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Resurrection as Utopia

This seemed like a nice follow-up to the Sobrino passage:

 But the fact that it is precisely here [in the resurrection] that the point of unity of all promises is to be found is of importance not only within the biblical conception, but unconditionally of importance for anthropology, for our total understanding of man. For what we are concerned with here is the promise of a way out of that dilemma which runs through all human nature, namely, the dilemma which is posed by the contradiction of death, with a promise which shows such a way out to be not only possible but finally also to be real. And the contradiction lies in this, that life promises the individual more than it can keep, that hope for one’s children and one’s children’s children is not an adequate substitute for personal fulfillment, particularly in view of the fact that one’s children and children’s children will themselves in their turn have to live in this hope. Admittedly, the ‘resurrection of the dead,’ or, to put it more soberly, the gathering up of man’s total existence, body and soul, in its temporal and transitory form into eternal love, remains an ‘idea surpassing reason,’ which can no more be constructed out of a general view of humanity than it can be out of the images of the Old Testament. But with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, this ‘idea’ becomes real, it is made present…as a reality which from now on can become the real, utopian goal of man’s life and of the world’s history. ‘Ascension’ and the promised ‘coming again’ are precisely the necessary transporting of the fact of this breakthrough – which cannot be given a lasting place within history, which must remain u-topian – to its only possible place, to the eschaton or the omega point.

Without the resurrection, two forms of perfection are pursued which narrow Christianity’s universal hope:

The individual can of his own efforts ‘perfect’ himself only by withdrawing into a spiritual realm, by resigning himself to a certain distancing of himself from the concrete and material form of his life. And history can ‘perfect’ itself of it own efforts only by (at best) striving toward a final generation which will live in a humanized world, and by sacrificing the whole concrete, material course of history of the generations which lead up to this final stage, by sacrificing them and putting them behind itself.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations, 293-295

Resurrection or Kingdom of God?

June 25, 2010 5 comments

I have just begun an intensive reading of liberation theologians and, in particular, Jon Sobrino. From time to time I will post interesting/provocative passages or ideas I find. Here’s one:

In this passage in Jesus the Liberator, Sobrino looks at two “all-embracing” realities which could function as the ultimate, eschatological reality for faith and the governing center for theology: the Kingdom of God and the resurrection. After providing a number of affirmations of how the resurrection could fulfill this role (and the resurrection as an eschatological reality will, of course, be central in Christ the Liberator), he nevertheless  concludes:

If Jesus’ resurrection is to function as the ultimate for a theology [of liberation], an immense interpretative effort is clearly needed, which is not necessary if the ultimate is the Kingdom of God. The resurrection of itself possesses great power for expressing the ultimate meaning of history, final utopia, radical hope, but it does not possess so much power for showing how we have to live now in history and guide it toward utopia.

Furthermore, as happens with any symbol of the ultimate one chooses – including that of the Kingdom of God – the resurrection also has its limitations and dangers, not maybe as a pure concept, but in practice. There is no need to be shocked by these words, since anything we human beings touch, however good and holy – prayer, the struggle for justice, the very idea of God – is subject to our limitation and concupiscence. So history shows that a precipitate and one-sided penchant for the resurrection can and usually does encourage an individualism without a people, a hope without praxis, an enthusiasm without a following of Jesus: in short, a transcendence without history, a God without a Kingdom…Liberation theology is particularly sensitive to this danger.

All this has to be understood correctly. Of course I am not saying that Jesus’ resurrection is not a central reality for faith and for theology, and liberation theology in fact gives it the greatest importance and uses it as an expression of the ultimate. Jose Miranda criticizes Marx precisely on the basis of the resurrection, accusing him of not daring to conceive a transformation of reality that goes so far as to include ‘the resurrection of the dead.’ All I am trying to say is that Jesus’ resurrection is not considered as apt a reality as the Kingdom of God for featuring as the ultimate and organizing and ranking the whole of faith and theology. The resurrection will be very much taken into account, but from within something more all-embracing, the Kingdom of God.

Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 124-125

More conversation on women in the blogosphere

June 18, 2010 10 comments

A good post from Melissa on the scarcity of women in the theology blogosphere, with a good comment thread, too. Obviously the deck is stacked somehow, but I confess I’m mystified as to exactly how. We’ve repeatedly tried and failed to recruit any of the women in the department to write for Memoria Dei, but generally for perfectly predictable reasons, reasons that often tempt me to abandon blogging too—the professional risks involved in “publishing” unpolished work, the time commitment involved, the kind of emotional energy it takes to argue still-unformed points with strangers… Nothing that obviously flags a gender differential. My own suspicion is that the explanation is to be found on the other end, not in what keeps women from blogging but in what drives men to blog. I’ve definitely noticed that I’m more immediately comfortable sparring in public than many (not all) of my female colleagues, more undeservedly confident in how interesting my own lines of research will be to others, etc.

I’ve not really given this question the time it deserves, but it’s an extremely important one for any estimation of the long-term value of academic blogging. It’s my belief that blogging could fill some important scholarly needs. It could provide a space between casual conversation among friends and the official settings of a conference or a journal; it could leave scholars in more control of their work; it could sometimes eliminate the lag-time between writing and publication, making possible more productive conversation between scholars; it could open doors for serious interdisciplinary, inter-institutional, international collaboration. But if it gives new life to a good old boy network of the kind finally dying off the in the physical halls of academia (more slowly in theology than elsewhere), and if it only runs on the fuel of men’s overblown self-perception, blogging is not going to be any good to anyone.

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Balthasar: “The Beatitudes and Human Rights”

June 16, 2010 6 comments

I haven’t posted recently since I have been trying to finish the second chapter of my dissertation and a couple of side papers. I recently presented one of these papers at the College Theology Society conference in Portland, exploring  Hans Urs von Balthasar’s understanding of the preferential option for the poor by focusing on his essay “Die ‘Seligpreisungen’ und die Menschenrechte” [The Beatitudes and Human Rights] (found in the fifth and untranslated volume of Explorations in Theology, pp.354-367).

While he raises his typical concerns regarding any focus on worldly progress and development, in this post I simply want to highlight five important moments in Balthasar’s essay:

  • Balthasar explores more deeply than he usually does the unity of love of God and love of neighbor, particularly with respect to the poor: “Where the poor person is oppressed, no true relationship to God can endure” (356). Balthasar argues that this is essential within God’s covenant with Israel and is deepened to its furthest extent in Christ (Mt. 25).
  • Balthasar’s general tendency in his discussion of the poverty of Jesus is to emphasize Jesus’ dependence on and obedience to the Father. In this essay, however, Balthasar also brings out Jesus’ “identification with the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted” (357) and says that Jesus’ ministry is characterized by an attitude of “drawing near” to the least among us  (360).
  • This essay has Balthasar’s most in-depth discussion of human rights and their grounding in a Christian affirmation of human dignity.
  • For those who enjoy etymology, Balthasar illustrates his understanding of mercy and the Good Samaritan with an etymological reading of Barmherzig: to have a heart [Herz] for the poor [Armen] (365). This is essential to a  full understanding of mercy and love of neighbor.
  • Balthasar’s clearest affirmation of the preferential option for the poor: at a key moment in his discussion of human rights, Balthasar argues that human rights must be accompanied by a preferential option for the poor in order to ensure that human-rights language does not function ideologically (358). In addition to this ethical/political statement, we also have in this essay Balthasar’s affirmation of the preferential option as part of our understanding of who God is: God’s preference [Vorliebe] for the poor, hungry, and the persecuted as well as the merciful, the meek, and the peacemakers (363).

Yoder on the Holy Spirit

June 16, 2010 4 comments

It’s not uncommon to hear Yoder critiqued for giving too little attention to the Holy Spirit, to the Trinity itself really; for being somewhat “Christomonist” (I think that’s Zizioulas’s slam, not applied to anyone in particular). So it was interesting to find this little passage in one of Yoder’s earliest “professional” essays, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism” (paper given 1953, published in the Mennonite Quarterly Review in 1955). He names three doctrines Niebuhr underplays, and then says this:

The common denominator of the above-mentioned doctrines of resurrection, the church, and regeneration is that all are works of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is likewise neglected in Niebuhr’s ethics. In the New Testament the coming of the Spirit means the imparting of power, and that power is not a mythological symbol for the infinite perfectibility of human rationality but rather a working reality within history and especially within the church. This power opens a brand-new realm of historic possibilities; not “simple possibilities,” but crucial possibilities.

