Archive for January, 2011

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.

Roger Haight on Social Sin

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Continuing on the topic of unjust social structures from Arrupe with a fellow Jesuit’s reflection on the first week of the Spiritual Exercises:

I want to point out a possible direction for reappropriating the doctrine of sin into the Spiritual Exercises. A point of departure for understanding a new sense of sin in which we all participate lies in the social structure of one’s personal action. The social world which shapes every individual consists in multiple patterns of behavior some of which corrode human values when they do not actually destroy human life. Human beings cannot avoid participation in these social structures…relative to each person these structures are objective. They stand over against the individual who is socialized into them; they defy every individual who seeks to change them. More than this, they fashion and shape individual action into their own image and likeness. No one can escape social sin because everyone participates in some social mechanisms that injure and dehumanize victims of society and in some measure corrupt the values of all….

Consciousness of this [social] sin, even when only implicit, does not cause personal confusion and anxiety but a general disorientation and a sense of entrapment and frustration. It can lead to cynicism and through cynicism to the moral threat to freedom that resides in boredom or indifference. It saps one’s courage and leads one to doubt the value of good action because it is drawn up into the vortex of social systems and their consequences and robs the good that the individual does os any signficant effect.

Of course, the seeds of sin lie in each individual; sin would not appear in society were it not for the innate egoism that is part of the very constitution of everyone’s freedom. Surely one must wrestle with inner concupiscence in the attempt to be open to the power of the gracious Spirit that alone will overcome it. But there is another hidden level of subjective sin. The objective sin of the world, in its concrete manifestation as social sin, does not remain objective. Sinful patterns of human action are out-there-real only because they are also introjected and internalized to become part of our own subjectivity. The experience of entrapment thus has both objective and subjective dimensions; social participation qualifies the very motives of our action. Our action merges with the world and society; the world is part of us even as we are part of the world…

In sum, the meditations on sin should being objectively. Anyone who looks at the world critically cannot not have a sense of sin. But it is not a sense of sin that crushes the person with personal guilt so that he or she may be saved by a sheerly personal salvation. Rather it is a sense of sin that undermines the positive meaning of creation and a constructive direction of my action with a global sense of futility. The response to this sin and its effects is not merely forgiveness. Of course one could go nowhere without that forgiveness; the acceptance by God of the person precisely as a sinner provides that very foundation for any further freedom. But after this forgiveness, what? After the healing grace of forgiveness one needs a positive direction one’s freedom and action in the world.

Roger Haight, Expanding the Spiritual Exercises, 17-19. Of course, seeking a positive direction would be one of the main purposes of the doing the Exercises for Haight.

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Blogging in the Classroom: Conversation

January 12, 2011 1 comment

Teaching workshops and books on pedagogy almost always recommend including more student participation/conversation in class – not exactly new advice, I know. I think most professors in Theology probably at least try to move beyond simply lecturing, but it is difficult to figure out how to do this consistently. This is particularly true in courses like the one I taught last Fall (forty students who are just fulfilling a university requirement). It is easy – at least it was for me when things got hectic – to simply prepare a lecture and run through the material rather than take the time to find a balance between lecture and real discussion or group work. One of the main reasons I included blogging in my course was that I hoped it would generate conversation among students before and during class. 

The conversation among students on the blogs themselves (through the comments the were required to make within their 4-5 person blog group) was mixed. Especially at the beginning many of the comments did not really engage the original posts. They oftentimes just made a general affirmation and so no actual conversation ensued. Halfway through the course I addressed this and asked them to just make one comment within their group but to also make this comment more substantial in nature (respectfully critical or adding a new point to the original post). This helped a great deal. There were a number of times in the second half of the semester when I reshaped a point in my lecture or in-class discussion on the basis of a give-and-take on the blogs. In the future I think I will require two substantial comments (and these could include responses to comments on one’s own blog).

By the end of the semester I was relatively happy with how the blogs functioned in terms of conversation before class, but I think the real potential of blogging is how they can affect conversation during class. First, the 4-5 person blog groups provide ready-made groups for in-class work. Students become accustomed to working with a group of students and they have faces to put on their core blog readers. Group discussions in class and on the blogs also mutually reinforce one another in creating a safe environment for students express their views and respond to others. Second, as I already indicated, threads of discussion or common difficulties on the blogs provide discussion points which are already active among the students. Since I knew before class what various students thought– both in their own posts and in response to others – it was much easier to focus on issues that were of direct interest to them and to address misinterpretations of the material. It also makes it easier to call upon students to share their analysis with the class – and I would try to do this even more in the future. This is especially helpful with students who have less background or who are more introverted (I remember one occasion in particular where a student who never spoke outside of his small group had made an outstanding point on his blog; it was great to be able to call on him during class in a way that empowered him to speak with confidence since he had thought through the idea beforehand).

Creating and maintaining thoughtful discussions in a relatively large introductory religion course is a difficult task. Blogging certainly does not solve the many issues which can lead to discussion being the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless I think it can go quite far. In addition to simply being an interesting medium to students on its own, it gives them their own space to engage fundamental questions and ideas, it facilitates student dialogue through commenting, and provides a significant foundation from which in-class discussion can begin.

