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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.
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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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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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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.

Re: Kingdom-World-Church and Liberation Theology

September 14, 2010 4 comments

A couple months ago I expressed some reservations regarding how liberation theology is appropriated near the end of the Kingdom-World-Church theses posted over at Inhabitatio Dei. A bit later I posted a couple quotes from Roberto Goizueta that reinforced a couple of my points. Last week Halden noted the critiques some have made regarding the theses and their relation to liberation theology (I don’t know if he had mine in mind or not) and provided a lengthy quote from Leonardo Boff in support of the appropriation of liberation theology within the theses.

The quote from Boff illustrates very well the ways in which the authors of the theses rightfully draw upon liberation theology and the ‘church of the poor’ within their work. Contrary to ‘ecclesiocentric’ theologies, Boff, Sobrino, and others de-center the church vis-a-vis the Kingdom of God and the poor. As I mention in my first post, the de-centering of the church in view of the Kingdom is a significant point of agreement. The inclusion of the ‘church of the poor’ within this de-centering further shows the commonality with liberation theologians. These points are important and thus I do not think that the engagement with liberation theology is merely superficial.

Nevertheless, significant divergences seem to remain (and remain unaddressed in Halden’s new post, which simply reinforces the point of agreement I just described and affirmed in my original post).  There were two main issues I raised that still remain.

First, it is stated in thesis 11 that the preferential option not only lies at the center of the mission of the church, it is the mission. This needs to be further explored, as the general flow of the theses does not seems to support this claim. I illustrated this in my first post by looking the critical reading of liturgy in the 4th thesis. Many liberation theologians offer critiques of liturgy and ritual in a way that flows directly from the preferential option for the poor . They worry that liturgy can devalue human action in such a way that we become passive before God and pacified before oppression. The critique of liturgy in the 4th thesis does not seem to be shaped in the slightest by the preferential option as the mission of the church; rather the danger of liturgy and the devaluation of God’s action the temptation of (ecclesial) self-aggrandizement. 

The second has to do with what is meant by “church of the poor” or the “preferential option.” Although the theses still need to be expanded, I think we can see the authors affirming the preferential option in terms of ethics/solidarity and for our understanding of God (in theses 10 and 11). The further question is whether or not (or how) they understand the preferential option in terms of theological method. This aspect is absolutely essential within Latin American liberation theology (including in Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor, the work cited in thesis 11). This aspect was shown in one of the quotes from Goizueta in my earlier post (“The preferential option for the poor is nothing other than the assertion that the crucified people of history are the privileged mediators of God’s mercy in the church and in the world. The crucified people are the privileged historical mediation of the crucified and risen Christ in the world. When they extend mercy, they embody Christ’s own offer to the apostles after the resurrection: ‘Peace be with you'”). It is also clear in Sobrino’s affirmation of the preferential option as ‘pre-theological’; and even clearer in Juan Luis Segundo: the option for the poor is the hermeneutical key for the Gospel, “the antecedent element required in order to interpret the gospel and keep its letter from killing”; “the epistemological premise for an interpretation of the word of God”; “the human attitude that we adopt, on our own responsibility and at our own risk, toward the Word of God, before reading that Word” (Segundo, “The Option for the Poor” in Signs of the Times, 120, 122, 126). For Goizueta, Segundo, Sobrino, and many others, the preferential option demands not only a different way of being Church (the focus of the theses), but also a very different way of doing theology (not represented in the theses).

A further point related to this which needs to at least be mention (and it is gestured at in Halden’s newest post in his concern about Boff’s notion of ‘mediation’) is the view of the poor as ‘sacraments’ of God. This is shown well in the Goizueta quote above. The way this is often described within liberation theology would seem to go against the apocalyptic, Barthian shape of the theses as a whole, and  yet it shapes the methodology of many liberation theologians in a way that I assume would not be acceptable within the theses.

The theses are, of course, theses.  They await further development and Halden’s latest post promises us further exploration. As they develop their notions of the preferential option and the church of the poor, I hope they not only continue to draw on the points of agreement mentioned at the beginning, but also focus in on those points where they seem to diverge significantly with essential aspects of Latin American liberation theology.

A note on “Kingdom-World-Church,” thesis 11

July 13, 2010 3 comments

This post is a few weeks too late (sorry, I’ve been busy with other things!) but I wanted to take a look at the appeal to Jon Sobrino and the affirmation of the preferential option for the poor in the “Kingdom-World-Church” theses over at Inhabitatio Dei (particularly theses 10-11). In my reading, the affirmation of the preferential option and the quotation from Sobrino function in two main ways within the theses. First, the preferential option is affirmed as an ethical/political imperative and essential to what it means to witness to Christ as a church. Second (and I think more important within the aims of the theses), it is further support of the view that mission precedes church. The whole set of theses are set in opposition to “ecclesiocentric” theologies. In the earlier theses we have a generally Barthian de-centering of the church/sacraments/religion vis-a-vis the apocalyptic act of God in Christ. In Sobrino and others, we have a de-centering of sorts but this time vis-a-vis the poor. To be church is to be in the world and to live in kenotic solidarity with the poor. These are significant points of agreement. Nevertheless, I wonder if these two perspectives really fit together as well as the theses make it seem. Let me elaborate.

