Author Archives: churchunbound

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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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.

Whirring Machines: Capitalism, Christianity, and Subjectivity

“A sum of money is the leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.”

This is how Kurt Vonnegut’s fifth novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, begins. In much of his work, Vonnegut draws the reader’s attention to the painful observation that humans are not much different than machines in the way they interact with the world of the late 20th century. His characters seem to have little control over what happens to them, the victims of immovable forces, as he likes to say. These forces, however, are not simply “forces of nature” as they are for the American nihilists of the late 19th century (Stephen Crane, for example.) Elsewhere in his work, Vonnegut writes of humans as having little motors whirring inside of them as they mindlessly bend toanother force inside of them: the drive to wealth at any cost. Capitalism.

Capitalism is “natural” in the sense that it is the mode of production currently employed at this time in history. This understanding is, of course, what Marx means by historical materialism. Put simply, historical materialism is the claim that history is guided by the human need to produce in order to survive–which is the truly natural piece of capitalism (of any mode of production.) This is coupled with the fact that human beings have the ingenuity to adapt to their situation in order to accomplish this goal; thus the mode of production in use will always be adapted to changing circumstances until a point where it collapses in on itself, giving rise to a new mode. We can see at once that, unlike a hurricane or earthquake, capitalism at least feels like it’s in our control to some degree and probably more so than any other mode of production in the past. We make ourselves. Our success is dependent upon how hard one works, and if one has failed to procure a comfortable lifestyle, one has simply not worked hard enough. What we earn belongs only to us.

But think about what we give up in order to accomplish the goals capitalism sets forth. We become part of the labor force for a capitalist (a CEO or a small business owner–doesn’t matter) and have our subjectivity erased, or we try to control some of the means of production and thus participate in that erasure. Certainly there are more nuanced modes of subsistence (non-profit work, for example), but for the purposes of this illustration, let’s stick with the most common forms of participation in our economy.

When one is hired to work for a corporation at any level, one surrenders one’s subjectivity to that corporation. Let’s say you’re a barista at Starbucks. You probably make an average of 10 beverages an hour during a shift that sell for $3-$5. You see maybe $8 of what is made, a small amount goes back into the corporation to procure more means of production, and the vast majority goes to the people who own the corporation–who own the means of production. Some Starbucks baristas are incredible: they’re creative, friendly, they make your drink quickly and very well. Others are awful (as a recent SNL sketch illustrated.) Both will be paid the same. The amount each is paid is determined by how much wealth the owners of the means of production can amass while ensuring that the corporation will continue to produce as efficiently as possible. That baristas at Starbucks are given health benefits is not a sign of the company doing something “extra” for their employees. It’s a sign that the labor force requires more from the owners of the means of production in order to continue producing at the necessary rate. It’s a way for Starbucks to remain competitive by keeping employees happy (maybe happier than employees elsewhere) and improving its public image.

If you’re an employee and you have a bad day, make a mistake, do something that costs the company money, you’ll most likely be fired. An employee’s personal situation is of absolutely no consequence. The only thing that matters is the accumulation of as much wealth as possible. And if you’re a small business owner with all of your assets on the line, it’s even more important that employees mean nothing to you. How could you fire your own brother? We know that this is how capitalism works–those who accept it unreflectively will readily admit that one has a right to make as much money as he or she possibly can through whatever legal means necessary. This is justified because of the false belief that one of those baristas, if she just works hard enough, can eventually become the CEO. That is the fundamental lie upon which capitalism continues to operate. This is how we see that money cuts two ways in capitalism, which is why the bee metaphor is especially apt. On the one hand, the vast majority of people under the capitalist system are drones, making up a labor force to create wealth to be used by very few. On the other, they are drawn to the wealth they are creating, and those who are more successful than others will do anything to acquire more. In other words, the promise of money (and more money–an infinite potential) traps people in this system under the pretense of a false hope.

