Studying God: Or, Why I Do Not Need Richard Dawkins to Agree With Me

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The Evangelist St. Matthew with his symbol, the angel (The National Library of the Netherlands)

Note: the following is a response to Tara Isabella Burton’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God.”

Theology has lost its academic credibility.

As an aspiring theologian myself, these words carry an immediate and weighty significance. That theology has lost its academic credibility–among other things–means that my life as a Religion major will not be as easy as it may have been otherwise, that my eventual MDiv (if I can afford seminary) will be flatly dismissed by many of my peers, and that my chances of landing a job with a comfortable wage are tremendously low (if not non-existent).

Theology has lost its academic credibility, indeed. And in order to recover this lost credibility, Christian academics are once again on the defensive. In an attempt to justify the study of God on the terms of the modern university, many theologians claim that when we study God today we are still doing “important work” because that work is marked by the engagement of ancient religious texts and communities which–if we are to engage well–necessitate an interpretive empathy not otherwise required for historical thought. Moreover, such theologians report that the study of God requires advanced interdisciplinary knowledge. As such, society can supposedly rest assured that the continuation of theology is a worthwhile endeavor. For while it may be tedious, inapplicable, convoluted, and unfounded, it still enables us to explore various “historical mindset[s]” in greater depth. Surely, because of that (we can all agree) theology ought to be studied.

While I certainly would not deny that good theology today requires advanced interdisciplinary knowledge, I cannot accept the argument that this requirement is what renders theology worthwhile. For in order to do theology–to formulate truthful words about God–we must begin with the conviction that God has revealed himself to us. And in order to do Christian theology we must begin with the even more offensive conviction that God did exactly that through the birth, death, and resurrection of a Jew in first century Palestine. That, I take it, is what makes Christian theology especially significant.

Appealing to the doctrine of revelation, however, is unlikely to secure a place for theology as a legitimate academic enterprise in the modern university. If anything, it will only further exacerbate the dismissal of the study of God as little but the fantastical ramblings of religious fanatics. As Richard Dawkins has argued, “a positive case now needs to be made that [theology] has any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today’s university culture.”

But to respond to this charge by claiming that theology is necessary simply in order to “get inside” the mind of a historical people, or to master the ins-and-outs of another discipline, is exactly the sort of move that makes me question theology’s legitimacy. For in so doing, theology is ironically reduced to a parasitic discipline–relevant and truthful only insofar as it takes up the tasks of other academic fields. As such, theology becomes devoid of any real content because to insist on that content (i.e. that Jesus Christ is the Son of God) would be a refusal to play by the rules of modern liberal democratic societies whereby the particularities of our traditions must be sorted through the filter of a qualified “neutrality.” Instead of being re-established as the “Queen of Humanities,” then, theology becomes the “Chameleon of the Academy”–useful only as a means to ends that are other than its own.

As such, I’d like suggest that perhaps theologians should welcome the loss of our academic credibility. For, as Stanley Hauerwas has argued, theologians are now free to write as though we have “nothing to lose,” about a God who has never needed our protection; today theologians can write “without apology.” Moreover, that is precisely what we must do, at least insofar as we seek to make known the “real content” of our discipline (i.e. God). It is unlikely, then, that Dawkins will ever agree with my reasons for doing theology–after all, we are starting from very different places.

Indeed, I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, but I am most certainly not sorry for that.

 

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Not Certainty, but Joy

“True God of all truths, how we desire certainty amid the confusion of our lives. We think we could make it if we just had one thing we could know without doubt, one way to be that was not ambiguous, one other we could unreservedly trust. Yet all such knowledge, being and trust too often reflect our desperation rather than your glory. We pray, therefore, not for certainty but for joy at the discernment that you have discovered us and given us a way to go on in the midst of confusion. For what more could we ask? Amen.”

-Stanley Hauerwas in Prayers Plainly Spoken

Drones for Christ: an Open Letter to Liberty University

Liberty_University_sealThe following is an open letter/response to Liberty University with respect to the institution’s School of Aeronautics (SOA), which trains Christian students to pilot armed U.S. drones. To find out more about Liberty’s SOA see David Swanson’s recent article, ”Drones for Christ.”

