Thursday 23 October 2008

Nate Kerr: Christ, History and Apocalyptic: the politics of Christian mission

As a regular contributor to our discussions, Nate Kerr is well known to F&T readers. His forthcoming book Christ, History and Apocalyptic is one of the most exciting theological works I’ve read in quite some time. This is mind-expanding, first-rate stuff: it’s both a brilliant critical reading of modern theology (moving through Troeltsch, Barth, Hauerwas and Yoder), and a compelling constructive argument for an “apocalyptic” approach to Christian theology. Really, it could be read as a kind of manifesto: it points the way towards a new way of doing theology, and towards a distinctively theological way of thinking about history and the church’s mission. The book will soon be released in the UK by SCM (as part of their new Veritas series), and in the US by Cascade (as part of their new Theopolitical Visions series).

Nate has kindly given me permission to post an excerpt here. So let me whet your appetite – this sample is from Chapter 5, entitled “John Howard Yoder: The Singularity of Jesus and the Apocalypticization of History.”

Nathan R. Kerr, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (SCM/Cascade, 2008)

Throughout his oeuvre, Yoder struggles to articulate an understanding of the Incarnation in terms of the human-historical or lived character of Jesus’ identity with God. In doing so, Yoder aims to eschew a too easily assumed ‘metaphysical’ or ‘logological’ sense of the Incarnation, which would make of the idea that Jesus is ‘the Word become flesh’ a mere representation to us of some metaphysically conceptualized relation of the Logos to God, according to which conceptualization we might then proceed ontologically to ‘locate’ or ‘emplot’ history within a mediated hierarchy of eternity and time. Against this, Yoder argues for what he calls the ‘historical’ or ‘Jesulogical’ sense of the Incarnation:

When the Jewish writer of the Fourth Gospel sang ‘the word became flesh and tabernacled among us … he meant to describe the setting for the entire earthly work of the man Jesus, fully human, vulnerable, to whom that other John pointed as the ‘Lamb who takes away the world’s sin’. ‘Incarnation’ then means that in the concrete historical reality of the life and death and rising of Jesus, the otherwise invisible God has been made known normatively.’
What I take Yoder to mean here is that we can only speak of Jesus as God – but not only that, of the eternal Logos itself – from within the density and angularity of his constituent life-story. Yoder remarks, for example, that the statement at Jesus’ baptism, ‘Thou art my Son’, is ‘not the definition or accreditation of a metaphysically defined status of Sonship; it is the summons to a task. Jesus is commissioned to be, in history, in Palestine, the messianic son and servant, the bearer of the goodwill and the promise of God.’ The words of Rowan Williams help to sum up Yoder’s point here: ‘There is no sense in thinking that we can talk about the Incarnation without talking of the whole course of Jesus’ life, the whole historical identity of Jesus’ – with all the ambiguity, uncontrollability, and contingency that such an identity entails.

So for Yoder, we clearly do not rightly conceive of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth if we persist in thinking of Jesus’ unity with God as some kind of already realized, unshakeable, ‘eternal’ given. Instead, who Jesus is emerges for us ultimately in the resurrection and ascension of this crucified one, as the history of the one who was hounded by this body of religious ideologues, as the one who is put to death by this Roman government – that is, he is the risen Christ as inseparably bound up with the social and political concerns that are at work in the world wherever he appears most concretely as this human being, with all of the specificity and contingency that entails.

Yet as we saw in the previous section, Jesus emerges thus as the one who lives this specificity and concreteness in a way that absolutely refuses the temptation to gain control of these social and political circumstances, as the one who ‘unhandles’ these human realities (and so unhandles ‘history’), such that, in Jesus’ singular historicity, history itself is paradoxically ‘held open’ by, and to, the free and unpredictable coming of God. 

In other words, what the cross reveals is that Christ is involved in the contingencies of history as one whose identity and action is inassimilable to any immanent ‘historical’ arrangement of these contingent ‘givens’. Rather, Jesus lives in and through the contingencies of history as that one whose life of perfect love is entirely coincident with (because entirely given over to) the more and new that God gives to history as God reaches into history from beyond. And precisely here, in this human life, as it comes into view as a life lived in and through the contingencies everywhere surrounding his journey to the cross, Jesus, as this human being, is singularly and unsubstitutively identified as ‘God’ and ‘Lord’. For here on the cross hangs one whose entire identity is dependent upon the irruption into history of an event which no immanent concatenation of historical contingencies is able to determine or produce: Jesus’ resurrection to new life in the power of the Spirit.

