A Hiatus

Hello Everyone,

Thanks to all who have read the blog over the last few years. I’m going to be taking an indefinite hiatus from posting here at A Church Unbound. I’ve found myself writing more and more for a collaborative project called Flux of Thought (which I posted about last year) and thus have had increasingly less time to post here. A Church Unbound will remain up, but for now, I do not foresee myself putting any amount of time into new posts for it. My work, however, can still be found at Flux of Thought where I am collaborating with three other aspiring scholars in theology and philosophy of religion. Thanks again for reading!

Joel

On Justice Part 2

This is the second part of a series on justice that began quite a while ago here. In that post, I posed this question:  Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation? To put it another way, why should God’s justice ultimately be a penal justice? I also acknowledged that the first post was leaving things a bit messy. We’re going to begin to untangle some of that here.

I want to point out up front that, despite the title, this post is not going to be primarily about justice; rather, I want to set up the current situation that gives rise to the questionable conception of justice I outlined in the last post–namely, the moralization of justice.

To do that, we need to first examine the concept of sin. In western Protestant traditions, sin has been conceived of in two partially related ways. First, it is the general condition of human beings (Original Sin) that we are born into and must “work” to get out of by accepting the grace offered to us through faith. Second, there are individual “sins” that are indicative of the more general condition but which can themselves be identified, outlined, placed in hierarchy, and appropriately condemned. This condemnation is a markedly different formulation than what we find in the Catholic tradition. In pre-Reformation Catholicism, acts of sin are counted against you in a sort of running tally with your works of righteousness; the more righteous you are, the less time spent in purgatory. But in the Protestant tradition, broadly, the condemnation of sin is tantamount to the rejection of the world which is always at odds with the kingdom of God. This was by no means Luther’s view. It doesn’t quite accurately describe Calvin either, but it was the Reformed movement that gave rise to a strong version of this understanding in America.

The Puritans, who were Calvinists, held two narratives together that deeply shaped the way they viewed the world and how God interacts with it. First, was the narrative of persecution–what is called a “jeremiad.” The Puritans (who really were persecuted in England) believed that they were the only truly elect. They saw themselves as a pure (hence the name) distillation of what it is to be a member of the elect and as the last bastian of morality and decency among a rapidly degenerating, horrifically evil world (which included Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestants.) They fled to the New World in order to establish the City of God, free from the dangers that the evil outside world presented. Second is their understanding of how God acts in the world, which is also necessarily tied to their belief in election. While they believed in election, they also believed it was impossible to know for sure who was actually elect. But they thought that if a person had been blessed with election by God, it would be naturally reflected in the abundance of blessings that surrounded him. If one is a member of the elect, one would live a righteous life and be abundantly blessed. The righteous life necessarily includes abstaining from “the world” which requires a black-and-white knowledge of what is righteous and what is worldly. Thus, a life devoted to and focused on Christ is primarily about one’s own moral behavior.

Furthermore, if one were to err, punishment would be the only way to ensure a truly repentant heart and a commitment to returning to the right path. Those who do not repent are in danger of eternal punishment.

The effects of this sort of moralization of Christianity are numerous and far reaching. The most important effect is that the significance of Christ for our lives, “following Jesus,” is primarily about not doing bad stuff simply for the sake of not doing it. We hear a lot of sermons and sing a lot of songs about following Jesus, giving him control of our lives, etc., etc. However, we rarely hear about what that should actually look like. We’re left to draw concrete conclusions from the abstraction of Christ as “the center” of our lives, and that has predictably resulted in the separation of Christians from the “sinful world” strictly for the sake of “not sinning” itself. Separation is, after all, the safest way to be a Christian, since it allows one to live in a protective bubble safe from the dangerous world. I’m not just talking about families who homeschool their kids and only have friends from church, etc. Even those who live in the world can still take Jesus’ command to not be “of it” as a prescribed morality. You can live among the sinners, just don’t be one of them–simply because you shouldn’t. Jesus and God just don’t want you to. There is no other reason given. The focus of our whole Christian life, what makes us distinct from the world, becomes the fact that we don’t participate in activities that are rather arbitrarily designated as sinful because they correlate with some notion of “what the world does.” If we abstain, pray sometimes, serve others sometimes, read the Bible, and go to church, we’re devoutly following Christ. Christianity becomes a life of inward contemplation with its outward signs restricted singularly to church-going, occasional service projects and negative action (i.e. I don’t do a, b, or c.)

