With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Even More on Barth and Analogy: Option I

From a Catholic point of view, it seems that Barth is mistaken in one of either of two ways. He is either 1) diagnostically mistaken about the incompatibility between his analogia relationis/fidei and the analogia entis, seeing a dichotomy where there is none; or 2) he is doctrinally mistaken: he correctly judges the incompatibility, but his mature version of analogy reflects a doctrinal position that Catholics are bound to find dissatisfying and even in tension with some of the more positive statements Barth makes about the goodness of created nature.

Johnson argues strongly that Barth was correct in his diagnosis of the incompatibility. The gist, I take it, is that Barth’s analogical thought does not represent a change in the substance of his earlier position, let alone a concession to his Catholic interlocutors. Rather, Barth’s analogia relationis/fidei confirms and even fulfills his earlier reasons for rejecting the Catholic analogia entis. As Johnson puts it:

He [Barth] does not adopt a version of the analogy that Przywara originally offered, but rather, he adopts the strongest possible rejection of such an analogy, because the structure of Przywara’s analogy is reversed in order to account for the problem that initially prompted Barth to reject Przywara’s analogy: the problem of human sin. Barth’s mature account of divine-human continuity thus stands as the fulfillment of his early rejection of Przywara’s analogia entis rather than a retreat from it. (Johnson, p.645)

Johnson’s argument poses a challenge to Balthasar’s interpretation, which understandably tries to emphasize points of compatibility between Barth and Catholic dogmatics. According to Balthasar, Barth was able to understand and speak to Catholic concerns about analogy. And some of the things he’s written certainly seem like the kinds of things Catholics are prone to write, including some lines that appear to chasten the more dialectical rhetoric of man’s alienation from God. As Balthasar puts it: “he finally admits that creation vis-à-vis God is thoroughly good and positive in itself, that is, in its very being as not-God.”

By the power of faith and its profession, the Word of God becomes a human thought and a human word, certainly in infinite dissimilarity and inadequacy, but not in total human strangeness with its model. The human copy is a real copy of its divine counterpart. (KD I, 254)(TKB, 108)

Such total dissimilarity would then mean that we could not in fact recognize God. For if we recognize God, this must mean that we see God using our prior views, concepts and words; thus we see God not as something totally Other. (KD 3, 253-54) (TKB, 109).

There can be a real world that is not threatened or extinguished by God’s absoluteness. On the contrary, the world has been established by virtue of his absoluteness. Far from being self-contradictory with the concept of God or shameful to it, the world is his confirmation, set up to give glory to his name. (KD 3, 347-48) (TKB, 111).

He can leave room and time for the existence of another. And he can exercise his will over this other in such a way that the other is not absorbed or destroyed but accompanied, borne and protected. (KD 3, 461) (TKB, 111).

Creator and creature both exist, and exist together; but this does not imply there is any parity between them but rather a strictest superordination and subordination. Even so, they do coexist. (Credo, 33) (TKB, 111).

In the Credo, when we profess that God is the Creator, we admit not only God’s transcendence but also the immanence of this so utterly transcending God. As counterpart to the world, God is present to this world he has created, not only far but also near, not only free in his relations to it but also closely tied to his creation. He sustains the creature in its relative self-subsistence and uniqueness, ruling it without suspending the freedom of the human will, either partially or totally. (Credo, 33-34) (TKB, 111).

God sustains his creature in a reality different from his own: relative and dependent. But in its relativity and dependency, creation is autonomous vis-à-vis God, truly there on its own, precisely because it owes its being-there to God alone…Because it has not emanated directly from God’s own essence but was freely created by God, the creature cannot dissolve back into God or abandon its own relational autonomy. (KD 7, 98-99) (TKB, 112).

God’s revelation presupposes that there exists a world distinct from him in which he can reveal himself and that there is someone to whom he can disclose himself…The fact of revelation already tells us that God and man exist together; it is the witness of the reality of God’s creation…The fact of revelation already says that there is a human person to whom God has turned in his revelation, affirming his existence and taking seriously his fate, addressed as God’s real partner and thus honored in his autonomy.(Gotteserkenntnis, 69) (TKB, 112-113).

In other words, “the existence of a reality distinct from God cannot be a source of embarrassment solely because of its distinctness from God” (TKB, 111). Balthasar argues that in the Church Dogmatics Barth is forced to take “the concept of the creature” seriously, in a way quite different from his approach in The Epistle to the Romans. Far from claiming that creation is alien to God, “Barth increasingly came to sing the praises of the goodness of creatureliness as such” (TKB, 112).

More specifically, Barth acknowledges that “Sin presupposes freedom and selfhood, but it is not to be equated with them. This clearly implies that the sinful creature does not plunge into nothingness or chaos, becoming a mere shadow of a shadow, as would be the case if creatureliness coincided with sin” (TKB, 111) (Note here Balthasar is expressing- more eloquently- the same concern I had in the first post about the tendency of dialectical theology to equate human nature with sin). Barth appears to speak of sin and its relation to human nature in ways that both account for traditional Catholic concerns and at the same time thoroughly qualify his earlier rhetoric of alienation:

Human relationships are all affected by sin, but they are not altered [Barth’s emphasis] in their basic structure. And the inner essence of these relations is the created nature of man. Thus it is quite correct to say that the contrasts of sin, reconciliation and redemption do not affect human being. (KD 6, 46) (TKB, 116).

And so we have not followed the usual practice in theology of first denigrating human nature as much as possible in order then to make God’s grace working in man all the more effective. (KD 6, 330-331) (TKB, 116).

[Speaking of humanitarianism and Christian love] “Indeed, what good would it be for Christians to have all knowledge of God’s forgiveness,…what benefit would they get from the holiness and justification of their new-found life or from their praise of God in worship or their zeal in his service if they lacked this basic humanity?” (KD 6, 339) (TKB, 117).

And perhaps most strikingly:

It is not by nature that man is hostile and opposed to God. He is of course in fact so opposed, but only by acts of rejection, by an abuse of nature. But all man’s perversity cannot make wrong what God has wrought as good by nature…Sin indeed wreaks inconceivable havoc, but precisely because human nature is so good…But sin never becomes, as it were, a second nature for which man need not be held accountable. Man has not become a stranger to God in his sin. His position vis-à-vis God remains what it was when God created him…To dispute this would be to deny the continuity of the human subject as a creature, sinner and redeemed sinner.” (KD 6, 330-31) (TKB, 117).

This last passage from the Church Dogmatics is particularly helpful because Barth makes exactly the kinds of distinctions I think are crucial to understanding the reality of sin. When I claimed in my first post that Catholics have traditionally held that sin does not go “all the way down” (a statement that worried Travis a bit), I meant nothing more than what Barth means here: sin cannot go so far down as to blur the distinction between man’s nature and the sin that wreaks havoc in it. This is not to define human nature apart from God’s revelation in Christ; it is only to uphold that in one very important sense, sin does not make humanity some other kind of thing. To deny such a distinction would be, as Barth realizes, to deny that a prelapsarian, fallen, and redeemed human being is, in each case, still a prelapsarian, fallen, or redeemed human being. That is why I claimed too close an identification of sin and human nature ultimately makes nonsense of the act of salvation: when that ontological continuity of humanity across its different states is rejected, there can only be the annihilation of human nature and a creation of something else in its place. No matter what language one uses to describe that, it no longer makes sense to call that an act of salvation.

Anyway, back on point. This collection of passages, drawn from different parts of different works, and largely separated from their contexts, gives the impression of proof texts. But my point is minimal and I think discernable in the passages regardless. It is only that Barth is entirely aware of some of the concerns that Catholic dogmaticians have had about creation, sin, and relation to God. And further, he seems to acknowledge that even a Protestant dogmatics needs to address these issues. The interesting thing is that what Barth seems to affirm in these passages is precisely what the analogia entis supplies for Catholic thought. There are at least two points here: 1) the claim that creation is not opposed to God in virtue of being other than God; or to rephrase it, creation is positively related to God qua created; 2) and that this positive relation to God is, in one important sense, unaffected by sin: it is the relation that sin presupposes in order to be sin at all. In other words, to acknowledge that creation bears a positive relation to God as created (as not-God), and to acknowledge that this relation subsists in spite of the warping effects of sin, is in principle to affirm the analogia entis.

