The end of historical theology

April 7, 2011 7 comments

To what end?  This is a question not heard often enough.  The ultimate aim of theology, I take it, must have something to do with the end as such, with the eschaton, with the reign of God.  Not that theology has the power to bring this about.  But theology, nevertheless, despite its somewhat astounding ineffectiveness, has to be oriented by this end, moved by it and toward it, if it is really going to live up to the name “theology.”  “Knowledge for its own sake” therefore does not suffice as a maxim.  Theology is not, in the end, about establishing a kingdom of knowledge but rather about seeking, through knowledge, to enter into, prepare for, remember, increase, participate in, or in some other way affirm the final victory of divine justice and love.  Have I, have you, forgotten this?–perhaps not, but I raise this question as a prompt for self-examination.   

However, the particular issue which I want to discuss at the moment is this: What difference should this end make to the labors of historical theology?  I should clarify that I believe that all theology is historical, at least insofar as it presupposes a careful analysis of texts–and, through them, events–that have come before.  But I am thinking in particular here of those areas of theology that are more self-consciously content with the study of (biblical or ecclesial) history–even though I by no means want to exclude, for instance, that field of more recent historical theology which often understands itself as “systematics.”  A few points come to mind:

1.) In addition to demonstrating knowledge of something in history (e.g., a document, a theologian, a movement, etc.), it seems necessary, at some point, to make the case that this work is relevant to the end of theology, the coming of the reign of God. 

2.) To make such a case, the blanket claim that scripture and tradition are normative, though certainly valid, does not suffice: more specific reflection is needed regarding the substance of the research in question and how it pertains to the end.  It has to be clear, in other words, why this particular matter warrants thorough retrieval. 

3.) A successful case will not be able to abstract itself from the present context of theology, whether this is understood as modernity, postmodernity, the underside of modernity, or some other contemporary situation.  The more adequately one makes sense of the difficulties, complexities, and possibilities of the present moment, the stronger the case will be that theology, and not merely history, is at work.

4.) To be sure, something like a division of labor seems inevitable; there will always be an unsynthesizable plurality of voices in the theological conversation; and every small contribution is to be welcomed.  At the same time, however, it seems important to assess the limits and the scope of  any such contribution–and perhaps consider, at times, whether more attention is needed elsewhere, for the sake of the end of theology.       

In sum: a study which interprets faithfully something of the past is a good thing.  But its significance as a work of theology, defined by the end of theology, will depend a great deal on the extent to which one is also able to clarify its value for the task of affirming the reign of God in the midst of the contemporary situation.  Theology is defined by history only while at the same time being defined by the end of history.  I, therefore, declare a moratorium on all so-called “theology” which operates (whether explicitly or not) under the assumption that history suffices as theology. 

Too bold?  Perhaps not.

Notes on the Trinity

April 4, 2011 7 comments

Over the last few years I have made a few “mental notes” on the topic of the Trinity.  I share them here in case they are helpful or stimulating to others.  Eventually, perhaps, I will be able to develop these inchoate thoughts into a more compelling project or argument.  But for now, here they are: 

1.) The inappropriateness of appropriations.  Supreme knowledge and love are proper to the divine  nature.   But there is a long tradition in the West (from Augustine, to Aquinas, to Rahner, and beyond) according to which knowledge is “appropriated” to the Son/Word and love is “appropriated” to the Holy Spirit.  My question is this: what is the point of these appropriations?  Do they, in fact, clarify or illuminate anything?  I am inclined to be rather sceptical.  For where is compassion more clearly shown than in Jesus?  Where is wisdom to be found if not in the Holy Spirit?  I simply fail to see the point of suggesting that the knowledge/love distinction maps onto the relation between these two divine hypostases.  The only reason to insist on it seems to be that it could shore up the idea that the human mind (composed, in a unified way, of memory, intellect, and will) is constituted as an image of the Trinity.  But this brings me to my next point.