In this familiar version of Christianity, sin becomes the barrier that keeps us from abstractions like “being close to God” and “following Christ.” But I don’t think either are primarily about “not sinning.” Scripture makes it pretty clear that to follow Christ, to be close to or love God, to be “in relationship” with both, to [insert any other relationship to the trinity you can think of], is accomplished in loving others in a such a way that radically subverts the worldly order–the orders of power, privilege, and the oppression that those naturally bring. When I love and serve those that seem impossible to love and serve, I am loving and serving Christ. If that becomes the focus of the Christian life, then sin takes on a very different role. It is that which prevents us from that love and service. It is that which we seek after and prioritize over that love and service. In other words, it is idolatry.

This understanding of sin is not new. I’m following a whole host of people (thinkers as far apart as D.A. Carson and Peter Rollins, for example) in defining sin as idolatry. We typically think of idolatry as one sin among many, another moral guideline, but that sort of thinking (that there is a list of rules which, once broken, constitute a list of sins) is exactly what we’re trying to get away from. If we conceive of sin in this way, we can begin to see that our moralization of sin has actually prevented us from identifying some really pervasive sin barriers. Our own comfort and security. Our privilege. Our politics. The prioritization of our allegiance to the nation-state. We can easily imagine how these might impair our ability to engage in selfless acts of mercy, justice, and compassion to those who are poor, oppressed, and helpless (which we also might say represent the bare minimum as expressions of a life devoted to Christ), let alone to develop a posture of service and humility, one in which relationship and solidarity with the “refuse of the earth” becomes a part of our very identities as Christians. We too become the scum of the earth. In an interesting, ironic twist, the moralized view of justice has in fact prevented us from actualizing what I think is clearly biblical justice.

This doesn’t suddenly mean that activity we once saw as sinful is no longer sinful. The reason for its categorization as sin as well as the contingent consequences of sin have changed. While the elimination of morality from our conception of sin may seem like I’m watering it down, the contingent consequences of sin are actually far more severe. Under the view I’ve outlined, sin not only has damaging consequences for us, but  In the next post, we’ll begin to look at the cosmic

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The Theology of Superman: Hope for the Empire

By now, many will have already seen this article or others like it describing the Warner Bros. campaign to get pastors to talk about Man of Steel this past Sunday, which was Fathers’ Day, using a guide developed by Pepperdine theologian Craig Detweiler. The main thrust of the sermon is centered around this question: “How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?”

The CNN story goes on to set up the “debate” surrounding this marketing tactic on the part of Warner Bros. as between Christians who think this is a good way to show the world that we can get behind something in pop culture and those who think films are “pumped out from Hollywood’s sewers.”

What is fascinating to me about this set up is that it simply takes the messianic parallels as given and obvious. The film is just obviously about Jesus and parallel to his story–so now the only question is whether or not Christians are willing to trust Hollywood to speak the story of Jesus to them through a “worldly” medium like film. As Detweiler himself is quoted in the article, “All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like `Man of Steel,’ this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service.”

My concern is that “faith, sacrifice, and service,” while all wonderful attributes to have, do not sum up the story of Jesus. In fact, by making that the distillation of Jesus’ life and ministry, the sermon notes seem to direct us away from what should be the most troubling divergences between the story of Superman and the story of Jesus by focusing on the archetypal parallels.

No one should be surprised that Man of Steel, or the mythology of Superman more generally, has strong parallels to the Jesus narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a story archetype in Western literature that cannot be traced back to the biblical narrative. With regard to superhero archetypes especially, the parallels to the story of Christ and the messianic archetype (which does not originate with Jesus) are more than obvious. So what, then, could these sermon notes be other than a reminder, saying, “Hey! Stories like Man of Steel are retellings of your religion’s story of salvation. But with way more explosions. Let’s look at this clip!” Superman is a story of hope. Kal-El is a character (like Spock, like Gandalf, like a lot of characters in the world of science fiction and fantasy) who deviates from his origin, his true nature, choosing to become more human and embracing those characteristics (usually emotion, empathy, etc.) which are made to be the epitome of humanness, and suffering some consequences for it.

The problem is that to say the story of Jesus can be encapsulated in a single statement about the hope of salvation makes that story completely one-dimensional and misses the what of salvation entirely. And by the way, this one-dimensional view of salvation is probably how many Christians view their own faith: Jesus has punched my ticket into Heaven–now that’s something I can put my hope in! That’s why we love stories like this–or any other myriad versions of the story of hope in salvation from… something.

