Tuesday 18 November 2008

At Vanderbilt

If you’re in the Nashville area this week, I’ll be giving a paper on Thursday at Vanderbilt Divinity School (time: 6.30 pm / venue: Tillett 
Lounge). The paper is entitled “Grace Interrupts Nature: Towards an Apocalyptic Revision of the Doctrine of Creation.” Here’s an excerpt:

From the standpoint of “nature” as such, I think we can therefore regard the death and resurrection of Jesus as a fundamentally disordering intrusion into history. It is worth considering here Slavoj Žižek’s – admittedly rather startling – identification of “love” and “evil.” For Žižek, love enters the world as an alien principle, a contradiction of the very order of reality. Ethically, love is a refusal of the Kantian categorical imperative. It is an absolutely ungrounded choice of the one over the many. Love opposes all natural law; it is against nature, and as such can be described formally and ontologically as “evil,” as the precise opposite of the ethical “good”. In a similar way, the resurrection of Jesus takes place in the world as a contradiction of the world’s own structures and possibilities; it introduces rupture within the world’s order, tearing open a space within which its own new order can begin to take form. As God’s eschatological act, the death and resurrection of Jesus breaks with being itself, bringing into existence something wholly new: in Pauline language, this is nothing less than the inauguration of a new creation.

To speak of new creation as divine apocalyptic incursion may seem unsettlingly violent and disruptive – and it is true that Paul’s own imagery is pervaded by the atmosphere of violent militancy. But in fact an apocalyptic conception of creation inverts the symbiotic structures of peace/violence, order/chaos, being/nothingness. With Paul, one can say that God comes to the world as a militant incursion, effecting a decisive conquest over the powers of the present age. From the perspective of the world’s own order, this divine apocalypse can only be regarded as a violent intrusion; but this event is in fact nothing else than the incursion of peace into a world so radically disordered that peace itself appears as violence, just as love appears as the ethical evil. The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe illustrates this kind of symbiotic inversion when he notes the way in which industrial strikes are frequently depicted as “disturbances of industrial peace,” so that the end of a strike is understood as “a return to normality and order” – whereas, in reality, capitalism itself is a permanent disorder, a “state of war” which is only occasionally interrupted by the order of peace. When the peace of God comes to the world, it overturns the world’s violence and so appears to the world as violence and conflict; the new order of God’s reign dissolves all law, and so appears to the world as disorder and anarchy. The love of God contradicts nature, and so appears to the world as a rupture of “evil”, indeed as the very negation of being. [...]

Paul highlights this point in his teaching on baptism: in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no ‘male and female’” (Gal. 3:28). As J. Louis Martyn observes, this liturgical formula, with its allusion to Genesis 1:27, suggests that “in baptism the structure of the original creation had been set aside”. The Christian community finds its origin in a moment of generative divine disruption: in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has interrupted the world’s order, setting it aside and bringing forth a new community with a new principle and a new order. In this divine irruption, the world’s order is exposed as disorder; and God’s (apparently chaotic and disordering) advent is revealed as “new creation” – as the generative inauguration of the world’s new and proper order.

It is in this sense that I would like to speak of creatio as an event which occurs in history but which is nevertheless strictly ex nihilo: God’s creative act in the resurrection of Jesus is wholly contingent, non-necessary, presuppositionless; it is not necessitated by any prior logic, nor framed by any prior context. As the classical ex nihilo doctrine emphasised, the creative event is rather that which produces every context and every frame of reference. And since this event takes place not outside but within history, it occurs also as a disturbance and dislocation of the world’s internal order – a dis-ordering of being which is nothing else than the creative generation of a new order, an incursion of peace which dislocates the world’s violence.


Brian Lugioyo said...

Ben - can you give me the full reference to J. Louis Martyn's quote. And Can I get a copy of this paper when your done presenting it. I love what you are doing here. Best wishes at Vanderbilt.



Ben Myers said...

Hi Brian. Thanks for this — the Martyn reference is:

J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 376.

Anonymous said...


This is interesting, but I confess to being a little troubled by the emphasis on disordering, etc. (Obviously, I don't have the full context, so I am not critiquing you or the paper as such.)

Surely that is right; but surely it is not, alone, right.

Oliver O'Donovan, who I am coming to regard as one of the most worthy and little read or cited ethicists and theologians writing today, in Resurrection and Moral Order, emphasizes, quite biblically I think, the the resurrection has a dual aspect: it points both to the provisionality of the created, and now fallen, order, and also affirms its inherent goodness. The body is raised but raised new. The resurrection is, as I like to call it (borrowing from Gadamer), a recreation of the same thing differently. There is identity and sameness, else there would be no resurrection; but there is difference and newness, else it would be merely resuscitation and not Christian resurrection.

