Tuesday 30 September 2008

Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs

Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased, 1989-2006, is now available for free online listening – a week ahead of its release!

This isn’t just a random collection – it’s a stunning album with its own very distinctive style and flavour (the first disc is especially good). There are some wonderful songs, including two outtakes of the 2001 masterpiece, “Mississippi”. (Is “Mississippi” the best song ever written? Yes.)

One of the new songs, “Red River Shore,” has got me completely smitten. Here are some of the lyrics:

Now I’m wearing the cloak of misery
And I’ve tasted jilted love
And the frozen smile upon my face
Fits me like a glove
But I can’t escape from the memory
Of the one that I’ll always adore
All those nights when I lay in the arms
Of the girl from the Red River shore
Well, I’m a stranger here in a strange land
But I know this is where I belong
I’ll ramble and gamble for the one I love
And the hills will give me a song
Though nothing looks familiar to me
I know I’ve stayed here before
Once, a thousand nights ago,
With the girl from the Red River shore

Around the traps

  • A Spectator piece by Rowan Williams on market idolatry
  • The new Bulgakov blog-conference is now up and running at Land of Unlikeness
  • David has completed a brilliant series on missional theology, where he argues that the future of Barthian dogmatics lies with the concept of “mission”
  • And speaking of Barth, this guy is working his way through the Church Dogmatics five pages at a time: apparently five pages a day will get you through the whole work in five years
  • In addition to the excellent Theological German blog, Celucien Joseph has now kicked off a new blog for Theological French
  • Halden’s latest posts are engaging theologically with the Fourth Gospel
  • A. N. Wilson interviews Rowan Williams about his (absolutely wonderful) new book on Dostoevsky

Sunday 28 September 2008

The (new) ten commandments for bloggers

Richard points us to a list of “10 commandments for bloggers” which was drafted at a recent evangelical blog-conference, and which has attracted some attention in the news. There are just a few things wrong (ten things, actually) with this list of commandments; so I’ve decided to reveal my own Ten Commandments for Bloggers:

  1. Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with the Gospel. Your posts are not beams of light into the darkness of cyberspace; they are not the power of God unto salvation; they are not even (thank God) a reforming influence within your degraded society.
  2. Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with Jesus. No one imagines you to be a model of sinlessness; no one is particularly interested in your integrity or your godliness.
  3. Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with a church service. Your readers are not your congregation, you are not the shepherd of their souls, your posts are not the bread of salvation. The first step towards healthy blogging is the recognition that nobody needs your blog.
  4. Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with the papacy. Readers are allowed to disagree with you, or think you’re stupid, or cuss you in a comments-thread. How can you tell if you’ve confused yourself with the Pope? Just check whether your blog features a Very Serious List (VSL) of “commenting rules.”
  5. Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with the Holy Scriptures. No one cares whether you’re infallible and inerrant. You can change your mind as often as you like – sometimes, you can change it two or three times in a single post.
  6. Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with an electoral poll. Obsession with stats, or with schemes to increase those stats, is one of the first signs of the Very Wanky Blogger Disorder (VWBD).
  7. Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with a corporate teamwork retreat. We’re not all equal team players, we’re not brainstorming together or creating mission statements, we’re not empowering one another or learning to respect and value one another’s differences. Just once in a while, you should go ahead and tell someone that their opinion is the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard. Go on. It’ll make you feel so much better.
  8. Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with a university. No one expects your posts to be the product of years of careful reflection. The purpose of blogging is to express hasty, half-formed opinions, and to eliminate the customary time lapse between thinking and publishing.
  9. Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with the school headmaster. Resist the temptation to create stupid and pompous lists of rules for blogging – and ignore anyone else who invents such rules.
  10. Finally: Thou shalt not confuse thy blog with God. If you ever catch yourself acting like God’s cyber-spokesperson, or if you ever feel tempted to describe your blog as a “Godblog,” just remember that God is not a blogger – in fact, She probably hasn’t even heard of your blog.

This guy has a PhD in horribleness

Many thanks to David for alerting me to this wonderfully funny – and surprisingly touching – online TV show: Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. An absolute delight! Here’s my favourite line: “And by the way, it’s not about making money, it’s about taking money. Destroying the status quo, because the status is not quo. The world is a mess and I just need to ... rule it.”

