The theological significance of the recent events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa can hardly be predicted. Nevertheless, from afar, and with only the knowledge that is available on mainstream U.S. media sources (NPR, the New York Times, etc.), I have found myself beginning to ponder this question. I offer here only a few hesitant and inchoate thoughts:
1.) Political revolution is not a thing of the past. It remains, in many regions of the world, a focal point of practical consideration and collective action. To the extent, therefore, that those of us working in theology employ, from time to time, a sort of revolutionary rhetoric–e.g., by invoking a radical disruption in or transformation of history–the recent events (reverberating from Tunisia) might remind us that these tropes do not only function as intellectually sexy fictions of postmodernity but also pertain to very real, in some respects deeply ambiguous, and yet nevertheless hope-filled events, affecting countless lives, for better or worse.
2.) There is a question of secularization. On the one hand, this process has been bemoaned by many Christian thinkers in the West, who would like to revive some sort of theo-political synthesis, whether this is best represented by medieval Christendom or by pre-Constantian forms of Christian society. On the other hand, however, there is a persistent–to some extent orientalist, racialized, overgeneralized, and to that extent unjust, but not for all that entirely groundless–fear of Islam, which seems no less prevalent among Christians than non-Christians in the North Atlantic world. For those who would desire a closer alignment of theology and politics, the Middle Eastern and North African context could prove difficult to assess. There is the possibility of thinking revolution as a profoundly Jewish and Christian idea (stemming from the prophetic, messianic, and apocalyptic themes in scripture). Nevertheless, at some level, there could be a choice to make between greater fidelity to a religious political culture (largely shaped by Islam) and a secularizing vision of pluralistic democracy.
3.) The poor are still with us. Jesus’ words (Mt 26:11) should not be consoling. That they constitute an accurate prediction does nothing to exonerate centuries of greed and indifference. The question, though, is how best theology can serve the poor, whose misery remains a powerful motivation for political upheaval. This is the question which gave rise to various movements of liberation theology in the twentieth-century. To what will it give rise in the present?
In 2005, Slavoj Zizek contributed an essay to a volume entitled The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology. The essay was called “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence.” In it, he offers what could be (or could have been) a very important corrective of Levinas’ ethical and political thought. And yet, the argument ultimately falls apart both because of, and in spite of, Hegel. Let me try to explain.
First, the genuine potential: Zizek argues, promisingly, that Levinas’ deferral of politics (i.e., institutions of justice and the countless others which they represent apart from face-to-face encounter) to a moment subsequent to ethics (i.e., the relation of responsibility which is mediated by the face-to-face encounter) is too neat. In short, phenomenologically, “the Third [the abstract, political alterity of law] is not secondary; it is always already here . . . ” (182).
But in addition to affirming the equiprimordiality of ethics and politics, Zizek corrects Levinas in another important way, by recalling Primo Levi’s repeated use of the term “faceless” to describe the Muselmaenner who have become symbolic of the powerful dehumanization wrought by the Shoah (161). There is a sense in which ethics cannot always rely on an encounter with a face that is immediately disclosive of humanity. Or, in Zizek’s words, “what if it is precisely in the guise of the ‘faceless’ face of a Muselmann that we encounter the Other’s call at its purest and most radical? . . . . What if . . . we restore to the Levinasian ‘face’ all its monstrosity: face is not a harmonious Whole of the dazzling epiphany of a ‘human face,’ face is something the glimpse of which we get when we stumble upon a grotesquely distorted face, a face in the grip of a disgusting tic or grimace, a face which, precisely, confronts us when the neighbor ‘loses his face’” (162)? One could easily read this passage in conjunction with Flannery O’Connor’s use of the grotesque, in stories such as “The Temple of the Holy Ghost.”
And yet, Zizek seems to take a false turn, both by following Hegel too closely and by not following him enough. In the first place, Zizek, like Hegel, sublates Jewish and Christian thought into a modern philosophical narrative which reduces them to sequential, provisional, dialectically positioned stages of a historical progression of spirit (187-8). Secondly, and perhaps even more problematically, Zizek departs from the Hegelian methodological principle of “speculative identity,” which Zizek himself endorses (187), in order to posit a rootless (and ruthless) justice which is liberated from its “contingent umbilical link that renders it ‘embedded’ in a particular situation” (184). Somehow, Zizek thinks it is okay to promote a massively abstract dualism between universal justice and particularly rooted justice, which Hegel’s principle by no means allows. In short, Zizek appropriates the problematic narrative structure of Hegel, while rejecting, in one crucial instance, something which Hegel actually seems to get right: namely, that justice is necessarily embodied in and shaped by the concrete forms of community.