Dear Liberty University,

I want to write truthfully about God. I know many will find that an odd way to begin a letter about U.S. drone warfare, but I see no other way. After all, I am a Christian–I cannot hope to transcend that identity, nor do I think that attempting to do so is a worthy goal (especially for the sake of “objectivity”). Indeed, being a Christian inevitably means many things–it means being baptized, partaking of the Lord’s supper, and belonging to a community marked by the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. Likewise, being a Christian means lamenting the violence carried out by those powers and principalities that coercively seek their own lordship over God’s good creation–powers and principalities like America.

This morning, I was discouraged to read that Liberty University has been training Christians to pilot armed U.S. drones since 2011 in your School of Aeronautics (SOA). The reasons for my discouragement are many–not least of which is the idea that Liberty graduates can somehow “serve the Lord” by targeting and killing their neighbors. Here, I would like to outline some of my concerns in detail with the hope that Liberty might reconsider (or at least restate theologically) it’s position regarding U.S. drone warfare:

1. Drone strikes are illegal (domestically and internationally), imprecise, and counterproductive. According to a recent study carried out by researchers at NYU School of Law and Stanford University Law School, drone strikes hit just 2% of “high priority” targets, often killing civilians instead. Indeed, America is responsible for killing nearly 5,000 people with drone technology (several hundred of which were children). The study also confirmed America’s use of egregious strike techniques (see: “double tapping” and “funeral strikes“) in order to kill individuals suspected of terrorism. All of this has led to significant opposition from citizens (especially in Pakistan) in what some have called a kind of “recruitment program” for terrorism.

Has Liberty University considered how these factors might undermine America’s interests? More importantly, have you considered how these factors might compromise the integrity of the church?

2. Drone strikes necessitate complicity with untruthful media systems.
It’s been common knowledge for several months that the Obama administration counts any human being whose life is extinguished when an American missile or bomb detonates as a “militant.” Just follow the articles–as soon as you get beyond the realm of mainstream American corporate media “militants” suddenly become “suspects” or even “civilians.”

How can the church–as a truth-telling institution–support the lies of the U.S. government and corporate media, especially when innocent lives are at stake?

3. Liberty University assumes drone warfare as an ethical norm for Christians. Don’t get me wrong–I dislike just-war theory just as much as the next pacifist, but don’t you think that drone warfare demands some sort of philosophical and theological backing?

Short of ambiguous and unhelpful appeals to “justice,” how has Liberty managed to reconcile drone strikes with the ethical teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ? How can the church support drone warfare and love our neighbors at the same time? How can the church support drone warfare and love America’s enemies at the same time?

Ultimately, I oppose drones because Christ–through his obedience unto death–defeated the principalities and powers of this world. In so doing, he brought his Kingdom (with all its alternative politics) to earth. With expectant hope, the church is called to a patience and peace in accordance to Christ’s faithfulness that is made possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. As such, the church cannot participate in the violence of empire without undermining its calling–we are, as it were, to put faithfulness to Jesus before the effectiveness of the world.

No doubt, many at Liberty University will reject my argument (that is, if anyone actually reads it). Nevertheless, I hope you will humor me by providing the theological reasons for doing so. After all, as the largest Evangelical school in the world, I would presume that you know how to talk about God.

Tell me: who would Jesus drone?

Understanding Tradition: Georgia Warnke on Gadamer’s Hermeneutics

Image“For Gadamer, the importance of the image of a hermeneutic circle lies in its characterization of our ‘historicity.’ The texts we most fundamentally need to understand, in one way or another, are the narratives in which we find ourselves. The interpretations we project onto these texts are not our own autonomous creations, however, but are rather bequeathed to us as part of the narratives themselves. These already possess specific vocabularies, plots, and sets of issues and insofar as we are ‘thrown’ into the narratives, their languages and trajectories necessarily provide the contours for our understanding of them. The range of our possible understandings of the texts that constitute our historical lives is thus conditioned in advance by our implication what Gadamer refers to as effective history (Wirkungsgeschichte). As historical beings, we find ourselves in historical and cultural traditions that hand down to us the projections or hypotheses, the prejudices, in Gadamer’s terminology, in which we approach them. The hermeneutic circle is a historical one in which our understanding is oriented by the effective history or history of influences of that which we are trying to understand. 
Of course, this description makes the hermeneutic circle sound less historical than simply ‘vicious.’ If we project understandings on the narratives in which we are involved that are themselves a product of those narratives, how is new knowledge or understanding possible? Indeed, why is it necessary? The image of the hermeneutic circle captures not only the circular character of understanding, in Gadamer’s view, but also it’s temporality. When we try to understand ourselves, our past and our future, we do so from a constantly changing temporal position. Moreover, we do so from a temporal position effected by a history that reflects understandings other than our own. The narratives in which we are involved and which we have to understand in one way or another not only continue even as we try to understand them, but also they continue as a confluence and even conflict of different interpretations of different narratives.” 