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Enrique Dussel: Lecture on Political Theology and Political Philosophy

January 11, 2011 13 comments

Yesterday evening I had a chance to attend a lecture given by Enrique Dussel at U. of Chicago’s Divinity School.  What I’ve posted here is a summary, based on my notes, and a few brief reflections. 


Dussel was born in Argentina; he studied and earned numerous advanced degrees in Spain, France, and Germany; and he currently lives and works in Mexico.  Over the last several decades, Dussel has exposed the limitations of Eurocentric treatments of history, political theory, economic theory, theology, and philosophy by putting these academic discourses into critical dialogue with the cultural imaginaries and concrete struggles of Latin American peoples.  In his talk, Dussel followed the same general approach. 

His particular question was this: how to characterize the relationship between political theology and political philosophy, particularly in the Latin American context?  The talk had three parts: (1) Marx’s refusal of political philosophy; (2) political theology in the history of recent Latin American revolutions; and (3) a critical dialogue, from the perspective of Latin America, with recent European intellectuals who have given leftist political interpretations to aspects of Christian scripture, especially Paul.    

In the first part, Dussel argued that, although Marx constructed a comprehensive system of categories to critique the economic system of capitalism, he did not develop any positive political philosophy.  Instead, Marx bequeathed to subsequent generations a generally negative account of politics, one constituted primarily by the critique of institutions.  Thus Marx provided few conceptual resources for establishing suitable structures of government which would serve the poor after the anticipated revolution.  One of the reasons Marx may have failed to produce a positive political philosophy is that he refused, at least explicitly, any engagement with political theology.  Taking Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and Hobbes’ Leviathan as examples, Dussel contended that  many of the central categories of positive polical philosophy, even in the modern age, are derived from political theology.  In short, Marx’s refusal of theology was, in the end, a disavowal of positive politics.

Dussel turned, in the second part, to a quick interpretation of recent revolutions in Latin American history: (1) Cuba in 1959, which retained Soviet, atheistic, atheological orthodoxy; (2) Chile in 1970, in which Christian groups informed by liberation theology were active in the political movement; (3) Nicaragua in 1979, which exhibited a higher degree of involvement of Christians in political leadership roles and a greater indebtedness to liberation theology; and then (4) Chiapas in 1994, (5) Venezuela in 1999, and (6) Bolivia in 2005, which, each in their own way, continued the trend of incorporating aspects of Christian political theology (the Latin American theology of liberation) into the concrete political struggles of the poor.  After these revolutions, the challenge has been to move beyond movements of critique and protest in order to build up positive political institutions.  Dussel’s argument was that the philosophies which one can elaborate on the basis of these developments cannot be formulated apart from the Christian theological sources which have deeply shaped them.

Drawing on this lightning-fast historical sketch, Dussel began in the third part of his talk to engage the recent works of leftist European intellectuals such as Badiou, Zizek, Taubes, and Agamben, who have retrieved insights for contemporary political philosophy from biblical sources, and especially from Paul.  Dussel seemed to endorse this general strategy, although he argued that it needed to be pursued with a greater awareness of the particularity of Latin American political contexts.  Dussel insisted upon a political philosophy that would be deeply shaped by the cultural imaginaries of communities on the ground who are actively seeking viable forms of political organization.  And yet, like his European interlocutors, Dussel maintained that Paul is useful precisely as a source of political concepts, which would be relevant not only for the institution of the church but also for the properly political institution of the state.  Both the church and the state are called to mediate the kingdom of God in history, albeit in different and limited ways which will never be perfect.  Nevertheless, the church and the state both suffer from corruption by the sin of the world, so there is a constant need for vigilance and critique from the perspective of those victimized by sin–above all, the poor and marginalized in society.  

Romans was a key text in Dussel’s argument.  In this letter, Paul constructs a polemic against the law (which includes the law of the Roman empire, the Torah, and the new Christian community) but nevertheless announces a new law constituted by faith.  Paul’s polemic against the law corresponds to the critical impulse that has dominated Marxist political thought.  The challenge that Dussel and others face is translating the theological concept of faith, which constitutes the new law for Paul, into a language suitable for positive political philosophy after protest and revolution.  Dussel interpreted faith as a message, embodied by a community, intended for the poor, and directed against the law that kills (i.e., against political oppression).  In other words, faith is the belief that the weak, acting together, can transform history.

On a final note, Dussel broadened his purview to include feminists, people of color, those enduring the effects of colonization, and workers from around the world, who cannot respect the law of the system (the old law) but must believe inand work together to bring about, as much as possible, the transformation demanded by the new law.