Balthasar claims that “all of these statements” are “Catholic in the fullest sense of that word” only because Barth saw Jesus Christ as the “real ground of creation” (TKB, 118; cf. KD 6, 580). For Barth, Christ’s positive relation to the Father eternally foregrounds the act of creation, and it is only in virtue of this relation that creation is positively related to God:

Just as he is the guarantee of the Creator’s fidelity, so too is he the guarantee of the continuity of his creation, the guarantee of its being maintained and preserved. (KD 6, 627) (TKB, 118).

In view of his Son, who was to become man and bear the sin of the world, God loved the human race and with it his whole creation even before he created them…He created the world because he loved it in his own Son, who stood before him as an outcast and a dead man, all on account of our sins. (KD 5, 53-54).

Christ, as both God and man, is “the true prototype upon whom and in view of whom the world was created” (TKB, 118-19). This foregrounding is, as it were, the fundamental presupposition of any analogical relation between God and his creatures.Yet if Barth wants to hold both to the two points mentioned above (drawn from his statements about created goodness) and the Christological presupposition of analogy, it seems reasonable that, at least initially, an affirmation of the analogia entis and Christ’s prototypicality are entirely compatible. Indeed, for Catholics like Balthasar and Przywara, the formal priority of Christology and the analogia entis are not only compatible, but the former fulfills the latter. As Balthasar writes:

But Christ is not simply man, he is God. And so the idea of what it means to be human as such cannot be derived or deduced from the Incarnation of Christ but can only be presupposed in it. Because God has become one of us, there must already be the possibility for humanity at the start, not just theoretically but in a true sense, to be capable of God, a capability that does not adversely affect Christ’s prototypicality… (TKB, 119).

Following this option, therefore, leads one to conclude that there is no reason to reject the analogia entis in adopting an analogia relationis/fidei. This would mean that Barth is only incorrect in his judgment that such a dichotomy exists.

In fact, however, the evidence against this option is pretty substantial. As Johnson emphasizes, and even Balthasar admits, Barth’s understanding of analogy gives expression to a doctrine of justification that inflects his account of created goodness in a very particular way; a way that actually inverts the reasoning of the analogia entis. Everything turns on how Christ’s prototypicality is conceived. If this interpretation (option 2) is correct- and I find it convincing- then my suspicion is that Barth’s analogy ultimately fails to do justice to the affirmations of created goodness cited above. In short, without the analogia entis, he can’t have his analogical cake and eat it too. And this is precisely what we should expect Catholics to think if Johnson’s interpretation hits the mark. Whether or not my suspicion that a serious tension results in Barth will be convincing to Barthians is another question (I suspect it won’t). But I will have to show this in greater detail in another post.

Pax Christi,


Keith L.Johnson,"Reconsidering Barth's Rejection of Przywara's Analogia Entis," Modern Theology 26:4, Oct. 2010, pp.632-650

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation (TKB), trans. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (San Francisco: Communio Books/Ignatius Press, 1992).

Karl Barth, Credo (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1935). English trans.: Credo (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962).

Karl Barth, Gotteserkenntnis und Gottesdienst (Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1938). English trans.: The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (London: Hodder and Stoughten, 1938).


The references to the Church Dogmatics (Karl Barth, Die Kirchliche Dogmatik; KD) are taken from Balthasar, who was using the German editions and citing the volume number followed by page number. If anyone wants a corresponding citation in the English translation, let me know and I can hunt it down using the appendix Oakes provides in the TKB.

Bold indicates my emphases; italics indicates emphases original either to Barth or to Balthasar.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

More on Barth and Analogy

I will try not to qualify my last post out of existence. But in light of the concerns that Travis raises, I think some unpacking is in order.

First off: as stated, my knowledge of Johnson's project is restricted to his Modern Theology article, since I have yet to read the expanded argument of his book. Therefore, my comments are naturally restricted to his position in the article.

Second: my grasp of the analogia entis is something like a patch-work quilt of insights from Thomas and Przywara; and since everyone has a different take on what Thomas means, and almost no one has read Przywara, it should be clear that my thoughts don't by any means exhaust what the concept could mean. Given that much, however, I don't think there is much daylight between Thomas and Przywara concerning what is relevant to the Barth debate.

Third: my Barthian credentials. I don't really have any. My reading of him has been almost wholly restricted to his work on Romans and scattered pieces of the Church Dogmatics; and within the KD, almost all of what I've read is limited to I/1 and I/2. Thematically speaking, I've addressed Barth's understanding of kenosis and some of this thought on reconciliation in classes with Randall Zachman. Practically speaking, I rely almost entirely on the extensive knowledge of a close Barthian friend (unequivocally the "Barth guy" around Duke Divinity school). So suffice it to say that I am more than open to correction, and my criticisms should be taken more as "suspicions" than demonstrations since there is always the chance that Barth has resources to draw upon elsewhere. I'm currently embarking on a directed readings course on Przywara's Analogia Entis, so over the next few months my understanding of both Przywara and Barth will no doubt deepen.

All those nuances in place, I don't think Travis's concerns alter the plausibility of my overall point: namely, that on Johnson's reading, the disagreement between Barth and Przywara over the analogia entis is reducible (at least in large part) to more fundamental doctrinal differences separating Catholics and Reformed. Johnson's essay is pretty clear on that much. His major argument seems to be that Barth never changed his mind about the analogy of being even when he began to adopt a version of analogy. His earlier and seemingly more dialectical reasons for rejecting the analogia entis are actually upheld and fulfilled by his notion of an "extrinsic" analogia relationis. And this reflects his enduring fidelity to certain Reformed doctrinal principles:
Specifically, it points us to the fact that the distinctions that propelled both Barth’s initial rejection of the analogia entis as well as his mature alternative to it stem from his recognition that he and Przywara had very different interpretations of the doctrines of revelation, creation and justification, and that these differences were the same kind of differences that traditionally had divided Protestants from Roman Catholics. Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis was not the result of a misunderstanding, therefore, but the consequence of his recognition that Przywara stood on the other side of a doctrinal fault line that had existed for centuries. Despite developments in his thought in the years that followed his initial critique of Przywara, Barth always remained on the same side of that line...To dismiss Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis as if it were the result of a mere mistake is to fail to recognize why this debate, and these doctrines, matter at all." (Keith L. Johnson,"Reconsidering Barth's Rejection of Przywara's Analogia Entis," Modern Theology 26:4, Oct. 2010, pp.645-646)
The flip side of this, of course, is that to dismiss Przywara's affirmation of the analogia entis as if it were the result of a mere mistake is to fail on the same point. This has at least some power to explain why Barthian critiques of the analogy that try to challenge it on metaphysical terms have been decidedly unconvincing: not a one has been able to demonstrate that the inner logic of the analogy results in something like onto-theology without presupposing from the start what analogy itself guards against: either 1) univocal or generic predication; 2) a Kantian epistemology; 3) or some restrictively theological notion of "being." In other words, every such critique is already committed to denying that the analogia entis is what it claims to be. Responding to Archie Spencer's repetition of the charge that the analogy of being includes God and creatures within a single genus, Fr. Thomas Joseph White rightly notes that such a fundamental misunderstanding of "one of the most basic structures of classical metaphysics...renders a serious dialogue between Thomists and Barthians nearly impossible." (Thomas Joseph White, O.P., "How Barth Got Aquinas Wrong: A Reply to Archie J. Spencer on Causality and Christocentrism," Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol.7, no.1 (2009), p.252).

