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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.

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.