Modern Prophets

Walter Brueggemann was back in the Atlanta area this past month for a talk entitled “The Prophetic Imagination in the 21st Century”. The talk built upon one of his acclaimed books, The Prophetic Imagination (1978, 2001). The basic idea of the book was that the formation of what he called a pattern of life and thought represented in “the alternative community of Moses” was opposed to the “royal consciousness” represented by the Jewish kings, particularly David and Solomon. In an important sense, these kingdoms became just like Trintychurch ATLEgypt under Pharaoh. Royal consciousness is characterized by oppression, affluence, and a religion of immanence rather than justice, economic equality, and the free transcendence of God. The prophetic tradition looked to criticize this consciousness and recover a different way of living. It is the center of the Old Testament for Christians because Jesus, in his preaching about the kingdom of God, was its heir.

In the lecture I attended, Brueggemann no longer spoke of “royal consciousness”. Instead, he used the phrases, “the totality” and “totalism”, borrowed from the psychohistorian Robert Lifton. This shift signifies both a wider applicability of his earlier work beyond Old Testament studies and the congruence of his insights with other thinkers. In Lifton’s work, “totalism” refers specifically to the brainwashing capacity of language when used to stifle critical thinking. In a study on the use of these manipulative techniques in China, he summarizes:

The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.

Brueggemann says that we do not necessarily need to live under an openly oppressive state system to experience the negative effects of a totalism. Any monopoly of meaning and imagination, any merging of the theological and political beyond any dissent would qualify. He asks whether we are not under the influence of a totalism in our current American experience. Our unexamined assumptions about American exceptionalism and its corresponding militarism, our inability to imagine a different economic world or a way to treat the earth as a partner rather than an object, the tribalism that cannot make room for others, the militarization of sports and the police, a rigged economic system that funnels wealth upward to the most wealthy making virtual slaves of many, and limitless consumerism as a way of life, all serve to lull us into acceptance of a vision of the world in subtle ways. The first task is to identify the totalism that everyone is contained in.

The second step is to transfer energy and commitment away from this totality toward the kingdom of God, a new world of well-being, neighborliness, and jubilee. We need social analysis that can see the truth of the system (usually a path of money), alternative and subversive rhetoric, and people who are able to stay with the conversation even when it is hard. I am reminded, as I write this, of a quote by Pope Francis this past January.

The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language.

Francis and Brueggemann have the same insight: it is often the uncredentialed work of prophetic ministry, real human agents who have been interrupted by the truth, not programs, that are ultimately needed.

After the lecture, someone asked him who he thought best exemplified this in his own lifetime. The figures that came immediately to mind were Dan Berrigan, Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Lerner, William Stringfellow, Desmond Tutu, William Barber, Jim Wallis, Wendell Berry, and Bill McKibbon. He was careful to add the caveat that these are simply recognizable names and that there are countless numbers of ordinary people who function as prophets in their sphere of influence. Few of these modern prophets “recited their poem and then ran for their life”, but they have in common with the older prophets of the biblical ages an ability to imagine and articulate that “it could be otherwise”, while simultaneously acknowledging that “God has a real capacity for agency”, that it is not finally up to us to make good on God’s promises.

Walter and me


Wise Men at the Birth: David Brown on Christmas Traditions

Present-day Christianity, it seems to me, will go badly wrong, if it attempts an unmediated dialogue with the biblical text rather than recognizing also the intervening history that has helped shape its present perception of the text’s meaning…[S]o far from Christianity being undermined by post-biblical developments in its self-understanding, it has been hugely enriched by them.

–David Brown. Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change (2000)

     As with many treatises on the topic of hermeneutic methods, this book situates itself somewhere between Enlightenment modernist prejudices against rootedness and postmodern arbitrary readings as though there was no reference point beyond the text (‘il n’y a pas de hors texte’). As Brown points out, the first seems preoccupied with mathematical models of truth, while the latter is “crucially dependent on what it rejects.” Both perspectives contain some truth. The strength of postmodern approaches lies in that they understand that “narratives succeed by conveying significance and values rather than by one to one correspondence with historical fact.”  On the other hand, Brown seems slightly more sympathetic to what might be called a ‘soft Enlightenment’ approach.

There is no easy way of meshing the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ into an historical metanarrative that is entirely shared by popular culture, but that does not mean that Christians cannot go part of the way … Close attention to original context can uncover open trajectories as it were, pressure points that almost demand further development.