It’s that something that makes up the really vital difference between Superman and Jesus. Man of Steel is an origin story, establishing the basic relationships between Superman and everyone else so that a few more films can be made before another reboot. One of those relationships is between Superman and the US government–that is, Superman and the empire. Some (especially Evangelicals) will find that comparison offensive, but it’s certainly true. You don’t earn the title of “World Superpower” without being an empire. So Superman goes “on call” for the empire at the end of the film. He’s not its soldier, like the Marvel parallel Captain America. He still maintains some independence, but he also has no interest in subverting the empire in any way. Now, I don’t mean a coup d’etat like his friend General Zod stages on Krypton. But the US perpetrates plenty of injustice worldwide on a daily basis. What would be really Christlike is if in the second film, we see Superman staging nonviolent protests against drones strikes against innocent people, or helping to shut down Gitmo, choosing not to use his immense power when he very easily could–we could go on and on like this. Instead, Superman becomes a symbol of hope for the empire itself. The film may portray Superman’s struggle with his identity, and I think it does a good job of that, but at the end of the day, Superman is not just a human–he’s an American.

Admittedly, the nonviolent Superman probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting film. Superman’s power is not in his ability to speak radically in a way that moves an agenda of radical subversion against an oppressive empire. He punches stuff. And flies. And cuts stuff with his heat vision. All of that is fantastic–I really enjoyed the film. But none of it represents the mission of Jesus. There’s no account of Jesus fighting Tiberius through the streets of Rome (the Colosseum didn’t exist yet) which, I must admit, would’ve been badass.

The hope that Jesus brings is salvation from the oppressive force brought upon the poor, the weak, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick by the powers of the world–the Roman empire and all those in service to it. And he does this through a radically nonviolent means of subversion to the point of his death. This is the fuller, deeper meaning of the hope of salvation. The moment we begin to compare Superman and Jesus in this respect, the parallel falls apart.

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Gatsby and the Resiliency of American Empire

The Great Gatsby opened this week in its fourth film adaptation to very mixed, leaning toward negative reviews. The complaints range from the film being Baz Luhrman’s attempt to do a perfect Baz Luhrman impersonation to the awkwardness of the mash up between the early twenties and contemporary hip hop to the plodding pace of the plot and the poor attempt to mask that with a lot of flashing lights and CGI. There even seems to be a recurring complaint that the adaptation misses the point of the novel entirely, celebrating American empire and all the decadence of the Roaring Twenties rather than telling a story about its downfall.

One of the interesting things about the reviews is that they seem to claim exact opposite things about the film: Where one blasts the mashup, another praises it; where one says the film is shallow, another says it carries the message of the novel perfectly, and so on. What this tells me is that people (still) don’t really know what to make of this story. It’s one of those novels that everyone supposedly read in high school; people tend to like to use it as a touchtone for their own cultured-ness, a way of showing that they have some semblance of knowledge about literature. One of my brothers used to keep a copy in the glovebox of his car on the off chance a girl happened to open it.

I have many thoughts about the success of the film (or lack thereof), though this is not meant to be a review. I will say, however, that the aspect of the novel I’m going to discuss is brought out through what I think is the film’s greatest failure. As an adaptation, the film does an incredible job being faithful to the timeline and construction of the plot as well as the dialogue, with much of it taken word for word fromt the text of the novel. With regard to the major themes, my impression was that the film, in a sometimes heavy handed way, makes it a point to alert the viewer that, through the quintessentially modernist devices of lost love and failed attempts to recover the past, this is primarily a story about empire; namely that American empire is cold, destructive, and tragically resilient. But while the film attempts to beat that into the viewer with melodrama and over the top mise-en-scène, the novel sketches a much more careful, delicate picture which has made it notoriously difficult (some say impossible) to adapt.

This brings us to the film’s greatest failure which also happens to be, I think, the novel’s greatest trick: Nick Carraway. Both novel and film are told from Carraway’s first person perspective (though the film sometimes departs.) This is obviously a very deliberate choice for Fitzgerlad: Why write a novel so heavily dependent upon the revealing of another character’s backstory in the first person? At times, the devices utilized to convey those details of the past feel stilted, contrived, usually a telling of a telling. Furthermore, a story that is so tightly centered around deception and fantasy does not lend itself well to reliable first person narration, even if it isn’t the narrator intentionally lying, and indeed, many scholars have attempted to make the argument that Nick Carraway is in fact an unreliable narrator. The film plants that possibility in the viewer’s mind right from the beginning by having Nick tell the story of Gatsby from a sanitarium where he is being treated for severe anxiety and alcoholism–an unnecessary addition, to say the least. Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that the story he has told is false in anyway.

The trick is that while being faithful to the story that he lived, he is not honest with the readers, and more importantly himself, about his participation in the empire that destroys Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson by the end of the novel.