2.) The banality of the 3-in-1 structure.  It is not especially difficult to come up with examples of three things that are really one thing, at least if one is willing to let the rules of counting be somewhat flexible.  Memory, intellect, will; lover, beloved, love; wife, husband, and child; three leaves of a shamrock; etc.  If an image of the Trinity is going to be compelling, awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, it would seem to require more than a 3-in-1 structure.  One needs a sense of how each one of the three is like a particular divine person, along with a sense of how the one in which they are united is like the unity of God.  But then the question of an imago Trinitatis has to be fundamentally concerned with the determinate characteristics, relations, or manners-of-being of the triune God and, therefore, not primarily with the 3-in-1 puzzle.  Perhaps a case could be made that the Son/Word is more like knowledge and the Holy Spirit is more like love, but I don’t see how this can be done without implicitly deemphasizing the love which Jesus embodies or the knowledge which the Spirit grants.   

3.) The ambivalence of the economic/immanent distinction. The significance of this distinction differs depending on whether the question on the table is one of access or of positive doctrine.  Let me explain.  Any insight into the Trinity to which we have access in this finite, created, historical, and fallen world belongs to what is called the “economy,” that is, God’s action for us, the divine life ad extra.  Within the economy, God’s innermost nature remains unknown, incomprehensible, ineffable.  This is the constant theme of mystical theology, of the doctrine of analogy, of genuine Christian apophasis.   But this means that there is no access to the immanent Trinity as such but rather only to the Trinity as mediated by worldly conditions of knowing or thinking.  Hence, our access is wholly economic.  However, there is no implication here that the Trinity itself is only economic.  On the contrary!  As a question of positive doctrine, it is necessary to affirm that God is not absorbed by the world, realized only within it, or finally subjected to its laws.  In short, the distinction between economic and immanent is important to maintain as a teaching, even though we cannot abstract ourselves from the economy–which is to say, even though our only knowledge of the Trinity is mediated, worldly, dependent on God’s free external self-communication.  The recognition that the economy is the inescapable condition of our Trinitarian reflection is important.  It keeps one from thinking, falsely, that apart from a more narrow understanding of economy (limited to the images and stories in scripture) there would be some sort of access to the immanent Trinity (provided by conceptual notions of relation, etc.).  The latter are (epistemologically) no less economic than the former, and in fact become more and more questionable to the extent that they depart from or no longer interpret faithfully what is disclosed in scripture.

4.) Abstract and concrete sociality. That God is revealed as three persons in loving and self-giving relation provides the highest level of support to the idea of sociality (mutuality, reciprocity, intimacy-in-distinction, difference-as-communion, etc.).  However, it does not follow from this (admittedly important) point that any sort of specific understanding of proper relations among human persons should be derivable from reflections regarding the relations between Father, Son, and Spirit.  There will, in any case, be more difference than similarity in any analogy which might be drawn here.  But no less important is the fact that the relations among human beings are extraordinarily more diverse, if only because much more numerous, and this excess of complexity warrants careful attention.  The Trinitarian validation of the abstract ideal of sociality is not something to be taken for granted.  But the significance which the Trinity has for our concrete relationships depends, it seems to me, much more on the particular ways in which the triune God is encountered in the midst of these relationships  than it does on the mere fact that God is a unity of persons.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,

Cornel West as prophet

March 30, 2011 3 comments

I have to thank my friend Jo for sending me the link to this interview.

Cornel West, as he does so well, speaks the truth to power.  It strikes me as an extraordinary example of biblical prophecy in the contemporary world.  I am moved by the unapologetic, deeply nuanced, and yet crystal clear preferential option for the poor:


Marion on excess: why we need both saturation and distance

March 29, 2011 3 comments

Early in his career (Idol and Distance 1977), Marion speaks of distance as a positively determined (but not predicated) divine excess through and toward which we traverse, but which we never abolish, in our prayer and praise.  God is ever greater as  given but more fundamentally as not given.  The difference between traversing and abolishing distance is precisely the gap between the given and the not given.  It is a gap which is denied by predication but respected by prayer/praise.  This is what Marion learns from the mystical theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, but also from Nietzsche, Hoelderlin, Balthasar, and certain passages of Christian scripture.   