–Georgia Warnke, “Hermeneutics, Ethics, and Politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, pp. 80-81.

The “Sectarian Temptation” and Social Responsibility

ImageThe following is an excerpt from a draft of my summer research paper on the “considerable disagreement” between James Gustafson and Stanley Hauerwas. In my paper, I also consider the corrigibility of Christian convictions and the ethical tensions between Christology and creation. 

While Hauerwas’s claim that “the first duty of the church for society is to be the church,” is often interpreted as a legitimation of withdrawal (i.e. social irresponsibility), such interpretations involve a host of presuppositions that need to be considered:

a) That political activity is legitimated only by and through participation in activities that are facilitated by the state (e.g. voting). Such construals of the political process fail to recognize the church as an alternative polis that generates forms of political action unique to the Christian narrative and tradition. This failure is especially detrimental insofar as it undermines the church’s capacity to recognize and appreciate the political dimensions of prayer, liturgy, baptism, and the like.

b) That there is some definite and/or universal agreement concerning the nature of social responsibility, what it requires, and/or how it might be “measured.” Ambiguities of this kind are almost always resolved by the tacit assumptions of those (like Gustafson) who charge others with social irresponsibility. Not surprisingly, these “tacit assumptions” are usually consistent with–or somehow related to–various kinds of consequentialism.

c) That efforts to bring about a desirable result entail a social “involvement” and/or “activity” that is not demonstrated by those who seek to fulfill their moral duties prior to bringing about a desirable result. While the contest between effectiveness and faithfulness has yet to be decided after millenia of debate, the recognition that Gustafson and Hauerwas belong to different, and often conflicting ethical “camps” still remains a valuable philosophical distinction. Indeed, I suspect that many have identified the Hauerwasian ethic as an ethic of “withdrawal” precisely because they have not carefully considered the reasons why Hauerwas opposes the ethical determinacy of effectiveness.

In The Peaceable Kingdom, Hauerwas makes explicit the normative social location of God’s people–the church is called to “be a community…within the world.” As such, Gustafson’s charge of social irresponsibility seems clearly mistaken, at least insofar as that claim depends on the more basic charge of “withdrawal.” Social irresponsibility, moreover, does not necessarily follow from the conviction that the church is (in some respect) different than the world. Following John H. Yoder, Hauerwas insists that this difference is one of agency–that is, the distinction between church and world is not between the natural and the supernatural, but “rather between the basic personal postures of men, some of whom confess and others who do not confess that Jesus is Lord.”

It seems the relevant question concerning Hauerwasian social involvement, then, is not if but how? For Christian existence is not an issue of reducing political engagement to a matter of “yes” or “no,” but of rightly situating ourselves within the ecclesial body such that our social involvement can witness faithfully to the particularity of reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Indeed, Hauerwas develops this very point in Vision and Virtue. He writes

The crucial question is not whether the church should or should not be responsible for society, but rather what that responsibility is. It is surely being irresponsible if it attempts to change the world through the shortcut of using means unfitting to its ends. The church cannot attempt to become another power group among others in society that seek to dominate in the name of good…such a “withdrawal”…is based on the conviction that God has changed the essential reality of human affairs by his work in Christ. For the church to act in any way that contradicts this faith means that she has failed.