The controversial part of what I've written is my questioning whether or not Barth's appropriation of analogy sufficiently maintains continuity between God and creation. Though I think at least a good deal of the scandal in a negative answer should be removed if one accepts Johnson's point: if the debate, to a large extent, maps onto denominational differences, shouldn't we expect for Catholic's to find Barth's position insufficient, insofar as it reflects that deeper fault line? Here perhaps I should clarify: my claim is not that Barth lacks an account of the inherent goodness and continuity of the created order. I acknowledge fully that he has one; a point noted not only by Johnson, but also by Balthasar. My claim is the following: Barth's mature account of analogy will, from a Catholic perspective, fail to do justice to intrinsic goodness of nature, it's relation to God, and its relation to justification. If Johnson's argument is correct, and Barth's analogy upholds his reasons for rejecting the Catholic analogy, then Catholics should expect to be as dissatisfied with his version of analogy as they are with his pre-analogical idiom.

I don't intend for any of this to be un-ecumenical, no more than Johnson himself does. I'm not trying to draw a line in the sand; rather, just correctly note that the line was already drawn elsewhere and certain things understandably follow from this. I take Johnson seriously when he writes "Consequently, any attempt to deal with Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis must address these doctrines [creation, revelation, justification] and the question of why Barth thought the differences between Przywara’s interpretation of them and his own were so crucial" (p.646).

So I suppose to respond to Travis's worries: only in an indirect and unsurprising way have I failed to engage Barth, because (aside from the listed qualifications), well, I remain unconvinced by his position. But in a much more important and interesting way I've simply confirmed Johnson's point. My disagreement with Barth should be the greatest testament to my agreement with Johnson.

In another post, I'll go into more detail about the content of my enduring suspicions...

Pax Christi,

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Barth, Sin, and Analogy

Keith Johnson has a thorough and well-argued piece in Modern Theology ("Reconsidering Barth's Rejection of Przywara's Analogia Entis," Modern Theology 26:4, Oct. 2010, pp.632-650) attempting to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the Barth-analogy of being debate. I imagine this is a compact version of his book-length study, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010), though I have yet to read the latter. I highly recommend the essay: as far as I can tell, Johnson has done all of the leg work needed to pin down what Barth did and did not grasp about Przywara's teaching. One of Johnson's main arguments is that Barth did in fact understand what Przywara was saying (contra John Betz) and his later adoption of a "kind" of analogy does not renege on his early criticisms. As I see it, however, the really interesting claim contained in Johnson's argument is this: the disagreement between Barth and Przywara (and conceivably Balthasar, Rahner, Gilson, Maritain, et al.) on the analogia entis is in principle reducible to Catholic and Reformed disagreements over the effects of sin. If this is in fact the case, for Catholics the discussion about Barth's views on the matter is, it seems, radically relativized: whatever version of the analogy Barth adopts in the more developed sections of the Dogmatics, it cannot actually satisfy Catholics and cannot succeed in grasping why Catholics think it important; just as for the Barthians, any reformulation of the analogy that continues to pay homage to Catholic teaching on sin remains an idol worthy of the hammer. Which is to say, from a Catholic perspective (somewhat vindicating Betz), Barth does misunderstand the analogia entis, not because of a failure to read the primary sources, but simply in virtue of being deeply mistaken about the effects of sin on human nature. Barth would in fact be correct to realize that the analogia entis is incompatible with his Reformed position on fallen humanity, but wrong to see this as a reason for rejecting the analogy rather than as a reason for rejecting his own teaching on sin. If then this former rejection is intimately tied to Protestantism (as Barth thought), for Catholics this would only solidify the point that (flipping Barth's famous maxim on its head) the analogy of being is the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant.

I'll let Johnson's words carry most of the weight here:
Barth’s argument on this point stems from his conviction that, in light of sin, humans have no ability to know anything about God or their relationship with God on the basis of God’s act of creation alone. Rather, for him, human existence must be “taken up, negated and transformed” by a new act distinct from the act of creation. This is why Barth cannot accept Przywara’s claim that “revelation does not destroy but supports and perfects reason”. For Barth, to talk about human reason at all is to talk about fallen human reason. That which we know on the basis of our reason, he argues, leaves us locked in a prison of “distance, alienation and hostility”, because our reason is governed at every moment by the fallenness and inwardness of sinful human nature. To know God, therefore, we need a completely new Word. The necessity of this second and distinct Word, because it is addressed to sinners, means that the doctrine central to the knowledge of God is not creation but justification. [p.640]
Note that here the concern for a "new act distinct from the act of creation" carries not only the connotation of novelty, but of opposition. I rather doubt that Barth thought the Catholic position was simply modernism is guise; that it actually denied the distinction between the orders of nature and grace. Rather, the concern is that Przywara's understanding of what's new in the act of justification is too continuous with nature.
This is the problem: Barth believes that God’s saving action is not merely supplemental to human action; it is opposed to human action. When God acts, he argues, he establishes “a barrier against all that is our own action”, and he does so because humans are utterly dead in their sins. Sin is not merely a “disturbance” that exists at one moment but then “can quite as easily be . . . removed again” by an infusion of grace. Rather, Barth says, God’s grace “cuts against the grain of our existence all through”. The sinful human and God exist in an “irreconcilable contradiction” with one another, and there can be no continuity between the actions of one and the actions of the other. [p.641]
If Johnson is descriptively accurate here (I defer to my Barthian friend), then I cannot begin to describe how deeply I disagree with Barth's position. Surely such a hyperbolic and totalizing vision of alienation bears the mark of the Antichrist more fittingly than any version of the analogy of being. A radical equivocity, it seems, is inscribed within this understanding (dare I say deification) of the power of sin, such that any "vindicated" concept of analogy that Barth adopts must in principle bend a knee before it. I cannot abide such worship.

Like his students, Barth believes that Przywara’s account of the analogia entis fails to account for the reality of human sin, because Przywara sees the human relationship with God as a constantly-available feature of human existence that occurs because humans have their created being by participation in God’s being. For Przywara, grace must be seen “doubly”—that is, it must be seen both in God’s act of creation and in God’s act of justification—and this is why he can speak of God’s revelation in creation as standing in continuity with the revelation in the Church that fulfills and perfects it. It is also the reason why he believes that what can be known of God by means of philosophical reflection upon created human existence stands in continuity with what is known through divine revelation in the Church. [p.641]
Here, it seems, Barth- and his students- gets Przywara right. But...
For Barth, however, this construal means that human action stands in continuity with God’s saving action, because what the human can know and do naturally is perfected and fulfilled by what God reveals and does in Jesus Christ. For him, grace cannot be seen “doubly”; it must be viewed strictly in terms of God’s reconciling act in Christ. God’s relationship with humanity, he says, is not a function of “an original endowment” given to the creature in creation, but a “second miracle in addition to the miracle of [the creature’s] own existence”. [p.641]
Again, note that for Catholic theology, God's relationship to humanity expressed in the order of grace is not simply "a function" of "an original endowment" given in the order of creation/nature. It is, as much as Barth's notion, a second miracle genuinely distinct from creation: God's self-revelation in history is not just a different way of reiterating the basic truths of natural theology. The difference implied here is that of an oppositional relationship between the first and second miracles.
In sum: Barth rejects Przywara’s analogia entis because he is unwilling to accept the notion that what we can know of God from God’s act of creation stands in continuity with what we know of God through God’s justifying act in Jesus Christ. This kind of continuity is unacceptable, he believes, because it overlooks the effect of sin. This conclusion stems from Barth’s and Przywara’s divergent views of the nature of divine revelation. For Przywara, God’s revelation in Christ presupposes his revelation in creation, and the former does not cancel out the latter. Conversely, for Barth, revelation is strictly God’s Word to sinners in Jesus Christ. Fallen humans do not retain any natural fitness for a relationship with God, nor do they have anything to contribute to it by virtue of their createdness. Rather, Barth says, they will be “made fit by God for God” as God relates to them in his specific, moment-by-moment, revelation in his Word, received by the power of the Holy Spirit. Any relationship humans have with God, therefore, stems from their justification in Christ alone—not the fact that they are creatures who have
their being by participation in God’s being. [p.642]
As late as Church Dogmatics II/1, Barth has yet to address this problem, because in this volume, he still rejects the notion of an intrinsic analogy between God and the human because he believes it opens the door to the existence of the kind of continuity between God and humanity that prompted him to reject Przywara’s analogia entis. He thus argues in CD II/1 that any analogy must be extrinsic to humans—that is, it does not occur on the basis of something in the human, but rather, it happens to the human in the event of revelation. [p.644].
Barth is right to note that Balthasar signals a kind of "Christological renaissance" (p.642) in Catholic theology (though Balthasar himself found precedents for Barth's Christocentrism among Catholic thinkers of his own generation). Yet if Johnson is right, then Catholics should remain suspect that Barth goes quiet in the face of later, more theological reformulations of the analogia entis (i.e. situating the analogy of being within a more foundational analogy of faith). This is because presumably Barth would only temper his critique if he thought that the reformulations of analogy actually committed their Catholic adherents to a much more totalizing conception of human sin. This is why I think Thomists in general have resisted the attempt to ground the analogia entis in an analogia fidei, and are far less worried about the consequences of the analogy's philosophical pedigree. Surely any version that does accommodate itself to Barth's oppositional view of God's grace and human nature contradicts itself from the get-go: it will ultimately remain a dialectical "No" to humanity masquerading as an analogy of being.