Oh, and I also like this piece of pedagogical advice from Captain Hammer: “It’s not enough to beat in heads, you’ve got to beat in minds.”

You can view the whole program online here – a 42 minute musical extravaganza!

Friday 26 September 2008

Theology of the cross

The latest issue of Reviews in Religion and Theology features the journal’s new section of foreign-language book reviews – an excellent and important new endeavour, edited by Philip McCosker. This issue includes my own review of Michael Korthaus’ Kreuzestheologie: Geschichte und Gehalt eines Programmbegriffs in der evangelischen Theologie. Here’s an excerpt:

“If the cross is accorded such soteriological primacy, then it follows that a theology of the cross will not merely be one christological option alongside others, but it will be a fundamental explication of the gospel itself. And for just this reason, a theology of the cross will always be assertive, polemical, antagonistic. The word of the cross is a word of contradiction; it opposes every worldly power and every 'theology of glory'. At a time when much theological discourse has been hijacked and neutralized by the demands of liberal politeness and political correctness, Korthaus's call for a more assertive, more agonistic mode of speech – a discourse which corresponds to the 'word of the cross' itself – is especially to be welcomed.”

Thursday 25 September 2008

Endorsements for Kim's new book

In addition to Stanley Hauerwas’ glowing endorsement, here’s an excerpt from Mike Higton’s foreword to Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank:

“You will find some propositions in this book on dull sermons and others on holy laughter, some on the Nicene Creed and others on the nature of heresy, some on human sexuality and others on all-too-human hypocrisy, some on the role of angels and others on the location of hell, and still others on fasting and feasting, peace and policing, grace and gratitude – but don’t be fooled into thinking that it is simply a scattershot miscellany. Proposition by proposition, aphorism by aphorism, this book provides a solid training in how to think theologically – how to break and remake your thought in the light of God’s grace.”

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Propositions on Christian theology: a new book by Kim Fabricius!

Kim Fabricius’ delightful “propositions” are well known to F&T readers. Kim starting posting his propositions here back in early 2006 – and he went on to write dozens of posts, exploring everything from prayer and preaching to hell and heresy, from pacifism and ecumenism to Barth and baseball. Kim’s posts have always attracted a lot of attention (they are by far the most widely-read and widely-cited posts on this blog) – in fact, his writing was so popular that the folk at Carolina Academic Press approached him about turning his posts into a book.

And so I’m very happy to announce that Kim’s book will be hitting the shelves very soon: Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank (Carolina Academic Press, 2008), 228 pp. It’s currently available from Amazon, or at a pre-publication discount from the publishers.

Propositions on Christian Theology comes with a foreword by Mike Higton, and it features revised versions of Kim’s various propositions, accompanied by hymns on the same themes. Here’s the blurb from the back cover:

“In this little book, a kind of contemporary enchiridion, Kim Fabricius engages some of the main themes of Christian theology in prose, poetry, and song (his own hymns). It does not aim to be systematic or comprehensive; rather it goes straight to the main contested areas in the church today, the red-button issues in doctrine, spirituality, culture, ethics, and politics. Fabricius’s imaginative vision and lively conversational style – moving freely between the interrogative and the polemical, the playful and the profound – invite us all to the vertiginous experience of faith. The book’s concise format and no-nonsense approach make it a perfect guide for inquiring Christians as well as committed disciples and an ideal discussion-starter for both church groups and college classes. The author’s passionate commitment to a self-critical faith is a provocative invitation to religion’s cultured despisers to join him – if they dare – on the plank.”

And here’s what Stanley Hauerwas has to say about it:

“With wit, wisdom, and deceptive learning, Fabricius has written the book we have desperately desired, that is, a book we can give a friend who asks, ‘What is all this Christian stuff about?’”
—Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School

Monday 22 September 2008

Headwaters: poems by Rowan Williams

At last! I’ve been waiting eagerly for Rowan Williams’ new book of poems, and it’s finally here: Headwaters (Oxford: Perpetua Press, 2008), 72 pp. The book includes 25 collected poems, plus a sequence of sonnets responding to ten of Shakespeare’s plays, plus Williams’ striking translations of several Welsh and Russian poems. (It doesn’t seem to be available yet in the US, but it can be ordered direct from the publisher, or from Abebooks, or from Amazon.co.uk.)