Brown_Traidition_Imagination     Much of Brown’s discussion in the early chapters of the book is devoted to determining the positive contributions and subtle inadequacies of various philosophers and theologians who have each proposed a hermeneutical method: Bultmann, Ricoeur, Gadamer, Lonergan, Frei. At the risk of oversimplification, each of these, despite much of value, has an inadequate understanding of the interplay between history, tradition, and context. Equally important is Brown’s insistence that we cannot return to pre-critical methods of seeking the ‘spiritual’ or allegorical meaning of the text. We must remain committed to both the original context of scripture and the experiences of our own context while seeking to reason through the way in which tradition remains at the center of this relationship. In what follows, and in keeping with the season, I want to highlight the chapter on our modern celebration of Christmas to illustrate this.

Our contemporary Christmas traditions go well beyond the biblical texts. To use a favorite term of Walter Brueggemann, we should take seriously our ‘reimagining‘ of the text. After all, the biblical tradition itself does this. Why shouldn’t we expect the process of revelation to continue through dialogue and interpretation in new contexts? As many have pointed out, Judaism has done this for centuries.

The reason why narratives retain their power in different circumstances is because readers give new prominence to hitherto neglected aspects of the text or because they resolve to tell the story in a new way.

Most Christians are aware of how often artistic depictions of the events associated birth of Jesus take a number of liberties. We are not disturbed by ships sailing into Bethlehem because we recognize that the artist is attempting to convey something other than pure historical truth. Brown is quite straightforward in saying that,

… rewriting succeeds better than does Scripture itself, and in that I include both its effectiveness as narrative and, more importantly, its claims to truth.

Various depictions in song, poetry, painting, and exposition have continued the process began by the gospel writers of rewriting and improving upon the story of Jesus’ birth. For example, we have traditions begun in the middle ages that focus on the child in the crib as an individual person with a kind of awkward sentimentality towards the infant that the original authors would have found foreign — loving, gazing, kissing, laughing — but which are now a part of our consciousness as exemplified in our Christmas songs. Brown gives verse 4 of Frances Alexander’s hymn ‘Once in royal David’s city’ (1848) as an example:

For he is our childhood’s pattern
Day by day like us he grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew;
And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.

As with many households in the U.S., our family begins decorating right after Thanksgiving and the display of the creche on a bookshelf along with the retelling of the story is something our children look forward to. My father-in-law built a wooden structure for the set which includes the Magi, some shepherds, and a few animals. Once upon a time, we would take care to try present the ‘history’ accurately by moving the Magi further away from the creche to sequence the events. But perhaps this is a failure to understand the very nature of these stories? What is biblical history anyway but the complex interaction of past events, the original context of the writers, and the long trail of that text’s interpretation through the centuries?

Matthew’s story of the Magi appears to have been related to the fulfillment of pagan astrological longings in the child. Later, this idea drops into the background as they become ‘kings’, representatives of the known world, and the child the ‘desire of all nations’. We continue to see these figures as relevant in different ways depending on the culture and time we live in.

In our own day the imagery of kings may not seem particularly appropriate. Yet Christmas cards of the kings far outnumber sales of the shepherds’ adoration. Might this not be because, however remote experience of kingship might be from most people, it can still perform its essential role of hinting at the possibility of the transformation of all values in a way that the shepherds cannot? Ultimate worth, it is implied, does not in the end lie with power as the world now assesses it.

So, go ahead. Put the Wise Men in the manger. Have the angels speak Latin or Latvian. Dream about the inspiration for eco-theology provided by the presence of the animals. A theologically informed imagination in the context of community and tradition has tremendous latitude.

[M]y objective has been a simple one: to challenge the common assumption that the power of revelation is necessarily undermined if external material from the surrounding culture is used to illuminate or even to rewrite its story. That can happen, but need not if due care is taken to integrate what appeals to the pagan or secular imagination into an appropriate underlying Christian framework [emphasis mine]… [F]ar from the Church being embarrassed by the ‘legendary’ material which has accrued to contemporary celebrations of Christmas, this sometimes deserves to be seen not merely as illuminating but even as corrective of the original biblical narrative.

Interpreting Violence

Hardin, Michael. Mimetic Theory and Biblical Interpretation: Reclaiming the Good News of the Gospel. Cascade Books, 2017.