Echoing Hauerwas here, I suspect that Gustafson’s charge of withdrawal does not actually reflect a concern about the presence of social involvement but the type. After all, worship, baptism, and the Lord’s supper are–peculiar as they may be–social and political practices. What stands to question is whether they are the kind of social and political practices that Gustafson thinks constitute a “responsible” social ethic.

Of course, the kind of social involvement that Hauerwas adopts is the kind that he learned from Yoder during their time together at Notre Dame. In The Christian Witness to the State, Yoder argues that our present historical period is “characterized by the coexistence of two ages or aeons.” These aeons, however, share an essential difference of direction in that “the present aeon is characterized by sin and centered on man,” while “the coming aeon is the redemptive reality which entered history in an ultimate way in Christ.” According to Yoder, the old aeon is socially manifested by the state, while the future aeon is uniquely present in the church as a foretaste of what is already, but not yet. Yoder’s understanding of Christ’s lordship over the old aeon in the present time results in the conviction that evil can be used by God to serve His purposes. Accordingly, Yoder writes in The Politics of Jesus that “the key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience.”

In the end, then, Gustafson’s mistaken charge of isolationism is likely the result of his failure to identify the crux of this issue as an eschatological difference. As evidenced by his insistence on the location of the church within society, it’s clear that Hauerwas does not seek to isolate the church from the world. Thus, if Hauerwas’s ecclesiology results in a social irresponsibility, it is not because it legitimates a withdrawal from society but rather because it renounces the claim to govern history by affirming that Jesus “excluded any normative concern for any capacity to make sure that things would turn out right.”

 

Whose Jesus? Which Tradition?

Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre

Ever since Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, tradition has been a central concern for many ethical, political, and religious thinkers. According to MacIntyre, contemporary ethical theories are fragmented and incoherent because communities today are working with ethical concepts that have been rendered unintelligible by temporal distance. As a result, MacIntyre posits that no one can provide real reasons for choosing the moral positions and values that they do. This “fragmented” condition fosters endless ethical debates, unable as we are to demonstrate why our own convictions are true (and others false). Indeed, even appeals to objectivity, rationality, and the like prove unpersuasive as the content of such terminology ironically varies from person to person and place to place.

For MacIntyre, tradition–in this case, the tradition of Aristotelian virtue ethics–provides an alternative to modernity and liberalism (two cultural forces that have bolstered the moral “fragmentation” of our world). While the narrative of progress/capitalism reinforces the individualism of society, tradition inherently reinforces the sharedness of political life–the former (progress/capitalism) transforms pluralistic societies into ideological shopping malls, while the latter (tradition) requires that one’s convictions be received. Likewise, instead of entering into the contractual agreements of liberalism to protect atomistic individuals from harming each other, traditions are constituted by practices that must be learned from our neighbors for the betterment of our communities.

Of course, this “new traditionalism” has been adopted by some of the most important theologians of our time–George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, and Hans Frei (to name a few)–and they’ve been considerably influential. As Jeffrey Stout has noted, seminaries are places where “the term ‘liberal’ is nowadays as unlikely to be used in praise of someone as it is in the arena of presidential politics.”[1] Moreover, it seems that new traditionalists have successfully shifted the attention of ethical discourse from “me” to “us,” and from “justice” to “Jesus,” in an attempt to recover the particularity and content of Christian ethical convictions. Such efforts have proved especially effective given the freedom that the church has been granted to claim its materiality in a post-Christendom world.

Nevertheless, I often wonder if “tradition” hasn’t become just an intermediary term useful for distracting us from the interpretation that is involved in the process of identifying, claiming, and living into the practices of the past. Put bluntly: I have  a hunch that “tradition” has become the new “rationality.”

In Gerog-Hans Gadamer’s magnum opus Truth and Method, Gadamer introduces the idea of a “horizon of meaning”–that is, a framework for interpretation. According to Gadamer, this framework is made up of assumptions, prejudices, and presuppositions that both enable us to understand the world and limit our capacity to see it according to our historical situatedness. A horizon of meaning, then, is the perspective of an individual according to the various ways that they have been shaped to interpret reality. Indeed, it is observations like this one that have led us to understand the post-modern cliches regarding the impossibility of objectivity.[2]