I’ve only read through the collection once so far, but I can tell I’ll be spending a lot more time with these poems. Here’s one of my favourites – an astonishing poem entitled “Sin,” translated from the Welsh of D. Gwenallt Jones:

Take off the business suit, the old-school tie,
The gown, the cap, drop the reviews, awards,
Certificates, stand naked in your sty,
A little carnivore, clothed in dried turds.
The snot that slowly fills our passages
Seeps up from hollows where the dead beasts lie;
Dumb stamping dances spell our messages,
We only know what makes our arrows fly.
Lost in the wood, we sometimes glimpse the sky
Between the branches, and the words drop down
We cannot hear, the alien voices high
And hard, singing salvation, grace, life, dawn.
Like wolves, we lift our snouts: Blood, blood, we cry,
The blood that bought us so we need not die.

Thursday 18 September 2008

Bruce McCormack: Orthodox and modern: studies in the theology of Karl Barth

Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008), 317 pp. (review copy courtesy of Baker)

Bruce McCormack’s 1995 work on Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology is one of the towering monuments of Barth studies. It casts its shadow over all subsequent interpretation of Barth, just as it has corrected or relativised much earlier work in the field.

Since 1995, McCormack has produced a steady stream of essays on Barth’s theology (a full list here) – essays which have continued to expand the horizons of Barth-interpretation in many directions. Broadly speaking, McCormack’s full corpus of essays can be divided into three categories: historical studies, focusing especially on Barth’s relation to the 19th century; studies of Barth’s relation to contemporary theology (especially to contemporary evangelicalism – although unfortunately none of the essays on evangelicalism appear in this collection); and finally, constructive essays on the contemporary significance of Barth’s theological ontology.

The essays selected for this volume (all of them previously published, but some appearing now in English for the first time) are organised under these three categories. In the first section, McCormack explores Barth’s relation to the 19th century, particularly the traditions of Schleiermacherian theology and Kantian philosophy. Against the common tendency to find in Barth a complete break with Schleiermacher and with Kantian foundationalism, McCormack situates Barth within the broad Schleiermacherian tradition of “mediating theologies.” He argues that Barth’s thought remains wedded to neo-Kantian categories (even if, admittedly, “Kant is no longer Kant by the time Barth is finished with him”), and he shows the extent to which Barth remained “a 19th-century theologian” who was deeply preoccupied with the questions and problems of the Schleiermacherian tradition. 

If Barth’s project was born of an effort to overcome theological historicism and psychologism, this was in fact a struggle not against Schleiermacher but against Troeltsch – although Barth himself persistently confused Schleiermacher with Troeltsch, or at least imagined that a root-and-branch repudiation of the latter had to entail a rejection of the former. Throughout Barth’s career, however, he shared the fundamental concerns of Schleiermacher, and he agreed with Schleiermacher that post-Kantian dogmatics had to be shaped by the epistemological “turn to the subject” and by the problem of the limits of human knowing.

In this set of historical interventions, McCormack’s antipathy to “postmodern” readings of Barth is never far from the surface. For McCormack, postmodern and non-foundationalist appropriations of Barth’s thought are based on flawed understandings of Barth’s own questions and contexts – and also on a failure to grasp the real priorities for contemporary constructive theology. The essays in the book’s second section bring this critique explicitly to the foreground. McCormack analyses and critiques the “postliberal Barth” of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, together with the “postmodern Barth” of Walter Lowe and Graham Ward. He finds more promise in the work of John Webster – although he observes that, at times, “Webster’s Barth can come across as a bit too ‘premodern’,” too closely wedded to the assumptions of classical metaphysics (p. 164). In any case, McCormack’s main point is that English-language research tends “to move much too quickly to ‘use’ of Barth’s theology before having acquired a proper understanding” (p. 165), so that Barth’s theology too easily becomes a mirror of our own contemporary assumptions and commitments. In short: “The followers of Frei and Torrance must look elsewhere for resources for their various projects” (p. 294).