The salient point here in reference to your quoted material is that the resurrection does not merely signal radical discontinuity, and indeed, to highlight discontinuity without placing that against or alongside of the continuity the resurrection represents may well distort even the idea of discontinuity that one is trying to communicate.

What do you think?

ken oakes said...

The resurrection may certainly be "contingent" and "non-necessary" but how can it be "presuppositionless"? Do you not then lose God's covenant engagement with and promises to Israel, and also Jesus' own identity, life, ministry and obedience to the Father? I'm sure that you're trying to get at something else with "presuppositionless," but I think that the term might be a little too ambiguous.

scott said...

My question is related to Samuel's, but with less concern, and more sheer curiousity about how you'd answer:

Is there any sense in which the protological and eschatological are one in God's act? Or, can theological apocalyptic address 'redemption' as restoration - in some sense, the radicality of which I wouldn't want to pre-judge or temper - and not simply as dissolution and/or replacement of 'the old'?

If the answers to the above are no in all respects, it seems we've given up on the tradition of 'privative' evil and the whole being/non-being dialectic altogether, in favor of a stringent old/new ontological dualism.

It seems a lot hangs on who the apocalyptic enemy, dethroned by God's invasion and displaced by the humanity of the resurrection, precisely is.

Anonymous said...

One of these days, Ben, perhaps I will reach deep into my polemical lexicon and write, "What a crap post!" - but not today! I've already downloaded the post and printed it on A4, which, folded, is now a bookmark for the closing pages of Nate Kerr's pulsating new book. What an incisive use of McCabe on the class struggle, while your deployment of Galatians 3:28 - "male and female" ("and", not, as in the other couplets, "or"), itself (as Martyn observes) a reference to Genesis 1:27, surely has implications for an apocalyptically informed sexual ethics.

@ Ken: I think "presuppositionless" is precisely the word for the resurrection of Jesus, an event comparable only to the presuppositionless creatio ex nihilo of creation itself - see Romans 4:17.

@ Samuel: O'Donovan is a formidable theologian, but I've always liked Stanley Hauerwas' sarky comment on Resurrection and the Moral Order: "Too much moral order, not enough resurrection."

ken oakes said...


i don't think it is that easy, especially as regards the ostensive referent of the phrase "bringing into being what did not exist."

more importantly, however, is that the resurrection as the vindication of Jesus by the Father, and as the verdict of the Father upon the obedience of the Son is lost if the resurrection does not presuppose the obedient life and crucifixion of Jesus. Equally, the whole life of Jesus presupposes the covenant of God with Israel. Describing the resurrection as "presuppositionless" then, could easily give the impression that all of the necessary historical and theological backdrop to the resurrection is unimportant. Contingent, sure, but presuppositionless needs to be spelled out further.

Shane said...


1. "Ethically, love is a refusal of the Kantian categorical imperative."

This strikes me as simply unfair to Kant.

Kant makes a distinction between pathological love and practical love. Pathological love is the empirical feeling of attachment, etc. In the Groundwork, Kant simply makes the point that there can be no duty to love pathologically just because feelings are passions rather than actions, so they cannot be commanded. Practical love, however, is not a passion but an action undertaken out of respect for the moral law. And, by Kant's lights, everyone has a duty of practical love for all of humanity.

The simple picture of Kant that you get from the Groundwork is that he's opposed to doing things out of any motive of affection or inclination. Kant scholars have persuaded me that this simplistic picture is incorrect. Later in the Metaphysics of Morals, for instance he ties our very capacity to act according to the moral law to our capacities to feel love (in the pathological sense) for all human beings.

Good article on this here: http://www.stanford.edu/~allenw/webpapers/Final.doc

2. It is an absolutely ungrounded choice of the one over the many. Love opposes all natural law; it is against nature, and as such can be described formally and ontologically as “evil,” as the precise opposite of the ethical “good”.

This is just batshit insane. If I decide to do x for no reason (i.e. "ungroundedly"), then x is not an act of love--it's an act of arbitrarity.

God creates freely, but not ungroundedly, insofar as he creates precisely out of love. He creates the world because he wills there to be other things than himself in order that he might love them.

