On the Illusion of Orthodoxy

I’m no theologian, but Ben over at F&T has written a theological blog post entitled “On the virgin birth: or, why it’s better to say the creed than to criticize it” that is worthy of critique. In this post, Ben defends a belief in the virgin birth for multiple reasons. First off, I should say that I don’t care about the virgin birth theologically or personally, and I agree with Pannenberg that it’s historically questionable and I think it’s certainly dispensable (a la Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers).

Ben’s argument is that acts of revelation are singular and are “not part of the normal historical sequence”. Hence, although these events actually happened, they cannot be verified through the historical method. This position is as old as sin, and it smacks of the fideism that makes Barth’s entire Church Dogmatics (which I read for reasons I’m still trying to figure out) frustrating. Barth certainly bewildered his liberal theological professors with his dismissal of the historicism of classic liberal theology. Furthermore, from Ben’s perspective, these events are immune from criticism and must be accepted on the grounds that they are ‘divine’ and beyond reproach. I’ve always respected Pannenberg’s methodology because of his firm belief that theology has to be historical. Thankfully, Pannenberg is willing to reject certain theological doctrines if they do not stand up to the historical method, a method that Ben finds irrelevant.

Another problem I have with Ben’s post is the ethos of humility. Ben makes the typical orthodox theologian move by asking the question “[w]ho do I take myself for? Am I really so much smarter than St Matthew and St Luke?” From this perspective, faithful humility makes the theologian deeply gracious and respectful of the tradition. Presumably, anyone who questions the creed must be an arrogant, cynical maverick who believes they can flippantly dismiss creedal statements. Of course, Ben’s mature and respectful position only serves to alienate those believers who struggle with Christian doctrine. It should go without saying that one can legitimately question from a position of epistemological humility, and we all know many Christians who embrace the tradition in very arrogant and exclusionary ways. Side note, it never ceases to amaze me how orthodox theologians dismiss atheists and heretics as petulant children who are rebelling against the Big Other. This was evident in a post Ben wrote a year or two ago about how only orthodox Christians are patient and hold onto faith in God in the midst of suffering, whereas atheists lack the maturity of the wise believer and reject God. Atheists cannot endure suffering without rejecting faith, whereas believers possess the psychological and spiritual maturity to rise to the heavens as the atheists throw up their hands in impatient, childish despair. Although I identify as Christian, it’s obvious to me that this position is self-congratulatory bullshit.

Next, Ben writes, “[i]t’s a good thing to have a certain framework, a story that tells you what kind of place the world really is, so that there are some basic questions that are already settled, that you don’t have to go on wringing your hands and wondering about.” This statement strikes me as wrong on multiple levels. Doesn’t this reduce faith to be simply therapeutic for folks who are trying to make sense of this world? Or, to put in Freudian terms, this type of faith is merely an illusion or wish fulfillment. It provides the individual a way to escape the existential anxiety of life by offering a coherent narrative that diminishes the stress of having to make decisions and take responsibility for his/her desires.

Finally Ben writes, “[i]f you ask me, a faith like that is as good as Christmas: as reliable as the calendar, but full of surprises too.” This is a typical sentimental, romantic theological statement we often get from orthodox theologians. The only real adventure is orthodoxy; the only real revolutionary is the conservative; and the only truly radical ideology is…Christianity? That almost makes sense. These types of paradoxical statements sound cute and certainly make the believer feel good about himself, as if surprises are only afforded to the good Christian who accepts everything without struggle. But how can Ben reconcile his previous statement that faith is good because it prevents folks from “wondering about” and that this faith is also “full of surprises too”? Wasn’t the whole point of the previous statement that faith is good because it helps to mitigate anxiety about the unknown by providing a grounding, indubitable framework? Obviously, orthodox Christians can be surprised and struggle with doubts, but it seems wrong to assume that a faith that is better “to believe than to criticize” is somehow full of surprises, considering that everything is already decided for the believer in advance.

Weapons Grade Snark: Against Barth On Religions

I am frankly offended by this stunning display of bad faith, initiated by Barth’s tortured dialectic and Green’s defence of so transparent a piece of sophistry […] The parochialism and abject ignorance of the advocates of the Barthian position is not only embarrassing, it is offensive to the dignity of the spiritual and religious lives of literally billions of fellow human beings.

Ivan Strenski, “On “Religion” and Its Despisers,” in What is religion?: origins, definitions, and explanations, ed. Thomas A. Idinopulos and Brian C. Wilson (Leiden: Brill, 1998). responding to Green Garrett, “Challenging the Religious Studies Canon: Karl Barth’s Theology of Religion,” The Journal of Religion 75, no. 4 (1995).

Imagine writing a piece that was so offensive that it actually was offensive to billions of people.