Rene Girard, a French thinker who wrote most of his important works in the 1970s and early 80s, has become an important guide to issues of violence and religion, whether that takes the form of religion-inspired violence, the violence of God in the text of the Bible, or interpretations of atonement and afterlife that emphasize the wrath of God. Violence is a topic of broad and current interest among Christians today.

Mimetic Theory has grown beyond the Girardian canon and attracted the interest of scholars of various backgrounds. Many of these are members of an affiliate group of the American Academy of Religion, the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. The purpose of this book is to show how Mimetic Theory (hereafter MT) can be a guide to Christian biblical interpretation with attention to how it can illuminate the Gospel. The author, who knew Girard and is recognized as a prominent interpreter of his, promises to provide a satisfying framework that will makes sense of the contradictions and problems we face when interpreting the texts as modern people. Michael Hardin is keen to point out that “mimetic theory is not in competition with other biblical interpretive methods.” This is accurate as far as he is referring to both modern historical criticism and many pre-modern perspectives. Those committed to interpretative methods that do not recognize or give prominence to the dialogue, multiplicity, and reworking of the texts within the Bible itself will have the hardest time, however, swallowing the ‘red pill’ of MT.

After teaching literary and mythological texts across the centuries for many years in a French school, Girard hit upon the seemingly revolutionary idea that mimesis was the driver of myth and therefore society. Others, notably Raymund Schwager, built upon this in theology, resulting in a school of interpretive theory that has grown up over the past forty years. As Girard came to see, ideas about humans as learning by imitating were not just his own discovery. They are found throughout history from Heraclitus to Foucault. It was an idea hiding in plain sight. According to Girard, humans, as inter-individuals, non-consciously desire the desire of another. This leads to both positive growth, but also, negatively, to violent conflicts. Early on, a mechanism for dealing with violent cultural crises was found in sacrificing one person, or a minority group, for the many, thereby bringing about a temporary harmony. Sacrifice is a mechanism of violence that ‘solves’ the problem of an even more violent downward spiral, a Hobbesian war of all against all. It is a pharmakos, both cure and poison. Ever since the dawn of consciousness, violence has therefore been associated with the sacred, with religion, but this connection is hidden from us due to its origins. 9781532601101

Hardin spends a chapter detailing the genesis of the theory in this manner before diving into the heart of the material, the application of MT to biblical interpretation. At the core of this approach is the distinction between texts in the Bible that feature the acceptance of the scapegoat mechanism (sacrifice as victimization, not the willing giving of oneself), and those that reveal this same mechanism as murder. The former Hardin calls ‘religion’, while the latter is labeled ‘revelation’. The majority of the texts of the Bible, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, are typically a mixture of both, although at times they may even speak solely with the voice of religious myth, by which he means that the victim agrees with their persecutors that violence is deserved. More often, the authors seem to be aware, however dimly, that this violence is undeserved. Their usual response is a cry for justification and revenge.

The biblically literate reader is likely already thinking of a number of texts where these themes of murder, scapegoat, sacrifice, guilt and innocence are prominent. Importantly for Hardin, the Bible does not speak in a monolithic voice as if all of its words were equally superintended by God. He claims that “the Bible is in the process of deconstructing itself.” Another way to say this is that when the Bible claims that God is speaking, we shouldn’t always take this at face value. Often it is not the true God speaking. Where we hear the true God speaking most clearly is in the forgiving victim, Jesus, on the cross and in the resurrection. Hardin’s approach to biblical authority is strongly Christocentric, polyphonic, and progressive. According to him, even the New Testament writers don’t always follow non-sacrificial logic. For instance, he detects turning points for Paul and views Matthew as more ‘mixed’ than the other three gospel writers.

Overall, the tone of Hardin’s writing is apologetic, even evangelistic. The book is in the form of a short primer written from the perspective of an advocate. As such, he counters common objections to the theory. Two most frequent critical responses are (1) MT is a modern form of the ancient heresy of Marcionism, and that (2) the theory, when applied to the atonement of Jesus, is a subjective one (a type of moral influence theory) that disregards the objective, metaphysical pole. On the first, Hardin agrees that “Marcion had asked the right question about the problem of the relation of violence and divinity.” He believes, in contrast, that the solution given by MT is significantly different. On the second criticism, Hardin enlists the help of LeRon Shultz to explain why the distinction between subjective and objective is not appropriate in a discussion of atonement and anthropology.