I think this can be seen in Barth's attempt, noted by Johnson, to let an extrinsic analogy (based on justification, or God's covenant election prior to creation) do the work that the analogy of being is meant to do. At the end of the day, it simply can't do that. By refusing to accept an enduring analogy in the very structure of human nature, ontologically speaking, Barth's position denies the very possibility of salvation. If continuity is only established in virtue of an extrinsic relation, something that happens to humanity, everything about man qua man (qua God's creation) remains fundamentally incompatible with God; sin has gone to man's very core and clings so tightly to his essence that corruption- depravity- becomes practically definitional of man. But once you make this move, you can't actually describe God's act of justification as something that happens "to" humanity: such a description would require some principle that remains structurally the same across the two conditions, in virtue of which "fallen man" and "justified man" can both be identified as human. But this is precisely the continuity that Barth's account of sin denies. If sin goes so deep as to destroy any capacity of man for God given in creation, then grace cannot transfigure nature but only destroy it and create something else in its stead. There would be absolutely no ontological continuity between fallen and re-created humanity (the word "re-creation" is even misleading, since it would not even result in the creation of the same thing). This is precisely to deny that God can redeem humanity: all he can do is repeat the gesture of the Flood and destroy my sinful soul, and afterward create an entirely different being in my place (since this time, there can be no ark). This is, however, the gesture God promised never to repeat.

Hence, the traditional Catholic concern to deny that sin goes "all the way down." If it becomes so totalizing as to blur important ontological distinctions, then you actually end up blurring the distinction between the cross of Christ and the waters of chaos. The analogy of being is precisely what allows one to keep those lines from being blurred.

Pax Christi,

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Note on the Spirit's Groaning

When the Spirit prays in us, "intercedes with inexpressible groanings" as we "groan within ourselves" (Rom 8:26, 23), that voice within us crying out "Abba, Father!," I wonder if these groanings are not the echoes of Christ's agony in the garden (Mark 14:36: "He said, 'Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.'"), or even the echoes of His dereliction on the cross, the words of His abandonment reverberating through His Spirit who now resides in us. For is not this Spirit, who was upon Christ in His Passion before being poured out upon all flesh, the one who enables our dying and our rising with Christ; indeed, our co-crucifixion with Him (Gal 2:19-20)? I wonder if the hidden "depths of God," which only the Spirit searches (1 Cor 2:10) include the depths of the Son's abandonment to Godlessness at Golgotha; those depths that endured and swallowed up all the sins of the world- all Godlessness- once and for all.

Pax Christi,

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Let the dead bury the dead"

When I was an undergraduate, studying philosophy at Notre Dame meant studying philosophy in the shadow of Plantinga. While there was (and still is) a strong atheist/agnostic presence in the department, Plantinga's reputation served to drown out the other voices for many of the students already sympathetic to his cause. The Philosophy of Religion classes filled up well in advance of others (not much of a shocker for a school with a roughly 80% Catholic student body and a philosophy requirement for all undergraduates). This meant, however, that I was receiving a steady dose of Analytic philosophy of religion; and ever since my first encounter with it, I've had the unsettling feeling that the game is rigged within the confines of this tradition.

Take philosopher Keith Parson's recent departure from the game and his revelation that "the case for theism" simply doesn't cut it as a respectable philosophical position: it is to philosophy what intelligent design is to biology. In other words, it represents frauduent theory. Richard Amesbury has a nice post on Julia Galef's report on Parson's change of heart (yes, this is a thoroughly recycled piece). Somehow I doubt that this is an altogether unusual occurrence. Indeed, in a tradition in which over 70% of thinkers identify as atheist (and God knows how many identify as agnostic), the serious philosophers of religion seem to me like a sleeper cell that we theists have managed to embed behind enemy lines. In general, I think this a good thing. Yet while I have a profound respect for Plantinga and his kin, and some Analytic philosophers of religion have even convinced me that my innate biases against the Analytic tradition are unfounded (see for instance the interesting work of Michael Rea and Oliver Crisp), I am still plagued with doubts. I still suspect that too many bad genes from "post-metaphysical" Positivism have somehow reproduced their way into the DNA of contemporary discourse and deformed it, if ever so subtly. I suspect that there is something profoundly important lost in translation when this tradition attempts to conform the treasures of the Christian past to its strictures. In short, I worry that what these thinkers most often talk about has at best an ambiguous resemblance to what the Catholic tradition calls "God"; and if in fact it produces what Desmond calls a "counterfeit double," then it is little wonder that Analytic philosophers stop taking God and religion seriously.

I recall a haunting impression that the "versions" of Anselm's and Aquinas's arguments presented to us in their "translated" forms simply missed the point. I read Anthony Kenny on Aquinas and wondered if he was not rather writing about someone entirely different and had simply confused the names. I recall being amazed that my first philosophy teacher (a student of Plantinga's) deemed the arguments for God's simplicity (a Scholastic staple in the West) to be little more than nonsense, no longer philosophically meaningful: God must not only be ontologically distinct from and co-eternal with all his ideas, but he must be bound by them. No voluntarist, I; but I couldn't help thinking the alternatives were the result of conceptual gerrymandering. Once I discovered that the fate of the ontological argument was being decided in a debate about a Great Pumpkin, the whole enterprise of philosophy seemed a banal shade of what it once was.

The small contingent of Thomist philosophers at Notre Dame actually reinforced my suspicions. They spent a great deal of time deciphering for us some of the ways in which contemporary Analytic appropriations were re-constructing a Thomas (and an Anselm) that Thomas himself wouldn't recognize. It became apparent that the Catholic philosophical tradition in general, and Thomism in particular, continued without bowing to the many of the presuppositions that structured contemporary Analytic discourse (the growing project of "Analytical Thomism" being a notable exception). Catholic thinkers seemed either to ignore many of the restrictions set by Analytic orthodoxy, or simply deny its dichotomies; the majority refuse to play by its rules. They have generally resisted the limitations of what counts as philosophy in the Anglo-American scene. Further, Catholic philosophers should (and I think often do) harbor some healthy suspicion of the major current of Analytic philosophy of religion because of its Protestant lineage: "Reformed epistemology" does pay homage to an understanding of faith and reason growing out of Calvin. Some of its foundational principles (like granting God's existence the status of "basic belief") stand in serious tension with the teachings of the most influential Catholic thinkers. Catholics should at least ask about the extent to which one must be committed to fundamentally non-Catholic conceptions of reason in order to fruitfully engage with this strand of Analytic thought.