While McCormack’s historical work on Barth is peerless for its depth, range and sophistication, his own recent constructive engagement with Barth’s thought represents a major event within contemporary theology. The essays collected in the third section of the book provide a sample of this recent theological engagement with Barth – beginning with the widely discussed Cambridge Companion essay on “Grace and Being,” where McCormack offers a critical correction of Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity. The argument here is that Barth ought to have reversed his ordering of Trinity and election: properly understood, Barth’s own doctrine of election entails that God’s decision to be God-for-us is the ground of God’s triunity. Simply put: according to its own internal principles, Barth’s dogmatics ought to begin with the doctrine of election, not with the doctrine of the Trinity.

In chapter 8, a magisterial essay on “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology” (previously published in German), McCormack continues to pursue this revisionist reading of Barth, by exploring Barth’s own revision of Chalcedonian christology. Before developing his doctrine of election, Barth’s thought contained significant traces of “the abstract metaphysical ontology which underwrote the Christology of the Chalcedonian Council” (p. 207). It was only with the development of his doctrine of election that he was able to excise this metaphysics from his thought; the turning-point here was his insight that Jesus Christ is the subject of election, so that election is “a free act in which God assigned to himself the being God would have for all eternity” (p. 216). God’s decision to be God-for-us is an event in which God differentiates himself into the three modes of being – Father, Son and Spirit.

The gap between Jesus Christ and the eternal Son is thus eliminated; the second mode of being in God simply is Jesus Christ. Indeed, this insight can lead McCormack to support Bertold Klappert’s challenging remark that “Barth does not think incarnationally.” For Barth, there is no absolute metaphysical subject which unites itself to a human “nature.” Rather, there is a divine decision in which humanity is taken up into the event of God’s own being, so that “the human history of Jesus Christ is constitutive of the being and existence of [the second Person of the Trinity]” (p. 223).

In these highly creative readings (and constructive revisions) of Barth, McCormack is pressing towards the articulation of a striking new theological ontology. I once remarked that, where theological ontology is concerned, John Milbank’s project is the only game in town – and it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that McCormack’s work represents the only thoroughgoing counter-proposal to Milbank’s ontological vision which is available in contemporary theology. While Milbank’s ontology is structured by hierarchical and participatory categories, McCormack articulates an ontology structured by actualistic categories and by a radically historicised doctrine of God. While Milbank’s thought presupposes an ontological state of primal harmony, peace and fecundity, McCormack issues a direct challenge to “the Trinity of peace and perfection” (p. 276), and he envisions instead a Trinity of act and decision, centred on the insight that “the death of Jesus Christ in God-abandonment … [is] an event in God’s own life” (p. 189). Although McCormack has never directly engaged Milbank’s work, his essay on “Participation in God” (chapter 9) shows how much is at stake in the question of creaturely deification, and in the ontological categories through which “participation in God” is understood.

In all this, McCormack’s writing is shaped by Karl Barth and by the distinctive problems of modern German theology; but his proposals have a much wider theological significance, and they deserve close attention and deep reflection. Within the narrower field of Barth studies, of course, McCormack’s work is not only a towering presence – it is also highly contentious and divisive. As McCormack himself observes, his recent work on ontological actualism “has incited a controversy that threatens to divide Barth scholars in the English-speaking world into two rival camps” (p. 295).

I can only speak for myself here, but I think this division is a productive and important one – and I hope it is sharpened all the more by the appearance of this book. As I suggested in an earlier post (against Paul Molnar), I believe the future of theology lies not in any incarnational realism, nor in the recovery of a metaphysical Chalcedonian objectivism, but rather in a far-reaching appropriation of Barth’s christological actualism. And for this task, there is no better guide than the work of Bruce McCormack.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Book giveaway winners...

Okay, time to give away some books. Thanks for all the colourful entries – there were lots of excellent comments, and it was really impossible to choose the best one. So I’ve chosen three from the long list of comments (you can read all the comments here):

First of all, I really liked David Bruner’s comment, which spoke very nicely of Barth’s breadth, his joy, and his emphasis on mission (“I feel like IV/3 is the real secret gem of CD” – yes, absolutely!).