The natural effect of first person narration is that the reader or viewer begin to identify with and trust the narrator. In fact one of the effectual goals of the novel is for us to begin to think that we are Nick Carraway–to be able to see ourselves sympathetically in his shoes. I’m not sure any film adaptation carries this as well as the novel, and it is why every adaptation has ultimately come up short, seeming not to capture the elusive essence of the story.

One of the most carefully crafted details about Carraway’s character is his own privilege. It’s well concealed and very easy to forget especially since he is so often juxtaposed between Gatsby and the Buchanans. However, the novel begins with Nick relating this advice from his father: ” ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ ” It is clear that he is not Tom Buchanan, but it is because he is not that we are able to identify with him. It adds an important layer of complexity to what would otherwise be a rather banal modernist theme, old versus new, which the film hits on quite strongly. Nick seems to be set outside of that somehow and gives the impression that he is above the games being played, telling the reader, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

But it is Nick Carraway’s self-ascribed honesty that actually prevents us at first from being able to see his character completely; that is, his privilege has afforded him the opportunity to be passively drawn into a story which he could break himself from at any moment. In that sense, he is actually no different from the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, or even Meyer Wolfsheim, who all treat their own lives in the exact same way. He has romanticized Gatsby’s persona much in the same way as Daisy, referring to Gatsby’s misguided attempts to repeat the past and win Daisy back as his “incorruptible dream.” The famed last line of the novel emphasizes this as well: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” suggesting that the never ending attempt to recover a more real, more pure past is a noble endeavor. But it is a romantic endeavor, one that Nick and Daisy both have the ability to pursue and abandon at their leisure. Gatsby never has the option to break from his dream, and both the Wilsons’ attempts to do so end in their deaths. Nick pushes the blame for all the terrible events of the novel on to Tom and Daisy, telling us, “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

But I don’t think Nick’s hands are totally clean here. The tragedy Nick sees in his story is not that Gatsby, because of the uncontrollable circumstances of his life, was considered nothing and never had any chance in the face of real American empire. Rather, it’s that his farce was ruined, and he was not permitted to continue to live out the romanticism that Nick so admired.

In this way, Nick participates in the resiliency of American empire that is made explicit in his indictment of the Buchanans. And he has drawn the reader unwittingly into that participation. We revere Gatsby for all the wrong reasons and his story suggests that there are only two ways to really participate in the empire: be born into it or be a self-made criminal tycoon like Meyer Wolfsheim. [Aside: In the novel, after Gatsby’s death, Wolfsheim tells Nick that he made Gatsby what he was, that he gave Gatsby everything he had.] The rest of us, the Nick Carraways of the world, will hate that, we’ll actively despise it, go so far as to insult it and see ourselves as better than it [Nick says of his last encounter with Tom, “I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.”] Yet we will have no problem romanticizing individual efforts to overcome it, even when they fail, if we are privileged like Nick to be able to do so. Our privilege affords us the pseudo-active ability to be outraged from our living rooms and behind our computer screens, bringing no real change to the problems that have outraged us. And American empire continues to thrive.

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Why Equal Rights for Same-Sex Couples is not a Question of Morality

In my last post, I wrote about justice, arguing that biblical justice is not a question of morality; rather it is a radical call to deny self in order bring justice to those on the margins, regardless of who they are or the sort of life they’ve been living. There’s a sense of banality that hangs over that claim. So many Christians know that already. It’s nothing new: Pick up your cross, and follow Christ. That means I serve the homeless, volunteer with kids who have special needs, visit shut-ins at a nursing home, etc. I don’t mean to diminish any of those things. They’re all great examples of what it means to follow Christ, especially if we do those things out of a compulsion to rather than an obligation–if we see those on the margins as people we genuinely care about and love and not people we need in order to feel good about our own spirituality.

That’s why the Supreme Court’s deliberation regarding the Defense of Marriage Act is so important in illustrating this challenge: The court’s ultimate decision is not a question of the morality of homosexuality. To be clear upfront, I do not believe homosexuality as such is a sin nor is it immoral. Sin and immorality are also not always the same thing. These are both two different posts though. What I want to do here is examine some good reasons for supporting gay marriage as a matter of bringing justice to those on the margins.

For those who already know the words “sin,” “immoral,” and “homosexuality” should never be in the same sentence, I’m with you–but this post isn’t for you. Some of the points I’m going to make will probably be frustrating, but I’m speaking to my fellow Christian brothers and sisters who are genuinely trying to struggle through this because they want to do the right thing. They’re trying to figure that out in the context of their faith. If we still affirm freedom of religion, then we have to allow that some people need to do that. I’m going to go through three of the major arguments against equal rights for married homosexual couples and make the case for why each should be abandoned based on what I think is a biblical notion of justice as well as some logical factors.