Readers will appreciate that Hardin is a clear teacher who communicates well to general audiences. The brevity of the book does not often allow him to develop particular ideas in great detail. He does cover a lot of ground, and occasionally chooses particular texts to read more closely. An entire chapter is dedicated to the exposition of the kenosis hymn in Philippians and the another to Eucharist. Both showcase the fecundity of mimetic approaches to scripture.

A version of this review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books on October 11, 2017.


Punk Jesus: Hesert’s Christ and the End of Meaning


[H]appy is the man who does not lose faith in me.”  -Matthew 11.6

The shock of death lies in that life ends before meaning is fulfilled.

– Paul Hesert

I found Paul Hesert’s book challenging. Often I could not tell if the concepts themselves were disorientating or if Hesert was overstating his case with a kind of Kierkegaardian starkness. There is something that calls to me here, but I’m not always sure how to put that in language. What follows is my attempt to make sense (am I already implicated?) of this text. The image that came to mind (Hesert doesn’t use it) was of an iconoclastic Jesus (in punk-rock garb, of course), or as a surreal artist deliberately challenging the sensibilities and securities of the comfortable world.

What if the message of Jesus was more destructive of the status quo than we realize? What if the kingdom really was the in-breaking of a completely different world, not a fulfillment of this one? These are themes in Hesert’s nearly forgotten work, Christ and the End of Meaning. He thinks our Jesus is too tame. We need a Punk Jesus. Let’s start with some basic concepts.

(1) Rationality, which includes our myths and images, is employed to “make sense” of life. Something is deemed meaningful if it produces a particular outcome or goal.

(2) Meaning, therefore, is always orientated toward the future, toward both power and possibility.

(3) Christ crucified is a hammer to all forms of cultural accepted meaning rather than a validation of them. Validation takes two basic forms:

(3a) ‘signs and miracles’: the attempt to make God serve our purposes or looking for historical change

(3b) ‘wisdom’: grasping God in the realm of ideas, making God an ideal.

When we claim that Christianity is meaningful to the culture, what we often find is that we have allowed the message of Jesus to reinforce our cultural givens. Our theology ends up supporting our tribal beliefs or perhaps, more dangerously, the things that even most tribes seem to agree upon. The God that confronts us, however, is more than just a projection of culture, more dangerous and wild.


Hesert ranges over several doctrines but let’s take the doctrine of the idea of the sinfulness of humankind in the Christian tradition as a case study. Hesert says that ‘sin’ is a faith category, not a moral one. Understanding sin as a moral word makes God the guarantor of of the innocent/guilty distinction. This is a God who asks us to lose our life. Losing your life (meaning) is refusing to put yourself in terms of meaning. “Faith is not a resource to make one’s life in the meaningful world easier, more efficient, or even happier…to follow Jesus is to lose that world and base one’s life on the Gospel.

“Because life is meaningful when the guilty are identified and receive what is coming to them, … the most poignant challenge to meaning is the suffering of the innocent. The corollary of this is that within the structure of meaning, suffering is the greatest challenge to innocence … We are relieved to learn an allegedly innocent sufferer is really not so innocent after all.”

In the Garden myth the culture doesn’t hear the conditions of life but an “angry parent” and it creates the conviction that other people are why we can’t have nice things. We must determine guilt so that the rest of us are free of blame and safe from harm. Even common ideas of mercy can participate in this false view of sin. Mercy becomes either unseen factors mitigating guilt (so-called extenuating circumstances), the opportunity for another chance since you had your heart in the right place, or some type of universal tolerance (we are all not so bad). In all these, the truth of universal guilt is obscured. Sin is simply what the culture determines as wrong rather than the infinite debt owed to God that breaks the ledger. Sin, culturally defined,

 “…reinforces the sense of the present as deficient and even polluted. Extending far beyond specific instances, it creates an inexplicable ambiance of unease and a pervasive though vague sense of responsibility.”

The alternative is to lose our sense of righteousness altogether in repentance, which is a surrender of our systems of innocence and guilt. “One repents not so much of “sins” in the sense of those acts society condemns, but of sin as the cultural orientation to meaning. In place of meaning found by condemnation, there is forgiveness.” Sin is the whole structure of law, guilt, and condemnation in relation to the righteousness of God. Sin’s power, according to Paul, is the law as a system of meaning whereas Christ reveals a righteousness apart from the law. We begin anew with a recognition of our solidarity in baptism, or else we harden our heart.