Second, I chose Keith Williams’ entertaining three points: “1. On a first read, I barely understand anything; 2. On a second read, I feel like I’m plumbing new depths of theological insight; 3. On a third read, I’m not sure I’ve understood anything.” Something all readers of Barth can relate to!

Finally, I couldn’t overlook Halden’s comment – it’s short and to the point (1. Barth’s doctrine of election; 2. his Romans commentary; 3. his radical politics), but it gets extra points for summing up everything I like best about Barth. Plus, anyone with a blog as good as Halden’s really deserves a free book once in a while.

So each of these folks will receive an advance copy of Bruce McCormack’s new book, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Many thanks to Baker Academic for providing these complimentary copies – and thanks to everyone who participated! Stay tuned shortly for a full review of the book.

Bruce McCormack on trinity, election, and the eternal Son

Just to whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from Bruce McCormack’s new book, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth – this is from the extraordinary chapter, “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology: Just How ‘Chalcedonian’ Is It?”, an essay which appears here in English for the first time:

“For Barth, the triunity of God consists in the fact that God is one Subject in three modes of being. One Subject! To say then that ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God’ is to say, ‘God determined to be God in a second mode of being.’ It lies close to hand to recognize that it is precisely the primal decision of God in election which constitutes the event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being. Election thus has a certain logical priority even over the triunity of God. [Quoting Eberhard Jüngel:] ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God. In that here one of the three modes of being is determined to be the God who elects, we have to understand God’s primal decision as an event in the being of God which differentiates the modes of God’s being.’ So the event in which God constitutes himself as triune is identical with the event in which he chooses to be God for the human race. Thus the ‘gap’ between ‘the eternal Son’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ is overcome, the distinction between them eliminated…. There is no ‘eternal Son’ if by that is meant a mode of being in God which is not identical with Jesus Christ” (pp. 218-19).

This is great Barth-interpretation, and great theology.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Book giveaway: Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern

Bruce McCormack’s brilliant collection of essays is due for release within the next couple of weeks: Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008). Thanks to the kind folks at Baker, we have some free advance copies to give away. So if you’d like a copy, just leave a comment here listing three things you like about Karl Barth (or, if you prefer, you can list three things you loathe about Karl Barth). The most interesting or entertaining comment(s) will receive a free copy of the book.

Saturday 13 September 2008

Dostoevsky and a theology of writing

“In writing fiction in which no formula is allowed unchallengeable victory, Dostoevsky has implicitly developed what might be called a theology of writing, specifically of narrative writing. Every fiction is at its most fictional in its endings, those pretences of closure and settlement. Every morally and religiously serious fiction has to project something beyond that ending or otherwise signal a level of incompletion…. The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act as if history is over, as if the description of what contingently is becomes the sole possible account of language…. The novel ought to be a stout defender of the independence of eschatology in its most robust sense – that is, a defender of the apparently obvious but actually quite vulnerable conviction that the present does not possess the future.”

—From Rowan Williams’ extraordinary new book, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008), pp. 46, 60.

Thursday 11 September 2008

The end of the world: re-framing the Milbank-Žižek dialogue

A guest-post by Scott Stephens [This is an excerpt from Scott’s paper in Rome, which critiqued the concept of excess/plentitude in the work of Žižek and Milbank.]

Although it is most certainly out of fashion to refer to him, much less refer to him favourably, let me confess that I always found Jean Baudrillard most interesting when he was being most conservative. For instance, in the course of a debate with Francesco Bonami at the University of Venice in 2003, Baudrillard reiterated his disdain for the ‘aesthetic banality’ of modern art, whose farcical nihilism is best expressed in the very pathetic attempt to ‘strive for nullity when it is already null and void’. (Not a bad description for those solipsistic, and in the end masturbatory, disciplines that today are commonly grouped under the name ‘cultural studies’, or even ‘theory’ – striving for nullity when they are already null and void.)

The very desire to produce art according to a certain intellectual or affective fashion had transposed nihilism into kitsch. The problem, Baudrillard said, is that there is too much art: ‘But this is not only true for art: there is too much of too much.… Francesco Bonami … didn’t agree.… “How can there be too much?” said Bonami. “You can never have enough of a good thing.” And I countered, “And obesity? You don’t think there’s a pathology in there, do you?”’