Homosexuality is immoral and a sin, and if we condone it through affirming equal mariage rights, we’re condoning immorality and sin.

This argument truly baffles me because our laws already allow for many activities that Christians already deem sinful. I’ve already mentioned freedom of religion. Doesn’t that allow for a lifestyle that many Christians would deem sinful–and a far more primary sin than homosexuality? That Christians are far more adamant about not condoning a homosexual lifestyle–a tertiary “doctrine” at best–than not condoning idolatry tells me that there is something confused going on when it comes to a strong stance against equal rights based upon this argument. We would never imagine denying the rights of a Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, even a Wiccan couple that are basic to all marriages under the law. Those folks did not have a Christian wedding, but we don’t talk about their rights or their marriages as condoning sin and immorality though many Christians probably believe that ultimately people of other faith traditions have it wrong. I don’t want to get too tangled in any sort of pluralist/universalist/exclusivist debate, so we’ll leave it at this: Why this issue and not others?

If we grant equal rights to homosexual couples, we are advocating the deterioration of marriage as a sacred practice.

Again, I’m a bit baffled by this. First, I’ve already mentioned that people of other faith traditions are obviously married, and their marriages probably have nothing to do with marriage as people think it is defined in the Bible. Why are we singling out homosexuals? Secondly, how is marriage defined in the Bible? I don’t think we do a good job of answering this question at all. Stanley Hauerwas has said that its confused to think that Biblical marriage is primarily about love since the marriages of the Bible had nothing to do with love. He writes “Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years. […] When marriage becomes a mutually enhancing arrangement until something goes wrong, then it makes no sense at all to oppose homosexual marriages.” (Thanks to Shawn McCain for posting the link to this blog.) Furthermore, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to talk about the deterioration of marriage when the church is already doing a really poor job of saving marriages from divorce–either by creating extremely unrealistic expectations for love and happiness in a marriage or not providing enough care to couples who are really struggling (the two usually go hand in hand.) I’ve seen many replies to this point along the lines of “Well neither are okay. Just because divorce is a problem doesn’t mean we let another problem in the door!” But again, both are only problems because we don’t understand what marriage is in the first place. That’s an insider issue though. When it comes to the rest of the country, why do we think we get to dictate how marriage works? Marriage is a legal standing and only a spiritual one in addition if one practices a particular faith–and even then, because we value the freedom of religion, marriage isn’t just one thing spiritually.

If we open the door for homosexuals, where will it end? Will we be condoning someone’s marriage to his dog, car, or gun next?

Short answer: No. This objection actually doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. First, our laws are pretty solid on only allowing marriage between two consenting adults. That means no marriage to kids, no marriage to animals, no marriage to inanimate objects. Setting all living categories aside for a minute, a marriage to an inanimate object wouldn’t change anything legally anyway. A car can’t have power of attorney. It can’t visit you in the hospital. As a car is already a person’s property, that person can do just about anything he wants with it (aside from infringing on the rights of others.) With regard to animals or kids where there are serious sexual considerations, there can’t be any legal consent, so they just can’t happen. Period. Other types of relationships that are between consenting adults, such as polyamorous relationships, get a little more complex, but it’s still post hoc to say allowing for equal rights in committed same sex marital relationships will inevitably lead to things like polygamy, marriage between family members, etc. Someone making that argument simply cannot show a causal connection between those that would suffice in a sound argument. Show me one other time in history where expanding the rights of other human beings has led to the moral decay of society. You can’t. The common response to this is, “Well why not? If you think homosexuality is okay, then why are you discriminating against grandmas who want to marry their granddaughters or two twin brothers who want to get married or three couples who all want to be committed to each other?” The answer is simple: it’s not inconsistent to think homosexuality is okay but those other things are not. There are no doubt people who disagree with that assessment (particularly on the point of polyamory.) And that’s okay. Those latter three are not at stake right now, and bringing them up is nothing more than a distraction from the issue that is at hand. I do not think family members should be able to marry each other, nor do I think polyamory is okay, but I think same sex marriage is absolutely okay. I think I have good reasons to believe those things, but this isn’t the place for those. The point is that thinking same sex marriage will inevitably lead to all sorts of licentiousness is post hoc, and it isn’t inconsistent to affirm same sex marriage but denounce other sorts of marriages as wrong.

