Archive for January, 2010

Derrida is not a theologian

January 31, 2010 1 comment

Jacques Derrida is not a theologian, at least not a Christian one.  Or if he is a Christian theologian, he is so only to the extent that virtually any thinker in the Western world embraces this vocation simply by speaking the residual languages of Latin Christendom.  But the point is this: if one wants to know what it means to be Christian, look to Christ, not Derrida.  Read the gospels, not Acts of Religion.

And yet, Derrida is a thinker.  There ought to be real theological respect for his perceptive and critical mind.  However, this does not mean unquestioning obedience to his every word, as though he were a definitive source (I’m thinking, here, of Caputo).  Granted, one could look to Derrida as a figure of the prophetic, messianic, and apophatic dimensions of Judeo-Christian tradition.  Like Kierkegaard, he is attentive to the singular obligations which emanate from the other; like Kant, his reflections take place within the horizon of a promise; like Pseudo-Dionysius, he pursues thought to places or non-places beyond being.  But tracking Derrida along these lines is interesting theologically only to the extent that one recognizes the idiosyncratic and atheological ways in which he reconfigures them for use in secular culture.

But what seems more fruitful than Derrida’s positive, secular doublets (which would have to be retheologized anyway, in any finally theological analysis), is the critical light which Derrida shines on a globalizing Christian culture, which, from my perspective, could stand to be a little more self-critical.  For example, Derrida’s contention against Jean-Luc Marion that the Areopagite has not altogether left metaphysics (and the political structures which it supports) behind is something to consider.

Thus, although he is not a theologian, I like Derrida, and I like reading him, and this is why: because, as he himself suggests, the other can teach us important things about ourselves.

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Indeterminate rights

January 28, 2010 6 comments

For a class covering some recent moral philosophy, I just finished reading Onora O’Neill’s Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning—a good book, not stunning, but clear and provocative. There was one argument in particular that I was surprised to find rather compelling: with respect to the structure of ethical principles, we should give priority to principles of obligation rather than to principles of rights.

On the whole, I find the polemic against rights-talk that’s gotten so popular over the past few decades to be really annoying. I don’t buy that it encourages individualism, or casts everyone as victims, or underdetermines moral action in some disastrous way (on the contrary, its indeterminacy is its strength). But O’Neill’s argument was of a different kind, I think. The issue wasn’t that rights-talk was inherently defective in any way, and certainly not that it hid the kernel of some insidious late-medieval ideology of individualism. The issue was rather the scope of moral concern. We can use the language of rights when we’re talking about goods owed to certain people. This is the domain where rights and obligations coincide: whenever someone has a determinate right to claim something from me, I have a corresponding obligation to provide it. O’Neill calls these “perfect obligations.” But there are also goods required of us that are not owed to anyone in particular. For O’Neill, this is the domain of the virtues: kindness, honesty, compassion, sympathy, etc., are in one way another obligations (for reasons she tries to identify), but nobody has any right to them. The problem with rights-talk is just that it has no way of speaking of these latter, “imperfect” obligations–which is part of the reason that people focused on universal human rights have frequently had to dismiss the virtues as relevant to moral consideration.

I find this pretty convincing. My one problem is that O’Neill seems to think this renders rights-talk unnecessary, except maybe when they work better politically (they have more “charm,” she says). But that underestimates the intrinsic power of the indeterminacy of certain appeals to human rights. Appeals to practically non-existent rights—Haitians’ right to clean water or food, the right to shelter for the homeless, dissidents’ right to free assembly, etc.—imposes no determinate obligation on any determinate agent, but nonetheless name something that is in fact owed to the set of people in question. If the virtues identify a set of goods required but not owed to anyone in particular, human rights identify a set of goods owed but not required of anyone in particular. The indeterminacy of rights-appeals therefore have the effect of implicating all capable agents in a kind of collective responsibility that has real moral force for the individual.

Posted by Brian Hamilton

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Ignatian meditation and phenomenological theology

January 27, 2010 2 comments

I recently read through Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.  I did so much too quickly:  I spent a few hours rather than the prescribed four weeks.  And yet, I find them nevertheless very enriching.  I especially like Ignatius’ idea that we should meditate very concretely on particular scenes in scripture.  Try to picture the place, think about who is there.  Apply each of the senses: try to hear the sounds, smell the air, feel the ground beneath one’s feet, see the people and the scenery.

