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Jon Sobrino: Where to Start?

January 26, 2011 Leave a comment

There are a number of good places to start for understanding the work of Jon Sobrino. Chronologically, his Christology at the Crossroads, Spirituality of Liberation, and The True Church and the Poor all come in the late 70’s to mid 80’s.  Most people probably begin with his two volume Christology, Jesucristo liberador. Lectura histórico-teológica de Jesús de Nazaret (English: Jesus the Liberator) (1991) and La fe en Jesucristo: ensayo desde las víctimas (English: Christ the Liberator) (1999). Another very helpful volume is his collection of essays The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (1992). The introduction and first two chapters of this book on the principle of mercy and theology in a suffering world are an excellent place to start in Sobrino’s corpus.

These are all important works (not to mention others such as Witnesses to the Kingdom and Where is God?). However, if you want to get a sense of what Sobrino is up to or want a quick refresher, I would highly recommend his small (128 pages plus notes) book No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays (2007). This passionate, challenging, and provocative book is a collection of important essays from the last decade. There is a certain amount of repetition due to the nature of such a collection but not too much. I don’t want to write a full review of the book here so let me just point out a number of its strong points:

  • The influence of Ignacio Ellacuría and Archbishop Romero are clear throughout. These two figures have shaped Sobrino’s thought in fundamental ways and this is apparent in most of the essays . The volume opens immediately with reflections from Ellacuría in the prologue and first chapter. It concludes with a powerful reflection on Ellacuría’s own account of Romero’s life and death. Romero is ever-present in Sobrino’s works but I would be hard-pressed to find a better place to turn than this final chapter and in particular the powerful section on Romero as a follower of Jesus (121-126).
  • Fundamental ideas developed over decades are presented clearly and concisely: The Kingdom of God, the anti-Kingdom, the God of Life vs. the idols of death, the “Crucified People” and the “Suffering Servant of Yahweh,” his expansive reading of martyrdom, salvation through the bearing of sin, the epistemological value of following Jesus, the need to be “honest with the real,” resurrection as the raising up of the victims, the call to live as risen beings in history, etc. These themes are developed more thoroughly elsewhere (e.g. the last two are the center of Christ the Liberator) but nowhere else so succinctly.
  • Special mention should be made of his nuanced account of the option for the poor in chapter 2: along with an account of the diversity among the “poor,” he develops a vision of the option as fundamental, theological, dialectical, partial, prophetic, utopian, political, and merciful; he argues for positive and humanizing values found among the poor but I also found a stronger recognition of the ambiguity within the world of the poor than in earlier works.
  • Sobrino continues the more detailed criticism of the First World found in Where is God? with critiques of capitalism, globalization, and the U.S. This is clearest in the first 10-15 pages of the third chapter (from which we get the title of the book: “Extra Pauperes Nulla Salus: A Short Utopian-Prophetic Essay”) but is present throughout.

The passionate, prophetic side of Sobrino’s thought permeate these essays.  New readers of Sobrino should be able to follow what he is doing and those familiar with his thought will find earlier work reiterated and sometimes developed in interesting ways. Ironically Christology is not as central in this book in comparison to the rest of Sobrino’s corpus. Nevertheless, given the way in which Christology, anthropology, methodology, and his theology of martyrdom mutually shape one another, the reader should leave with enough of a sense of his Christology as well. No Salvation Outside the Poor challenges the reader to re-envision what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ today in a world of scandalous inequality and suffering and offers a great introduction to the thought of Sobrino and key themes in Latin American liberation theology more broadly.

* There are not many secondary sources out there on Sobrino. Luckily, in 2008 an outstanding collection of essays were published: Hope and Solidarity: Jon Sobrino’s Challenge to Christian Theology. This volume also has the added benefit of coming out after the 2007 Vatican notification on Sobrino’s works and many of the essays engage the questions raised by Rome.

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Ethics in Blogging

January 24, 2011 11 comments

I just saw over at F&T that Bruce McCormack is giving a series of lectures on atonement theology in Edinburgh over the next couple weeks. More detailed summaries can be found over at Via  Crucis.