Later in his career (e.g., In Excess 2001), Marion shifts focus toward the eidetic possibility of revelation conceived as the “saturated phenomenon par excellence.”  Again, the Dionysian tradition is recalled, but this time divine excess is thought as saturation: i.e., the surplus of intuition over intentionality.  This is a complete inversion of the Kantian (but also Husserlian) understanding of transcendence, according to which intentionality exceeds intuition, the latter being impoverished.  In saturation, it is not that givenness falls short of our ability to grasp it; it is that givenness wildly oustrips our ability to grasp it.  But what warrants our attention for the moment is this: that which makes God ever greater in this revised phenomenological rubric remains, perplexingly, a kind of immanence: immanence, not in the sphere of intentionality, but in the sphere of givenness (for consciousness), which entails possibility, not actuality.  According to Marion, we can say with phenomenological certainty that already within what is given there is given the essential possibility of much more intuition of God than we are able to organize, interpret, or understand. 

Question: having noted the difference and similarity between the two, should one conclude that saturation (because its theorization comes later) supercedes distance?  No. 

The emphasis has to be placed on distance, though not to the exclusion of saturation.  The earlier formulation must be prioritized.  Why?  Because the claim that God is ever greater cannot be translated adequately by a theory of immanence or givenness, however expansive and inverted.  If one thinks divine excess in terms of saturation alone, this suggests a never realizable potential for full understanding already within our consciousness.  It suggests that God is (qua eidetic possibility) already totally given.  It seems necessary to maintain, on the contrary, that however much the givenness of God already exceeds our ability to grasp it, that which is not given of God exceeds it all the more.  In short, the excess of distance exceeds (but does not render meaningless) the excess of saturation. 

Phenomenology perhaps cannot think this thought.  For this one perhaps needs prayer/praise, which, moreover, makes no pretense of bracketing the actuality of God.

Oscar Romero: Where to Start?

March 24, 2011 2 comments

Today marks the 31st anniversary of Romero’s assassination and the power of his words and deedsm endure. The basic contours of Romero’s three years as Archbishop of San Salvador are well-known, but I still want to point to a couple of particularly good resources. James Brockman’s biography of Romero remains a thorough and trust-worthy guide; Maria Lopez Vigil’s book Memories in Mosaic is an incredible telling of Romero’s life through a compilation of recollections of those who knew Romero from when he was a child up to his death; the Modern Spiritual Master’s Series also has a nice introduction. These are all very helpful works to turn to but let me recommend a fourth: Scott Wright’s new biography Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints. I do not recommend this because of its comprehensiveness or new insights. Indeed, it is rather short and is largely dependent upon the biographies from Brockman and Vigil. It does provide nice reference material to further sources but I mainly recommend it for one reason: pictures. The format of the book is simple yet elegant, with nearly every page including an image related to the topic at hand. These have a way of capturing the life of Romero and those around him (one of the most moving images for me was a simple one of Rutilio Grande – I had never actually seen a picture of him – carefree and smiling as he went about doing his work). Wright is able to make it through the major moments in Romero’s life (including his childhood and seminary years) in a compelling way and with enough depth to provide a nice introduction contextualization of Romero’s life.

For primary sources, the volume Voice of the Voiceless provides some of Romero’s most important public statements (Pastoral Letters, his Georgetown address, his letter to President Carter, his last homily, etc.). The compilation of homilies and statements by James Brockman, The Violence of Love, is a must-read – Henri Nouwen’s short preface aptly describes reading this book as a “spiritual event” (Update: Bridget over at WIT links an e-book version of this; wish I knew about this earlier!) Other books and collections are out there but these are great places to start.

There are also a number of good online resources on Romero. This blog is devoted entirely to Romero. Notre Dame and Creighton also have nice websites devoted to Romero. Hopefully the new movie on Romero that was screened at ND last year will be available soon. For more recent news on El Salvador, check out Voices El Salvador (Update #2: another blog I forgot to mention). During the last few days you could even turn to American news outlets since Obama just visited El Salvador (although CNN simply said he was visiting a “famous tomb” at the Cathedral). Finally, a friend here at ND just let me know of a new documentary on El Salvador which is free on hulu. (Update #3: I hope this is the last one. The Romero Trust has an incredible collection of Romero’s homilies and letters in addition to news and pictures. It looks like they have provided every homily he gave during his three years as Archbishop – quite a service and clearly a labor of love. For a number of them they even have the audio).