Ultimately, it seems one could correct Levinas in certain respects, as Zizek does, without following him along these more unsavory paths.
If we were only to take account of God’s proviso, without also considering the specific content of belief in God, above all Christian belief in God, oriented on Jesus of Nazareth, the eschatological proviso could have a very reactionary function, to man’s detriment. For God’s proviso lies over all our human history and over everything that man brings to fruition in it. All political options are made relative by it. But that also means that if this real aspect of the revelation of God is taken in isolation, without considering what has come about for us in Jesus, this eschatological proviso can relativize any secular activity in such a way that both a conservative policy and a socialist policy demanding more justice for all can be neutralized in the same way. In that case Christian faith would not only desacralize politics and rob it of the threat that it might become absolute – which is the special justification and significance of the eschatological proviso or the freedom of God’s divinity – but of itself it would not be able to give any inspiration, still less any orientation (pointing in one particular direction) in the choice of a social and economic policy to further growing humanity and a realizable state of human well-being…a merely formal use of the eschatological proviso would simply throttle the humanitarian impulse which is present in liberation movements.
Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, 777-778
My earlier posts on Tanner’s new book can be found here. This final post looks at the relationship between Trinity and Politics. What got me thinking about this was a statement by a friend. This person was asked how he is able to balance his commitment to the poor and his position as a professor (not at Notre Dame). He gave an example: he was asked to teach a course on the Trinity but said no since this did not fit with his focus on shaping his students towards serving the poor and their liberation. This answer raised two basic questions in my mind: 1) for someone who is principally focused on the liberation of the poor, is it contrary to this focus to take time and teach topics like the Trinity (if one is competent to do so)? 2) Is the Trinity really so apolitical?
The first question is particularly complex and personal. Clearly the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be sealed off from a concern for liberation without creating a schizophrenia in our faith as we confess that God is triune and makes an option for the poor (or that we relate to God as triune and to humanity with our option for the poor). As Tanner argues in the introduction to Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, it is a task of systematic theology to show how different elements fit together coherently within a conception of the whole of the Christian life and faith. This leads directly to the second question. A common contemporary way of bringing together the Trinity and politics is to appeal to the Trinity as a model for communitarian life. I summarized Tanner’s critique of this in my second synopsis post (ch.5). Tanner insists that we image the 2nd person of the Trinity primarily and the whole Trinity only in that we image the Word’s relation to the other persons of the Trinity (Christ the Key, 141). Through the humanity of Jesus, our lives are remade into the image of the Trinity in that we are united to the Word by the presence of the Holy Spirit (235).
But what does this have to do with politics? Tanner’s primary answer is that our trinitarian form of life toward others is shown in the way Jesus treated others (in his trinitarian form of life as hypostatically united to the Word) (236-237). I find Tanner’s analysis compelling. We enter the Trinity and image the Trinity through the second person of the Trinity and, properly understood, this cannot be cut off from political and concrete action. Yet I would push Tanner on two further points. First, she emphasizes that the Son and Spirit are sent and interdependently work to unite us to God. A different but equally valid image is that they are sent to bring about God’s Kingdom. Thus I think we could connect our trinitarian form of life more explicitly to this Kingdom than Tanner tends to do. Second, certain formal principles can be gathered from the divine life and applied to human communion even if one rejects the overall appeal to the Trinity as a model for communitarian life. For example, the Trinity shows the positivity of otherness. Creaturely otherness (vis-a-vis each other and God) is grounded in the eternal otherness within God. The good of otherness, of course, needs to be complemented by more concrete principles (such as Tanner’s focus on the concrete life of Jesus) but it contributes something nonetheless.