Simply put, there is always the danger that what these philosophers are talking about is something radically foreign to what the Catholic philosophical tradition is talking about, precisely because the former presupposes judgments on a number of philosophical debates that, for Catholics, are either answered differently or remain open questions. The timeline of conceptual moves that leads to the contemporary Analytic scene is a loaded history, and it is certainly possible that a number of its commitments contribute to an account of God that Catholics would deem "a counterfeit double:" a "God" that inevitably gets confused with one being among beings, constrained by a fundamentally univocal gaze. So I find it difficult to give my blessing to the enterprise of Analytic philosophy of religion as a whole, without doing the painstaking work of genealogy, to determine what in its philosophical history does and does not contribute to a meager and conceptually idolatrous "God." Katherine Keller's comment is one with which, in its general contours, Catholics can certainly agree:

Parsons is making an honorable choice. I just want to whisper, for readers who may feel their hearts sink at the difficulty of persisting these days, so long after "the death of God," as non-atheist thinkers: don't get trapped in the drab premises of this debate! Any theist worth her salt should relinquish "God," if that overwrought monosyllable signifies nothing but the boiled down, literalized, formalized, dogmatically tight and dreary little notion presumed by both the philosophers of religion and by the philosophical atheists alluded to in the article. "All-knowing, all-powerful, all-good", "existing" like some thing among things. Or not. Take heart! Theology is replete with livelier options, all different from each other but all free of that deadening either/or: theopoetic, Tillichian, Whiteheadian, feminist, ecological, relational, deconstructive, postsecular, polydox--even biblical! Not just middle ground, but open terrain! Let the dead bury the dead.

Pax Christi,

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Depoortere on the Death of God

Is the death of God still relevant for theology in our so-called post-secular age, in which even philosophers, once the great adversaries of religion, are now turning to it? I allege that it is. For, have we not all, to some degree, taken on this Protestant way of thinking? Probably, only few Westerners still share the “strong and pervasive sense of the presence of the sacred in the world” of medieval Catholics and it is not very likely that many in the West still experience the world as “one vast organic entity that [is] ultimately grounded in God as its origin and source.” Therefore, even after the so-called end of the end of religion, it remains meaningful to speak about the death of God, namely as a powerful and appealing metaphor for the fate which transcendence suffered under the impact of secularization in the West. When God is said to have died, it means that daily life in the West is most often no longer in touch with the Living One who is, according to the Biblical testimony, the origin and ground of our existence. This makes clear that the death of God is still an important challenge to Christianity. This challenge, moreover, is not merely a matter of an opposition between Christianity and secular modernity. Given the role of Protestantism in bringing about the death of God, the relation between both is much more complex than that...
Frederiek Depoortere, "'God Himself Is Dead': Luther, Hegel, and the Death of God," Philosophy and Theology 19, 1-2; p.192

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Few Notes on Christian Atheism

I must admit that recently I've developed a morbid fascination with the "death of God" theology. And I have yet to determine whether this makes me decidedly unfashionable or, on the contrary, in theological vogue; because I have yet to determine whether the "death of God" movement really burned out after it's short stint in the 1960s limelight, or, in the hands of folks like Žižek (who still holds the limelight), the "death of God" theology is becoming popular again. I'm inclined toward the latter. Hegel and Nietzsche would likely take offense at the suggestion that trying to come to terms theologically with the "death of God" is just the expression of an unsustainable 60s cultural dissidence. As countless "conservative" theologians in the wake of the movement's birth quipped that reports of God's death were greatly exaggerated, I suspect that reports of the death of God's death are equally exaggerated. Many of Altizer's original claims about our epochal condition have indeed proven to be drastically overstated, and the growth of Evangelical Christianity (especially in the third world), the "theological turn" in Continental philosophy, and the rise of analytic philosophy of religion have posed serious challenges to God's supposed bankruptcy in a modern/postmodern world. But Altizer and company have continued to write (prolifically) and hone the least sophisticated aspects of The Gospel of Christian Atheism. There is also the ongoing mini-renaissance in Hegel studies, particularly regarding the religious dimensions of his thought; as well as the explicit confrontation between Milbank's "radically orthodox" approach to analogy and Žižek's own version of the "death of God" theology in Creston Davis's The Monstrosity of Christ. All in all: it seems if we are going to take Boenhoffer seriously (which we clearly do), then we ought to take seriously those who stand, however radically postured, under his banner of "religionless Christianity."

As an ecclesially-minded Catholic, and easily on the analogy side of the dichotomy, there is little on the constructive end of Radical Christianity that I could possibly recommend as substantively true. To its adherents, I will continue to be at best, an anomaly; at worst, the very enemy of the true Christian message. Despite this parting of ways, I am still tempted to give Nietzsche the road. The "death of God" puts a face on a cultural trajectory the effects of which are undeniable. God may indeed have survived the tug-of-war between liberal Protestantism and post-liberalism (especially in Catholic thought, somewhat removed from the Protestant lineage of the "death of God"); but it is clear that atheism, agnosticism, and secularism are more culturally ingrained and conceptually viable than they have ever been in history. And how full the pews are does little to affect this. As Charles Taylor notes, what's distinctive about our secular age is that God is understood to be simply one among many competitors in the marketplace of ideas. And though he has currency in some areas, overall his stock in the west is clearly down. At the intellectual level, the various "theological turns" in contemporary philosophy still frame their works of appropriation and accommodation as so many folds in the fabric of immanence (see, for instance, Derrida's 'religion without religion' or Kearney's 'anatheism'), or as revivals of post-liberal fetishes of transcendence and the retreats into ecclesially exclusive language games (Marion and arguably Barth). Surely the fact that traditional transcendence no longer has a claim to extensive intelligibility is a mark in Nietzsche's favor (as descriptively sound).

I don't of course think this to be the logic of fate- either in Hegelian fashion or in the manner of the now popular narratives of a revived scientism (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al). But one thing I find incredibly important about the "death of God" theology, and for which it ought to be commended, is it's commitment to take the theological voice seriously. D.B. Hart and others have contrasted the fathers of atheist humanism, Nietzsche especially, with the so-called New Atheists. They have bemoaned the ignorance and the dismissiveness of the latter while praising the former as a nobler generation of atheists, deeply acquainted with the theology they opposed. Nietzsche knew how serious a task it was to engage the Christian framework of his time, and despite his hatred for traditional Christianity, the "death of God" nonetheless had the character of a immense crisis for him. Such praise, minimal though it may be, ought it seems to be extended to Nietzsche's theological heirs. The "death of God" theologians believe, even more so than their forefathers, that atheism and secularism can only be understood in terms of a Christian grammar. Nathan Schneider, in an article titled "Could God die again?" (Guardian, Oct.4, 2009), notes well the difference between the "death of God" thinkers and the latest wave of popular atheists:
Unlike some of the prominent atheists of today, these thinkers knew intimately the theology they were attacking. Life after God, they believed, could not move forward without understanding the debt it owed to the religious culture that had gone before. Consequently the movement went far beyond the simplistic, scientistic concept of God common to both contemporary atheists and many of their critics: a cartoonish hypothesis, some kind of all-powerful alien. Altizer spoke of the God of direct experience; van Buren, the God conjured in language; and Cox, the God that arises in the life of societies. These are incisive approaches that, lately, have too often been forgotten in exchange for the caricature.
At the very least, it is hoped that a greater attention to the themes of the "death of God" movement might aid in creating a richer, more sophisticated, more theologically knowledgeable culture of atheism.

Pax Christi,

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ecce Mater

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Below is a piece that I wrote for this occasion a few years back. I'm reposting it mostly because I won't have time to write anything new and I don't want the feast to go unnoticed.

Mater Dolorosa, ora pro nobis

[Today] the Church celebrate[s] the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. It is under this title that Mary was designated patroness of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, so I was able to celebrate the feast consistently during my time at Notre Dame (the Holy Cross priests put on a very nice mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart). I came to identify more and more with this feast and decided that under this title I would have my own devotion to Mary. In short, this feast is particularly meaningful for my spirituality. The Mater Dolorosa has been the primary image I've had of Mary for some time now.

