Annexing Theology

Peter Dula, in his book Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology (2011), looks at the Jewish philosopher, Stanley Cavell, and his elusive relationship to Christianity. If Christian theology is not simply either rejected or adopted, but annexed, is it still Christian theology? Perhaps not if Christianity is viewed as a set of propositions. But what if we view Christianity as essentially a spiritual path, a set of practices, or a “form of life” (Wittgenstein)?

When Kierkegaard (or rather one of his pseudonyms) defined sin as anxiety, the old word,”sin”, took on a new life. Non-Christian thinkers can sometimes do the same. In fact, they may be better positioned to tease out meanings that Christian theologians are blind to, while, nevertheless, often construing other concepts in an alien way. This is a regular occurrence in Stanley Cavell’s writings. Anyone familiar with Cavell’s thought knows how “the ordinary” and the fully human find resonances in the Incarnation. Cavell can even speak of “knowing our individuality, or accepting the individuality of another, as we are of becoming Christ to each one another.” Which brings me to a multifaceted question that Dula tries to answer: Can theology be annexed in this way?

One way to read the great controversies culminating in Nicaea/Constantinople and Chalcedon is as the story of discovering that God’s hiddeness and revelation in Christ are to be said, and an argument, not yet ended, over how they must be said …

The struggle of the early church with Platonism and gnosticism was the struggle to articulate that God is revealed  in the suffering and death of a particular, historical figure. God’s work is bound up with particularity and contingency, not distilled out of it. By radically devaluing the bodily, gnosticism made the humanity of Jesus, as well as ours, expendable. The humanity of Jesus is at best the accidental shell of eternal truths or God’s concession to human epistemological inadequacy, at worst a barrier to such truths….

But perhaps we do need Cavell to remind us that the mystery of Christ isn’t just something that arises with this particular person. It arises with all people. I don’t mean to elide important distinctions here, but I do mean to rid us  of the notion that understanding and knowing ourselves and others is a straightforward process with a foreseeable end, while knowing the Son of God is something special. The latter is true but is it, or how is it, true in a way different from knowing another? And might not the insistence on the difference be a cover for an unwillingness to know both Jesus and others, denying the difficulty of knowing each other and creating new difficulties in knowing Jesus?…

Something like this seems to be suggested throughout John’s Gospel, perhaps most clearly in the fourteenth chapter. “Lord,” says Thomas, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus responds, “If you know me, you will know my Father. ” Philip joins in, asking “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus’ response is even sharper, “Have I been with you all this time Philip and you still don’t know me? Whosoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The problem here is not knowing the Father through Jesus, as if the Father were behind Jesus. The problem is knowing this particular person … call it an apophatic Christology. And it leads to an apophatic anthropology. There is nothing uniquely strange about the difficulty of knowing Jesus. It is the substance of our lives with others, with our friends, spouses, children, parents, neighbors, enemies, …

In saying this, he is not saying that the disciples have failed to acquire a piece of information (i.e., the information that the Father is in him and he in the Father). A claim is being made about the nature of knowing. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” And a sort of similarity between knowing God and knowing others is posited.


The Jewish ‘No’ to Jesus is a ‘Yes’ to the Messianic Future

The Jewish ‘No’ to Jesus is a ‘Yes’ to the Messianic Future.

I’ve been reading through The Way of Jesus Christ this summer with an online group. This is an excellent summary by The Moltmanniac of Jürgen Moltmann’s response to the issue Paul struggled with in Romans. It is framed by Martin Buber’s perspective that the Jewish people cannot recognize Jesus as the Messiah because the world is essentially unchanged.

Rowan Williams on Creatio ex Nihilo

In the essay “On Being Creatures”, Williams tackles various misunderstandings of the doctrine that he claims was “unquestionably a distinctive Jewish and Christian view in the late antique world.” This clarity was muddied by tendencies toward Neoplatonism and now, in more recent years, by Process and feminist critiques. Williams surmises that the doctrine emerged around the time of Israel’s unexpected return from exile. “…this act is not a process by which shape is imposed on chaos: it is a summons, a call which establishes the very possibility of an answer. It is a short step to the conclusion that God’s relation to the whole world is like this: not a struggle with pre-existing disorder that is then moulded into shape, but a pure summons.”  One of the most common arguments against ex nihilo from the perspective of Process and Relational theologies is the argument that the doctrine implies a despotic view of God in which human freedom cannot exist.* Thomas Oord, for example, has written, “The kind of divine power implied in creatio ex nihilo supports a theology of empire, which is based upon unilateral force and control of others.” Are we locked into an infantile, or even diseased, dependence? Williams distinguishes here the typical human dependencies that we are involved in from the fundamental dependence on God.

“‘Limitless dependence’, in the sense of accumulating dependent relationships to things, persons, institutions, is something quite other than the fundamental dependence we cannot avoid, dependence on whatever it is that enables our sense of being an agent, a giver. And perhaps it is how we can conceive that primary dependence that determines how vulnerable or how destructive our ‘illusion’ of agency is — how much of an ‘illusion’ in the ordinary sense of the word rather than the subtler Freudian sense of a belief constructed to meet or cope with the demands of what lies beyond the psyche. Sebastian Moore, in The Inner Loneliness, identifies our need to imagine ourselves as agents by imagining ourselves as self-regulating individuals is to misconceive our fundamental need, which is for identity in relation, conversation, mutual recognition … We cannot, as it were, get behind this and conceive a human identity that is primitively and only an object to itself…When I think I am imagining myself ‘for myself’, I am actually taking up the position of someone who looks at or speaks to me; and I couldn’t do this if I did not know what it is to be looked at or spoken to.”

It would seem possible to keep alive the best impulses of the doctrine while rescuing many of the concerns about it. The move made here is to remind us that our language about God is often insufficiently apophatic. When we are speaking of God “feeling”, “changing his mind”, or “creating”, we ultimately have to remember that God is not like us. But we also need to recall that we are frequently not like our own images of ourselves.

A recent symposium that features creatio ex nihilo defenders can be found in the 2015 Notre Dame lecture series: Dr. Gary Anderson “Is Creatio Ex Nihilo Biblical?”David Bentley Hart “God, Creation, and Evil”John Cavadini “Where Do Stories Come From? Augustine on Creation ex Nihilo”

Ian McFarland’s comprehensive book From Nothing: A theology of creation (2014) is one of the better surveys of the doctrine available. McFarland separates the t=0 “Big Bang” from the doctrine, declaring that the issue revolves around a particular relationship between God and the world rather than an explanation of how that relationship came to be.

* It is important to point out that definitional problems abound in these discussions. It may be possible for Process thought to affirm the doctrine. See for an examination of Whitehead, oscillationism, and ex nihilo, for example.