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Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Trinity and Politics

March 13, 2010 3 comments

My earlier posts on Tanner’s new book can be found here. This final post looks at the relationship between Trinity and Politics. What got me thinking about this was a statement by a friend. This person was asked how he is able to balance his commitment to the poor and his position as a professor (not at Notre Dame). He gave an example: he was asked to teach a course on the Trinity but said no since this did not fit with his focus on shaping his students towards serving the poor and their liberation. This answer raised two basic questions in my mind: 1) for someone who is principally focused on the liberation of the poor, is it contrary to this focus to take time and teach topics like the Trinity (if one is competent to do so)? 2) Is the Trinity really so apolitical?

The first question is particularly complex and personal. Clearly the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be sealed off from a concern for liberation without creating a schizophrenia in our faith as we confess that God is triune and makes an option for the poor (or that we relate to God as triune and to humanity with our option for the poor). As Tanner argues in the introduction to Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, it is a task of systematic theology to show how different elements fit together coherently within a conception of the whole of the Christian life and faith. This leads directly to the second question. A common contemporary way of bringing together the Trinity and politics is to appeal to the Trinity as a model for communitarian life. I summarized Tanner’s critique of this in my second synopsis post (ch.5). Tanner insists that we image the 2nd person of the Trinity primarily and the whole Trinity only in that we image the Word’s relation to the other persons of the Trinity (Christ the Key, 141). Through the humanity of Jesus, our lives are remade into the image of the Trinity in that we are united to the Word by the presence of the Holy Spirit (235).

But what does this have to do with politics? Tanner’s primary answer is that our trinitarian form of life toward others is shown in the way Jesus treated others (in his trinitarian form of life as hypostatically united to the Word) (236-237). I find Tanner’s analysis compelling.  We enter the Trinity and image the Trinity through the second person of the Trinity and, properly understood, this cannot be cut off from political and concrete action. Yet I would push Tanner on two further points. First, she emphasizes that the Son and Spirit are sent and interdependently work to unite us to God. A different but equally valid image is that they are sent to bring about God’s Kingdom.  Thus I think we could connect our trinitarian form of life more explicitly to this Kingdom than Tanner tends to do. Second, certain formal principles can be gathered from the divine life and applied to human communion even if one rejects the overall appeal to the Trinity as a model for communitarian life. For example, the Trinity shows the positivity of otherness. Creaturely otherness (vis-a-vis each other and God) is grounded in the eternal otherness within God. The good of otherness, of course, needs to be complemented by more concrete principles (such as Tanner’s focus on the concrete life of Jesus) but it contributes something nonetheless.

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Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Creation

March 4, 2010 1 comment

My earlier posts on Tanner’s Christ the Key can be found here. In this post I would like to place two claims in Christ the Key in the context of her first two books, God and Creation and The Politics of God

The clearest connection, as I pointed out in my second synopsis post, is found in the final chapter of Christ the Key on the working of the Holy Spirit.  In God and Creation, Tanner argues that coherent Christian discourse depends on a conception of the divine-creature relation as non-constrastive.  Any contrastive characterizations inherently imply a finite God (God is bigger, stronger, etc.).  “Non-contrastive” indicates the “radical transcendence of God” which “can be exercised in both God’s otherness over and against the world and God’s immanent presence within it” (79).  God and human agency are not in competition; they do not operate in inverse proportion. This non-competitive relationship is at the heart of her conception of the working of the Spirit in ch.7 of Christ the Key.

In the opening chapters of Christ the Key Tanner argues for a grace-centered account of creation (most clearly stated on p. 116 and summarized in my first synopsis post). We must start with grace and God’s intentions for us (to share in God’s life) in order to understand creation.  Indeed, our greatest value as a creature is that we depend on the grace of God for our own well-being (139). This is an interesting claim in the context of her second book, The Politics of God. In this book, Tanner builds upon her argument for a non-competitive Creator-creature relation to argue for the progressive political potential of an affirmation of God’s radical transcendence.  First, radical transcendence de-sacralizes social-political orders since they cannot be identified with God (32); there is a “non-participatory” relation between God and social orders (65).  Yet, this claim is purely negative, a No! to every political order (124).  She thus second argues for a positive political criterion:  respect due to all simply as creatures of God.  Each person as the right to be treated in accordance with this dignity. Tanner explores this claim in great detail with regards to both types of rights (see, for example, 178-179) and the application of her claim to situations of oppression (228-244).  What I find most interesting is that it is the Creator-creature relation which (very effectively) grounds human dignity in The Politics of God. Grace is not even mentioned in the text.  In Christ the Key, she does not deny this dignity as creatures but focuses on our weakness, our inability to function well as creatures without grace, and our dignity as creatures precisely in this need for God in order to thrive.