The Incarnation as God’s Leap of Faith

At perhaps the pivotal moment in the Church Dogmatics IV/1, Barth poses the question Cur Deus homo? He discusses the incarnation and what it meant for God “to deny the immutability of His being, His divine nature, to be in discontinuity with Himself, to be against Himself, to set Himself in self-contradiction” (184). Continuing with these questions, Barth goes on to ask about the how the perfect, eternal, and omnipotent God could become limited, lowly, and impotent. Barth considers what it meant that “His becoming man, consisted in this determination of God to be “God against God” (184). Further on he writes, “God in His incarnation would not merely give Himself, but give Himself away, give up being God. And if that was His will, who can question His right to make possible this impossibility?” (184). This rift, this gap in the Godhead for Barth culminates in cry of dereliction on the cross. With fear and trembling, Barth wonders if this cry ultimately is a temptation that would encourage the notion that there is a “contradiction and conflict in God Himself” (185). Barth comes very close but ultimately rejects this idea because “God gives Himself, but He does not give Himself away” (185). Also, God is a God of peace not confusion (1 Cor 14:33). Despite the fact that God experiences this contradiction, “He acts as Lord over this contradiction even as He subjects Himself to it” (185). As Barth approaches the mystery of Christian theology, he stops short. He looks over the cliff but refuses to jump. At the very moment where he could ultimately embrace the death of the sovereign God, he pulls back. The sovereign God ultimately never left the control station even at the cross. Altizer once said that the death of God could help us finally come to terms with what the cry of dereliction actually meant for the Godhead. Radical death of God theologians seem to be the only theologians who actually take this question seriously.

Read the rest of this entry »

The rhetoric of decadent Barthianism

I am a great admirer of the work of Karl Barth. I engaged with him extensively in my coursework, and one of my exam areas dealt with him (in connection with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer). I find him to be one of the most consistently creative and surprising theologians in the history of Christianity.

And yet I have often detected certain predictable negative effects that Barth has on his followers. Namely, a certain rhetorical pattern has repeated itself in conversations with Barthians too many times to be a coincidence:

  1. State something that sounds more or less like a familiar Christian doctrine, albeit in more poetic and emphatic form.
  2. Claim that Barth’s articulation of this Christian doctrine differs in a subtle and yet crucial way from the familiar account, such that no standard critiques apply to Barth’s version.
  3. If someone asks for clarification of the difference, do one or both of the following:
    • Claim that explaining the difference would be such a Herculean task that it would be foolish even to begin to attempt such a thing in a conversational setting.
    • Claim that the interlocutor’s presuppositions make it impossible for them to recognize and appreciate Barth’s nuanced wonderfulness.

In short, Barth seems to give some theologians the license to make Christian faith claims while absolving themselves of the duty to answer any critics — or indeed, any questions or requests for explanation.

UPDATE: A Barthian responds! Executive summary: “I know you are, but what am I?”

My contribution to the Karl Barth Blog Conference

The annual Karl Barth Blog Conference has been underway for the last few weeks, this time around focusing on putting Barth in dialogue with various figures. Paul Dafydd Jones has written on Barth in dialogue with The Monstrosity of Christ, and I wrote a response (appended to his post). I’ve already written a considerable amount on that book, and so I focused on critiquing Barth more than on Zizek or Milbank.

Thanks to the conference organizers for inviting me to be a part of it.

“Good theology” and “bad theology”

In the hallowed halls of the theology blogosphere, one often reads that a given position “is just bad theology.” The confidence with which this verdict is reached makes me think that there is some clear standard of what counts as “good theology,” and after years of careful fieldwork, I believe I have hammered out the basic rules for writing theology that will be considered “good” by bloggers. The guiding principle is as follows: good theology unashamedly embraces Christian particularity. This principle has the following consequences: Read the rest of this entry »

Models of Theological Discourse

As part of a project I’m currently working on, I’ve been thinking through the various presently-existing models for thinking about theological (or more ambiguously religious) discourse.  Specifically, what I have in mind here are ways in which theological discourse is positioned with regard to philosophy.  There are, as far as I can imagine, four models:

(1) Philosophy as condition of possibility for theology.  Here I have in mind the approaches of figures such as Heidegger (especially in his “Phenomenology and Theology” essay) or Bergson.  Theological or religious discourse is admitted, but only when it is understood that that such discourse is a specific borrowing or deployment of a more fundamental and generic mode of thought that is properly philosophical.

(2) The cultural-linguistic model.  The common assumption, following in a Wittgensteinian vein, would be that there is a basic incommensurability between various cultures and their respective discourses.  Theology, in its particularity, is thus granted a specific autonomy that does not need to pass through more generic conditions of possibility or thinkability.  Exemplars would include Lindbeck, Hauerwas, and Barth (and his followers).

(3) Postmodern Thomism.  Shares with (1) the desire to speak generically—i.e. at the level of the ontological or whatever, but also shares with (2) the desire to make theological discourse primary.  This is accomplished, of course, by claiming that it is only (or it is preeminently) with theology that one finds the proper means of thinking being.  Milbank, of course, is the one who has pursued this project most extensively.

