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A Kierkegaardian option for the poor?

November 28, 2010 16 comments

There is a surprisingly rigorous insistence in Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity on something like a preferential option for the poor. And it does better than some versions of the preferential option at explaining the dialectic between universality and preference—i.e., at responding to the common objection that, since God loves everyone equally, God can’t possibly love the poor more than the rich. An absolute universality is K.’s starting point, in fact: love doesn’t count as love unless it blows away every natural distinction, unless it completely eliminates every hint of preference. But that absolute universality is offensive enough to the established order that it comes to appear as a preference for the poor.

A subtheme in this book is that human compassion—what passes for compassion among human beings—is intrinsically cruel. It only shows compassion to those who don’t really need it; those who do need it, the truly suffering, the “indescribably wretched,” are cast into the desert and ignored. Because divine compassion is genuinely universal, it shows human compassion for what it is: self-serving partiality. Thus divine compassion inevitably appears as a judgment on the well-off, the ones who claim to be showing compassion, and in favor of the forgotten. Plus, since divine compassion is infinite (whereas human compassion is only ever “to a certain degree”) and drives God to actually become one of the poorest and weakest, the well-off have no interest in joining him. On the contrary, “it is urgent for the world to preserve the appearance of being compassion; this now makes the divine compassion into an untruth—ergo this divine compassion must go” (60).

What appears as partiality (divine compassion) is actually universality; what appears as universality (human compassion) is actually partiality.

That said, this is an extremely peculiar ‘option for the poor’ in that it apparently does nothing for the poor. It’s manifestly not an issue of improving their condition, of relieving their suffering, etc.; if anything, it’s the opposite: joining Jesus, for the poor as for anyone, means more alienation, more suffering, more debasement. Part of K.’s argument in this book is that Christianity can only be believed in spite of its essential, unavoidable offensiveness, and this would seem to be the way that offensiveness looks to the poor—that while changing everything for them (or claiming to), it changes nothing.

Can this be called an option for the poor?

Reminder: CFP on Bonhoeffer, deadline approaching

November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Just a reminder that the CFP for New Conversations on Bonhoeffer’s Theology, which we posted about a while back, will be closing on December 1. I’ve re-posted all the details below. All you have to submit at this point is a one-page abstract.

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New Conversations on Bonhoeffer’s Theology
A Graduate Student Conference at the University of Notre Dame
April 10-11, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) remains one of the most prominent and contested modern German theologians. His theology has been at the center of important discussions on pastoral theology, practical ethics, political responsibility, and the role of the Christian in the modern world. Bonhoeffer’s dramatic involvement in the assassination plot against Hitler, and consequent execution, has no doubt contributed to the widespread interest in his work. Today he is among the most widely read theologians in North America and Europe. Recent scholarship on Bonhoeffer’s theology, while attentive to these earlier discussions, has branched out in new directions. First, there has been increased interest in Bonhoeffer’s early and more academic works. Second, a number of recent studies have drawn Bonhoeffer into debates in continental philosophy and other disciplines. Third, there has been a renewed attentiveness to Bonhoeffer’s early twentieth-century theological and historical context. These developments indicate a growing interest in reading Bonhoeffer along systematic, philosophical and historical lines. Fourth, closer attention to Bonhoeffer’s engagement of Catholic interlocutors along these same lines has raised new prospects for Protestant-Catholic dialogue. The purpose of this conference is to draw together and further these developments.

New Conversations will feature papers by graduate students and senior scholars from North America and Europe, including:

Robin Lovin (Southern Methodist University)
Christiane Tietz (Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz)
Bernd Wannenwetsch (Oxford University)

Gerald McKenny, Randall Zachman, Cyril O’Regan, Krista Duttenhaver and other Notre Dame faculty will chair graduate student paper sessions.