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, The Obedience of Jesus

March 1, 2010 1 comment

In an earlier post I outlined the provocative position of Barth and Balthasar that the obedience of Jesus vis-à-vis the Father is revelatory of the very life of God.  This was grounded on the same fundamental position with which Tanner begins her Trinitarian theology: the life of Jesus reveals the trinitarian relations within God. In her earlier book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, she says it exactly as Barth or Balthasar do: “Jesus relates to the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, in the mode of existence of the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, made human” (32-33).

Nevertheless, she rejects the further move of Barth and Balthasar to see this as revelatory of God in a strong sense (although in Christ the Key she only names Balthasar).  All three theologians note that we do not have in Jesus the simple unveiling of the divine nature (for Tanner, see 180, 244).  We see the trinitarian relations of God “translated” through the human nature of Jesus.  According to Tanner, the obedience of Jesus is one of the aspects that must be attributed to the “translation” of trinitarian relations within a world of sin and death.  With most of the tradition, Jesus obeys the Father only as human. But Jesus’ obedience still does reveal something about God: “Corresponding to the apparently subservient relationshp that come about because the Son is sent on the Father’s mission is the fact that the Son is of and from the Father, the fact that the Son arises out of the Father’s own substance to be the perfect divine exhibition of him” (183).  Furthermore, passages which indicate obedience (“I do as the Father has commanded me”) are primarily intended to affirm Jesus’ “exception character among men” (184). She also argues that, united to the Word, Jesus’ human nature is not obedient as to an external legislator (as it may be for a will impacted by sinful inclinations); the will of the Father is “the teaching of his own heart” (185).

This disagreement raises a fundamental question. On what grounds do we posit some aspect of Jesus’ existence as merely economic? For Tanner, obedience means subservience and thus inequality (244).  Barth, in contrast, argues that the Son reveals himself as the Son of God precisely in his (divine/human) obedience (CD IV/1, 208-209).  Some aspects of Jesus’ life seem to be more economic (“translated”) in character (i.e. his prayer to the Father); but the Son’s obedience to the Father in his mission from the assumption of human flesh to his ascension into heaven would seem to point to something more immanent in God.

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key—Index

February 27, 2010 4 comments

As I mentioned in the first part of the synopsis, my goal in these posts is both to summarize Kathryn Tanner’s new book, Christ the Key, and to engage certain key theses in detail.   In my synopses I tried to explicate the central argument of each chapter (rather than simply mention each important one).  In my final three posts I will connect what I have summarized to other thinkers and/or her earlier works.  Here’s a list of the posts I have planned. I’ll fill in the links as they get written:

  1. Synopsis, Part 1
  2. Synopsis, Part 2
  3. The obedience of Jesus
  4. Status of creation
  5. Trinity and Politics

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Synopsis – Part 2

February 25, 2010 9 comments

Chapter 4: Trinitarian life

In her longest chapter, Tanner reflects upon the Trinity using the following principle:  “Because he is the Word, Jesus Christ displays in his human life the relationships that the Word has to the other members of the Trinity” (140). She argues for a general two-fold movement in the economy: 1) The Word and Spirit are sent out by the Father for our benefit; they descend into the world of sin and death.  2) having accomplished their mission, they ascend to the Father with us.    Within this movement, the Son and Spirit are interdependent.  The Son sends the Spirit to us.  Yet, the Spirit prepares the way for the incarnation, dwells in and guides Jesus, and is the transformative power at the Eucharist.  This interdependence is seen with us as well:  “The Son brings the Spirit to us as a power of new life; the Spirit conforms us to the shape or pattern of the Son” (161).  Tanner then moves from this analysis to the inner life of God: the Son and Spirit are interdependent in their emergence from the Father.  “The Son is responsible simply for giving shape to the Spirit as it emerges from the Father…the Spirit is the love or power of the Father by which the Son is drawn out of the Father to be the perfect manifestation of all that the Father is” (192-193).  Other arguments in the chapter are important (i.e. her reading of Jesus’ obedience; our entrance into the Trinitarian relations through the Son; sacraments; our mission in Christ) but the economic and imminent interdependence of Word and Spirit is most central.

