Kotsko opens up his work by stating that theology requires some ontological reflection. His thesis is that the major theologians, who have made important contributions to atonement theory, have all implicitly shared a social-relational ontology. Kotsko discloses to his reader that he has chosen the doctrine of atonement because of the degree of criticism traditional doctrines of atonement have received from liberation theologians. He is sympathetic with their critiques and hopes that this work will be useful in offering “unexpected resources for transformation” (3). For Christ’s saving work to impact all of humanity, there must be an interrelatedness of all mankind, otherwise it would be impossible for “an agent at a particular nodal point to have cascading effects” (5).
Next, Kotsko offers a very clear reading of Bonhoeffer’s obscure writings on the possibility of a religionless Christianity in Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer’s musing about religionless Christianity was a hope to see Christianity divorce itself from individualism (the drama between the soul and God) and metaphysics. This conviction leads him to reject Bultmann who evacuates God from religion, and Barth who is guilty of evacuating the individual from religion. To properly communicate the heart of the gospel, religion must be entirely abandoned because it still maintains God’s omnipotence. Instead, a religionless Christianity will embrace a weak and suffering God. Kotsko argues that Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation on community hopes to “steer between the same poles he rejects in his later critiques of Bultmann and Barth: individualism and authoritarianism” (14). For Bonhoeffer, the Trinity serves as a model for communal relations where different Christians through the Holy Spirit assemble together “in real relations among themselves, rather than simply gathering a cluster of individuals” (15).
Similar to Bonhoeffer’s rejection of individuals and authoritarianism, Nancy rejects liberalism and totalitarianism because both share “the metaphysics of the absolute for-itself – be it in the form of the individual or the total State” (16). In fact, absoluteness is a symptom of a refusal to acknowledge humanity’s relationality. Kotsko insists that we are not to understand Nancy’s emphasis on relationality as nostalgia for the past, but simply a fact of life that “we simply are always-already in community, always-already in relationships” (17). Nancy praises Heidegger for stressing the importance of “being-with” but Nancy is critical of his analysis of the lone Heideggerian subject, which backs away from Heidegger’s original more relational insights. From Nancy’s perspective, the singular is always-already plural. In fact, the one always hints at a more than one. However, the singular maintains its singularity by being in concrete relations, or by being-with others.
Kotsko wants to ground the doctrine of atonement in a social-relational ontology. He hopes to avoid individualism that subordinates the importance of all other relationships to God. Hence, when one’s relationship to God is prioritized over all other relationships, then we are still under to domain of individualism. Kotsko recognizes that two dominant atonement traditions (Anselm and Abelard) have primarily been interpreted from an individualistic framework. Believing that both theories ultimately fail because they make the incarnation arbitrary, Kotsko hopes that his social-relational account of the atonement will “provide a plausible and convincing account of why God became human” (25).
In chapter 2, Kotsko reviews feminists and womanists’ critiques of atonement. The major critique from these theologians is that “redemptive suffering, obedience, and surrogacy – converge on one point: the devaluation of human agency” (29). Although some feminist theologians, like Delores Williams, want to abandon theological reflection of the cross, other feminist theologians interpret Jesus’ death as part of his ministry to love others and inaugurate the Kingdom. However, all feminists forsake the idea that the goal of Jesus’ ministry was to die.
Next Kotsko reviews the work of some “critical theologians” on the doctrine of atonement including Cone, Joh, and Taylor. I want to focus briefly on the theology of James Cone. Kotsko argues that the difference between the black and white mindset (according to Cone) parallels the difference between social-relational thought and individualism. Given that blacks experience oppression daily, they have an epistemological advantage to critique oppression since they are “forced to be aware of oppressive social structures” (36) while whites can conveniently ignore their own complicity in opposition. Hence, we ought to listen to these oppressed individuals because they are in a better position to critique structures of oppression.
In this last section, I want to briefly discuss redemptive suffering. While liberation theologians would praise Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on community, they would be somewhat suspect of Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on redemptive suffering. Kotsko worries that Bonhoeffer’s theology does not have the resources to “affirm agency to the same extent as feminist and womanist theologians can” (43). The ultimate goal is to demonstrate the redemptive suffering is incompatible with a social-relational ontology. Kotsko is critical of this idea because it repeats the logic of individualism by simply extolling suffering for the sake of it, without properly contextualizing suffering in its relational matrix. Also, the only rationale given for such a valorization of suffering is because God values it, not that the option is appealing in and of itself. Next Kotsko’s reviews Moltmann’s theology because he carries on the legacy of Bonhoeffer and his work and is also accountable to liberation theologians. Moltmann’s two works The Crucified God and The Way of Jesus Christ are exemplary because of the shift from an individualistic to a relational form of thought. In The Crucified God, Moltmann abstracts the cross from the life of Jesus placing it into the inner life of God. He fails to pay particular respect to the social circumstances that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Moltmann’s major sin is separating the cross from Jesus’ life. Receiving criticism from many including Boff, Moltmann argues for a thoroughly relational and Trinitarian Christology in The Way of Jesus Christ, which is a vast improvement. Kotsko notes that “relationality begets relationality” (51). If the later Moltmann might represent the Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison, perhaps Bonhoeffer valorizes suffering simply as a specific political strategy not as an eternal rule. However the rejection of redemptive suffering is not unique to liberation theology, but a natural outcome of social-relational thought. He closes the chapter with this remark, “social-relational thinking goes hand in hand with the question to get behind an individualistic and ideological theology – that is, one that obscures social reality and thus helps the perpetuate the status quo – and to discover in the gospel message a challenging, critical word” (52).
Comments: On a personal note, yesterday I taught Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity in Sunday school at my mainline church. The class seemed to take quite nicely to his critique of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s idea of a suffering God. However, most were quite uncomfortable with the idea of abandoning piety and a personal relationship with God. I think Bonhoeffer’s critique is Lutheran in character because he worries that this turn inward is a false start. Luther continued to emphasize that Christ is found on the cross not inside the heart of the individual believer. If Bonoheffer’s ultimate aim is to promote a Christianity that is solely focused on living in this world, then we have to come to terms with the fact that inwardness is an obstacle to being in communion with one another. It breeds narcissism and self-righteousness. Encountering God on the cross requires that the body of Christ tear down the crosses society has erected to serve the disenfranchised. God can only be found in the midst of suffering because God in Christ has let Godself be pushed out of the world onto the cross.