This reminded me of a question that came up in the fall for us here at memoria dei and I have wondered about since. When is it proper to report the content of a talk/class in the blogosphere? We provided a fairly detailed account of J. Kameron Carter’s excellent talk here at Notre Dame. Last week Andrew posted a nice summary of Enrique Dussel’s talk up in Chicago. Over at WIT their first post started with a point made by Carter during a more informal conversation with graduate students the morning after his lecture. A number of bloggers at Princeton have reported on the annual Warfield Lectures. It seems to me that this is one of the best functions of the blogosphere; public lectures now become much more available to the public. But it also raises some questions. Last fall we were specifically asked not to blog a on a public lecture since the person did not like their work summarized in the blogosphere (fearing misrepresentation). Although I think we could have posted a summary/reflection anyway (as a reporter-type at a public lecture), we respected that person’s wishes and did not do so.  When is it appropriate to post a detailed summary of a talk, particularly when it is much more detailed than one would find in a campus newspaper treatment of an event? What about a departmental colloquium, whether by a outside guest, a professor, or a fellow graduate student? What about a job talk? What about a class? Is it appropriate to post what a professor says in class (beyond “today in class we discussed x; here are my thoughts on the topic”)? What about posting on what one’s own students say in class? What about pointing to student blogs?

What are the lines for posts which report on these sorts of events? Obviously people may differ on what is appropriate or not. I think that a lecture that is clearly public in nature should be fair game as much to the student newspaper as it is to the blogger. Nevertheless, I also wonder about the ethics of a highly detailed summary if there is not prior consent from the presenter. Given that it is very easy to record such presentations, a summary could be a near exact replication of the paper – or what about simply putting up the audio? I doubt most people giving a conference paper, for example, would want their work in progress put out in that form.  This also reflects the larger question of what is “public” and whether making one’s work “public” means one is fine with it being “universally available.”

What do people think?

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A Little Advice for Theologians

January 22, 2011 1 comment

“It is a bad sign when you see a man and immediately think of his books” (Pascal)

From a biographical sketch of Balthasar by Peter Henrici.

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Five important questions about the analogy of being

January 20, 2011 6 comments

1. First of all, what is it?  It is not so much a thing as it is a statement about everything creaturely.  It is Erich Przywara’s shorthand for his quite complex understanding of the formal structure of created existence.  As it tends to be used, it can refer not only to Przywara’s understanding of this structure but also to the structure itself.  Thus it is a name both for a theory and for that to which the theory refers. 

It has what one might call a horizontal and a vertical aspect.  In itself, creaturely existence is analogical.  That is to say, it is never identical with itself but is nevertheless not merely nothing.  Such is its incompleteness, its temporality, its provisionality.  Some of what it is definitively is always already present in it, and yet to a perhaps much greater extent what it is definitively still eludes or transcends it.  Przywara expresses this idea in the formula: Sosein in-und-ueber Dasein, essence in-and-beyond existence.  This is the horizontal aspect of the analogy of being.  Or, as Przywara says, it is the inner-creaturely analogy. 

The vertical aspect concerns the creature’s relation with God.  In this case, the transcendence is much more pronounced.  The being of God is infinitely above and yet nevertheless present within creation.  In the final analysis, to say that the creature is not merely nothing is to say that there is some likeness of God that is disclosed in the creature, however limited it may because of our finitude and however effaced it may be because of sin.  However, as soon as one posits such a likeness, Przywara believes it is necessary to remember the dictum of the Fourth Lateran Council, which is in continuity with the ancient Christian tradition of apophasis: namely, that every creaturely similarity with God is surpassed by a still greater–and, indeed, never bridgeable–dissimilarity.

2. What is the warrant for this theory?  Przywara grounds it both in his engagement with the philosophy of Greek antiquity (especially Plato and Aristotle) and also in his interpretation of creaturely existence as it is presented in Christian scripture and tradition (particularly in Augustine and Aquinas).  Thus he finds warrants for it in what have come to be called reason and revelation.  Suppose one rejects the former warrant, with the conviction that it illegitimately imports foreign elements into Christian theology, one must nevertheless contend with the second, which has a certain degree of independence.  One cannot dismiss the analogy of being by denouncing its philosophical foundation, for it is doubly founded, and also demands to be understood as an interpretation of that which God has revealed concerning creation.