I’m reminded here of one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters where he says that he had written The Cost of Discipleship at a different stage in his life and how he had now learned to stop trying to make something out of himself, whether sinner or saint. Making something of yourself leads to the creation of an order where you and everyone else believe that they know where they stand.

Coveting is a crucial form of sin because it is the key to the quest for power and meaning … the driving concern for status, for self-significance … to reject that quality of human worth comes only through faith … Paul’s general premise is that the righteousness of God finds definitive expression not in the law and judgment (that is, the structure of meaning), but in Passion, the undergoing or enduring of Christ.

Thus the death of Christ, and our crucifixion with him in baptism, is to be present to and willingly identify with the guilty. Our part in the whole, according to Hesert, is not as fraction but as representative.














Theology as Grammar

During the past month I’ve been reading through books and articles published in a syllabus for a “Philosophy for Theology” course at the University of Dayton taught by Brad Kallenberg. Kallenberg was a student of Nancey Murphy and has made some unique contributions to the study of Aquinas and Wittgenstein. Much of his work focuses on Wittgenstein in relation to Aristotle’s/Aquinas’ understanding of the close relationship between ethics and practical reasoning. You know, the stuff your parents taught you, like learning any skill requires time and commitment, and only later does it become second nature with practice.

I get the idea that reading Thomas’ interpreters can, in fact, be just like listening to your parents sometimes, except, in this case, you have to know some medieval Latin. Reading discussions of terminology that doesn’t have the same meaning in contemporary English looking for tidbits of common sense isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Changing the metaphor, Ben Myers, says, “[I] reckon reading a good work of Wittgensteinian Thomism is like taking a bath: you emerge clean, fresh and invigorated – even if it’s hard to see exactly what you’ve taken away from the experience.” 

Nonetheless, I persisted. As I read three of these thinkers, Fergus Kerr, David Burrell, and Herbert McCabe, I began to appreciate three things: focus on methodology and definition, rootedness and development within tradition, and close readings of texts. This theological tradition does these best. Wittgenstein is a dialogue partner for these Thomists because his overall approach regarding language draws out a number of latent ideas in Aquinas. Of course, there are other thinkers that have been made to serve the same function, notably Immanuel Kant.  The interpreters influenced by Wittgenstein, as a rule, don’t pretend to be Thomistic originalists. Denys Turner, commenting first on McCabe’s methods and interests, states, “He’d been deeply influenced by Thomas Aquinas. Somehow or other Wittgenstein came into the mix as well; though quite when it was Wittgenstein, when it was Thomas Aquinas, and when it was Herbert, was an entire mystery to me, and it didn’t seem to matter.

I want to look at three examples of writing under the category “Wittgensteinian Thomism”. The first is chapter 7 of Fergus Kerr’s Theology After Wittgenstein. The second David Burrell’s Aquinas: God and Action, particularly chapter 6 “An Objection: Process Theology”.  The third is Herbert McCabe’s essay “Eucharist as Language” (Modern Theology 15:2 April 1999).


Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

For Fergus Kerr the key to the relationship between Wittgenstein and Aquinas is Wittgenstein’s phrase in the Philosophical Investigations, “theology as grammar” which he  apparently borrowed from Luther.

Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar).”

Wittgenstein reflects that we want to know what kind of language is being used, how the language is taken by its speakers, and the rules of the conversation.  We cannot get straight to the “thing itself” without going through words. Applying this to theology, we must realize that faith is embedded in human life and stop viewing it as some inward and invisible mental-spiritual state. It follows, then, that one cannot take words out of their original religio-cultural context without altering their meaning.

“Whether I mean the same thing by saying ‘I believe in God’ as other people do when they say the same thing will come out a various places in our lives: our practices, aspirations, hopes, virtues, and so on. It will show in the rest of what we do whether we have faith in God. It will not be settled by our finding that we make the same correlation between our words and some item of metaphysical reality…Faith, in appropriate circumstances, is visible in one’s behavior; it is not some undetectable inner object.” — Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein.

The fact that religious belief is intwined with our history means that we are also not going to be able to criticize belief from some neutral, scientific perspective. Here Kerr gives an account of Wittgenstein’s reading of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It reminded me of Girard’s views on myth in comparison with Joseph Campbell’s in our day.