Here’s the bottom line for me: We need to stop talking about “biblical principles” or “hard truths” with regard to this issue. Honestly, it’s just silly because most of us have no idea what those phrases even mean. I want to put what I’ve said so far as clearly as possible:

1. Our laws do not nor have they ever corresponded directly to biblical principles. They are designed to defend the freedom of everyone.

2. Most of the Christians engaged in this debate are not clear on what biblical marriage is.

3. We have no evidence, historical or otherwise, that granting equal rights to married same sex couples will open the door for other types of marriage scenarios.

Given those three points, it makes no sense for Christians to get hung up on the morality of homosexuality when it comes to equal rights within marriage. Why do we so easily forget that Jesus advocated for those whom the religious leaders of his day considered unclean to be able to come into the temple, to worship just as the Pharisees did? Was that not also a sacred act? To me this issue is a clear indication of what I described in my last post: When we entangle justice with morality, we often end up denying justice to those who really need it the most. The church can’t continue to deny justice and expect to remain relevant.

A Brief Discourse on Justice

“When justice is divorced from morality, when rights of individuals are separated from right and wrong, the only definition you have left for justice is the right for every individual to do as he pleases. And the end of that road is anarchy and barbarism.” – John Piper

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a post about John Piper or even fundamentalism per se. Taking them down is too easy, and frankly, they see enough abuse from other progressives. I say that because what I want to suggest in this post might at first sound rather pedestrian, some kind of banal plea for social justice. But stick with me. I intend to do a few posts about justice, so in this one, I’m just trying to lay out the primary tension and raise some really difficult questions.

I’ve been thinking about justice a lot since moving to Chicago. I now live in a city that suffers some of the worst systemic oppression in the country (not that Los Angeles is much better), and I live in a neighborhood (Rogers Park) that experiences a large portion of that. I live among people who, according John Piper’s understanding of justice, deserve some sort of punishment–not the justice that comes through the undoing of systemic oppression.

The understanding of justice posited above begs two important questions:

Is justice tied to morality, and if so, how?

Christians tend to think of justice in two fundamentally distinct ways: Legal and Social. Most Christians probably wouldn’t disagree with Piper, i.e. we need morality or else civilization degenerates into anarchy. I also don’t doubt that most Christians, including Piper, have a heart for the poor and oppressed. That varies widely in how it’s embodied, but I think most Christians today know that’s part of the program, and they want to participate, whether they really mean it or not. The problem is that these two categories aren’t divided so neatly. It’s not as if all those who suffer under systemic oppression are really saints with hearts of gold in desperate need of liberation. Many who would qualify under the Social probably also qualify under the Legal understandings of justice. So if we really want to stick to the legal/moral understanding of justice–that true justice punishes the wicked and vindicates the righteous–we have to shuffle a bit if we also want to be biblical followers of Christ and address the social. In other words, it’s really tough to love a homeless drug addict with the love of Christ when you also feel pretty strongly that he should go to prison for the stealing the money he needed to buy his drugs.

I know some might object to the idea that Jesus didn’t have a moral understanding of justice. He did, but not in the sense of bringing punitive justice to the rule-breakers. For Jesus, the true moral breach was living in a way that did not bring liberating justice to the poor and oppressed. That is his message to the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23:23, for example.)

Here’s the primary problem: Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation?

Why is it that we’re perfectly comfortable with our notion of “God’s love” exceeding our wildest expectations and definitions, yet when it comes to justice, we seem to want to limit God to an exact replica of our own penal system? Why wouldn’t “God’s justice” be just as radical as God’s love? And why wouldn’t those two things be tied together?

The typical response to this sort of question is, “Oh, but they are! You see, when a parent loves a child, she disciplines that child for the things he does wrong. It is just that the child be punished for the things he does wrong.”

There are two glaring problems with this.

1) We don’t love our criminals. That isn’t why we punish them. When we think of the people who are “going to hell,” we think of the “bad guys” (probably because it’s too painful to think of some atheist relative, but that’s a future post.) We want the people who have done us wrong punished. We want them to suffer a bit–or a lot. Most of us have never been wronged in any serious way by a criminal, yet we still demand punishment, mostly because we sense that it will make us safer. That’s what the Piper quote at the beginning is getting at. If there’s not punishment, all us civilized folk are going to be forced into a state of anarchy. That might be the case for describing a practical social structure. But that has less to do with some notion of maintaining morality for the sake of morality than it does just making sure we can walk safely on our own street (and I recognize that even those points are debatable.)

