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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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 »


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