The image of the sorrowful Mary is drawn from passages such as Luke 2:35, wherein Simeon meets the mother and her child at the Temple, and prophesies that the boy would be a sign of opposition causing the rise and fall of many in Israel; and that even Mary's heart will be pierced by a sword. The one who was not to bring peace, but the sword (Matt 10:33-35) did not even spare his mother from its edge. The heart that treasured all of the things of Christ (Luke 2:51) would be split open. Simeon, guided by the Spirit (Luke 2:25) reveals to Mary her own share in Israel's Tribulation.

There is then, of course, John 19: which depicts Mary at the foot of the cross. Here the "beloved disciple" takes the place of Jesus Himself in the familial bond with his mother. Mary, unlike the Eleven (or Ten, if the "beloved" is identified as John), remains with her son as He hangs in agony from a tree, undergoing in Himself the climactic judgment of God upon Israel. The depths of this, I surely cannot fathom. Whereas Hagar exclaimed "Let me not see the child die!" as she turned from the starving Ishmael (Gen 21:16), Mary does not take her eyes off of her dying son, even when He gives up His spirit.

I believe it is here, at the Cross, that Mary shows her true colors. It is where she is at her "most Biblical," in my opinion. In a conversation with a Methodist friend a few weeks ago, I was reminded that the Gospels are not exactly brimming with explicit, dogmatic pronunciations about the Holy Mother of God. There are even passages that seem to cast Mary to the margins: for instance, Matt 12:48 depicts Jesus calling Mary's status as family into question. Who is my mother, he asks (fourth commandment, anyone?!). Yet in John's Gospel, it is at the foot of the cross that Christ confirms Mary as his true mother precisely when He presents her as the mother of His beloved disciple (John 19:25).

I recently read Jon Levenson's fantastic book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. In the last chapter, "The Revisioning of God in the Image of Abraham," Levenson describes beautifully how the Gospels pick up on the ancient Canaanite myths of gods sacrificing their sons and receving them back again; though filtered, as it were, through long-standing Jewish tradition and specifically the famous story of the "binding" of Isaac. John 3:16 recalls the Canaanite trope, but refashioned in the image of Abraham. For as with Abraham, the sacrifice of the beloved son is not a matter of military conquest or survival, but a matter of love:

Here, as in Rom 8:32, the underlying identification of Jesus as the son of God has brought about a refashioning of God in the image of the father who gives his son in sacrifice. The father's gift to God has been transformed into the gift of God the Father.[1]

This got me thinking: it seems that in many ways, the Gospel vision of Mary could be seen as fashioned in the image of Abraham as well. The parallels are by no means perfect, but they are intriguing. Both Abraham and Mary receive promises from God about the miraculous conception of their children in seemingly impossible circumstances. Mary is a virgin, Abraham is a geezer, and Sarah is aged and barren. Both promises speak of the future glory of their children: kings of people will come from Abraham by Sarah (Gen 17:6, 16) and the one born of Mary will be given the throne of David and rule over the house of Jacob with an unending kingdom (Luke 1:32-33). Abraham's reaction of utter disbelief ("Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old ? Andwill Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?"- Gen 17:17) is mirrored by Mary's more moderate response: "How can this be, for I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:34). In either case, the chosen figures are called to trust in the unimaginable power of God: "Is anything beyond YHWH?"(Gen 18:14); "Nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). And both characters come to embody the response of total trust that God will fulfill His promises: Abraham's "Here I am" (Gen 22:1) and Mary's "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord..." (Luke 1:38).

If such parallels point to a common trope, then it follows that Mary's experience at the cross can be read in terms of Abraham's call to offer his "beloved son" as a sacrifice. In Genesis, God has attempted a new means of spreading His primal blessing to the world of His creation: election. Abraham was chosen as the vehicle of God's blessing to all of the nations. In a very real sense, God has taken a risk: the blessing of all of creation depends upon the faithfulness of Abraham to his God. In this context, the story of the aqedah or binding of Isaac becomes the supreme test of Abraham's covenant-fidelity (Gen 22:1). God is commanding Abraham to bleed and burn the "only" son whom God has promised as the future of Abraham's line and glory. To both slaughter his child and believe that the promise will come true nonetheless requires the boundless faith in nothing less than this: that nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond the power of YHWH. Abraham thus proves his faith to God, proves that he is "in awe of God" (Gen 22:12), by raising his hand against his son and truly offering him as a sacrifice; and God is able to save the child's life, returning him to his father "resurrected," as it were. God then emphatically reaffirms that he has made the right choice with this man, and reestablishes him as the vessel of blessing and future glory (Gen 22:16-18).

What then of Mary's faithfulness to the promises given her? Much like in Abraham's case, the situation presented by God is practically unthinkable. God had assured Mary that her only, beloved son would reign on the throne of Israel and His Kingdom would never fall. Yet this same son hangs before her with flesh beatern and torn, dying the death of a criminal alongside criminals. It is almost a sick joke on God's part: the throne he promised turns out to be a cross and the crown that was to be Jesus' is laced with thorns. The INRI rests above his head in the ultimate irony. If Mary is then to watch her son die and still believe that God will make good on His promise, she can do nothing short of believing this: that nothing is impossible for God.

We might then see Mary's place at the crucifixion as a trial similar to that of the aqedah, in which she too is faced with the sacrifice of her only son and must not "withold"Him from God (Gen 22:12), but rather give Him up (as God Himself does). Granted, in contrast to the story of Abraham, Mary is not actually performing the sacrifice of her child. There was little Mary could have done about the crucifixion. And yet, the scene can still be described as a testing of Mary's faithfulness to God's promise and His plan for her. This, it seems, is what Simeon meant when he told her that her heart would be pierced: the passage speaks of the sword as an instrument of judgment or testing, something that reveals what is truly in the heart. In seeing her only son suffer and die, God is testing her heart as if dissecting it with a sword. Christ taught that He would not be ashamed of those who were not ashamed of Him when he came in His Glory (Luke 9:26); the Apostles were ashamed and abandoned him. Yet Mary was not ashamed. Christ taught that only those who do the will of God are His brothers and His mother; His so-called brothers hid themselves from His face like Adam and Eve hid from the face of God (Gen 3:8). Yet Mary remained face-to-face with Him and thereby enacted her trust that God was not mistaken about her son. Mary's presence signaled her trust that, against all appearances, the cross did not prove Jesus' kingship impossible. She thereby, like Abraham, enacted her faithfulness, fulfilling the pledge of trust she made when God's promise was proclaimed to her. In a very real sense, she does the will of God for her: and it is thus only at the cross that Mary proves herself to be the mother of Christ.

Yet Abraham was stopped short of killing his son. His faith only had to stretch so far. Mary's, on the other hand, was called to prove itself even in the face of her son's death! He not only suffered humiliation and defeat, but succumbed to death! How great her trust had to be! And miraculously, it is rewarded: just as Abraham received His son back and his vocation as the vehicle of blessing was reaffirmed, so too does Mary receive her son back to life anew. Resurrected, the promise of God is fulfilled when Christ ascends to the throne of God.

The sorrows of Mary's passion, I believe, are therefore of great import. I think it is in this sense that we are called to a Marian spirituality in the Church: a call that is at the same time the fulfillment of that covenant-faith, that reckless trust in God, that began with Abraham. Through Mary's faithfulness, the blessings of Christ extend to the whole world. We as members of the new covenant are called to enact the same radical fidelity to the promises God has given us. We are, in this sense, called to live our lives from the Cross. Even our theology is meant to be, in this sense, Marian in nature. Henri de Lubac describes all theology as Theologia a Cruce: theology from the cross: "For it is the Cross which disperses the cloud which until then is hiding the truth."[2] The space which we are called to occupy is that of Mary at the foot of the cross, in her sorrow. For that is simply to embody the kind of faithfulness that God the Father Himself lived out in sacrificing His Son for the love of the world. Here, Mary is transparent to God: she is the way to imitating Him. And if we can embody that nearly senseless trust in God, we will receive the Son back again, resurrected and fulfilling the promises that God has made to all Christians. As the "beloved disciple" can be seen as the ideal disciple of Christ, John is showing us precisely where we are to receive Mary as our mother.