2) People who make the above claim always forget the second part of it: Forgiveness. The punishment doesn’t work the way the parent intends unless the child is allowed to return to the loving arms of the parent. If you’ve been scouring the gospels this whole time for the place where Jesus tells the adulterous woman to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11),  you need to ask yourself: If the woman did continue to sin, would Jesus not continue to welcome her back regardless of whether or not she repented? And that isn’t even the whole verse:

10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” [CEB]

Jesus doesn’t condemn her, and I think it would be hard to make the case that he would change his mind regardless of whether or not she followed his final instruction to her. (Of course, this is all ignoring that John 7:53-8:11 is a disputed section of the gospel anyway. Critical editions of the Greek New Testament don’t have it. So if one really wanted frame Jesus as a moralist out to nab the rule-breakers of the Ancient Near East, one would need to look elsewhere.)

The extreme tension in understanding what justice is according to Jesus comes when we try to reconcile our moralist sensibilities with the fact that Jesus welcomes everyone and doesn’t condemn them. That starts raising all sorts of grinding, insomnia inducing questions about murderers, sex offenders… Questions that cannot be written off or taken lightly, but questions that we’ll have to cover later.

There is only one group of people Jesus says are excluded from the his kingdom. He says everyone except those who wield power against the poor and oppressed are welcome in the kingdom of God. And it isn’t because there’s some sort of “sin force field” keeping the power wielders out. It’s that the kind of thing that the kingdom of God is is the kind of thing that they absolutely despise. Those on the outside, in the outer darkness that Jesus speaks of in Matthew, aren’t weeping and gnashing their teeth because they’re being horrifically tortured–it’s because the kindgom of God is an absolute affront to the power they hold so dear, and they just can’t stand it. They can’t bear to see God’s justice being handed down–not against them but for those they were against. The powerless coming to power.

It might seem like our notion of justice is a bit of a mess at this point. There’s a lot I haven’t addressed yet. We haven’t really defined “sin.” As I’ve alluded to, we haven’t talked about justice for victims of crime, especially violent crime, about justice for victims of despots like Hitler or Stalin. We haven’t talked about what forgiveness is or might look like in any of those situations. Those are all very important points. What I want to do in subsequent posts is tease out the ways in which even our conceptions of what justice should be like in these situations is challenged by the nature of God as I want to suggest it. For now though, let’s think about what the implications might be for the sort of justice I’m suggesting. What do we lose if we remove morality from the equation? What do we gain?

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The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Theology

I keep encountering an assumption about liberal theology in general that has really been gnawing at me since I started diving deep into the work of the man who started it all, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Here’s the problem clearly stated: Many folks define liberal theology as theology that takes its starting point from experience, e.g. either one’s own cultural-historical values, or (more commonly) transcendent human reason. As a result, they conflate Schleiermacher’s theological liberalism with secular humanism, Enlightenment reason, etc.

While it may be that there are contemporary liberal or post-liberal theologians out there who think theology should or can only be done this way, I would like to contend that they have no [direct] connection to Schleiermacher’s theology. In fact, Schleiermacher doesn’t use the word experience (ErfahrungErlebnis, or Praxis) unless he’s talking about the experience of a feeling (ein Gefühl). What has happened, I think, is that experience has been conflated with feeling, and Schleiermacher’s original use of the word “feeling” has been dropped altogether.

That said, there are two major problems with this conflation:

1) Experience and feeling are quite clearly not the same thing in Schleiermacher’s theology.

2) Feeling isn’t the basis for Schleiermacher’s theology; rather theology is what points us back to the feeling. It is what makes explicit an implicit feeling and helps explicate how such a feeling is possible.

So before you go around the campus of your seminary tomorrow telling everyone how Schleiermacher almost destroyed theology altogether until it was rescued by Karl Barth, let’s try to understand this complex and fundamental aspect of Schleiermacher’s theology and philosophy of religion.

We’ll begin by recovering what feeling is. When Schleiermacher talks about feeling, he does mean pre-reflective sorts of things like joy, remorse, sorrow, etc. By pre-reflective, he is speaking in a phenomenological sense (or proto-phenomenological if you prefer.) He means embodied feelings that are prior to thought. But these, according to Schleiermacher, are derivative of one single feeling: What he calls the feeling of absolute dependence.