"Love opposes all natural law; it is against nature . . ." Read more Aquinas and less Bloomsbury Bullshit. Do you really get your moral theology from The Higher Sodomy?

can be described formally and ontologically as “evil,”

I am trying hard to imagine what this is supposed to mean. Love is formally evil insofar as it disrupts a given order? That might be a sensible claim to make, but you haven't shown that love is essentially disruptive. If the existing order is evil, then love will be a disruption to that order. But why would we call disrupting an evil order "evil". In fact, isn't that why Christ's incarnation and resurrection are "good"?

I blame all of your heresies on this damnable Barthian disdain for the goodness of creation. Which seems more absurd to you: "God's glory is reflected in the world" or "God is so arbitrary that love is evil and unnatural."

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,

Thanks for your comment. And I take your point. It is not only fair, it is important. I have said before on this blog that when we speak of the resurrection in the apocalyptic terms that Louis Martyn, Doug Harinck, Nate Kerr, and Ben do (and me too!), we must insist (a) that the resurrection is the resurrection of the Crucified (indeed Martyn himself refers to the cross, not the resurrection, as "the absolute epistemological watershed"), and (b) that the Crucified is none other than the man from Nazareth who taught and lived the Sermon on the Mount. Nevertheless, I think ex nihilo language is justified - essential - because the man from Nazareth, crucified, dead, and buried, had become an ex-man from Nazareth, a human zero, utterly negated with absolute finality. Indeed if we are really serious in denoting the resurrection as an apocalyptic event, the dead Christ functions as a metonym for the dissolution of the universe itself.

In is in this context that the term "presuppositionless" performs two important functions: (a) substantively, it forestalls any idea of God raising Jesus being comparable to an demiurge working on some pre-existing material (the new ceation, like the first creation, is ex nihilo); and (b) semantically, it blows the mind (or as Martyn puts it in discussing "apocalyptic antinomies", it "make[s] the head swim").

Anonymous said...

Let me offer Ken's objection again with a different spin, partially skirting Kim's rejoinder.

When Ben says the resurrection is "presuppositionless," he risks speaking about it as having no actual contact-point, that is, no world to which it is related, and therefore addressed. When he says that "it is not necessitated by any prior logic, nor framed by any prior context," the novum of Easter comes through clearly, but glosses over the truth that Christ's resurrection-content is somehow oriented to the revolutionizing of this world. The "presupposition" of the resurrection is that it is creation's resurrection. Not making clear this "continuity," the continuity of object, runs the risk of articulating resurrection-order in the same vein as Enlightenment's spiritualistic interpretations of Jesus' appearances: wacky, inspirational, and irrelevant. Specters (and spectral ethics) may make for good material for the SciFi Channel, but do these disturbances really confront our real lives, battle for the actual space in which we reside?

That is, I’m not sure Ben has emphasized enough here that the resurrection is the resurrectionem carnis. If resurrection ethics is to be an invasion of creation, it is because it circumscribes and even recapitulates the very “stuff” that was there before. “Do we then overthrow creation through resurrection? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold creation.” Unless Ben means by “presuppositionless” that eschatology rubs out and overwrites creation, let us not suppose that "to revolutionize" has to mean "to raze."

Alex said...


Very good post. I'm about 4 hours away from Nashville so just out of range considering the gas prices right now. :( Anyway, you're post reminds me of George Orwell's 1984 and, particularly, the concept of language as a political tool. If you haven't read 1984, you should, or at least read the appendix which is about the principles of what Orwell calls "Newspeak" which is just a few pages and is easily worth the price of the book.

There is a particularly relevant passage in the book that came to mind when you were discussing McCabe on labor strikes. If you've read it's the section, near the beginning where he discusses the "Department of Peace, whose job it is to make war" and so on as he lists the government bureacracies which do the exact opposite of what their utopian titles suggest.

Bob said...


I really appreciate the bold, articulate strokes this sample represents. It does raise some questions for me:

Do you believe creation in Genesis 1 is a relative beginning? If not then where does the "tohu wa vohu" come from? If so then how does that change the sense of the "ex-nihilo" of Christ's ressurection your paper argues for?

Am I right in fearing that to the degree that the ressurection lacks connection with the original creation (a.k.a. humanity of Jesus) to that degree we end up with docetism? And to the degree there is no continuity with some original creation, is it safe to say we do not have "ressurection" but "recreation"?

Finally, if the ressurection is the overthrow of a world that is not the original creation in what sense is Jesus a redeemer?


Geoff said...

Hi Ben, I'd also like a copy of this paper if you are ok with sending one. My email is on my blogger profile. Thanks!


mshedden said...

Are you sending copies of this paper out? If so could I get one as well? Peace

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