(4) Theology as unthought remainder.  This model is distinctive in its unwillingness to position theological discourse at the level of the generic or the particular (or some combination thereof).  It might be best to say that theology functions as a coefficient that enables a paraphilosophical discourse.  Only by encountering theological discourse more seriously does it become possible for philosophy to fulfill its innovative tasks, which have been hampered by a premature jettisoning or overcoming of such discourse.  While their operations are singular, this model is common to Agamben, Žižek, and Derrida.

What do you think?

The theological critique of Nazism

I posted this as a comment to Ben Myers’ latest post, but since it’s somewhat off to the side of the post’s topic, it seemed appropriate to turn it into a fresh post of its own:

I say this as a great admirer of Barth, but I’ve always found the “theological” critique of Nazism to be weirdly disconnected from reality. For instance, Barth’s self-congratulation that the church somehow did the right thing insofar as a small sect of it rejected natural theology in the midst of Nazism strikes me as downright chilling. The test here is that you could take it the opposite direction: for instance, the lack of a viable natural theology produced a disconnect between the gospel and the world, which led to the unlimited rise of technological instrumentality that was then ultimately turned against the human race itself most horrifically in Nazism, etc. Or you could say that the artificial either/or of Christ or nature led necessarily to the embrace of natural “paganism,” etc. Or basically you could make up any “theological” cause you like and congratulate yourself for bravely coming down on the right side of the debate, but that doesn’t make what you’re saying relevant. If anything, wouldn’t it have been more immediately relevant and more obviously connected to Nazism if the church had staked its identity on the opposition to anti-Semitism rather than the somewhat obscure point of natural theology?

On Theological Method

Recently, at Inhabitatio Dei, the concept of freedom was discussed — the initial move was to oppose proper Augustinian freedom to the more contemporary affirmation of pure freedom of choice.  What’s interesting here, particularly, is that it was noted that there might be an ideological dimension to this opposition. 
In the comments, I pressed the question of what a nonideological account might look like — and giving a fastforward description of what happened, after some relatively serious dialogue, it was said (not by me, but by others) that freedom is “about the divine power to call and create a human person”, that “freedom is the translation of human beings into the triune life of God,” that “True freedom is an event which happens as human persons are taken up, transfigured, re-created by God’s radical grace.”  Etc, etc, etc…
My question: What is going on here?  To what degree should such strongly “theological” responses to the very problematic concept of freedom be leaned upon?  Is this a Barthian tendency that I just don’t get? 
In my mind, such responses exhibit the worst tendencies of transcendence, a kind of eternal trump card that is effectively meaningless, except in order to satisfy one’s capacity to possess answers.

Nature, grace, and anachronism

In the literature on Anselm, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a real anxiety to make sure that Anselm isn’t “really” trying to get all the way to the necessity of the Incarnation by “pure reason.” The reason this explanation is necessary in the first place is that Anselm certainly appears to be doing that and doesn’t seem to view the attempt as problematic on a methodological level. In doing so, he is following in a proud tradition — for instance, Gregory of Nyssa’s “Great Catechism” is able to get to the Trinity and even to the creation and fall by means of something like the common sense of the Hellenistic world, though he recognizes that the Incarnation is going to be difficult to swallow. His general principle is to use Scripture for those who respect Scripture, and reason for those who accept only reason. Convincing the former is thought to be easier (though the historical record doesn’t seem to bear that out), but there isn’t a sharp division between the two that I can see.

I think that the reason for the anxiety about Anselm’s approach is that people are reading it in terms of Aquinas’s nature/grace distinction — i.e., reason can get you to a certain point (where Aristotle winds up), and then you need revelation, which is not contrary to reason but whose contents couldn’t be predicted using reason alone. The Trinity, for example, is firmly on the “revealed” side of this distinction, yet Gregory and Anselm both appear not to be worried about the fact that their reasoned argument has gone way over the line.

The reason for their lack of concern is probably that that line wasn’t a big concern of theirs, and we don’t need to read them anachronistically as though they knew about the nature/grace problem and were really concerned not to be doing something like “natural theology” because that would be somehow impious. Instead, maybe we should read them as doing what they’re actually doing — that is, assuming that the world described in Christian revelation is actually this very world where we are. If that is the case, then of course reason should be able to recognize the inner necessity of God’s actions in the world, because God is after all acting in this very same world where our reason finds its home.

I have a bunch of things that I want to say here but can’t fully support yet. For instance, I object to Aquinas’s two-tiered system first of all because it’s so inelegant. Another thing: maybe Barth’s polemic against “natural theology” should’ve gone further and also rejected the kind of “revealed theology” that’s defined in opposition to “natural theology.” Etc. I’m aware that there are all kinds of nuances that I’m not capturing here — sorry about that.


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