What enables this judgment of too-muchness, of a kind of cultural and pseudo-aesthetic obesity, is Baudrillard’s altogether novel recovery of the Aristotelian analytic of ‘form’ – the idea that things exist within their appropriate dimensions, that proper limits inhere to things as such. But, as with all genuine philosophical recoveries, this one comes with a couple of amendments. First, Baudrillard insists that these formal limits are never known in advance, but only become apparent once those limits are obscured or exceeded. Second (and this is his great contribution to the rigorous thinking of this cultural moment), that this very excess, the production of ‘too-much’ which spills over its designated space, thereby obtains a peculiar, even autonomous, ontological status.

The obese here becomes the monstrous: capitalism as a ‘system of objects’, a resistant, adaptive domain which elicits consumption and renders humanity, at best, entranced spectators on a world that was formerly theirs, or, at worst, utterly servile. Having come into being precisely by casting off the Aristotelian teleology inherent to form, and thus existing entirely free from any causal logic or cultural necessity, Baudrillard repeatedly demonstrates the way that capitalism qua excess obeys its own laws and protects itself against contradiction. It is a system devoid of negativity, a ‘banalized, technized, upholstered way of life, carefully shielded from self-questioning’. There is, after all, no way of opposing a system that is already a complexio oppositorum.

This absence of negativity or contradiction has thus led, not merely to the cultural de-formation of form, but, under the conditions of capitalism, to the ontological normalization of obesity itself. And we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the sheer girth of the corpulent capitalist body has been the decisive factor in its survival. Size makes criticism and negation impossible because it already enfolds within itself the false processes of reversal, accommodation and neutralization.

A remarkably precise formulation of this quality can be found in James Wood’s review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (perhaps the last great novel of the twentieth century and, along with Martin Amis’ Money, one of the most gruesome – which is to say accurate – portrayals of the obscene affective structure of late-capitalism). ‘The book is so large’, Woods writes, ‘so serious, so ambitious … that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ.… It is easy, and rightly so, for big books to flush away criticism.’

I begin this paper with a slightly extended treatment of the ontology of ‘size’ for two reasons. As I will demonstrate, the ontological status of an irreducible excess in/of/over ‘natural life’ is at the core of the disputation between John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek (and forms the basis of my disagreement with both of them). But beyond that, and this is my second reason, it is also worth pointing out that size is an essential theoretical and rhetorical cum pugilistic strategy for Milbank and Žižek. And while it is tempting to regard the magnitude of their engagements rather cynically – as preemptive or even obsessive attempts to overwhelm their hapless detractors (although I suspect that’s part of it), and thereby to make criticism ‘a small germ’ – I’d suggest that there is something else, something more serious happening here.

In our time, so-called radical philosophy, or leftist thought in general, has resigned itself to the production of ‘minority reports’, occasional invectives which assume their failure in advance (all under the pathetic justification of ‘speaking the truth to power’); the same trend is visible in the field of theology, which has become disgustingly self-congratulatory over its currently impoverished state, a fact signaled by the almost total disappearance of the grave discipline of dogmatics and the concomitant ascendency of the ‘essay’ (whether on its own or as a collection of incidental pieces).

In this sort of intellectual ferment, the size, ambition and sheer pugnacity of Milbank’s and Žižek’s oeuvres function in a manner similar to Fredric Jameson’s description of the role played by violence in the revolutionary process, that is, as a kind of authentication of the seriousness of the process itself. Their work embodies a heedless commitment to the theologico-philosophical task proper: that is, simply to go on, regardless of the proclivities, fashions and false urgencies of the present – as Karl Barth put it, theology ought to be ‘something like the chanting of the hours by the Benedictines ... which goes on undoubtedly without break or interruption’. And it is fidelity to the renewed theologico-philosophical vision (whose contours one can now also discern in the work of, say, Alain Badiou and Cathérine Malabou), as well as their conviction that only this antique vision can effectively oppose the well-nigh unassailable reign of capitalism, that unite Milbank and Žižek in their refusal of the demands of leftist pseudo-moralism, and in their outright disdain for so much contemporary theology (especially of the liberal Protestant variety).