I don’t think it would be hard to make the case that Yoder carries through on this, stressing throughout his life the “brand-new realm of historic possibilities” opened up by the Spirit, and maintaining that without the Spirit, those possibilities are not possible. But if not, at least there’s an early indication that Yoder at one point thought he should have said so.

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Surprising Yoder quote

I hesitate even to post it, since for those not already familiar with Yoder this could dissuade you from doing so at all. But it’s so surprising, so passionate and somewhat atypical, I can’t help myself. It has a slightly Milbankian flavor, but works at total cross-purposes from him.

The attempt to reverse the New Testament relationship of church and world, making faith invisible and the Christianization of the world a historic achievement with institutional form, was undertaken in good faith but has backfired, having had the sole effect of raising the autonomy of unbelief to a higher power. Islam, Marxism, secular Humanism, and Fascism—in short, all the major adversaries of the Christian faith in the Occident and the strongest adversaries in the Orient as well—are not nature- or culture-religions but bastard faiths, all of them the progeny to Christianity’s infidelity, the spiritual miscegenation involved in trying to make a culture-religion out of faith in Jesus Christ. As religious adversaries in our day, these hybrid faiths are more formidable than any of the pagan alternative faced by Paul, by Francis Xavier, or by Livingstone. Those who have refused to learn from the New Testament must now learn from history; the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church.

“The Otherness of the Church” (1960), p. 61 in The Royal Priesthood.

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Yoder’s pragmatic politics

June 13, 2010 8 comments

I just reread one of my favorite Yoder essays, “Peace Without Eschatology?”, which is one of his earliest.* He wrote it in 1954, twenty seven years old, still in the beginning stages of his Th.D. at Basel and working for Mennonite Central Committee as director of a couple homes for children and as a peace advocate. It’s amazing to see how much of his later thinking is already present, or at least provoked, by such an early piece.

What really struck me this time was the way he talks about the state as needing to subject itself to a “higher moral instance,” the need to recognize certain limits on its authority deriving from the fact that it is subject to the reign of Christ. That weirdly resembles the view of someone like O’Donovan, who thinks that the “conversion” of the state to Christ partly includes its deliberate self-limiting.

But Yoder doesn’t think that this deliberate self-limiting is part of “the ideal state” for the simple reason that he doesn’t believe that there’s any such thing as the ideal state. He rejects O’Donovan’s search for “true political concepts” for the simple reason that he doesn’t believe that there are such things as true political concepts. Politics is about maintaining a “tolerable balance of egoisms,” which is a completely contingent, permanently fallible, context-dependent enterprise.

When Yoder says that the state has certain limits, he’s saying that from a Christian point of view, the state cannot be invested with ultimate significance. From the perspective of things that do have ultimate significance—i.e., from an eschatological perspective—Christians should believe that the state has the very limited function of making sure sinfulness doesn’t get out of hand within its own domain. And Christians should be willing to tell the state when it’s doing something more or less than that in specific cases, “denouncing particular evils and inventing particular remedies.” Since sinfulness does tend to get out of hand when a state overestimates its importance, it’s perfectly legitimate for a Christian to tell the state it should limit itself. So even the claim that the state has limits is not derived from any idea of what the state really ought to be according to theology, but from a pragmatic concern to keep the world from devolving into chaos and violence.

I’m more and more taken by this approach, which simply abandons the Platonic search for an ideal politics (which I think is present in most communitarians) and proceeds instead by analyzing specific political realities and making suggestions as they appear.

* For the curious, it was published for the first time in 1961 in pamphlet form, and then again in 1994 in The Royal Priesthood. That’s the best place to find it now.