“In effect, Frazer’s theorizing conceals our kingship with his savages by assuming that their customs can be made intelligible to modern civilized men round Cambridge college dinner table only by dispassionate observation – as if these tables were not occupied by beings at least as sinister as any dancing savage. By resorting to scientific objectivity we have a method of disowning biological and historical continuity with our ancestors…We prefer a certain interpretation of other people’s behavior to understanding what is deep and sinister in ourselves…That considering the execution of an innocent man is a more promising starting point for sustaining Christian theology than proving that God exists might be one unsurprising conclusion.” — Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein.

This leads me to another Wittgensteinian Thomist, David Burrell. What is the nature of this God we believe in? In recent years, the classical paradigm has been challenged by process thought that claims a new and better metaphysic. Are the classical concepts hopelessly contaminated with substantialist metaphysics? Is Thomas’ concept of God static? David Burrell responds to the objections of process theology with an explanation of Aquinas intentions. In short, Burrell shows, onc again, the usefulness of the idea of “theology as grammar”. He believes that Hartshorne and others are not attentive enough to the specific context and grammar of Aquinas’ system:

“...the fault lies no so much with Aquinas as with those who neglect his warning signals and mistake his inquiry into what God is not for a treatment of the divine nature. More specifically, the crucial oversight consists in failing to appreciate the philosophic virtue of the ‘linguistic turn’.” (Burrell, 91)

Aquinas had two central concerns when speaking of God.  Th first was that he didn’t want Christians to think of God as one more thing in the world. The second was that he didn’t want them to think of God as having anything we might describe as lack (i.e. needing something in order to be complete). These two concerns function as limiters to speech, not positive statements.

Nothing is learned directly about God by insisting that he must be good, limitless, unchangeable, and one. Rather, Aquinas shows how these predicates are equivalent to the key predicate simple, which in turn serves as a systematic reminder that nothing can be said of God. Many have overlooked the explicitly grammatical cast of these question, of course, and confused such predicates with divine attributes like loving, merciful, just, and faithful…If ‘unchangeable’, for example, is taken as a descriptive term rather than a proscription, we can only regard it as characterizing a situation. And ‘static’ means ‘zero motion’. Aquinas, however, derives unchangeableness from simpleness. As we have already noted, he makes that derivation precisely to remind us that God is beyond the very category of motion (with its contraries of movement and rest). — David Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action.

Of course, we still have a need for direct statements (what we should say about God). According to Burrell, each limiter (Burrell calls them prescriptive rubrics) is followed by a related observation on a different level of discourse:

After remarking on God’s simpleness, Aquinas affirms his perfection; after showing good to be equivalent to being, he can speak of God’s goodness. Having derived limitlessness from simpleness, he speaks of God’s existence in things, and after showing how unchangeableness follows from limitlessness, Aquinas talks about the eternity of God. Unity carries two dimensions within itself: on the one hand, whatever is one; on the other hand, oneness suggests wholeness. — Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action.

Aquinas does get around to using traditional religious language, but he wants to make it clear that we are dealing with analogous language at this level. The guiding paradigm for Aquinas are living things. Goodness, for example, is seen as bounty. God is like an agent in an action (actus), possibly more like a verb than a noun. This is hard to communicate using our language with its subject/predicate structure. If there is no distinguishing between being and activity, Aquinas says, then God more like a process, not a passive having these qualities.

Here is another example. In our ordinary language we naturally (it’s a temptation for each of us according to Kerr) think of God as a person who happens to be a father. In normal discourse about God this will occur, but this is to speak, in a different register, of the relationship and process of “fathering”. This is what we mean by “the Father”.

Aquinas’ esse (which I haven’t mentioned) is not static in the sense of being a motionless substance. For Aquinas, esse=being/existence, not unmoving, but as in “an ocean of being” derived from John of Damascus, who in medieval thought was seen as bearer of the theology of the ancient church. Juxtaposing being and becoming as dialectical opposites is the wrong move in seeking to understand Aquinas.

One final thought before we leave David Burrell’s work: in response to an objection by process theologians that classical  theism is somehow still too remote or apophatic, particularly in light of the anthropomorphic language of scriptural revelation, Burrell counters that “the God they [process theologians] propose, while inspired by the Gospels, would not need to have been the agent of such a revelation. Appearing more Christian in spirit, this God of process theology could also dispense with his self-revelation in Jesus.