Our Lady of Sorrows represents for me a Mariology that is truly Scriptural and, well, truly true.

May she pray for us all, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ...

Pax Christi,

[1] Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993); p.225

[2] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sr. Elizabeth Englund, OCD (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988); p.179

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Empire Strikes Back

It seems there's not a single uncontroversial bone in Milbank's body. His recent piece over on the ABC Religion and Ethics site ("Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Islam") has caused quite a stir in the blogosphere and, in a rare feat of ecumenism, he's managed to unite theologians of all stripes in a common outrage. Here Milbank's cultural prejudices are on full display and they all but beg for the critical lashing they've received on the blogs.

The entire piece strikes me as odd: Milbank aligning Christianity with the Enlightenment under any pretext? Parsing mystical Islam and political Islam in the puzzling way he does, when elsewhere he insists that to view any religion as less than a "social project" is to concede too much ground to modern liberalism? But of course the real beef concerns the optimistic view of western colonialism that seems to shine through. After chastising those who ignore the violent and repressive streak in political Islam, he concludes:
The proper response to our present, seemingly incommensurable tensions is not to gloss over or seek to rehabilitate the past in such a dishonest way, but to analyse why exactly Islam has largely taken such a dangerous, non-mystical and often political direction in recent times.

This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires (as a consequence of the European wars) and the subsequent failure of Third World national development projects, with the connivance of neo-colonial, purely economic exploitation of poorer countries.

Political Islam offers itself as a new international, but non-colonial, vehicle for Third World identity. Unfortunately, it also perpetuates over-simplistic accounts of the imperial past and fosters a spirit of resentful rather than self-sustaining and creative response to the ravages of Western capitalism.

This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of Milbank's prudence. The postmodern side of him has always stressed that there only are particular narratives and traditions. Yet he is surprisingly comfortable with overly-generalized concepts ("the East," "the West," etc.) that appear more at home in reductive sociological discourse than in theology; the kinds of concepts post-colonial scholars both have in their cross-hairs and, ironically, employ all of the time. These few paragraphs put the question in stark relief: to what extent does Milbank exhibit dangerous colonialist tendencies?

First the "good news." The majority of the essay is chock-full of the kinds of qualifications I'm not used to seeing in Milbank's work: he has at least tried to make his sweeping claims less sweeping, avoiding "monolithic" characterization and citing "significant minorities." And as Skholiast has noted, Milbank is not arguing that the Western colonial empires should never have fallen; but, if we are to read him with a dash of charity, he seems to think that things would have been better for everybody had the empires collapsed more gradually. And he does get some points for explicitly denouncing the economic exploitation of "neo-colonialism." It would be a leap indeed to claim that Milbank is calling for a new era of empire.

But here's the "bad news." Milbank's emphasis is troubling to say the least. Where he explicitly mentions imperialism elsewhere, he almost always adopts a suspiciously apologetic tone: he is far more worried about empire not getting its proper due from overzealous post-colonial types than he is about, say, denouncing the hell out of its manifest sins. The brand of colonialism associated with modern capitalism gets plenty of negative attention, but his rhetoric makes it sound as though he longs for the traditional colonial powers. Of course the history of empire is a complicated affair, but isn't all of this about as helpful as saying Stalin wasn't that bad compared to Hitler? Milbank also prefers the rather cavalier idiom of providence when describing "the West" and its cultural formations; an idiom that all Christians should find themselves hesitant to invoke when judging an institution or a history so burdened with its crimes.

Adam Kotsko's criticisms are on target, I think. Adam brings up three compelling counterpoints to challenge the wisdom of Milbank's judgments. Tim McGee's comments are also helpful. In particular Tim reminds us why we shouldn't be terribly surprised by this kind of thing: when one looks at some of his earlier political writings, things start to look bleak for Milbank. One can trace this attitude back to his 1990 essay, "The End of Dialogue," republished in the collection The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (Eugene: Cascade, 2009). Tim was a classmate of mine in J. Kameron Carter's course on Radical Orthodoxy and post-colonialism, in which we were exposed to the scaffolding of Carter's critique of Milbank. I've expressed reservations about Carter's approach, mostly due to what I perceive to be an uncritical appropriation of genealogy (ala Foucault) in service of his deconstructive reading. The hermeneutical principles that Carter offered pose problems not only for basic Christian doctrinal commitments, but also for any privileged perspective of critique supposedly immune from the same kind of deconstruction (the will-to-power does not discriminate). This also brought with it an inadequate view of the relation between theory and praxis: such that Milbank could "say" everything right "up-here" while nonetheless reducing all of his correct dogma and metaphysics to tools of an independent will-to-power "down here" (as will-to-re-colonize). Long story short, I believe the class fostered an environment in which minds were already and too easily made-up. Students often felt safe to offer rather bold and dismissive claims, comfortably abstracted from close textual analysis. My first impression of the experience was not unlike watching a farcical witch hunt: "We did do the nose...but he is a witch!!!" However I am grateful to Carter for forcing me to reflect on Milbank's attitude toward empire. One of Carter's most illuminating points is that colonialism arose with and depended upon a particular theological discourse. One need only to look at the writings of John Major or Gines de Sepulveda to find a perverse theological justification for the enslavement of the Indies (a justification against which Montesino, las Casas, and the other Dominicans of Hispaniola had to fight so ardently). It is to Christianity's potential for such abuse, and its actual abuse in history, that Milbank seems so dangerously inattentive.

In "The End of Dialogue," Milbank stresses the essential nature of Christianity's "ecclesial project," uniquely understanding itself as an international society with "deterritorializing" effects for the men, women, and children that it accepts as equal members (286). However, he also claims that "all the major religions are associated in one way or another with the 'imperial,' nomadic ventures of the Indo-European peoples" (288). Imperialism is, like the kind of universalization associated with the Christian polis, a deterritorializing phenomenon. While Milbank notes that empires tend to enshrine power "in the natural order, or in principles" and thereby create a more effective and stable brand of tyranny, he nonetheless stresses that "most empires are ambiguous rather than sheerly deplorable" (288). He also includes an odd and manifestly reductive genealogy of the fundamental difference that makes "the West" and "the East" culturally incommensurable (all in three pages!). This of course translates into two different views of religio-political power and thus two different kinds of empire: because the East has an essentially arbitrary understanding of divine and regal power, it has no resources within itself to regulate or redeem its imperial strain; but for the West, justice and the Good "are themselves the vehicles of Western imperialism." And while the latter may occasionally don the mask of domination, at the very least the Western type can (theoretically) produce an internal cultural critique (295). Hence, the antidote to the Western abuse of power can only come from within Western culture itself. Further, because the idea of an "essential Christianity" free from all cultural attachments is a myth, a non-Western cultural expression of Christianity "is just nonsensical" (292). This seems to account for both why Milbank would be relatively disinclined to listen to voices outside of the West and why it seems unavoidable for him that conversion to the Gospel will necessitate conversion to a particularly Western cultural formation. In this piece, then, one can see the foundation of Milbank's "East-West" dichotomy in "Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Islam," which somehow takes precedent over the more conventional Milbankian dichotomy of "Christianity-Modernity"

Following Tim's insight, one can also trace some of Milbank's points back to his 2002 essay, "Sovereignty, Empire, Capital, and Terror" (also republished in The Future of Love). Here again he calls out the capitalistic neo-colonialism of Britain and the US, but he can't resist contrasting this to the relative virtues of the old empires. For some reason the problem with the new colonialism that demands our attention is the uniformity it imposes. At least the "older European imperialism held the other at a subordinated distance, permitting its otherness..." -thank God for that-"even while subordinating it for the sake of an exploitation of natural and human resources." He's also concerned to note the nuances overlooked by "pseudo-left-wing American 'postcolonial' discourses"(226). I have little doubt the pseudo-left-wingers miss all kinds of nuances, but is it really necessary to apologize for traditional imperialism in order to get the point across?