Two questions were raised after the lecture.  The first pressed Dussel on human frailty: How can one account for Paul’s understanding that the good that we want to do we cannot do?  How can one account for the fact that the Canaanites were not liberated?  Should not Dussel’s political theology and political philosophy be chastened by a greater awareness that no political regime can avoid succumbing to sin or to its effects?  The second question asked Dussel to consider whether his call for a positive politics brought him nearer to the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, insofar as Dussel gives the state a crucial role to play in mediating the kingdom in history.  Dussel’s response to both concerns was complex, but the general point seemed to be that there is a constant need to critique the state from the perspective of the poor–that is, the people whom it is meant to serve.  An insufficient awareness of sin and an overzealous theological legitimation of the state (the problems corresponding to each question) occur when states become self-enclosed and are not kept in check by the needs and demands of suffering humanity. 


The most striking thing about Dussel’s lecture seems to be his translation of Pauline faith into a kind of collective political will of the poor and victimized.  I find this move both promising and troubling. 

On the one hand, this move is promising insofar as there is perhaps some reason to believe that the state, even the modern state which is separated from the church, can participate in mediating the kingdom.  Dussel is seeking a positive political philosophy, something required by modern states that do not want to subordinate themselves explicitly to the church and its theological commitments.  Nevertheless, he believes that Christian scriptures have something crucial to contribute to this philosophy.  In other words, although Dussel is concerned with developing a philosophy, he does not arbitrarily exclude biblical sources from this endeavor, as would a rigid secularist.  Instead of excluding these sources, he translates them into a particular modern, Latin American political context.  This sort of translation (in which analogues of scriptural teaching enter the government’s self-understanding) is perhaps the most that one can hope for from a philosophy of the state that is not subsumed by the church and its theology.

On the other hand, Dussel’s translation is also a distortion–by which I  mean that it is obviously not a straightfoward reading of Paul, nor is it a reading conformed to the doctrinal developments regarding the new law of faith and grace elaborated by various Christian traditions after Paul.  This is not an oversight on Dussel’s part: in this lecture, he was not offering a political theology but a political philosophy constructed in relation to political theology (or at least to its sources).  But even though Dussel’s move makes sense at a certain level, it still proves troubling because it changes Paul’s meaning, and changes it in certain vital respects, by putting the emphasis on our collective political action in history as opposed to God’s action for us in Christ which will be manifest definitively at the end of time, even if it is already present in history.  Paul’s new law is theocentric and eschatological; Dussel’s philosophical translation is anthropocentric and temporal (as in Kant, the eschaton becomes a postulate). 

In a world of diversity, in which political organizations and governments are not only for Christians (even in Latin America) but for all people, of whatever creed, the risks of this sort of translation seem necessary, in order that Christian scriptures can contribute to a broader public discourse.  And yet, the awareness that something major is being distorted is also necessary, at least for the church, and this is something which Dussel’s account could have brought out more clearly.

The Danger of Being Swept Along (cont.)

January 8, 2011 Leave a comment

A follow up from this morning’s post:

Evil is overcome only by good, hate by love, egoism by generosity.  It is thus that we must sow justice in our world.  To be just, it is not enough to refrain from injustice.  One must go further and refuse to play its game, substituting love for self-interest as the driving force of society.

All this sounds very nice, you will say, but isn’t it just a little bit up in the air?  Very well, let us get down to cases.  How do we get this principle of justice through love down to the level of reality, the reality of our daily lives?  By cultivating in ourselves three attitudes:

First, a firm determination to live much more simply – as individuals, as families, as social groups – and in this way to stop short, or at least to slow down, the expanding spiral of luxurious living and social competition.  Let us have men and women who will resolutely set themselves against the tide of our consumer society.  Men and women who, instead of feeling compelled to acquire everything that their friends have will do away with many of the luxuries which in their social set have become necessities, but which the majority of humankind must do without.  And if this produces surplus income, well and good; let it be given to those for whom the necessities of life are still luxuries beyond their reach.

Second, a firm determination to draw no profit whatever from clearly unjust sources.  Not only that, but going further, to diminish progressively our share in the benefits of an economic and social system in which the regards of production accrue to those already rich, while the cost of production lies heavily on the poor.  Let there be men and women who will bend their energies not to strengthen positions of privilege, but, to the extent possible, reduce privilege in favor of the underprivileged.  Please do not conclude too hastily that this does not pertain to you – that you do not belong to the privileged few in your society.  It touches everyone of a certain social position, even though only in certain respects, and even if we ourselves may be the victims of unjust discrimination by those who are even better off than ourselves.  In this matter, our basic point of reference must be the truly poor, the truly marginalized, in our own countries and in the Third World.

Third, and most difficult:  a firm resolve to be agents of change in society; not merely resisting unjust structures and arrangements, but actively undertaking to reform them.  For, if we set out to reduce income in so far as it is derived from participation in unjust structures, we will find out soon enough that we are faced with an impossible task unless those very structures are changed. 

Thus, stepping down from our own posts of power would be too simple a course of action.  In certain circumstances it may be the proper thing to do; but ordinarily it merely serves to hand over the entire social structure to the exploitation of the egotistical.  Here precisely is where we begin to feel how difficult is the struggle for justice.

Pedro Arrupe, “Men and Women for Others,” in Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings, 185-186

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