There are many famous statements from Romero. Perhaps the most oft-quoted is excerpted from an interview he gave two weeks before his death. Here is the statement in full as Sobrino relates it in the introduction to Voice of the Voiceless (p.50-51):

I have frequently been threatened with death. I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. I am not boasting; I say it with greatest humility.

As a pastor, I am bound by a divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that includes all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me. If they manage to carry out their threats, I shall be offering my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador.

Martyrdom is a grace from God that I do not believe I have earned. But if God accepts my life as a sacrifice, then may my blood be the seed of liberty, and a sign of the hope that will soon  become a reality.

May my death, if it is accepted by God, be for the liberation of my people, and as a witness of hope in what is to come. You can tell them, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon them, and I bless those who may carry our the killing.

But I wish that they could realize that they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God – the people – will never die

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Another Analogy for the Trinity

March 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Many analogies to the Trinity are to be found throughout the Christian tradition. Whether or not St. Patrick used a shamrock as an illustration of God’s triunity, it seems like a good day to call attention to a novel analogy from Balthasar. Balthasar develops a theatrical analogy for the Trinity within the economy of salvation as Author, Actor, and Director (see Theo-Drama, 1.268-305 for Balthasar’s primary exposition of this triad). The author has primacy in the drama as the one who brings unity to the drama: “[The author] stands at the point where the drama (which is to unfold between the individuals and their freedoms) comes into being as a unity” (268-269). As the origin and unifier of the drama, the author has “ontological primacy” over against the actor and director.

Yet, this primacy does not mean that the actor is the puppet of the author. The author and actor are mutually dependent upon one another: “There are not two things, the script (the idea) and the performance; the two are profoundly one” (284). The author’s work is potentially drama and needs the actor in order to become reality. Far from being a passive servant of the author, the actor’s job can be characterized as one of creative obedience. In consonance with the author’s unifying vision, the actor’s enactment of the drama is a creative task for which the author explicitly leaves room in his work.

The director has the essential and difficult role of bringing together the author, with his original, creative contribution, and the various actors and their differing abilities. The director has the task of maintaining the creative vision of the author and supporting the use of the actors’ own imagination and creativity in bringing about this vision. Thus, within this analogy, the Father is the playwright, the Son is the protagonist who carries out the heart of the drama, and the Holy Spirit is the one who guides the Son and brings other actors in the drama. While the Son is always receptive to the Spirit and is always fully one with his role on the stage, the Spirit must lead others through grace to becoming more closely identified with the role God gives them in the drama.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,

Becoming a Writer

March 16, 2011 4 comments

James K.A. Smith has an interesting post up in which he makes the distinction between being an “author” and being a “writer”:

Being an author and being a writer are not synonymous. Most philosophers and theologians are authors: they publish articles and books bent on communicating content and making arguments. Their goal is conceptual clarity and careful demonstration. But all of that can happen with very little attention to form. Indeed, one can write entire books and yet not take language all that seriously.

But it’s just that attention to form that characterizes the writer. To make the move from being an author to being a writer you have to learn to love sentences.
I find this post challenging because I am most decidedly an “author.”  This is particularly clear to me as I work through the works of Balthasar – certainly a writer if any theologian is. Consistent with one Smith’s main pieces of advice, Balthasar was immersed in all forms of literature (and music). De Lubac called him the most cultured person of the 20th century for a reason. The problem is that I simply prefer reading about  history and non-fiction in general more than fiction and poetry – unless you count Harry Potter. Writing also usually just seems like a task for me. In contrast, I assume that most “writers” probably enjoy writing. Not all the time, of course, but more than the rest of us. Ben Myers over at F&T comes to mind here (I would venture a guess that this is probably true with the majority of the most popular bloggers). Writers take real pleasure in the inspiration of a beautiful turn of phrase, whether their own creation or someone else’s.
I have tried this year to write at least thirty minutes a day, six days a week. Smith likewise advises that one needs committment and patience to become a writer. Of course, he is speaking more of attempting to make “language dance and play” every day in your writing. I just try to write something. He also points to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule from Outliers (the amount of time necessary to reach “genius” level with a particular skill). The math is humbling. Even if my dissertation counts as “writing,” if I write for one hour a day every day, I only have 25 more years until I am a writer! Thankfully, “conceptual clarity and careful demonstration” are worthy goals in the meantime.
Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,