This same essay provides some clues to Milbank's take on Islam. In the course of just a few pages, Milbank manages to present the Cartesian turn to the subject, "the idea of knowledge as detached representation of spatialized objects," and Milbank's greatest enemy- the univocity of being- as Oriental ideas derived from Avicenna. Medieval Islam was the "crucible" in which "protomodern ideas concerning subjectivity were forged and then handed over to the West." A "common culture of mystical philosophy and theology, focused around analogy and ontological participation- which has also tended to favor social participation- was rendered impossible" (230). To put it bluntly, the central ideas of modernity and the downfall of analogy were conditions contracted from the East. As was, it turns out, the arbitrary conception of absolute power that Milbank identified as a characteristic feature of Eastern understanding in "The End of Dialogue"(linking the absolute will of the Caliph and the will of Allah in Sunni Islam). He contrasts this with a "shared mystical outlook" in Shi'ite and Sufistic alternatives; explaining why he judges that Islam needs to go in a mystical direction if it wants to avoid extremism. Apart from eventually adopting the germ of modernity from Oriental thought, the West gets away pretty unscathed in this story; contributing to the impression that Milbank has a stake in narrating a purified history of Western culture (even in its empires).

As I've mentioned, I think there are problems going the route initially suggested by Carter, because a critique based on will-to-power just opens a pandora's box of other problems while risking some pretty serious hermeneutical mistakes. One need not open that box to effectively critique this aspect of Milbank's thought. I find Oliver Davies' criticisms the most illuminating thus far ("Revelation and the Politics of Culture: A Critical Assessment of the Theology of John Milbank" in Radical Orthodoxy?-A Catholic Enquiry, ed. Laurence Paul Hemming (Burlington: Ashgate, 2000)). Davies challenges Milbank's internal consistency: in effect, Milbank leaves himself open to the kind of tendency I've been talking about by not being Radically Orthodox enough. Uncritically adopting too much from 20th century postmodernism, Milbank (to use his own characterizations) lets in too much paganism and too much heresy. Davies notes that in his early work Milbank actually champions certain postmodern dogmas as the delayed realizations of Christian Revelation; including the redefinition of truth as persuasive power and a deep commitment to narrative incommensurability (so deep that he finds himself incommensurable with MacIntyre towards the end of TST). Davies argues that these two commitments in particular conflict with the narration of Milbank's "ontology of peace." "Incommensurability licenses a polemical and oppositional view of narrativity, setting the Christian story over and against alternative narratives." In short, Milbank severely limits the ways in which any narrative can express itself peacefully as the space in which all narratives find their fulfillment. It seems any narrative claiming the kind of privilege that Christianity does would have to appear imperialistic. Further, when Christianity must subsist as an exercise of persuasiveness, it becomes difficult to distinguish between Gospel and ideology; that is, "if conversion is the sole or chief criterion." "And how are we to judge whether conversion is deeper than the rehearsal of a narrative which in some societies has been a near universal form of cultural practice?" Rhetoric and persuasion, even masquerading as peaceful, can serve as the consummate manifestations of privilege and power (116). Davies concludes the point nicely:
Although there are also important rhetorics of asceticism, liberation and detachment within our society, the uncritical alignment of Chrsitianity and ideology through the epistemology of bare-fisted rhetoric will inevitably pose the question of whether the uncritical alliance of Christianity and "radical incommensurability" might not result precisely from a failure to interrogate the philosophical underpinnings of Radical Orthodoxy in the light of the non-coercive and empowering dispositions of the Gospel (116-117).
I find this approach helpful because it does not grant that Milbank checks-out on the level of theory and only fails on the detached level of praxis. It has the benefit of linking practical consequences to apparent inconsistencies in his philosophical appropriation.

Just my two cents. Would love to hear what people think.

Pax Christi,

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Prayer of the Spirit

Because the Holy Spirit prays in me (Romans 8:16, 26), there will always be an infinite excess about my prayer. The limits of every utterance, the finite shape of every word, the very boundaries of time that bind as each thought or image comes before me and carries a fraction of my conscious prayer before passing away; all of these aspects (merely) reflect, at an analogical distance, the eternally perfect Prayer of the Spirit in me- that Prayer which is His very relation in the Trinity (His eternally joyous "Alleluia" to Father and Son). Every word or image that necessarily informs and yet limits my prayer is infused with an infinitely greater meaning than it could ever bear on its own as the product of creaturely expression. More is always uttered in the Spirit's groaning; because behind (or rather within) every utterance there is the already overdetermined, already overflowing, already perfected Prayer that the Spirit IS. His Prayer is a gushing well, never exhausted, never exhaustible- and thus always impelling and inspiring more varied and beautiful praises from my lips. It is as though my prayer is never simply my prayer; it is as though my own prayer is unnecessary, a completely excessive, ornamental furnishing; an addendum that is simply a new intonation, a new play on the Spirit's Prayer. And thus it can never really fail: no prayer of the heart can ever fall short due to finitude alone. Because, objectively speaking, it is pure garnish. At the same time it is an excessiveness that is somehow my own- it is my appropriation of the Spirit's eternal Triune merrymaking. In that sense, my very being demands it as destiny and as my highest act.

One can fail to pray only when one has emptied himself or herself of love; for the Holy Spirit is love, and without the Spirit, one's prayer to the Father will be haunted and ultimately crushed by the infinite discrepancy between His Glory and the creature's incapacity to praise it. Our prayer can only do justice to God if it is the prayer of God Himself; and it can only do justice to us if it is somehow our very own.

Pax Christi,

Schindler on Dramatic Form

D.C. Schindler makes a profound connection that may be obvious to readers of Balthasar (as it makes clear the transition from the aesthetics of Herrlichkeit to the dramatics of the Theodramatik), but it certainly struck me in its simplicity: even in the first systematic considerations of vol. 1 of the aesthetics, the contours of a dramatics can be intimated.

Balthasar's later, "aesthetic" use of the term Gestalt includes but goes beyond the relationship to personality, since it determines the more general, fundamental phenomenon of the appearing of any being at all. Nevertheless, he retains to the end a dramatic sense of form, even if the term dramatic receives more analogous application. As Balthasar employs the term in the opening volume of his trilogy, first published in 1961, Gestalt designates not an inert thing in relation solely to itself, but essentially a movement that already possesses in itself a tension. Gestalt is the appearing of the depths of a thing's being and as such has a twofold nature. This polarity, moreover, finds expression in the classical articulation of the beautiful as the inseparable instance of species (or forma) and lumen (or splendor). On the one hand, we have the hidden depths that appear, and on the other, we have the appearance of those depths...As such, it is not a static entity that may then be set in motion or inserted into a larger movement, but it is rather the "structurality" of event.


Finally, the fact that a Gestalt appears means that the phenomenon necessarily includes a subject-object tension, since every appearing implies an appearing-to or -for. We can see that this aspect also sets in relief the essential "event" character of every Gestalt, insofar as it does not exist except in the encounter between a subject and an object. The "twofold," or polar, structure of Gestalt (as appearance [1] of depths [2]) is reflected in the twofold structure of the encounter: on the one hand, the object is seen (appearance); on the other, the seer is transported (toward the depths). The movement inherent in the object in its act of expressing its depths is, in other words, met by the movement of the beholding subject, and this interaction of movements gives rise to a situation that is clearly analogous to the encounter of figures in a drama.


For truth to "occur," then, the subject cannot merely take the object into the mind, but must come out ecstatically to meet the object within this greater whole: hence, the dramatic structure of consciousness...Likewise, if truth is to be an encounter with a positive other, and not merely the assimilation of a "lifeless" object, being itself must possess its own inherent mystery and spontaneity: hence, the dramatic structure of being...

D.C. Schindler, Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Dramatic Structure of Truth: a Philosophical Investigation, (New York: Forham University Press, 2004), pp. 15, 16, 26.

Pax Christi,