But if nothing exists outside context, then tradition is also subject to interpretation. While MacIntyre is careful to note the ways in which traditions can correct themselves and change, some new traditionalists have treated their inheritance with an authority and fixedness that echoes the intellectual habits of modernity by presupposing the immediacy of tradition. In making this presupposition, however

one simply ignores temporality and the historical distance that separates one from the past, and more importantly from Gadamer’s point of view, one ignores the wealth of historical events, associations, and relationships that have affected its meaning. The result is that once again, one allows one’s own prejudices to prevail unchecked–in this instance, not because one remains wedded to one’s own projects and ideas without recognizing their thickness or historicity but rather because one simply takes one’s thick prejudices for the original meaning of the text [tradition] itself.[3]

I admit that this observation–if it is correct–could potentially put the church in a relativistic pickle/spiral (and I have no clue how to resolve that concern). Christians as just-warriors and as pacifists, as particularistic and as universalist, as liberal and as post-liberal have supposedly received the same story–but we’ve interpreted it, too. As such, those who appeal to tradition as an alternative philosophical framework that is free from the modern trappings of “rationality” should take care to ensure that they aren’t perpetuating outmoded hermeneutical assumptions. We might even start with some familiar questions: namely, Whose Jesus? Which tradition?

1. Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, p. 119
2. For example, Derrida’s claim that there is “nothing outside the text.”
3. Georgia Warnke, The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, p. 92

The Yoderian Eschatology of Mary Oliver

37-MO-from-Our-World

Summer, 1964. Photo by Molly Malone Cook.

Over the past several years, poetry has been low on my list of priorities. Honestly, I’ve no idea why. Although I have lived with wonderful people who appreciate and share poems frequently, it wasn’t until (very) recently that I grew to understand and know the joys it can bring. Anyway, just a few weeks ago, a dear friend persuaded me to pick up Mary Oliver and I was blown away by how her words worked. Since then, I’ve read many more of Oliver’s poems–and others’ poems–delighting in the creative and unconventional ways that poets use language to name phenomena.

As a (basically) new poetry enthusiast I am incredibly naive–or at least, I think I am. To be honest, I’ve no clue if the stuff I’ve been reading is artistically tasteful or commercialized, easy garbage. My hunch is that, like everything else, developing a sophisticated sense of what is “good poetry” and what is “bad poetry” will take time, discussions, and experience. Nevertheless, I’m not about to let my self-awareness ruin the early and awkward stages of a burgeoning interest.

While I’ve most certainly enjoyed the ways that poetry frequently gives the middle-finger to modern construals of “rationality,” I also can’t help myself from making the inevitably academic claim that most poetry seems to be–at bottom–a largely theological event.[1] This first occurred to me while reflecting on Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods,” from her award-winning work American Primitive:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Here, Oliver’s words strongly echo the eschatological themes presented by John H. Yoder in The Politics of Jesus (as well as The Christian Witness to the State). According to Yoder, it was the mistake of Protestant liberalism to  think that the church is responsible for making the world “turn out right.” Affirming the triumphant claim of the New Testament, Yoder insists that “Jesus Christ by His cross, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of His Spirit, has [already] triumphed over the powers. This is the concrete meaning of the term Lord. The signficance of the present period of history, from Pentecost to Parousia, is that ‘he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet’ (1 Cor. 15:25).”

The implications of this are many, not least of which is the conclusion that Christians must be a people who renounce the “illusion of omnipotence”–that is, granting effectiveness priority over faithfulness. In so doing, we simultaneously learn what it means to “live out of control.”[2] Because Jesus of Nazareth has already redeemed creation, the church truthfully understands its role as a fortaste of the peaceable Kingdom–as a patient witness to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection which grants us the time necessary to justifiably renounce violence. Thus, the Christian is uniquely able to “love what is mortal / to hold it” and to “let it go.” All of this, that is, until we reach the the other side of Oliver’s unknowable river.

1. Yeah, I’m actually quite tempted to argue that it’s all theological.
2. A phrase used by Stanley Hauerwas in his essay “The Servant Community: Christian Social Ethics,” originally published in The Peaceable Kingdom. According to Hauerwas, to live “in control” involves “breaking the cycle of self-deception that leads to the belief that justice can be achieved only through a power and violence that seeks to assure its efficacy.”