Employees are not people. They are whirring machines. They are worker bees. Their story and circumstances do not matter to the people who need what they contribute to the labor force as a whole. And in the process of grabbing more for themselves they perpetuate the erasure of subjectivity. Christianity also erases subjectivity, but in a radically different way. Christ’s call to lay down our lives, to give up all that we have, is a call to forsake our own personal identities and take up a new one as a follower of Christ. That isn’t a new insight–I think Pete Rollins has made the same point. But the Christian relationship to subjectivity doesn’t end there. As we forsake our own subjectivity, we do so in order to help others who have been robbed of theirs through injustices perpetrated against them reclaim it.

It is in this way that we can see a radical break from capitalism in Christian practice. (Matt has described a different way here.) Christianity requires knowing–not in a “God knows me, and I’m special” way–but in a way that calls on us to know people. This is what discipleship is. The Great Commission is a call to make disciples, to draw people close into your circle, which has no borders. This discipleship-making is not first and foremost a task of conversion (a terribly destructive misreading of that passage.) Rather it is a calling of people into our midst–people who have been marginalized, treated as objects, as machines, as filth or garbage, so that their subjectivity may be restored and their lives transformed. Again, this isn’t conversion. A conversion (as a confession of Christ and a commitment to taking seriously what it is to follow him) is a forsaking of subjectivity. In other words, we are making disciples when we help people reclaim their subjectivity so that they can come to realize they should forsake it in order to help others reclaim their subjectivity and thus rehearse the coming of God’s kingdom to earth. That is the gospel message.

Theories of Religion: Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant, a late-Enlightenment German philosopher, is most famous for what is known as The Kantian Synthesis which extends through both metaphysics and epistemology. I have made reference to and explained it elsewhere, but in short, Kant’s contribution made it possible for both philosophy and science to proceed beyond the radical empiricism of David Hume. At the same time, however, Kant still upheld the rigorous commitment to reason championed by Hume and other empiricists of the period (Locke for example) who maintained that one’s knowledge was derived empirically through perception and no other way. For Kant, reality is divided into two realms: the phenomenal or sensible world conditioned by the categories of our understanding (i.e. time and space) and the noumenal or things-in-themselves world. There are two important claims here. First is that there really are “things-in-themselves”–things as they really are “behind” what we perceive them to be. This is also called “transcendental idealism” because it claims that Reality consists of ideas that transcend what we can actually have knowledge of. Second is that if we were able to take away the categories of our understanding, we’d be able to come into contact with the noumenal. The purpose of science, for Kant, is to limit the interference of the categories as much as possible in order to get us close to the noumenal. Science is right on edge of the phenomenal.

This worked quite well for everything in Kant’s system that had to do with immanent matters; however, it created a significant complication for the place of religion. Under Kant’s system, any attempt to make a reasonable statement about God must be by definition not reasonable since such statements can only come from phenomenal experience, and God must be, by definition, wholly noumenal. What then constitutes reasonable religious discourse?

Before we can understand Kant’s answer, we must also understand his ethical system as that dovetails with epistemological concerns in his understanding of religion. In Kant’s discourse on practical reason (his ethics), he argues that in order for one to act morally, one must only ever act according to one’s duty in any given situation; thus, the consequences of actions are not what are important in Kant’s system, only the motives behind action. An act driven by pure duty is the highest good–a purely good will. This differs from previous ethical theories, particular Aristotle’s virtue ethics, in that, for Kant, the highest good is something that we already have the capacity for, not a place we are striving to get to. This will be immensely important for Kant’s understanding of religion. The highest good cannot concern things like pleasure, intelligence, happiness, or freedom because these terms are far too relative and cannot be universalized in relation to duty. Someone may find freedom, happiness, or pleasure in the harm of others, which is unacceptable in Kant’s system. Thus, the will itself is the only thing that can be truly good, and its goodness is determined through two conditions known as the categorical imperative:

1. Motives must be able to be generalized into universal law.

2. An action can never use another human being as a means to achieve an end whatever that end may be.

Something like lying can never be ethical because it cannot be universalized–even if it actually results in good. One’s duty is to, through one’s own good will, act according to the categorical imperative at all times. For our purposes here, it’s important to note that this results in a disinterested morality–a morality that does not evaluate the conditions of particular cases.