3. What is the scope of this theory?  This is in some ways the trickiest question to answer.  For, on the one hand, the theory purports to apply to everything creaturely.  And yet, on the other hand, it says strikingly little.  What it says is precisely this: almost nothing.  To be a creature–in comparison with the fullness of being for which one strives, and especially in comparison with the God who is infinitely above and beyond all things–is to be almost nothing.  But it is necessary to take seriously both parts of this saying.  As radically distant, not only from that which is essential to our own being, but also from the hyperessential reality of God, it is as though–and this is barely an exaggeration–we are nothing at all, mere dust in the wind of the universe.  And yet, creation is precisely such that one can only almost negate it totally, for something remains present within it, even if one manages only to speak of it through a double negation: we are not not

So the analogy of being implicates everything but determines very little about it.  It is, therefore, far from sufficient as an account of what it means to be human, to be Christian, or–for that matter–to be Catholic.  Much more extensive use needs to be made of both reason and revelation to fill out a more adequate picture of things as a whole.  The analogy of being cannot claim any clear sense of priority over other kinds of questions, concerning, for instance, the Trinity, or Christology, the destructive effects of sin, or the life of the church.  It is a principle but not necessarily the first principle.     

4. Is the analogy of being toxic for ecumenical dialogue?  It could be.  To the extent that it tends to polarize groups of Christian thinkers who, otherwise, would have much about which they could agree, it is a dangerous bit of theorizing.  However, remembering its limited scope, its double foundation in reason and revelation, and its insistence on the radical alterity of God may help keep the conversation from veering off track. 

5. Is it possible to hold onto what is central to the analogy of being without recourse to the problematic discourse of being, which has become greatly destabilized in our postmodern age?  In a sense, this may be one of Jean-Luc Marion’s most stunning achievements, but I will have to say more on that later!

Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence

January 19, 2011 7 comments

The newest issue of Modern Theology (Jan 2011) has an extensive symposium on David Kelsey’s long awaited theological anthropology Eccentric ExistenceI have only read the first two of five engagements which are then followed by a response from Kelsey, and I have not read the nearly 1500 page book (although I know a number of people here at ND read it in its entirety for the anthropology PhD seminar). The opening article on Kelsey’s methodology from John Thiel is incredibly clear and gives a very nice sense of the structure, purpose, and major arguments in the book. I won’t go through all of this; I simply want to highlight one point from Thiel’s summary: Kelsey structures his work on three ways in which God relates to what is not God and in particular human beings: creation, consummation, and reconciliation. This ordering is intentional. From Thiel’s summary: “Once God’s relating to reconcile an otherwise irretrievable human falleness is placed on theological center stage, then God’s relating to create and to bring humanity to eschatological consummation are relegated to the position of shadow beliefs that, at best, enhance God’s reconciling activity. The unbounded power of the Trinitarian God finds itself procrusteanized on the bed of human sin so desperately in need of grace” (6). Thus, Kelsey wants to give priority to creation and consummation in anthropology as the origin of our worthiness (8). 

All of this is background for trying to understand a passage in the second reflection from James Buckley:

God (more precisely, the Spirit sent by the Father in the Son) also draws the world and us to eschatological blessing. God’s consummating and creative activity are “concurrent” (p.450) and equiprimordial (pp. 449, 497, 608) – yet creating remains logically independent of and ontologically prior to God’s consummating activity. For example, ‘Wisdom’s theology of creation lacks teleology’ (p.191), giving the quotidian creation a relative significance independent of long-term purposes in consummating creation. The price of not granting creation this independence is not only that the quotidian along with the (non-teleological) natural sciences are de-valued but also that the God-given dignity of unconsummated creatures is not actual until the eschaton (p.904), with devastating consequences for how we treat human and other creatures in our daily lives (19 – italics mine).

I obviously cannot comment on whether or not Kelsey is being fairly represented here. Regardless I am left wondering what this passage means. Looking at the three parts I emphasized: 1) what does it mean for creation to be “logically independent” and “ontologically prior” to God’s consummating activity? Maybe the use of “activity” at the end is helpful. The act of creation comes first and the act of consummation later (and  maybe also the idea that God creating something does not in and of itself demand that this creation should be brought to perfection). Nevertheless, I am caught up by “logically independent”; if God creates with a purpose (which I assume is consummation) can the two really be described in this way? 2) The worry about the devaluation of “the quotidian” and the natural sciences reminds me a great deal of the modern Catholic notion of “pure nature,” something that I assume Kelsey would not want to affirm. 3) I think the final italicized portion makes a conceptual mistake with the notion of “dignity.” There is a difference between our dignity as creatures (created by and destined for consummation in God) and being given the respect owed to one on account of this dignity (cf. Kathryn Tanner) . If our dignity depends in part upon consummation – what God intends for us – how does this downplay the way we are to be treated now? Maybe I am just missing something here.

UPDATE: for those interested in a more detailed analysis of Eccentric Existence, I just saw via pingpack that there is a online reading group that just started over at Resident Theology.