To quote Milbank: ‘What is ironic in Žižek’s project is that he insists that Christianity alone articulates a universal logic, but does so in an atheistic mode. This renders him, of course, far nearer to “orthodoxy” (as he acknowledges) than all those craven, weak, sentimental theologians, doused in multiple tinctures of mauvaise foi, who claim to believe in some sort of remote, abstract, transcendent deity and who yet compromise the universal claims of Christianity in favour of mystical relativism, glorification of hypostasised uncertainty and practical indulgence in the malignly infinite air-shuttle of mindless “dialogue”.’

After Žižek offended so many on the left with his full-throated espousal of Zac Snyder’s film 300, praising the Spartan culture of discipline over against the decadence of Athenian liberal democracy, is it too much privately to indulge in the image of Milbank and Žižek occupying the breach at Thermopilae, standing ‘against the reign of mystique and tyranny’ in the form of Levinasian alterity, liberal Protestantism, leftist masochism and the panoply of Eastern mysticisms, courageously insisting on the universality of the European intellectual tradition and the primacy of Reason?

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Caption contest winner

Thanks for all the entertaining entries in yesterday’s caption contest. You won’t be surprised to hear that the winner is Dave Belcher. Here’s Dave’s knock-down entry:

“In a surprise move at the Vatican this weekend, Pope Benedict XVI performed a spontaneous same-sex union of renowned theologians John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas.”

Thanks, Dave – you’ve given us all a lot to ponder. Anyway, Dave is the lucky winner of a new copy of Bruce McCormack’s magnificent soon-to-be-released collection: Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (courtesy of Baker Academic). You’ll be hearing more about this book soon.

Monday 8 September 2008

Caption contest: Milbank and Hauerwas meet the Pope

Here’s a picture from last week’s conference in Rome: Milbank and Hauerwas meet Benedict XVI. (Thanks to Luke Bretherton for the pic.) A free book for the best caption…

Here and there

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Rowan Williams and kenotic ecclesiology

My paper in Rome today discusses Rowan Williams’ theological conception of Christian tradition. Here’s an excerpt:

“There is a profound apocalyptic dimension to Williams’ thought here. The meaning of doctrine is not latent within doctrinal history itself. The truth of doctrine is not immanent within the church’s own history and practices. Rather, the truth of doctrine comes to the church from beyond the church’s history. This means that an essential discipline of Christian theology is the practice of self-dispossession, of renouncing the claim to any final vision or any authoritative grasp of the truth.

“Following Donald MacKinnon, we might speak here of the ‘kenotic’ shape of doctrinal identity. Even where orthodoxy emerges as the historical winner from the struggle with heresy, that same orthodoxy must relinquish the right to claim a total vision or to interpret the direction of history. In relinquishing this right, orthodoxy preserves its own essential vulnerability vis-à-vis its founding event – and it confesses that the church can receive truth only from outside itself, as a gift that enters history from beyond history, tearing history open in the apocalyptic rupture of God’s advent.

“Williams’ role as Archbishop of Canterbury in recent years illustrates precisely this dialectic of kenosis and apocalypse. As a churchman, he combines an uncompromisingly rigorous commitment to the truth of doctrinal orthodoxy with an absolute refusal to grasp the truth as a possession or to wield it as an instrument of power. Indeed, the most striking thing about Williams’ conduct as Archbishop of Canterbury is his willingness to fail, his refusal to pursue any ideal of ecclesial ‘success’ in abstraction from the church’s spiritual identity as a community defined by weakness, fragility and self-dispossession.

“This rejection of the idolatrous notion of a ‘successful’ church, this willingness to fail, is at the same time a profoundly apocalyptic gesture: the church’s identity is not immanent within its own practices and institutions; its identity is that which exceeds it, that which comes to it as gift, that which fills its own emptiness and abasement. Williams’ approach here stands not only as a witness to the church’s proper identity, but also as a sharp critique of the tendency among some contemporary political theologies to hanker after the fleshpots of Christendom, or to envision the ecclesial polis as existing in any way other than that of discipleship and crucifixion. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has observed, the church’s suffering is infinitely more dangerous to the world than any political power it may retain – the church’s only authentic power is its weakness.”


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.