Chapter 5: Politics

Tanner argues strongly against various political readings of the Trinity.  First, monotheism does not necessarily lead to authoritarian politics (see her The Politics of God). Second, trinitarian thinking does not necessarily lead to egalitarian politics.  Finally, appeals to the Trinity for structuring human communities (Zizioulas, Boff, LaCugna) do not take the radical difference between God and us seriously enough (see Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, p.82f for this argument in brief).  They also often appeal to images (perfect reciprocity) which are not exhibited in the economy (where two are sent and one is not) and can emphasize the communion of persons to an extent that verges on tri-theism.  What we have here is the project of one’s politics onto the Trinity.  Tanner counters that we are to be incorporated into the Trinity rather than model it.  We enter into the divine life in the place of the Son.  United to the Son, we are to relate to the Father and Spirit as Jesus did.  In terms of politics, we are to relate to others as Jesus related to others: “Jesus’ way of life toward other people as we share in it is the trinitarian form of human social life” (237). At various points in the chapter she also engages questions of Trinity and gender.

 Chapter 6: Death and Sacrifice

This chapter is Tanner’s theology of the cross.  Here she develops her critique of atonement theologies of satisfaction, sacrifice, and substitution made very briefly in Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity p. 29.  In the earlier work her appeal to feminist and womanist theologies is quite jarring.  Here she gives this appeal greater context and defends it more thoroughly.  The center of ch. 6 is an argument for an incarnational model of the atonement. Salvation comes primarily through the very assumption of our humanity by the Word of God.  In virtue of the Word’s union with the humanity of Jesus, humanity is renewed.  Thus, she argues that the primary meaning of “atonement” is “at-one-ment,” undercutting various legal or contractual models for the cross (256).  The meaning of the cross is found within the overall meaning of incarnation.  The Word assumes fallen humanity and “if the powers of the Word are to reach humanity suffering under the forces of sin and death,” the incarnation will include at-one-ment on the cross (257).  We are saved by the union of the Word with the humanity of Jesus which reworks humanity over the process of his life, including his death on the cross.

Chapter 7: The Working of the Spirit

In the final chapter Tanner contrasts two understandings of the working of the Spirit in modern Christianity: 1) the Spirit works immediately, directly, and exceptionally, often in the interior depths of the human person, and ensuring infallible certainty of religious insight; 2) the Spirit works gradually, through fallible human beings, without final resolution, and within the messy processes of ordinary life.  Although she does highlight certain benefits of the first view (it can be subversive to entrenched, oppressive authorities), she argues strongly for the second.  She builds upon her view of a “non-constrastive” divine/human relation in God and Creation : “there is no reason to think that God is working more the less we are” (280; 296). God works within our finitude and within contextual, fallible truths; divine agency does not remove the finite character of our acts.  This also has a progressive political potential: it would “loosen up” religious authority by bringing greater flexibility and openness to change (291 – the first view may be prophetic but is entirely inflexible). Consistent with the entire book, the Spirit works within us to reshape, reform, and empower our whole existence, not to override it in moments of miraculous revelation.

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Synopsis—Part 1

February 23, 2010 8 comments

Kathryn Tanner is one of the best theologians in the world today and her newest book, Christ the Key, develops her previous thought in new and interesting directions.  In her previous books she argued for the radical transcendence of God as constitutive for coherent Christian discourse (God and Creation in Christian Theology, 1988), the progressive political potential of an affirmation of divine transcendence (God and Politics, 1992), the implications of post-modern cultural theory for theology (Theories of Culture, 1997), a brief systematic theology for the whole of the Christian faith which centers of the meaning of Jesus Christ for us (Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, 2001), and a model of non-competitive relations and unconditional giving (Economies of Grace, 2005).  Christ the Key has connections to each of her previous works but is explicitly the sequel to Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity.  Both have the same fundamental vision: “God’s wants to gives us the fullness of God’s own life through the closest possible relationship with us as that comes to completion in Christ” (Christ the Key, vii).