This technique, which appears in different ways in each of the exercises, seems to have had a profound impact on many theologians.  I wonder if Rahner’s insistence on Aquinas’ doctrine of “conversion to the phantasm”  in Spirit in the World has something to do with his practice of this sensory form of Ignatian meditation.  Likewise, Balthasar’s project of rewriting theology from the point of view of aesthetics may very well be inspired by the aesthetic quality of this form of Ignatian prayer.  Ellacuria’s turn to the concrete reality of the historical Jesus, which is followed and developed by Sobrino, also points to the depth of their Jesuit training in this sensory method.

As influential as it has been in theology, it strikes me that this spiritual exercise is not totally unlike the form of phenomenological reflection developed by Husserl (only to be expanded and revised by Heidegger and others).  In both cases, the method is to take sensory intuition and to vary it imaginatively, in order to sense and understand it from every angle.  Just as in Ignatian prayer, so too in phenomenology, one distinguishes profiles of experience in order to appreciate more clearly the ways in which they compose one whole.  The difference, in short, is that for Ignatius and the theologians who follow him, Christ is the phenomenon par excellence.

Perhaps Jean-Louis Chretien, in his synaesthetic approach to phenomenology and theology, in works such as The Call and Response, has been the one most perceptive of this continuity between spiritual and philosophical practice.

Counterfeit Bread

January 19, 2010 9 comments

What sort of bread is the Eucharist?  This is the kind of question we are discouraged from asking by an over emphasis on the “accidental” character of the Eucharistic species.  But I often find that when I lose my way in Eucharistic wondering and wandering I find my way back through the material elements, not the philosophical distinctions (trails of breadcrumbs I’ve been leaving since I was a boy, some leading to my grandmother’s kitchen, some to the altar…)  So when I hear the dry popping sound of the fraction rite I raise my eyebrows over closed eyes and I suspect that someone is foisting a counterfeit bread. 

(I must say that I am thinking of the general ritual practice of Roman Catholics in the United States and I leave out of my consideration the more ancient and more tasty custom of using leavened bread as practiced, for example, by our Orthodox brothers and sisters.  Further, the Catholic use of the unleavened loaf has good theological legs; it just doesn’t have to be so bad.)

I will resist here, the temptation to make a purely gastronomical point rather than a theological one but I must insist that, when it comes to bread, the two are connected.  Despite the best efforts of liturgical rubricians, sacramental bread cannot be separated from daily bread.  No matter how quotidian a meager loaf in Christian hands appears, it cannot be extricated from a history of effects that ties it back to John 6.  The Lord’s prayer reminds us that “daily” bread is epiousios and even these morsels are saturated with meaning.  So what is the result of offering the ritual bread of Eucharistic celebration which is so far removed from, well, actual bread?

The result is that we are counterfeiting our symbols.  Symbols are supposed to “throw-together” things that are not, on the surface, alike.  Bread is polyvalent, and its entire semantic range is meant to be thrown together with the body of Christ.  This is not the case.  The host is a victim of a serious reduction: the breadliness of bread is legislated down to a bare minimum.  I’m loath to point this out, but here’s the liturgical principle: the more rarified, the more sacred; the more dissimilar something is to everyday objects the more suited it is to liturgical use.  Liturgical norms titrate these counterfeits, certify them as authentic, and mandate them (guarding against coeliacs and cultures without wheat).  The real danger of the counterfeit is that it gives us a lesser value of bread.  It rends bread from its totality of involvements. 

 Cash.  Cash stands in the place of value and obligation.  Am I against the market economy? Not completely.  What I am against is the cash value of the Eucharist, not in dollars and cents, but as the currency of Sunday obligation.  The Eucharist becomes the receipt of an obligation fulfilled and the pre-packaged, not-for-resale, single serving of a spiritual product that my hour’s time purchases.  Am I exaggerating?   God, I hope so.  But when we no longer realize the ethical imperative of the Eucharist which forms us as a community and calls us to action, the Eucharist becomes transactional.  If it is food at all, it is fast food at best.

Posted by Noel Terranova

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“Jewishness” in Ellacuria and Balthasar

January 18, 2010 4 comments

Both Ellacuria and Balthasar develop their Christologies not primarily with respect to the nature of Christ but rather with attention to his identity as constituted through his living-out of a particular historical practice or mission.  And yet, whereas Ellacuria thinks of this mission in predominantly prophetic terms, for Balthasar it is fundamentally doxological and trinitarian.  Ellacuria’s Christ has a mission which challenges the socio-religious order of wealth and oppression which shapes first-century Palestine.  His practice is political–but not in a way that involves a zealot-style appropriation of the state-military apparatus but rather in a way that brings concrete healing  to those in need and a message of divine denunciation to the worldly power and greed which has victimized them.  For Balthasar, by contrast, Christ’s mission is characterized as a sending of the Son from the Father, in which his perfect filial obedience overcomes the depths of sin and reveals the glory of God.