There is surely much that could and must be said here to try and justify this exposition, not the least of which has to do with the extent to which all this resonates with the various elements of a classical Chalcedonian ‘high Christology’. But our immediate focus here has especially to do with the force of Yoder’s apocalyptic Christology with respect to the question of ‘historical contingency’. Specifically, it is my contention that we are here presented with one way of beginning to develop the kind of ‘radicalized and transformed’ notion of the contingent that Donald MacKinnon has suggested is required by any properly ‘high’ Christology. For what God does, for Yoder, in becoming Incarnate, is break through our standard definitions of human historicity and give this historicity a new, normative definition in the historicity of Jesus. Jesus, ‘by living a genuinely free and human existence’, at once relativizes and intensifies the question of historical contingency.

To put this more pointedly, the radical character of Christ’s apocalyptic historicity is not that it re-projects the questions of contingency and particularity onto an altogether different ‘universal-historical’ horizon, per se, but rather that it recapitulates the question of ‘history’ within an apocalyptic-eschatological framework, thereby inaugurating a mode of historical contingency that resists the possibility of being fully captured by any given ‘universal-historical’ logic whatsoever. This is not to abstract from, or to eschew continuing involvement in, the ongoing contingencies of history, but rather to insist that Christ’s apocalyptic historicity (and so a genuine ‘apocalyptic Christology’ as such) has as its counterpart a new vision of history, which entails a new contingency rooted firmly in the apocalypse of the crucified and risen Christ. […]

So, to end this section where we began: Jesus in his singular, apocalyptic historicity is also, in his cross and resurrection, Word and Logos, the ‘inner logic of things’. But as such, this ‘logic’ can itself only be rendered rightly by rethinking the idea of the incarnate Word in terms of the concrete outworking of this apocalyptic historicity – of Christ’s cross and resurrection. The relation of Jesus to history is precisely that of a crucified Logos, the logic of which is the cruciform interruption of history and its radical exposure to the excessive life of the Spirit that is the power of the resurrection as the sign of the coming reign of God – a reign that is now the ‘truth’ of all of life’s radically contingent historicity as the ‘truth’ of Jesus’ own apocalyptically contingent life as God.

As such, this crucified Logos ‘carries a proclamation of identification, incarnation, drawing all who believe into the power of becoming God’s children’. Thus Yoder can say: ‘The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come’, while also affirming that the cross is the key to all of history. For in the cross, God’s interruption of ‘history’ and the very grace by which we are given to live vulnerably in history, by way of the excess of God’s agapeic love which comes ever anew from ‘beyond’, uniquely coincide – in the singular, narratively specific apocalyptic historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. […]

If my analysis is correct, this logic is that of what I have named the ‘apocalypticization of history’: the singularity of Jesus as the excessive historicity – the more – of history itself. What a full-fledged ‘apocalyptic historicism’ gives us, then, is not another ‘universal history’, but rather the singularly catholic historicity of Jesus Christ, to which we in our various contingencies are bound by God’s perfect agape through the work of the Spirit and by which we are interwoven into the single cosmic fabric that is ‘cross and resurrection’, and by which we ourselves are inscribed into the action of the ‘original revolution’ that is God’s perfect agape.

This kind of Christian ‘apocalyptic historicism’ thus addresses the modern historicist crisis in a manner that positively surpasses the residual idealism of Barth’s apocalyptic Christology as well as the antiliberal and anti-Constantinian functionalism of Hauerwas’s apocalyptic ecclesiology. At the same time, this apocalyptic historicity ‘holds open’ history in a way that is irreducible to the kind of transcendental-historical ‘opening to the future’ that Derrida and postmodernism assume as the ‘given’ ‘universal structure’ of apocalyptic/messianic experience. Rather, history ‘breaks open’ – is irrupted – according to the singular logic of a concrete political action, which is operative in history as the excessiveness of singularity itself. It is according to this dual logic of ‘singularity’ and ‘excess’, I am suggesting, that Christian apocalyptic articulates the kind of action by which alone we make the kind of passage from historicist political ideology to the revolutionary transformation of history that we find Walter Benjamin calling us to in his conception of ‘Messianic time’.

What this finally means, however, is that the Christian apocalyptic vision is not finally sustainable or even theorizable apart from our own participation in God’s singular, revolutionary action, apart from the living Christ being made visible in the very political ‘unhanding’ of history as it occurs in those converted by and to the inbreaking of God’s reign into their own actual and contemporary-contingent histories. In a typically rich passage, Yoder puts it thus:
The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the swords are not as strong as they think – true as that is: we still sing, ‘O where are Kings and Empires now of old that went and came’? It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One does not come to that belief by reducing social process to mechanical or statistical models, nor by winning some of one’s battles for the control of one’s own corner of the fallen world. One comes to it by sharing the life of those who sing about the Resurrection of the slain Lamb.
It is by way of doxology that we move beyond ideology and come to participate in the lived ‘Messianic time’ that is the singular political act of Jesus. And so it is according to this mode of doxological action that I shall seek to follow the political logic of the ‘apocalypticization of history’ as it occurs in Jesus’ historicity on its way to becoming an ‘apocalyptic politics of Christian mission’.