Finally, what can “theology as grammar” tell us about the central rite of the Christian church – the Eucharist? To answer that question I looked at Herbert McCabe’s essay “Eucharist as Language”. McCabe, a Roman Catholic, uses the language of transubstantiation when speaking of the Eucharist. This is language that he knows is easily caricatured as a thinly veiled miracle made possible by misleading appearances hiding a chemical process by both supporters and detractors alike. McCabe assures us that this is not what Aquinas meant. In brief, we might define it as “the real presence of Christ shown by means of a sign on two levels–one present and one future.” Yet, the important fact is that, whatever language we use to describe it, whether using Aristotelian substance and accident, or a more contemporary term such as meaning, the language will not, in this particular case, be adequate. Or perhaps we could say that our language is even less adequate than is normally the case. The difference between this and other human activities is that the initiative, the ‘deeming so’, comes from God. Whatever is deemed so by God, according to McCabe, is actualized, i.e. comes into existence ex nihilo, like creation.

[T]he Eucharist is the Word of God and not the word of man. We make, as well as being made by our human language, but we do not make the meaning of the Eucharist; if it is anything of interest it is the Word of God and thus a word of power: the creative word that says “light be”—and there was light. The re-creative word says “this is my body and my blood”—and so it is. What the bread and wine have become is clearly not an icon, picture, reminder of Christ but Christ himself, and him crucified, the only one who can reconcile the opposites, who can bring life out of death. –Herbert McCabe, “Eucharist as Language”


Something happens in the Eucharist that relates to a system of meanings that is only partially present in our world – the Kingdom of God understood as the complete presence of Christ. In this world, this reality can only be manifest through signs. The sign of the elements becomes the language God speaks to us in. Using the paradoxical language of Orthodox writer, John Zizioulas, it is ‘the memory of the future’.

If I understand McCabe correctly, it might be helpful to think of the Eucharist as taking place in three tenses: past, present, and future. It participates in, has a part to play in the meaning of, a future event that is also a present reality for the church. It is also, of course, an historical memory. Accordingly, if “meaning can only be understood in terms of the larger notion of structure“, the ultimate structure of which the Eucharist has a role is the full presence of Christ/the Kingdom and the eternal love of the Trinity– that point when God will become “all in all” (as Moltmann never tires of saying).  When we use language more precisely, or better, fully, we actually don’t whittle it down to dictionary definitions, or flatten it out into a single level, but instead speak as broadly as possible. This often involves metaphor and poetry, by which we stretch our language. The medievals therefore spoke of three different levels regarding the Eucharist in order to do that:

  1. sign (sacramentum tantrum) — in this case, the visible meal.
  2. what is signified in this world (res et sacramentum) — our human word of friendship and reconciliation (the real presence of Christ).
  3. what is signified at the deepest level (res tantum) — the ultimate mystery, the agape of the Godhead.

McCabe’s point again, isn’t that we must use the language of transubstantiation, but that it is a useful (Trent would say ‘appropriate’) way of talking about such matters.

David Jones: Microcosm and Sacrament

I came across this explanation of Jones’ sacramental aesthetic recently:

[U]nlike [Gerald Manley] Hopkins, in Jones’s case the Catholic mistrust of the disembodied concept finds its expression, not in a criticism of Plato, but in a mistrust of rationalism and the ‘fact man’ who applies abstract formula onto a diverse reality and thereby crushes multiplicity. Embodiment is a sign of a real totality, in which the parts are integrated and significant, in contact through the body with that which is external to it. Without a body there is no such contact. Importantly, and ironically, in the modern epoch the body is disregarded precisely because of an immanentist reduction of reality to the entirely material, which separates matter from spirit and so condemns the ‘concept’ and the ‘universal’ to the disembodied realm of transcendentals. This again parallels Lynch’s assessment of the revolutionary as someone so possessed by ideological abstractions that he attempts to impose them onto reality without concern for the details of the situation he is entering – thereby destroying difference. When the role of the body is undermined, so too are locality and the particular – and hence diversity (for these are the concrete manifestations of the universals). Similarly, when history, locality, and diversity are undermined, this represents an attack on the role of the body. Ultimately, the incarnate Word reveals the inadequacy of purely transcendental systems, showing the reality of the universal by mediating it through a particular form in a particular time and place.

“Containing What Cannot Be Contained: David Jones”, The Enclosure of an Open Mystery. Stephen McInerney (2012), p.116

The Chapel in the Park 1932 by David Jones 1895-1974

The Chapel in the Park 1932 David Jones, watercolor.