Before I get to what that feeling is and what it means, we have to ask: Why feeling? In the wake of Kant, a number of philosophers (Jacobi, Schelling, and Schleiermacher, to name a few) are trying to solve the problem of how the realm of the noumenal (the real) can cause any effect in the phenomenal without resorting to Spinozism. (For the sake of space, I’m going to assume a working knowledge of those concepts. If you’re unfamiliar, you can read a short primer here and here.) Understanding how these two realms are connected was a problem Kantianism couldn’t solve. It seemed as though the only alternative was to turn back to Spinoza who had posited the universe as one Substance (God) with two attributes extension and cognition. Jacobi, et. al. thought Spinozism was pantheistic (which it obviously is) and mechanistically determined (which is far less obvious and certainly debatable) and thus nihilistic (Jacobi invents this term in relation to both Spinoza and Kant.) Determinism, it was thought, leaves no room for moral agency.

Schleiermacher, at the beginning of The Christian Faith (his systematic theology) reconfigures the three realms, outlined by Kant in his Critiques, in which human beings interact with the world (Understanding, Reason, Aesthetics for Kant; Knowing, Doing, and Feeling for Schleiermacher.) He makes the claim that both knowing (theology) and doing (ethics) are important in religion, but they cannot be said to be the most essential aspects of religious piety–that from which religious piety springs forth. Schleiermacher notes that devout piety is quite often demonstrated without much theological knowledge at all; that is, if knowledge were the most essential aspect of piety, theologians would naturally be the most pious Christians. We know that’s definitely not true. Theology, in fact, does not require any religious piety–it can be completely areligious. Doing is less important to what we’re focusing on here, but suffice it to say that while piety typically leads one to ethical behavior, Schleiermacher doesn’t think that ethics necessarily requires piety–that is there are plenty of ethical people who are not religious pious. Therefore, ethics cannot be the basis for religion (as Kant believed.)

Establishing feeling as the basis for religion is a way for Schleiermacher to do an end run around the problem of knowledge and the real while ditching the watered-down religion of Kant. He doesn’t want to deny the existence of a transcendent real (a thing-it-itself realm) in the way that Schelling’s philosophy does as reflected in Schleiermacher’s rigorously transcendent account of God’s attributes. But by making the “I” dependent on the real, he doesn’t have to explain how it is that the “I” could have direct knowledge of the real on which to base a theology and thus a religion. Schleiermacher agrees with Kant that the “I” does not have direct access to the real epistemically, but the real, which must imbue every phenomenal object, can affect us pre-reflectively, and dependence is the primary way in which this manifests.

Why a feeling of dependence? This too is wrapped up in debates of Schleiermacher’s day regarding human freedom and ethics in the face of determinism. Human beings, according to Schleiermacher, cannot be absolutely free, because if we were, we could never have any sense of dependence on anything. That is, absolute freedom is not compatible with even partial dependence. However, Schleiermacher thinks that partial freedom is compatible with a feeling of absolute dependence–even necessary for it. We can exercise freedom to an extent, but this freedom is always delimited by dependence. It is in trying to exercise absolute freedom that we begin to develop the sense that we are actually dependent upon something, and the more this feeling develops, Schleiermacher thinks, the more religious one becomes until one realizes one is absolutely dependent. We can see now that this isn’t just a theory about Christianity–it’s a theory about Religion as such. Schleiermacher thinks this is why it’s possible to have a religion without God. He also thinks that’s wrong, but he understands why some would stop short of positing God and instead contemplate their absolute dependence on the totality of the universe itself.

But the universe is not enough to constitute the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence. This is [partially] why Christianity is the true religion for Schleiermacher. God is the only “thing” transcendent enough to fulfill the role of Whence.  Schleiermacher’s theology proper (doctrine of God) is fascinating, and maybe I’ll do another post on that, but let me just sum it up briefly: God is first and foremost love and wisdom (loving wisdom), that which is pure activity necessarily free and freely necessary, aspatial, atemporal, in whom all that is possible is actual, the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the universe. Agree or disagree, the point is that this is radically not the God of secular reason. The transcendental ego has absolutely no need of this sort of God. God is all but absent from Kant’s account of religion–he’s a footnote (you can read a brief account of Kant’s religion which I wrote here.) There are some similarities between Schleiermacher and Kant (I think their christologies and ecclesiologies are comparable), but they arrive at those from very different places and for very different reasons.

Let’s go back now to theology in general and the notion of starting points. Theology’s role in all of this is to make explicit the implicit feeling of religion in general. Schleiermacher, in his letters to a friend, Dr. Lucke, about The Christian Faith, explains that he would have put the opening propositions regarding feeling at the end of his systematics if he hadn’t thought people would be upset that his system didn’t have a proper climax (i.e. that it didn’t end with an eschatology.) In other words, Schleiermacher thought that the result, the conclusion of any theology is the feeling of absolute dependence and that the task of systematics is to ask what sort of theology there must be to explain the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence.

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