Readers outside the US can get the book at a discount here, and North American readers can get it a discount here.


the don said...

Ben, thanks for sharing this and whetting our appetite!

Nate, I have had this book on order since we last talked at the conference. It still hasn't come yet. I eagerly await it!

- Josh

Michael F. Bird said...

Thanks for this. Looks like a good book. I have only one pet quip with the title. That is "apocalyptic" is an adjective not a noun. You can have an apocalypse (literary genre), apocalytpicism (a social phenomenon), or apocalyptic eschatology (theological worldview). But no offence to Nathan, since publishers often choose their own titles for books, and this looks really cuil.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nate,

First, congratulations. If this breathtaking excerpt is anything to go by, I shall have to read your book in an oxygen tent! Of the several things that immediately impress and excite me, here are two.

(1) In recent discussions of apocalyptic Christology at F&T I have been concerned about the tendency to over-isolate the resurrection of Christ. Your "crucified Logos" ensures that the entire history of the Incarnate One is the singularity that is constitutive of God's identity, if, in nuce, focussed in the whole of Holy Weekend. It should also ensure the crucifomity of the ethics and politics of Christion mission as missio Dei.

(2) Given your recent conversation with George Hunsinger (below), one can already sense where you are going, with your textured talk of "apocalyptic historicism" and the "singularly catholic history of Jesus Christ", to elimate the Hegelian eggshells of a "universal-historical logic" from your theology and missiology. I look forward to following your explorations in this tangled territory, taking seriously the relation of historical contingency to God via the relation of this particular history of Jesus of Nazareth to God, in all its Chalcedonian-ontological distinctiveness.

Finally, don't worry about the pedantic Michael Bird ;): Käsemann, Martyn, and Yoder himself have long accustomed us to the propriety of taking "apocalyptic" as a noun.

Dave Belcher said...

Michael, Nate chose the title himself (it was the title of his dissertation). And there is such a thing as a nominative adjective...and "apocalyptic" has quickly become -- before Nate -- used in such a manner in the wider "apocalyptic" literature and beyond (specifically in the Western European philosophical material...given that in other languages nominative adjectives are rather common).

Dave Belcher said...

Ben, and all others interested...

At this year's Wesleyan Theological Society meeting, I'll be moderating a panel on Nate's book. The panel will consist of John Wright, Sam Powell, Rev. Scott Daniels, and Michael Cartwright, with Nate responding. I'll have more to say about this -- with full details -- at my own site as soon as the final schedule is released. Peace.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the preview, this sounds amazing. Straight to the top of my reading list!

Anonymous said...

in English we can use adjectives like that too, but usually it would be "THE apocalyptic."

Ben Myers said...

Mike's comment was just a red herring, I'm afraid. Scholars have been using "apocalyptic" as a noun for over a century. The OED thus includes a definition of apocalyptic as a noun — it defines it as: "Apocalyptic teaching, philosophy, or literature." The OED's earliest example is 1898, from R. H. Charles: "Prophecy and Apocalyptic ... both claim to be a communication through the Divine Spirit of the character and will and purposes of God." And it lists another nice example from 1940: "the crudest Marxian apocalyptic..."

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read this! Thanks for sharing this, Ben & Nate.

Anonymous said...

Curious and intriguing stuff. Nate, your book is on my list.

Say, is there something Anselmian about your choice of the word "excess" when you pair it with the "singularity" of crucified/risen Jesus? Like Anselm's theory of atonement (sans feudal trappings), your proposal seems to hold open the door to a fuller sense of Christ's headship, one not necessarily reducible to a forensic model or a one-time commercial transaction at the cross.

Anonymous said...

The book looks really interesting. If I could speak to the "apocalyptic" as noun issue that Mike raised . . .

There is no doubt that "apocalyptic" has long been used as a noun. More recent scholarship, by scholars who have devoted a great deal of their efforts to the study of apocalyptic works (e.g., J.J. Collins), suggests that such usage is imprecise and unhelpful. The categories that Mike points out have been used for the past three decades or so. See Semeia 14: Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre (1979), pages 3-4.

So, the point is not that the English language disallows a nominative adjective or that there is no precedent for its usage, but rather that it is not as exact as it should be.

Andy Rowell said...

Hauerwas told me to read the book today and I plan to.


Th.D. Student
Duke Divinity School

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