Chapter 4: Trinitarian life
In her longest chapter, Tanner reflects upon the Trinity using the following principle: ”Because he is the Word, Jesus Christ displays in his human life the relationships that the Word has to the other members of the Trinity” (140). She argues for a general two-fold movement in the economy: 1) The Word and Spirit are sent out by the Father for our benefit; they descend into the world of sin and death. 2) having accomplished their mission, they ascend to the Father with us. Within this movement, the Son and Spirit are interdependent. The Son sends the Spirit to us. Yet, the Spirit prepares the way for the incarnation, dwells in and guides Jesus, and is the transformative power at the Eucharist. This interdependence is seen with us as well: ”The Son brings the Spirit to us as a power of new life; the Spirit conforms us to the shape or pattern of the Son” (161). Tanner then moves from this analysis to the inner life of God: the Son and Spirit are interdependent in their emergence from the Father. ”The Son is responsible simply for giving shape to the Spirit as it emerges from the Father…the Spirit is the love or power of the Father by which the Son is drawn out of the Father to be the perfect manifestation of all that the Father is” (192-193). Other arguments in the chapter are important (i.e. her reading of Jesus’ obedience; our entrance into the Trinitarian relations through the Son; sacraments; our mission in Christ) but the economic and imminent interdependence of Word and Spirit is most central.
Chapter 5: Politics
Tanner argues strongly against various political readings of the Trinity. First, monotheism does not necessarily lead to authoritarian politics (see her The Politics of God). Second, trinitarian thinking does not necessarily lead to egalitarian politics. Finally, appeals to the Trinity for structuring human communities (Zizioulas, Boff, LaCugna) do not take the radical difference between God and us seriously enough (see Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, p.82f for this argument in brief). They also often appeal to images (perfect reciprocity) which are not exhibited in the economy (where two are sent and one is not) and can emphasize the communion of persons to an extent that verges on tri-theism. What we have here is the project of one’s politics onto the Trinity. Tanner counters that we are to be incorporated into the Trinity rather than model it. We enter into the divine life in the place of the Son. United to the Son, we are to relate to the Father and Spirit as Jesus did. In terms of politics, we are to relate to others as Jesus related to others: “Jesus’ way of life toward other people as we share in it is the trinitarian form of human social life” (237). At various points in the chapter she also engages questions of Trinity and gender.
Chapter 6: Death and Sacrifice
This chapter is Tanner’s theology of the cross. Here she develops her critique of atonement theologies of satisfaction, sacrifice, and substitution made very briefly in Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity p. 29. In the earlier work her appeal to feminist and womanist theologies is quite jarring. Here she gives this appeal greater context and defends it more thoroughly. The center of ch. 6 is an argument for an incarnational model of the atonement. Salvation comes primarily through the very assumption of our humanity by the Word of God. In virtue of the Word’s union with the humanity of Jesus, humanity is renewed. Thus, she argues that the primary meaning of “atonement” is “at-one-ment,” undercutting various legal or contractual models for the cross (256). The meaning of the cross is found within the overall meaning of incarnation. The Word assumes fallen humanity and “if the powers of the Word are to reach humanity suffering under the forces of sin and death,” the incarnation will include at-one-ment on the cross (257). We are saved by the union of the Word with the humanity of Jesus which reworks humanity over the process of his life, including his death on the cross.
Chapter 7: The Working of the Spirit
In the final chapter Tanner contrasts two understandings of the working of the Spirit in modern Christianity: 1) the Spirit works immediately, directly, and exceptionally, often in the interior depths of the human person, and ensuring infallible certainty of religious insight; 2) the Spirit works gradually, through fallible human beings, without final resolution, and within the messy processes of ordinary life. Although she does highlight certain benefits of the first view (it can be subversive to entrenched, oppressive authorities), she argues strongly for the second. She builds upon her view of a “non-constrastive” divine/human relation in God and Creation : “there is no reason to think that God is working more the less we are” (280; 296). God works within our finitude and within contextual, fallible truths; divine agency does not remove the finite character of our acts. This also has a progressive political potential: it would “loosen up” religious authority by bringing greater flexibility and openness to change (291 – the first view may be prophetic but is entirely inflexible). Consistent with the entire book, the Spirit works within us to reshape, reform, and empower our whole existence, not to override it in moments of miraculous revelation.