Reinhold Niebuhr Speaks to the Trump Age

I think Reinhold did anticipate Donald Trump, but not in a way of despair, by any means, although I know it’s easy to feel that way. Reinhold died slowly, unfortunately. He and Ursula were out in Stockbridge, living in their home there. He occupied a bed in the back and he went through two or three years of very gradually dying from all these strokes. But he did overlap with the presidency of Nixon. There was a time near the very end. The TV was on in the bedroom, and Nixon came on the TV. Reinhold raised himself up on his elbows, which was not easy at that time, and he looked at the TV and he said, “That…bastard!”

—story told by Gustav Niebuhr

Is a Niebuhr revival coming? Has it already begun? Was he ever really forgotten? Jimmy Carter seems to have been a fan. Barack Obama, before he became president, identified him as an influential person for his political philosophy, surprising journalist David Brooks with his quick and ready summary of the usefulness of Niebuhr’s ideas during an interview.

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. (Obama, 2007)

Brooks recounts that he went on to give a perfect, twenty minute, summation of Niebuhr’s book, The Irony of American History.

Recently, I learned that former FBI directory James Comey had written his undergraduate thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and that his reading of Moral Man and Immoral Society was a catalyst to public service. Some have rightly noticed the irony in this, given the fact that the FBI under Hoover had been looking for ways to tag Niebuhr as a communist for decades, especially after his criticisms of the Vietnam war.t1larg.reinhold.union

A new documentary film was released this year for PBS on the life and thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. Commentators on the film, and on Reinhold in general, have all made attempts to answer the question of how he might think about the Trump phenomenon if he were with us. Scott Paeth recently noted that Louis Brandeis, associate justice on the Supreme Court, wrote a letter to a despondent Niebuhr shortly after the election of Eisenhower. By nearly everyone’s standards, Paeth points out, Eisenhower wasn’t a terrible president. One can only imagine him flipping out over what we have now.

It’s a shame that some other characters have taken their place on the stage today but Reinhold’s role has not been filled. Jerry Falwell, Jr. is playing a grotesque caricature of Billy Graham. Trump is playing a version of Nixon. There is no ‘Niebuhr’ around. Some years ago, Stanley Hauerwas was christened “America’s best theologian”, yet Hauerwas’ project of silently creating alternative communities (i.e. churches), and his well-known pacifism, put him at odds with the gritty “Christian Realism” of Niebuhr. Perhaps a Niebuhr cannot exist in today’s world. For one thing, the world where public theologians (even ones re-descriptive and imaginative, not merely proclaimers) are listened to in any measure has vanished. So we are left to speculate with the ideas and metaphors he used in his own time. What would Niebuhr say about Christians who voted for him, and those who opposed him?

To the evangelical enablers who voted for him in overwhelming numbers (80% of white evangelicals by most polls), I think that his criticism of “personal Jesus” religiosity contained in his 1969 article “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court”  is just as pertinent now as it was then.

The Nixon-Graham doctrine assumes that a religious change of heart, such as occurs in an individual conversion, would cure men of all sin. Billy Graham has a favorite text: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” Graham applies this Pauline hope about conversion to the race problem and assures us that “If you live in Christ you become color blind.” The defect in this confidence in individual conversion is that it obscures the dual and social character of human selves and the individual and social character of their virtues and vices.

But before those of us who voted for Hillary or Bernie congratulate ourselves, there is another side to Niebuhr that reminds us of how we are always implicated, even if only by degrees, in what we criticize. I think that if Niebuhr were with us, he would also agree that we live in our bubbles of identity politics – bubbles where we can live free from sin, where anything we say about our opponents is justified. In his own time, in the height of the Cold War, he saw democracy itself as one such bubble, but one can easily substitute of number of ideologies.

Democracy may be challenged from without by the force of barbarism and the creed of cynicism. But its internal peril lies in the conflict of various schools and classes of idealists, who profess different ideals but exhibit a common conviction that their own ideals are perfect.  — The Children of Light, Children of Darkness, p.152

This duality explains why Reinhold has been claimed by opposing figures such as Michael Novak and Arthur Schlesinger (Jr.). He will continue to be a counterweight to the effusive, and frequently simplistic, optimism that often characterizes the American spirit whether in conservative or liberal form. He reminds us that the acknowledgement of sin calls for humility and modesty because even our righteousness is like a filthy rag.