We cordially invite graduate students to submit a one page abstract by 1 December 2010 to NDBonhoeffer@gmail.com for a paper 25 minutes in length. Please also indicate full contact details and institutional affiliation. We especially encourage abstracts on Bonhoeffer’s theology in relation to the following:

Continental philosophy
Political theory
Early 20th century theology and history
Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist theology
Catholic theology
Karl Barth
Erich Przywara
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Ethics and moral theology
Narrative theology
Literature
Other topics

Enquiries may be directed to Adam Clark and Mike Mawson at NDBonhoeffer@gmail.com. New Conversations intends to provide accommodations for all student presenters and some travel costs for European students.

This event is sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and the Notre Dame Theology Department.

Categories: Uncategorized

Milbank on sex

November 16, 2010 4 comments

In case you haven’t seen them yet, I thought I should mention that the women of WIT have come down with two scathingly brilliant responses to Milbank’s latest article: Mystery Theology Theater 3000: John Milbank and a Followup to the Milbank post.

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Milbank on Mennonites

November 6, 2010 13 comments

Halden Doerge has written before about a concern with the way Anabaptism is ‘appreciated’ in contemporary ecumenical circles, by expressing a vague gratitude for its witness to peace—a witness that can just be lifted off and appropriated by another tradition without any kind of structural conflict.

What’s even more bewildering, and unfortunately very common, is when the same kind of gratitude is shown by Anabaptism’s critics, as in Milbank’s most recent piece for the ABC, “Power is necessary for peace: In defence of Constantine.” The article aims at the total demolition of any ‘anti-Constantinian’ position, but for some reason Milbank feels the need to offer a little paean to Mennonites at its center.

Mennonites avoid the trap of individualism, he says, by recognizing that the practice of the power of weakness, the nonviolent and reconciling power of Jesus, is a real power that must take real form in a community. “What is most precious about the Mennonite tradition,” he says, is “that they offer, not the path of misguided purism, not the illusion of ‘beautiful souls’, but rather their own middle way between apoliticism and political compromise.” We know that Christian charity have to be animated by a certain form of power, cannot be reduced to a vaguely spiritual and inward longing. So he acknowledges that the anti-Constantinianism of the radical reformation is not driven by the obsession with purity, the singular concern with one’s own private salvation, which he criticizes at the beginning of the article.

But the Mennonites don’t see that one can’t choose the power of powerlessness rather than “contaminated, compromised coercive power”; Christianity has to have them both. The gloves come off: Mennonitism does turn out to be obsessed with purity after all (how?), as well as being Marcionite (rejecting the political level of the OT), Gnostic (“because God creates us as hybrid material-spiritual creatures, the church includes certain physical spaces that one may have physically to defend”), obviously unrealistic (because Christianity wouldn’t even exist if Christian kings hadn’t slain the pagans), incapable of redeeming the state (like the venerable Justinian did), and—best of all—in practical denial of the resurrection (an accusation he doesn’t even try to explain).

In other words—the Mennonites are very inspiring and all, but they’re also wrong in every essential respect. Mennonites are the tragically misguided heroes, the clever but immature children, stuck on a step on the ladder to ‘true Christian love’ that other traditions had legs long enough to skip.

What’s so odd about this kind of ‘appreciation’ is that, unlike some of the genuine ecumenical overtures, Milbank is explicitly aware that the Mennonite peace witness is structurally opposed to the use he wants to make of it. That is, he knows that he has no sympathy with the Mennonite peace witness in itself at all; he makes use of the tradition to say that even nonviolent love must exercise a certain power, and then discards it. That argumentative strategy isn’t invalid—’even so-and-so who disagrees with me completely would agree that x‘—but it makes no sense to go from there to speaking of Mennonites’ “specifically Catholic witness” (his emphasis, big-C, whatever that could conceivably mean) or to praising our “new and more profound” way of combining charity and power.

A nice bit of evidence that the Niebuhrian tradition lives proudly on.

New blog: WIT—Women in Theology

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

A few friends of Memoria Dei have started a really excellent new blog, which you should add to your readers immediately: WIT—Women in Theology. The writers are all in graduate programs at various schools in the Catholic circuit—Notre Dame, Marquette, or BC. They’ve already posted (among other things) primers on feminist theology and womanist theology, some extended reflection on a feminist Mariology (1, 2), and a powerful piece on prayer, mourning, and the recent suicides of young, gay men.