The question for Kant in relation to religion then becomes what will arise from doing what we ought to? What is the result of the aggregate of dutiful action? The answer is religious life. In other words, morality in itself does not require religion, but acting morally will inevitably lead to religion. In order to trace this out, we have to start at the nature of humanity–Kant’s theological anthropology. As stated above, Kant believes that human beings have the capacity already for the highest good because that good can only be our own good will. Humans are naturally good. This capacity is in the form of our ability to reason. Reason, remember, is central to Kant’s entire philosophical system. For Kant, our reason has not been tainted by sin as earlier theologians had argued. At the same time, however, humans are free to use their reason to follow their duty and the moral law or  to not do that. Sin is not depravity, some universal condition we are all under, nor is it our inability to obey our duty and the highest good; rather, it is our tendency to follow a different law, that of our own self-interest. Each human being incurs what Kant calls radical evil upon him or herself through choosing self-interest. It is a choice, our own responsibility, and we have the responsibility or freeing ourselves from it. In short, if we ought to do something, it means we have the absolute ability to do it.

It is here that we can insert Kant’s flimsy argument for the necessity of God’s existence. Because duty-bound morality must be disinterested, which is plainly against our nature as human beings, there must be an external reason why someone would choose to act according to duty. Kant’s answer is that there must be a reward which could only be conferred by a being who had ordered the world in such a way from the beginning: God. From this, we can see that the role of God is little more than a footnote in Kant’s account, and once we begin to look at how traditional doctrines become articulated, we can see that even more.

Given his “ought” equals “can” position, Kant must reframe the doctrines of atonement and justification in order for his system to work. Christ, for Kant, was a Second Adam but only in that his good example counteracts Adam’s bad one. Atonement is exemplary rather than substitutionary. Jesus shows us what it looks like for the will to act according to duty at all times. There isn’t much room, then, for justification as a work of God within us by grace. Our regeneration is as a new moral person constituted through our ability. We are not in need of divine grace. In fact, if we remember what we laid out in the beginning regarding God and the noumenal world, this precludes any interaction between God and the sensible world. This view contrasts greatly with the theologians of the 16th century Reformation for whom justification by grace alone was immensely important; thus, we can see that everything in Kant’s system must bow to the principle of reason.

Perhaps a better way of saying that, though, is that Kant still maintains religious commitments but they become reframed as the sacralization of the individual. This cuts two ways: The autonomous ability of the individual to realize the highest good is sacred and the highest good (the will for the categorical imperative) only exists in relation to other individuals, who therefore, must have a special status, though Kant is less interested in the latter because ultimately one’s own duty excludes the consideration of another’s well being except where that consideration satisfies the categorical imperative.

Situating this sacralization of the individual in relation to Kant’s notion of sin and evil will help us see how morality inevitably results in religion. Remember that there is no state of total depravity for Kant; the individual has the autonomous ability to overcome self-interest (sin) and choose duty. However, sin still exists beyond the conversion of the individual (Kant calls this persisting of sin “radical evil.”) We can see that this is plainly true, since individuals are constantly falling back to self-interest, have yet to convert themselves to duty, etc. Competition between individuals makes it extremely difficult to act according to duty even though we are naturally good. Thus, in Kant’s view, the only way to eliminate radical evil is for a corporate ethical existence to arise (the ethical commonwealth). This is more than just a group of individuals acting according to duty together, and it is also a different “kingdom” than that of the civil state, echoing Augustinian-Lutheran two kingdom discourse. The ethical commonwealth consists of everyone acting according to the freedom of everyone else, people in relationship with each other and the moral law at the same time.