Thesis 11 concludes with the following: “With the Catholic bishops at Medellin, the church must reaffirm and exercise the ‘preferential option for the poor.’ This ‘preferential option’ is not simply one of many tasks of the church—it lies at the center and heart of its mission. In fact, it is its mission, because this is Christ’s mission.” Saying that the preferential option is at the center and heart of the church’s mission (and is the mission) seems overstated within the general flow of the theses. It seems that the most basic mission of the church in the theses is to witness to the apocalyptic transformation accomplished by God in Christ, which may include the preferential option, but is not identical with it.

Thesis 4 is indicative of the differences here. In this thesis, the danger of liturgy is to see a direct correspondence between our work and divine work, to see it as our (successful) seeking after God. The danger is an idolatrous misconstrual of our place in the event of God’s grace.  Liberation theologians also offer very strong critiques of ritual and liturgy (see, for example, Segundo’s The Sacraments Today) but in a different key, and one that flows directly from the preferential option as the mission of the Church. Their central critique is not that liturgy raises our action too high but rather that it devalues human action by ideologically focusing our attention on the reconciling action of God in liturgy and away from the demand to build the Kingdom beyond the liturgy. The relationship between idolatry and ideology is complex and they mutually reinforce one another; I do not want to imply that the emphasis on idolatry in thesis 4 is contrary to a concern with ideology (the discussion of the ‘world’ indicates that the authors would share the concern of liberation theologians that liturgy can offer an ideological sense of security and reconciliation outside of the world). Rather, my initial point is simply that if the preferential option is truly the center of the church’s mission, the critique of the liturgy in thesis 4 would look rather different.

More pointedly, I wonder if the invocation of Sobrino may conceal a deeper substantial disagreement with him about what the preferential option actually means. In particular, there are a number of issue that revolve around the preferential option as a methodological prescription for theology:

  • Sobrino affirms the preferential option as pre-theological (see Jesus the Liberator, 33 and Christ the Liberator, 18), as an option made prior to hearing the word of God and as an option which shapes the way in which we hear that word (other passages complexify this but the point remains)
  • The poor, the martyrs, the crucified are seen as the proper and necessary place for understanding Jesus and thus to do theology one must get to know the poor
  • The poor are the sacrament of God and the presence of Christ among us

I also wonder how the authors react in general to different construals of the relationship between human and divine action in liberation theologians. Sobrino does affirm the kenotic act of Jesus Christ for our salvation but part of this kenosis is that the ongoing presence of Christ in history is dependent upon our action (CL, 165-169). That would seem to be at odds with the theses’ Barthian emphasis on the absolute priority of divine action. Divine gratuity is certainly important in liberation theology (this is particularly clear in Gutiérrez’s On Job and We Drink from Our Own Wells) but I wonder whether  the strong emphasis on “building the Kingdom” or a utopian, future oriented vision would be acceptable to the authors of “Kingdom-World-Church”.

I raise these questions as someone who is currently working on bringing together the work of Sobrino and Balthasar. It is clear that many connections are there to be made as there would be between Sobrino and a generally” Barthian” theology. Nevertheless, the more I engage both discourses the more I see their sharp differences. I wonder if use of Sobrino and the affirmation of the preferential option for the poor in thesis 11 indicates real agreement but also passes over perhaps more fundamental disagreement.

The church is a collective subject

February 14, 2010 21 comments

Halden Doerge spun out a provocative series of posts last week on the image of the church as the body of Christ. His main contention throughout was that “what the metaphor indicates is not a monopersonal identity that fuses Christ and the church.” From what I can tell, Halden’s objection to speaking of the church as “one body” with Christ stems from two related concerns: (1) to maintain Jesus’ position as mediator as unique to his historical person, and (2) to avoid rendering the church as a static, coherent “subject” such as could stand in as mediator. The latter seems especially problematic to him in that it divinizes the church understood as a static collective, leaving it in some sense immune to criticism. This is how “the body of Christ” can become an ideological concept.

This is a pretty perceptive analysis, in my opinion—but I think Halden locates the hinge in the wrong place. It’s not the concept of subjective unity that twists the image in an ideological direction, but the portrayal of the subject as static. Notice that in his most direct argument that the church is not a collective subject, the points of criticism tend toward the conclusion that there can be no such thing as a collective subject at all. Collectives are always constituted by a “nexus of relationships.” Because the church always takes the form of of mutual self-giving in love, it’s an “event” rather than a subject. But what does that assume about subjects? Can’t an individual subject, too, be described as a kind of nexus of inner relationships that require dynamic ordering if she is to stay sane, to act as one?

The problem isn’t with the idea of collective subjectivity itself. We live constantly as members of collective subjects, subjects that are more or less fractured, and more or less authoritarian. The problem is with a particular idea of what it means to be a unified subject: denying the “event” character of subjectivity itself, and portraying the subject as self-contained. (This kind of subject, whether individual or collective, is inevitably tyrannical.) Do away with a static, self-contained concept of subjectivity with respect to Christ, too, and Christ’s sole mediation need not preclude a participation in his unique personal identity—it could even be said that the specific form of Christ’s mediation is our inclusion in him as a collective subject. The uniqueness of Christ is precisely that he, unlike other historical figures, is an individual and collective subject at the same time.

This is all very schematic and impressionistic, I know. Bear with me.