man is a perfect prism for the distinctive concerns of medieval culture and how they present an inflection point between the patristic age and modern times — while at the same time providing the idiosyncratic weirdness we expect from Anselm (for instance, the whole notion of the “heavenly city,” the emphasis on God saving face, the fact that Christ’s death isn’t a vicarious punishment but a massive influx of “extra credit,” the total lack of discussion of God’s love, etc.).

Basically, I find that Anselm is perfect for convincing students of two non-negotiable baseline points that are essential for understanding theology:

  1. Theology at its best is about actual arguments that you can analyze, not simply about arguments from authority.
  2. Theology at its best is way weirder than you would expect — not always in a good way, but usually at least in an interesting way.

The problem of narrating a Fall

In my course on the devil, I have emphasized the contrast between patristic accounts of the fall of the devil (whereby he generally gets jealous of humanity) and Anselm’s radically ahistorical account in De casu diaboli. On the one hand, the more “mythological” patristic account makes more narrative sense, while Anselm’s represents more of an attempt to think through free will at its most radical and abstract. On this scale, Milton’s account in Paradise Lost is basically in the patristic vein, albeit altered by Milton’s Arian theology — Satan becomes jealous, not of humanity, but of the revelation of the Son, who seems to interpose another “layer” between God and angels, implicitly demoting them all.

In class today, however, I argued that the real action is not in the fall of the devil — which Milton never “directly” narrates, putting it in the mouth of an angel who himself was not present for the event — but rather the fall of Eve. What is interesting to me is the way Milton’s account of the fall of Eve reveals an inherent limit to “mythological” narratives of the fall, namely that the pressure of creating a comprehensible narrative creates a tendency to insert some kind of fundamental imbalance into the situation such that, in this case, Eve was bound to fall long before the devil entered the scene. The fact that Milton was such a clearly devout man who wanted to “justify the ways of God” shows just how irresistible this logic is (and shows Milton’s own integrity as a thinker, as well).

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