If this all sounds dangerously like Pelagianism, then you know your early church heresies. However, identifying Kant’s view as heretical only to dismiss it doesn’t do any real work for us in terms of understanding our own position. Rather, what I want to re-emphasize are two points that I’ve already highlighted: The centrality of reason and the sacralization of the individual. The centrality of reason as Kant and the Enlightenment understand it has resulted in some undesirable side-effects, namely the scientism of New Atheism that claims a monopoly on all “real” knowledge as being found (literally) in the sensible world. Paradoxically, this has stuck somewhat in the contemporary religious consciousness even if we dismiss the conclusions about religion to which this led Kant. It isn’t necessarily something that a lay person, for instance, would rely on intentionally in practice; rather, it is a latent effect, a rarely understood or reflected upon claim in the back on one’s mind that may lead a person to holding tightly to particular “foundational” beliefs for fear that letting those go will cause the entire system to dissolve. Or it may lead to one claiming the ability to see all the physical work that God is doing (i.e. a heavy reliance on visions or miracles in order to keep one’s belief afloat.) Now, this isn’t to say that empirical evidence is superficial in religious experience. Indeed, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, appeals to first hand accounts–empirical evidence–of the resurrection of Jesus in order to prove to the church at Corinth that there is indeed resurrection from the dead, and Jesus accomplished it. But this is still an experiential proof that already assumes the existence of God a priori as well as the fact that Jesus was the son of God. Paul and the Corinthians agree on that. The resurrection is incredibly important for the viability of Christianity, as Paul says many times elsewhere, but it would not disprove God’s existence for anyone in the ancient world if it turned out it had not happened, even for Paul.

Our core beliefs do not collapse easily. There is a certain amount epistemological resilience that keeps them more or less intact, even if the warrants and claims that support them shift slightly. I’ve written about this sort of epistemological holism here. If we take that to be the case, then there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to hold strongly to the account of reason that Kant gives especially since he’s probably correct in his religious account that follows it. What American Christianity tends to do is exchange Kant’s human reason for “God’s reason” which is still just human reason since even if we believe that God reveals Himself, we certainly can’t contend that such revelation is completely unmediated. This “reason” coupled with the availability of an abundance of “empirical evidence” for God’s existence is what ultimately results in a fundamentalism that necessarily ignores science, even vilifies it, in favor of its own brand of “scientism.”

Thus, it is not enough to simply say that Kant was wrong about religion. His account of religion is accurate, but only if we assume that reason and ethics should operate the way that he claims they do. It’s there that we must begin a new road.

Theories of Religion: A Series

I thought it would be a good idea to begin a series on some important developments in the theory of religion since the Enlightenment given that I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on the subject lately in my first year of doctoral work. There are a number of reasons why I think it’s important to understand these developments as a Christian. This sort of study reveals the historical development of the challenges contemporary Christianity faces with regard to religious epistemology especially in relation to science and secular reason. The suspicion raised in many of these treatments of religion helps us to see where the historical practice of Christianity has failed miserably in understanding its own epistemological underpinnings. That is, understanding these developments and criticisms can help us see how our current practice or ways of thinking about our practice might be shifted to move us toward a much better account and method and even a richer experience.

This is a broad topic, and there are many places one could begin. The first post of the series will deal with Immanuel Kant’s account of religious experience. The reason why Kant makes for a good starting point is that in contrast to many thinkers of the medieval and early modern periods, the question of the metaphysical reality of God (whether or not there is a God) is not of primary importance. Rather, Kant is interested in the rational viability and function of religious experience and practice in general. In other words, he is asking and seeking to answer this question: Is religious belief reasonable?  In fact, none of the thinkers covered in this series are  necessarily interested in the existence of a transcendent being, though many make the indirect claim that there is no such being. However, they do so on their way to an account of the origin and function of religious experience.

Remember: this series is not evaluative–at least not in the sense of pure refutation of the claims set forth. Rather, the purpose is to extract the salient points and reflect on what these thinkers contribute to our understanding of religion.

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