Note where the Jews are in these accounts.  For Ellacuria, they represent religious leadership which is content with the status quo (of wealth and poverty), unmindful of the prophetic call, and thereby implicated in imperial violence.  For Balthasar, they symbolize a “horizontal” or this-worldly perspective which doesn’t grasp that Christ offers a mode of participation in a triune life, free from sin and guilt, which takes place in a transcendent, “vertical”, dimension.  In short, Ellacuria pictures Christ as speaking out against a “Balthasarian Judaism” (religious elitist indifference to poverty), and Balthasar thinks of the Son as surpassing an “Ellacurian Judaism” (horizontal, historical preoccupation).

Neither, however, seems particularly concerned with contemporary Jews or Judaism.  This seems much more problematic in Balthasar’s mid-twentieth century German context than it does for Ellacuria in El Salvador.  However, in reading them, I cannot help but think that we should be more careful about using Judaism as a polemical terrain for intra-Christian debates.  The question is: how to avoid this without abstracting Christology from its historical context?  If this context is relevant now (as both theologians contend), how is it possible to articulate this relevance without casting Jewishness as a figure for what must be combatted theologically?  This is a live issue, since the debate between Ellacuria and Balthasar–many decades later–is not over.

The difference between Cone and Williams

January 12, 2010 1 comment

When reading Delores Williams and James Cone side by side, one may initially assume that the greatest difference between them is clear.  Whereas Cone is one of the foundational figures for black theology, Williams is an analogously central figure for womanist theology.  These abstract categories could lead one to conclude (prematurely) that Williams’ analysis  is really nothing more than Cone + feminism.  This reductive demarcation certainly will not do.

First of all, it is important to understand that womanism involves an integral critique of racism and sexism, which alters the meaning of both; so there is no mere “addition” to be had.  Moreover, Williams identifies a key difference between herself and Cone, which, although it may have something to do with sex/gender, is not reducible to this distinction.  Like Cone, Williams sees liberation as an ultimate goal, but she insists that in the meantime God also becomes present in the historical struggle to survive and to sustain a relatively decent quality of life–goods which she, unlike Cone, contrasts with liberation.

But the greatest difference still seems to lie elsewhere.  I contend that, above all else, Cone and Williams part ways most dramatically to the extent that they (re)enact the hard-fought and ongoing battle in Protestant circles between Barth and Schleiermacher, the (neo)orthodox and the liberal.  This tacit picking-of-sides leads them to adopt strongly divergent accounts of the significance of Christ.  For Cone, as for Barth, Jesus is, by his cross and resurrection, the undeniable divine-human victor over sin and death (though, crucially, he is black!); whereas, for Williams, as for Schleiermacher, Jesus is the exemplar of the proper God-consciousness (though, once again crucially, the awareness which he offers women of color has to do with seeing survival resources).

Distinguishing this soteriological dispute from the sex/gender perspectival problem may help black and womanist theologians (such as myself) think more clearly about possible ways forward in a changing, quasi-racial world.

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January 7, 2010 3 comments

In an attempt to impose some order on my usually miscellaneous seminar papers, I’ve been focusing my writing lately on the idea of property. I’m not sure what exactly I hope to accomplish with this; I have no determinate question I’m trying to answer, and no determinate position I want to defend. One thing I’ve been surprised to find is that thinkers seem to have found the issue progressively less important over the course of the last millennium: almost every scholastic finds room to treat property directly; most moderns deal with it, but often more obliquely (i.e., as an operative assumption only sporadically thematized); and it more or less disappears as an immediate point of concern by the 20th century. (Quite a few, obviously, are still concerned to diagnose the consequences of capitalism, but that rarely turns into an analysis of ownership “in-itself,” or of private property as a discrete historical institution.) It’s tempting to read this as tracking the emergence and effective triumph of the money economy in the consciousness of the West, though I haven’t done nearly enough historical work to know to what extent that’s true. Especially so far as it holds, it’s starting to seem to me that an analysis of property at a deep conceptual level—i.e., in its relation to God and creation, Christian discipleship, human will itself, labor, political society, distribution of wealth, etc.—actually could prove politically meaningful. It could clarify the ways that property’s modern form has affected the structure of our thinking on those other issues, and it would have the potential to illumine the contingency of certain features of modern life that maintain an air of inevitability. And given the (relatively unstudied) history of identifiably theological reflection on this theme, it could prove a worthwhile locus for pushing forward the fundamental questions of political theology in a different context.

Posted by Brian Hamilton