Christ the Key developed out of her Warfield Lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2007 (reported on with great detail by a few bloggers at Princeton—1, 2, 3). It will also be the subject of a panel discussion at the Midwest AAR this March.  In this post I am simply going to provide a basic summary of her key arguments in the first half of the book (chapters 1-3).  This will be followed by another post covering the second half as well as a few posts that will engage some of her most important and/or provocative points in dialogue with other thinkers.  (note: given the length of this intro and the need for a synopsis, this post will be longer than usual)

Chapter 1: Human Nature

The first three chapters all engage the question of the relationship between God and creation (and, in particular, humanity).  Chapter 1 focuses on the question of what it means to say that humanity is created in the image of God.  As with each chapter, Christ is the Key.  Tanner argues that the only “proper” image of God is the second person of the Trinity.  We primarily image God through participation in or attachment to the divine image by the power of the Holy Spirit; the greater our unity with second person of the Trinity, the greater we image God (the humanity of Jesus, with the hypostatic union, being the perfect instance of this).   Tanner distinguishes throughout the chapter between “strong” and “weak” imaging.  The “strong” sense is participation in the divine image already mentioned (although, as finite, we can never be this image; we are to be in the image of God).  However, we also image God in a weak sense as creation.  The main way Tanner explores this is through the inherent openness and “expandability” of our existence.   We have unique capacity to be shaped by others; our nature is “underdetermined,” open to vast diversity of relations, cultures, language, etc. We are like “soft wax that a vast variety of seals might indent to their image” (44).  We image God in this openness: “Humans imitate God’s incomprehensibility by having a nature that is also in a sense unlimited, unbounded by a clearly delimited nature” (53).  This openness and “essential malleability” is the natural ground for our ability to receive and be shaped by the divine image in Christ.

 Chapter 2: Grace (part one)

In Chapter 2 Tanner builds upon her account of the imago Dei in terms of nature and grace.  Human beings need grace to become images of God, not because of sin, but because of our very nature as creatures. Tanner begins with the affirmation that God’s intention in creating us is that we would enjoy the good of God’s own life by participating, through grace, in the divine image.  Accordingly, she boldly claims: “Because we have been created to have such a close relationship with the very goodness of God, with a nature that requires attachment to God to be what it is supposed to be, grace is necessary to complete out nature, to add to it what it requires for its excellent operations and well-being.  Receiving God’s grace become a requirement for simply being a human being fully alive and flourishing” (60). The presence of the Word and Spirit is “an ingredient of our very constitution” and necessary for us to function excellently.  God’s Word and Spirit, present in us at creation, is necessary for our capacities of thinking and willing to be used well. Tanner then develops an account of sin as the loss of the divine presence, of our total depravity without this presence, our proper humility before God regardless of sin, and the priority of justification over sanctification.

Chapter 3: Grace (part two)

In chapter 3 Tanner places her proposal in the context of Catholic nature-grace debates.  She acknowledges that she seems to jeopardize both the integrity of human nature and the gratuity of grace since grace is necessary for our ordinary operations.  She argues, however, that unless Catholics revert back to a total separation of “nature” and “supernature” (making grace extrinsic to our natural existence), Catholics are unable to maintain gratuity and integrity.  In order to bring together nature and grace, Catholic theology generally appeals to some sort of “natural desire”; however, any sort of desire, on Tanner’s reading, endangers gratuity.  The problem here is that Catholic theology starts with the idea of “integrity” as self-containment and then tries to fit grace in as unexacted yet still desirable.  Instead, she argues that we have no “natural” desire for God: “desire for God results from the presence of God that forms an essential ingredient of our constitution as the prerequisite of human well-being” (126).  What assures gratuity is the very difference between the divine and human – divine gifts are by definition unexacted.  The integrity of our nature does not require self-containment but rather openness; and this openness and adherence to God for our own well being is a sign of dignity rather than diminishment:  It is “natural” for us to have grace.

My next post will continue with chapters 4-7: Trinitarian Life, Politics, Death and Sacrifice, and the Working of the Spirit.